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Pour the Win

What’s the best beer-delivery method: cans, bottles or draft? Let’s explore the merits of each.

Rachel Wright
April 29, 2017

Want to make some not-so-small talk next time you pony up to a bar? Ask your fellow drinkers if bottled, canned or draft beer is best. Everyone seems to have an opinion.

Basic Bottles

The No. 1 argument against beer bottled in glass is that light impact the beer. Many claim it makes the beer taste “skunky.” Here’s why that happens.

Light breaks down isohumulones (the compounds in hops that are light sensitive), causing them to produce 3-methyl-2-butene-1-thiol, which scientists commonly refer to as “skunky thiol.” That impossible-to-pronounce thiol has a chemical makeup super close to that in a skunk’s gland that produces the smell we all know so well and dread on road trips so much.

Many brewers opt for dark brown or green glass bottles, which is said to protect those light-sensitive hops compounds from UV exposure. Why do you think Corona is best enjoyed with a lime? Those clear glass bottles aren’t shielding the beer from skunkiness. Some clear bottle brewers have outsmarted the sun and use specially formulated hop extracts that don’t react to UV light.

But for all the light knocks, bottled beer is the old standby of many brewers because very little fancy equipment is needed to put beer in a bottle.

Bottles are more suitable for a package-conditioned beer, as well as limited releases, particularly barrel-aged or seasonal high-ABV brews. And there seems to be a higher-level imagery when it comes to certain beers in bottles versus cans. Some special releases deserve a more sophisticated container, and bottles achieve that more than cans.

Cans Can

Think of cans as mini-kegs for your mouth. They are far better at protecting beer from UV damage than bottles and preserve carbonation with airtight seals. If you care at all about the environment, you know cans are easier to recycle.

The case against cans is the metallic flavor many claim negatively impacts taste and the natural conductive element of metal warms beer too quickly. On the inside of beer cans, there’s often a lining between the beer and the tin, preventing the liquid from absorbing that flavor. So, the flavor you don’t want is a result of your mouth touching the can. Cans are durable, easy to open and easy to transport, so as long as you bring your favorite mug with you, you can avoid that flavor by pouring before enjoying.

Bonus for the outdoorsy canned beer drinker, many recreation areas like pools, campgrounds or, say, the Illinois River don’t allow glass for safety purposes. Broken glass and bare feet don’t mix.

Draft Dominates

If you’re out on the town and you trust the establishment you frequent to treat its keg lines and CO2 ratios properly, many say draft is where it’s at. Kegs offer the ultimate UV guard, and there’s no better seal than that of a professionally filled keg. Unless you’re bringing muscle, it’s unlikely you’ll consider kegs mobile.

The issue many take with draft beer is that it gives them a headache. That has little to do with the beer — unless you drink too much of it, or are allergic to an ingredient in it — and probably something to do with dirty keg lines or too much CO2. Another potential reason for nasty draft beer is that it’s old. If you’re drinking a holiday ale in August, you’re asking for it.

There are risks associated with drinking draft, but consider another factor majorly impacting beer flavor: temperature. Kegs are stored cold, in the walk-in, in the refrigerated truck and in the distribution center, leaving little time to warm up and ruin the flavor. That’s assuming you’re not drinking a beer that should be served room temperature.

If keg lines are clean, CO2 levels are on point, the beer was stored appropriately and the beer isn’t a year old, draft offers the freshest, crispest flavor with no skunk or metal side effects.

When pouring from a draft system, you’re usually getting a different carbonation level than you might from a bottle or can. By having the keg hooked up to the draft system, there is constant pressure being applied to liquid. Many will tell you that a fresh beer, poured off a clean draft system, has a certain energy that a bottle or can poured beer can lack.

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