MOTHER EARTH HAS A GLASS QUANDARY. I received a meeting invite from our Distribution Operations Manager this week with the title, "Cali Creamin 22oz Bottles". The purpose of the meeting is for us to discuss the future of 22oz bottles in our portfolio. Some of you may wonder exactly what I did right off the bat - "People still buy those?", We asked ourselves. As it turns out, they do - a lot of them.
It wasn't that long ago that I, myself, was blowing a good chunk of my monthly income on "bombers" at our local liquor stores, particularly on hard-to-find, limited release gems such as those found in our 4Seasons program. Single serve containers were, after all, all the rage, and with a growing category in craft beer and millions of new consumers exploring the extensive world of flavors now available to them, it made sense. Who wants a six pack of an experimental flavor you have no idea you are going to enjoy? As time went on, however, consumers developed a taste for their favorite styles and brands, and became more committed to the flavors they once toyed with, and more loyal to the brands that made them. That meant that folks were getting comfortable shopping in larger quantities but smaller containers. You could say that collectively we just outgrew the Bomber, and in doing so positioned the can for the ultimate packaging coup.
An Old Solution to a New Problem
Craft beer has a comparatively short history with cans. More specifically what I am referring to is the trend that started taking the craft world by storm about 10 years ago. Early adopters that essentially created the "Can Revolution", made a bold and risky move as early as 2002, introducing their beers exclusively in aluminum, but it would take almost a decade for the can craze as we know it to really started gaining traction in a segment that had a major bottle-bias. So what was the big holdup? I mean what's not to like anyway? They're small and comfortable to hold (especially in a koozie), they're easy to grab off the shelf and transfer to a party, or your fridge, and if you take them on an adventure, they can be crushed down for easy pack-it-out disposal. What made welcoming a long storied format into the craft world so difficult for craft suppliers and consumers alike? The answer is a little thing called stigma. Believe it or not, it still lives on today, but it's dying a slow painful death. Here are, justifiably, 4 reasons why.
Cans Cost Less to Transport
There are some pretty simple numbers that won't require a lot of digestion here. A 12 oz empty aluminum can weighs under a half ounce, even with the lid attached. By comparison a bottle of equal size weighs almost a half pound. That's adds up to a lot when you extrapolate it out to a truckload, and even further if you are a brewery that is large enough to boast scale well beyond that figure. Plus, freight companies measure a Full Truck Load (FTL) by trailer volume and/or weight, whichever comes first. Therefore it's reasonable to assume that a can with the same volume of beer in it costs less to transport than its glass equivalent; a cost that is most certainly passed on to the consumer. On top of that, breweries can be assessed a fuel surcharge in addition to other fees based on pallet footprints, number of stops the truck has to make, mileage traveled, and other variables. We can't control all of those factors, but weight of the commodity we are transporting is one that we can control. Couple all that with the fact that fuel has been on a (seemingly-perpetual) stratospheric rise, you can draw a fairly straight line from cans to lower transportation costs.
Cans are Better for the Beer
Everyone knows light is the enemy of beer and the effects of oxidation are well documented. Although amber bottles are clearly a better option when it comes to protecting beer from UV, they aren't 100% effective. Rhett Allain is an associate professor of physics at Southeastern Louisiana University and tests the effectiveness of green, clear, and amber glass in allowing various light wavelengths to reach packaged beer. You can geek out on that more over at WIRED if you are so inclined. Cans on the other hand, obviously, are totally opaque so no worries there. Mark it 8 dude!
Cans are Safer to Handle and Transport
Like any responsible employer, we care about the well being of our employees. For obvious reasons glass poses a number of physical risks. Bottling and canning is a messy affair. There are liquids and gases under pressure, moving parts, cleaning and sanitation chemicals present, etc. Add broken glass all over the place to the list and you've got a recipe for a Workman's comp claim. Glass is also cumbersome to move and warehouse which makes the likelihood of breakage higher.
Cans are More Recyclable
The sustainability of cans vs. bottles has been a topic of debate for some time. The argument centers mostly around the harvesting of aluminum's derivative, Bauxite, which scars the land it's harvested from, but since aluminum production isn't going to end anytime soon and you sure as hell aren't giving up beer, you might as well drink from the package that is overall more eco-friendly. Cans score points in a number of different ways:
They have greater recycling value and more desirable, making municipal recycling programs more feasible, leading to more opportunities for consumers to participate in can recycling.
Aluminum is infinitely recyclable. It takes just 10% of the energy to reuse recycled aluminum as it does to produce new aluminum, and aluminum has among the highest consumer recycle rates of any material.
As stated earlier, the energy costs to transport glass are higher, making it a fossil-fuel hog. One study, conducted by Germany’s Wuppertal Institute, claims that once a cross-country truck journey is factored into the equation, a bottle ends up emitting 20 percent more greenhouse gases than a can.
There is a much higher demand for aluminum outside the beverage industry, increasing its number of uses and demand, whereas 90% of glass is recycled right back into bottles. With demand for bottles declining, so does the prospect of finding a new home for all that glass.
Cans Don't Actually Taste Different
This is probably the most popular excuse for renouncing cans and we hear it all the time - "I just can't get behind cans because they taste weird." Now, to be clear, declaring that the taste of packaged vs. draft beer is different has its merits, but that's due more to freshness and quality control than storage medium. We've covered the factors that influence freshness before, but the argument that one is better than the other simply because of the material of the package is erroneous. Now, there is some science behind the dangers of cooking and storing food in aluminum, but that is a result of exposure to heat and acidity, neither of which are risk factors in canned beer, unless you can a beer with an abnormally low pH.
Whether it's going into a bottle, can, or keg, it all comes from the same place. As shown in the picture below, the beer is drawn off a port on the bottom of the tank and routed to its final resting place, be it a keg going to a bar, or a can destined for a store shelf. In fact, a lot of the time we have to switch packages in the middle of the run, meaning you may have had beer from the same batch in two different formats.
The Future of Bottles
It's unclear at this point whether you will continue to see 22oz bottles from Mother Earth in the future, and actually to clarify, it would only be the near future, because the trend line is going in a very obvious direction. The demise of the bomber is pretty much a forgone conclusion, and we will continue to evaluate whether they're worth filling or not. At some point the juice just won't be worth the squeeze.
There's one thing that can't be denied...it took us all way too long to come to terms with craft in a can. 15 years or more to be exact. What's funny is that it's not that there is something inherently bad about cans. It's reputation was entirely manufactured (pun intended). To the contrary, cans are superior in nearly every way, on paper at least. Obviously we have no agenda when it comes to the type of receptacle you prefer to enjoy our beer in. Different strokes, as they say. If you are reading this and happen to be one of the remaining hold outs on cans, you might be in for a let down, because if things continue the way they have for the last 5 years bottles are on a path to nowhere.
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