Complete Guide to Beer Packaging
by Bob Lawrence Jr.
Packaging is as important to good beer as proper brewing and serving methods.
Beer is relatively easy to damage. It is actually a fairly delicate product. It might not
be the most interesting thing about our favorite beverage but, it is worth knowing
about the containers that deliver our beer to us.
Beer of any kind has three main enemies as it travels from the brewery to your glass:
light, heat, and oxygen. The perfect container would protect beer from all three.
However, there is not much that packaging can do about heat; that is left in the
hands of the distributors and retailers. The most we can hope for from our containers
is that they prevent exposure to light and oxygen.
Besides protecting beer from light and oxygen, another concern when packaging
beer is pressure. In order to produce the right amount of fizziness in the beer, the
container needs to be airtight, strong and well-made enough to resist the internal
pressure of carbonation.
Over the years, brewers have come up with 4 basic types of packaging: casks, kegs,
bottles, and cans. Each type of package protects beer in different ways with varying
degrees of success. The result is that the same beer served from each these
containers can taste quite different.
Bottled beer has been around for a long time. Some brewers fill bottles with still beer
and a bit of sugar.. The secondary fermentation in the bottle produces carbonation
and a thin layer of yeast sediment in the bottom. Other brewers carbonate their beer
at the brewery then fill the bottles with it. This gives brewers more control over the
final product by allowing them to control the level of carbonation in their beer.
Although some brewers still use corks, most seal their bottles with the familiar metal
cap. A liner on the inside of the cap seals the bottle and the metal edges of the cap
crimp around the lip of the bottle to hold it in place and maintain the seal. A
well-sealed bottle protects beer from oxygen well and for a long time.
Most beer bottles are made of brown, green or clear glass. All three colors let in light
although brown lets in a lot less than the other two. If you have ever had a skunked
beer, also called light struck, then you know why this is a problem. The unpleasant
odor and flavor are caused by ultraviolet light hitting certain molecules in beer, a
process that can happen very quickly. So, bottles need to be packaged and/or
labeled in a way that prevents light from getting through.
Beer cans offer the same protection as kegs. And, since they only contain single
servings, there is no need to rig up a pressure system. But what about that metal
taste? One perennial complaint that we hear about beer cans is that the beer they
contain takes on a metallic taste. Let's consider this. In the first place, only one of the
four common beer containers, bottles, is not metal. No one has complained of
draught beer tasting of metal. Secondarily, beer cans are lined on the inside. The
beer actually never comes in contact with metal.
So, where does that damned metal taste come from? In fact, it is not a taste at all.
The senses of taste and smell are closely related. If you have ever noticed how bland
food can sometimes taste when you have a cold then you know what we're talking
about. That metal taste is coming from the smell of the beer can. When you drink
directly from the can, you are shoving a big slab of metal in your face. It is no wonder
people think that canned beer tastes like metal. Use a glass. Problem solved.
Although a few brewers still use wooden casks, most modern casks are metal.
Traditionally, brewers fill casks with unpasteurized, still beer along with a measured
amount of sugar and then seal them. Since there is still yeast in the beer, the sugar
kicks off a secondary fermentation that carbonates it.
Casks have been around since before brewers understood yeast. Consequently,
they do not completely address the protection needs of beer and require the most
amount of care. When casks arrive at their destination, they must be stored on their
side in a cool place until that secondary fermentation is completely finished.
Determining when that is, is up to the pub or restaurant so casks need to be handled
by someone properly trained and experienced with casks.
Once tapped, casks allow the beer to come in contact with oxygen and the clock
starts ticking; the beer must be drunk within a matter of days before it spoils. The
oxygen introduced produces diacetyl that adds a buttery or butterscotch flavor to the
beer. Although diacetyl in a beer at detectable levels is generally considered a
mistake, it does not have an entirely unpleasant taste and fans of cask ale embrace
it as part of the experience.
The cask ale tradition is strongest in the United Kingdom where it is jealously
guarded by the Campaign for Real Ale or Camra. The organization identifies
unpasteurized, package conditioned beer as the only real beer, making casks and a
few bottles the only acceptable containers. Camra is an interesting organization.
Criticized as strident and too unyielding in its definition of beer, nobody denies that it
played a key role in saving the cask ale tradition from near extinction in the 1960s
The beer keg is really the modern evolution of the cask. Kegs solve the oxygen
problem of casks. And, being made entirely of metal, there is no chance that kegged
beer will become light struck.
Kegs work by using pressurized gas, either carbon dioxide or a carbon dioxide and
nitrogen mixture, to force the beer out. As beer is dispensed from the keg, more gas
is forced in, maintaining the pressure on the beer and thus keeping is carbonated
and protecting the beer from oxygen
No conversation about beer packaging is complete without a mention of
pasteurization. This process, designed to kill any living microbes in beer including
yeast, is used by some brewers to sterilize and stabilize their product. Both
pasteurized and unpasteurized beer is sold in bottles, kegs, and cans.
When it was first introduced in the brewing industry in the late 1800's, it was
revolutionary. These days, it is disdained by some folks of the beer community. Beer,
they explain, is a living thing and should be enjoyed as such. Pasteurization and
over-filtration take away the flavor of beer. The Camra website even claims that the
process produces a "sort of burnt sugar flavor."
Whether that is the case or not - we've never noticed burnt sugar in our beer -
pasteurization is not as vital as it once was to provide the market with good beer.
With the sanitation techniques that modern brewers use and good use of
refrigeration up and down the supply line, there is little chance that unpasteurized
beer will spoil before it gets to you.
source: Bryce Eddings on thespruceeats.com
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