Cans are an explosive source of growth in the craft beer industry. Beginning with Oskar Blues in Lyons, Colorado, breweries including Durango's Ska Brewing Co. and Steamworks Brewing Co. have turned to cans as it became clear than consumers in many cases prefer them to bottles.
Now many brewers, particularly in Colorado, are canning craft beers, and canned craft has become ubiquitous at retail.
Cans have certain advantages: They are lighter and thus cheaper to ship. They are easy to recycle and tend to be recycled at higher rates than bottles. They are more portable and conducive to outdoor activities. And they are impermeable, so beer-spoiling light and oxygen can't enter the package.
Craft breweries have responded to consumer demand with a rush toward cans. Ska's top-selling beer, Modus Hoperandi IPA, is sold primarily in cans. Durango's largest brewery just last year repackaged its summer seasonal, Mexican Logger, and greatly increased the lager's production and distribution.
Steamworks has also adopted cans. So has Colorado's largest craft brewer, New Belgium, the third-largest craft brewery by production in the U.S. Oskar Blues, the canned craft beer pioneer, is packaging "tall boy" 16-ounce cans. That's just the highlights; an exhaustive list of craft breweries using cans would be, well, exhausting.
Cans have been particularly popular in Colorado. This is partly because one of the nation's largest manufacturers of cans, Ball Corp., is located in Golden, not far from Coors.
The only disadvantage regarding cans that has been widely circulated is the obvious fact that aluminum for cans must be mined, and mining comes with a long list of environmental risks and drawbacks. Personally, I feel that I generally get a smoother pour from bottles than cans when I decant into a glass, but that's a minor quibble.
To arrive at my point: No one is talking about BPA in beer cans.
BPA, technically known as bisphenol-A, is a chemical used in the epoxy linings for beer cans and many other products, likely including the Ball Corp. cans used by most canning craft breweries in Colorado.
BPA has been an increasingly decried consumer bogeyman. It's an endocrine disrupter, and as USA Today put it, "It's been linked with diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease in humans and has been shown to interfere with reproductive development in animals."
Many consumer products have been redesigned recently to be BPA-free, most famously those Nalgene water bottles. Nalgene was forced to make BPA-free bottles to stem a consumer backlash.
A recent study regarding BPA in soup cans caught a lot of attention. The peer-reviewed study released in November found that people who ate canned soup every day had a more than 1,200 percent increase in BPA in their urine samples. The study is already prompting boxed soups to advertise their BPA-free status.
My question: If eating soup from a can every day increases your BPA level by 1,200 percent, what about drinking beer from a can every day? What about when you get a six-pack of, say, Modus Hoperandi and drink it within a few days? What if you're tailgating and drink several canned Coors?
The headlong rush to can craft beer seems to be ignoring this issue entirely. While some publicity has brought changes to products like water bottles and soup containers, no such backlash has occurred among some of the very same people who regularly drink canned craft beer.
I sent an email to a Ball Corp. spokesman seeking comment. To the company's credit, spokesman Stephen McCarty responded almost immediately. It's a long response, but I've included most of it because it's good information:
"Almost all aluminum and steel beverage and food cans use epoxy-based coatings inside cans as a barrier between the metal and the products in the can," McCarty said. "Ball buys these coatings from suppliers."
• Cans are coated with epoxy resin to prevent corrosion, extend shelf life, protect the food contents from the metal packaging and protect the metal packaging from the food contents.
• Metal packaging with internal coatings reduces the potential for serious illness by enabling high temperature sterilization.
• This sterilization virtually eliminates the dangers of food poisoning from microbial contaminants.
• Epoxy-based coatings have been used in cans for decades to protect the product inside the can through various packing processes and to increase its shelf life afterward.
Epoxy-based coatings may contain trace amounts of BPA. Scientific evidence evaluated by regulatory agencies in the United States, Canada, Europe, Japan, Australia and New Zealand has consistently shown these coatings to be safe, and regulatory agencies have stated that human exposure to BPA from epoxy-based can coatings is well below safe exposure limits set by government bodies worldwide.
• The U.S. Food & Drug Administration is expected to comment again on BPA later this year. The FDA last commented on BPA on Jan. 15, 2010, when it concluded, "FDA is not recommending that families change the use of infant formula or foods, as the benefit of a stable source of good nutrition outweighs the potential risk from BPA exposure." ...
"While these regulatory agency statements seem to affirm the safety of epoxy-based can coatings, public discussion continues regarding bisphenol-A. Ball recognizes that significant interest exists in non epoxy-based coatings, and we have been proactively working with coatings suppliers and our customers to evaluate alternatives to current coatings," McCarty said.
• Currently there is not a viable alternative to epoxy-based coatings that meets the existing requirements of all products packaged in cans.
• Early results from ongoing test packs that began in mid-2008 using potential alternative coatings have been mixed.
• There are limited alternatives for certain, nonaggressive products. Those alternatives pose performance, shelf life, environmental or supply availability challenges.
• Coatings companies are working on alternatives to epoxy coatings. Once they are identified, it will then be a question of how long it will take the new coating(s) to obtain regulatory approval and to be produced in sufficient amounts by suppliers to meet the needs of the market.
• In limited cases, Ball is converting some foods to cans that use an FDA-approved non epoxy-based coating, typically involving less acidic products.
• Ball continues to participate in industry trade associations on BPA-related issues, and we will work with the FDA to update the agency on our progress and avoid any unintended consequences from possible alternatives to epoxy-based coatings.
McCarty added: "We are committed to responding to our customers' needs. If interest continues in non epoxy-based coatings, we will offer cans with those coatings when the coatings become commercially available."
Essentially, Ball acknowledges that it does indeed use epoxy linings that may contain BPA in its cans, and says there is no good alternative at the moment.
For craft brewers, it may pay to keep their options open. New Belgium downplayed the risks in a 2008 online response to a customer's question: "We became aware of BPA in epoxy resin can liners during our due diligence prior to deciding on packaging in cans. We looked into the matter thoroughly. What became apparent is that there are no cans whose lining does not contain BPA. The industry is actively looking for alternatives, but as yet, none exist. We still believe the benefits of cans outweigh the potential risk of the liners because the anxiety surrounding BPA seems to have far outstripped the science."
Dave Thibodeau, Ska's president and co-founder, leads a brewery that has rode a wave of mushrooming sales of craft cans. "There are very trace amounts of BPA in the liner of the can," he said in an email. "The levels are far less than that of steel cans and also way below what the FDA says is safe."
"As of now there is no aluminum can made without any BPA. The liner is there to protect the consumer from the aluminum."
Thibodeau added that Ska will be interested in BPA-free cans whenever they become available from Ball. "I know their mad scientists are working on an alternative and as soon as there is one we'll be all over it," he said.
Kris Oyler, a co-founder and general head honcho at Steamworks, said BPA seems to have little effect in adults — the main concern is the chemicals' effects on developing fetuses and children.
"From the research we have seen, it would take a lot of canned beer to have any overall adverse affects to an individual beer consumer," he said in an email message.
Oyler added, "We are not concerned that the general populous knows about BPA-lined beverage cans. To the contrary, more education is better. Beer drinkers can make their own educated decisions about what they want to put into their bodies and furthermore can make those changes. Studies have shown a reduction in BPA levels with the consumption of fresh foods — something we should all do more of. Balancing out a couple of canned beers with a fresh salad from a local farmer can go a long way."
"Our local consumers also have a choice to come in to our establishment for beer from the tap. Or they can purchase a glass half gallon growler for their beer. They can drink some of their beer from other brewers bottles. There are many choices and I think the key is balance and moderation in all things. Eating canned soup every day is not really healthy or balanced."
Oyler said Steamworks "would certainly be interested" in a BPA-free can. "We believe the can is a solid container for beer and the benefits ... are still worth pursuing."
For my take, cans certainly have their advantages, and craft beer drinkers love their convenience and portability. Hopefully, the market will soon demand that Ball and its competitors come up with a way to manufacture effective BPA-free cans.
As the Nalgene backlash illustrated, consumer preferences can turn on a dime, especially where their health is concerned. For their sake and mine, I hope brewers continue to offer their products in glass packaging as well as cans.
I'm not ready to give up on cans altogether. But until brewers can adopt a BPA-free can, I'll be buying my beer in glass bottles and growlers whenever I can, and limiting my use of cans to the golf course and backpacking trail — where bottles are clearly impractical — and for the occasional great beer that's only offered in cans.
It may not be time to get rid of those bottling lines just yet.