Microbrewers – or more accurately, craft brewers – are all the rage now. Commonplace in the earlier years of our republic, many small, local brewers were wiped out with the passage of prohibition. While some survived and thrived after repeal, we lost most small brewers after a wave of consolidation hit the industry in the 1970s.
Passionate beer drinkers started a wave of home brewing, and home beer brewing kits became popular Christmas gifts for fathers. But it wasn’t until the introduction of Sam Adams in the 1980’s that America rediscovered the craft beer. Craft brewers continue to grow, experimenting with new flavors while still brewing favorites like IPAs or lagers, and even seasonal beers like summer wheat. In 2011, craft beers accounted for roughly 11.5 million barrels sold in the U.S. – or 5.7% of all beer sales by volume, according to the Brewers Association. They became so popular that many of the successful small brewers have been bought up by the larger firms, including Anheuser-Busch/InBev.
What does this have to do with sustainability, you ask? Because of the costs associated with smaller breweries, craft beer brewers have to be at least somewhat sustainable to survive. And now some are considering the big issue of packaging: bottles vs. cans. This is a touchy subject as craft beer drinkers buy for taste and there’s a bias that beer in bottles tastes better.
At the end of last year, about 150 of the roughly 2,000 craft breweries sold their product in cans – up from 50 just two years ago. Packaging in aluminum cans lowers shipping costs and offers a more complete seal than most bottles can, which keeps beer fresher longer. Aluminum is generally easier to recycle than glass and often provides a better monetary return for the recycler. But aluminum has negative aspects as well, such as strip-mining and plastic rings on six packs. Aluminum cans are also lined to protect the beer from acquiring a metal taste, but that lining sometimes contains Bisphonal-A (BPA), which is now a chemical of concern in many countries, including the U.S.
So which is more sustainable? In our EcoPulse™ 2011 study, we found that 90% of frequent recyclers and 42% of non-frequent recyclers claim they recycle aluminum cans, which was the highest number for all materials tested. Glass was less likely to be recycled; it was mentioned by 69% of frequent recyclers and 31% of non-frequent recyclers as a material they recycled. And our own analysis of packaging materials, which we included in our Green Living Pulse™ 2012 report, shows aluminum to be the second most sustainable choice after bio-based packaging – with glass coming in third.
The big question is whether or not craft beer drinkers will accept the change from glass to aluminum. Consumers we classify as Actives will be receptive to the environmental benefits of aluminum cans, and while data on craft beer drinkers is limited, Actives do tend to index higher on super premium domestic beer brands (Sierra Nevada, Henry Weinhards, Samuel Adams, etc.). Many craft beer drinkers like to experiment with new brands, so it’s very possible they will at least try beer in aluminum cans – especially if the brewer highlights the benefits of aluminum in preserving the beer’s taste.
Like with all sustainability marketing, the environmental benefit is the cherry on top…the real benefit is usually something personal and emotional. And in the case of craft beer, the real benefit is how it tastes.