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Yes We Can: What New Packaging Says about Taste in the Beer Industry

In college, there were three kinds of beer at parties. On one end was keg beer – that was the worst. You drank it out of red cups, you played games with it, you inhaled it while someone held you upside down by your feet. On the other end were the...
June 7, 2012, 1:30pm

In college, there were three kinds of beer at parties. On one end was keg beer – that was the worst. You drank it out of red cups, you played games with it, you inhaled it while someone held you upside down by your feet. On the other end were the bottles – the fancy stuff, the stuff hosts bought for themselves. You might see someone walking around with a bottle, but you never knew where it came from.

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In the middle were the cans. This wasn’t much better than the stuff in the kegs, but it had branding: some cans looked cooler than others, and people even had preferences about their contents. Still, metal and glass were markers of taste, and you could tell the quality of a beer (and its drinker) from a distance. Bottles were relaxed, slow affairs; cans were cheap, light, and if you shotgunned one, fast and out of control too. It was an elegant formula – good beer in bottles, bad beer in cans – that made it easy to separate the wheat from the chaff, if you will.

Turns out, though, that just isn’t true anymore. In the last decade, the distinction has begun to break down. Shifting tastes (and a shifting economy) have led mean more and more "craft brewers" (defined as those producing fewer than six million barrels a year — more on that later) to choose cans over bottles. As a result, consumption and connoisseurship patterns in the American beer industry have changed as well.

Why? One reason is growth in the craft beer industry generally. Though it arose decades ago alongside the American foodie movement with people like Alice Waters, craft brewing has boomed from a niche market to a billion-dollar industry in the last decade, capped off by 15% growth last year alone. Success has led to market expansion—there are now over two thousand breweries in operation, with a thousand more in production—as well as new economies of scale.

The largest blame for the can stigma can be placed on the days of watery domestic suds being tossed into unlined steel cans. Gross.

As breweries have expanded production, many have also expanded distribution. With more and more businesses shipping beer across the country, the benefits of cans—their weight, their durability, their size—have become more attractive. As big names like Sierra Nevada and Brooklyn Brewery have switched to cans, these economic and environmental motivations are the ones they point to.

But cans are more than a matter of metal—they're also a matter of taste. And taste matters. From gustatory perception to the faculty of judgment, aesthetic experiences ground who we are, whom we like, and how we live. Containers determine not only how beer tastes—bottles let light in, for example, which spoils beer also how it looks, on the shelf and in the hand.

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More than anything else and no matter what the companies say, it's this latter sense of taste that has dictated the strange career of the can in craft brewing. It's a view of taste — an aesthetic one — made most famous by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, whose canonical book Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste roots class divisions in "cultural capital" and aesthetic dispositions reinforced by those same divisions. The best evidence for the phenomenon, according to Bourdieu, is taste in food. Or drink, we might add.

Though there are problems with Bourdieu's analysis—including the spottiness of his empirical data and issues with generalizability outside of France—the main link between aesthetics and class had been extremely influential. Recent work by historian of science Steven Shapin on wine, for example, has complemented Bourdieu's analysis with increased attention to "evaluative vocabularies" and "languages of connoisseurship."

What's interesting is that, while it's no surprise that oenophiles have elaborate methods for evaluating wines (and one another), something similar is happening in beer appreciation, and much more quickly. The rapid rise in beer connoisseurship—witness New York Times wine reviewer Eric Asimov adding beer to his repertoire resulted in fascinating profusion of new styles and flavors, as well as new words and communities for their appreciation.

When Oskar Blues first started canning Dale’s Pale Ale, people called them crazy. You know what’s really crazy? Getting an 8.0% IPA in a can.

So, what does this have to do with cans? A lot, it turns out. From humble beginnings a decade ago—with cans of Brooklyn Lager first available at Shea Stadium in 2001, and Oskar Blues shipping cans of Dale's Pale Ale starting a year later—there are now close to two hundred craft companies putting their beers in cans. It's a remarkable transformation, and while companies attribute it to the common-sense of production lines and shipping weights, something subtler—and more sociological—seems to be in play.

On this reading, it's no surprise that the rise of the can across the 2000s coincided with the mass appropriation of working-class social markers by young members of the cultural elite. That is, with hipster culture. Flannel shirts, trucker hats, and cheap, canned beer were ironic and powerful aesthetic symbols at just the time that Dale's started shipping in a can that bears no small resemblance to the ur-hipster beverage: Pabst Blue Ribbon.

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In short, Dale's met the aesthetic demands of both hipster and connoisseur just as both movements were cresting: the look was right and the beer was good. It didn't take long for other breweries to follow their lead, and now the canning revolution is in full swing.

Still, some major craft players continue to abstain. One significant absence is Boston Brewing Company, whose founder Jim Koch and flagship Sam Adams Lager carry such symbolic weight in the craft community that when business growth threatened to drive the company over the then-benchmark two million barrel limit for "craft" status, the industry redefined the standard (to the current six million).

Another absence, perhaps even more conspicuous, is Dogfish Head. Long known for pushing the boundaries with recipes and advertising alike, the company has declared that they have no intentions to can their beers. Why? According to founder Sam Calagione, the company's focus has always been to "try to bring beer into the context of wine" 750-ml bottles have always seemed more appropriate. While they applaud those working the boundary between "craft" and "can," they have their sights set on another taste barrier.

It's unclear whether stigma around cans—still operating in Dogfish's demurral—might someday be erased, but for now the paradox of wine-like pretensions (including tastings and food pairings) and beer's proletarian past is playing out most interestingly where craft brewers are moving into canned production.

With the rise of the "Canny Awards" for best design and release parties—including the recent release of yet another Brooklyn can—cropping up around the country, it seems that productive tension will keep playing out in the years ahead. We’re already seeing results: a sort of hybrid has emerged—with larger, resealable aluminum "bottles" now available, which may push cans farther into craft world. In the process we've gone from Bourdieu in a bottle to class in a can.

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