Alu-cans and craft beer
In the modern sense, good packaging preserves product quality, is user-friendly, environmentally friendly and, last but not least, cost-effective. All of these are true for aluminum cans, which is why more and more small-scale breweries decide to use them. But what exactly are its advantages over glass?
Most domestic small-scale breweries, including Fehér Nyúl, began to experiment with the introduction of cans during the covid pandemic. While one or two pioneers tried this even before the lockdowns, this type of packaging could not completely replace the glass bottle due to drastically different consumer habits at the time. While seasoned beer drinkers were aware of the absolute superiority of can packaging, laymen were characterized by the decades-old mantra that "canned beer has a metallic taste", which deterred quite a few customers from trying it in the small-scale, extra premium quality class.
Then came covid, the closures, social distancing, and suddenly the picture changed a lot. In my opinion, there were 3 main effects on beer drinkers. The first is pretty obvious. With the closure of entertainment venues and pubs, beer consumption was also trapped within the four walls of our homes. At the same time, the producers of small-scale beers, saving what could be saved, started huge promotions so that the beers brewed up to the 2020 season would not go to waste. The money that people would have spent in restaurants on their favorite beers was now spent on bottled beers bought in webshops, specialty stores, and department stores. Most small-scale breweries operated with single-use bottles, the collection of which is quite a chore for most households in Hungary. On the manufacturer's side, the main argument in favor of bottles was that the majority of restaurants preferred the usual packaging method, due to the "premium look".
In the meantime, mobile canning lines have also appeared in Hungary, making it possible for breweries that have already invested in a bottling line, or those that lack capital, to introduce the technology to their production facility. Since the breweries had to adjust to reduced consumption due to the uncertain situation caused by the pandemic, and consequently to longer storage times, the cans that keep beer fresh for a longer period of time came in handy. In addition, it became easier for the consumers who typically drank beer at home at that time to handle the can waste, since it does not have to be taken to a collection island, the selective bin is available for most residential buildings for free in Hungary. And after the first tests, it becomes obvious to all beer consumers: good beer in a can is absolutely fresher than in a bottle, and it lasts longer! From then on, the unimaginable became possible: aluminum can become accepted for the packaging of craft beer in Hungary, and more and more people even prefer it to glass. But what are the properties that make aluminum an objectively better packaging material for beer, and what do we expect from beer retail packaging in general?
I already listed the main arguments in the introduction, but let's look at them in detail now!
- Cost-efficiency. I am not talking about the procurement cost of the packaging material itself; an aluminum can and a single use bottle costs about the same when purchased in the same volume. The difference is huge however on the side of logistics. An aluminum can’s weight is 1/20th that of a bottle’s, and it takes up considerably less space with the same internal volume. That means more cans can fit on a pallet, shipment can be more efficient. And the product takes less place to store too!
- It preserves the quality of the product: beer, especially the craft versions, are extremely rich in flavor and aroma components. The presence of oxygen, sunlight (UV) and of course heat, which accelerates chemical reactions, have a harmful effect on these compounds (unless one desires to achieve an aged quality). Furthermore, beer is typically a carbonated beverage, so it is not only necessary to ensure that the packaging is pressure-resistant, but also that the material used is not gas permeable. The aluminum box meets all these conditions, better than glass. An order of magnitude less dissolved oxygen enters the beer during packaging. The can is completely light-blocking. Bottles on the other hand, depending on the color of the glass used in their manufacturing, are limited in their capacity to block UV rays at best. In terms of gas sealing, there is no difference, from this point of view, PET is the worst choice.
- User-friendly: based on what we have seen so far, the humble can has several advantages in this area as well: it is lighter, smaller, so it’s less hassle to take your favorite drink with you. But that's not all! Cans cool down faster and no tools are needed to open them (although there are also beer bottles with screw caps, and of course also those with buckles, but in the vast majority of cases one still finds simple crown caps). One also has to consider what happens in case the packaging is damaged. Of course, spilled beer is unpleasant in both cases, but if we are dealing with broken glass, it is downright dangerous. By the way, this is also a factor that cannot be neglected on the production side, in case of a broken bottle, dozens of bottles on the same line (filled or empty) may be scrapped due to the potential glass shards! And then there's the issue of waste. In the case of the can, the opening tab conveniently remains attached to the body. In the case of glass, there is a crown lock or cap, which must be handled separately. In addition, there are many more selective bins suitable for aluminum in this country than there are glass collection islands, so the selective collection is also easier.
- Environmental Protection. Aluminum is not only more widely collected than glass, but it is also 100% recyclable. This is also true for glass on paper, but sorting the different colors is a problem. A significant amount of glass therefore ends up on construction sites, where it is mixed with other building materials as rubble, and is not returned to the system as a raw material. In the case of single-use bottles, the emerging shortage can also be observed, and with the ever-increasing energy prices, this only seems to get worse. In addition, the aluminum can, due to its design and material properties, provides the necessary load capacity even with the use of much less material, so that the packaging can withstand bumps and knocks. The smaller weight not only means savings in production, but the energy required for transportation is also drastically reduced.
In light of these facts, I think we can state: the aluminum can is the ideal choice from every objective point of view!