Congratulations—you’ve decided to order a beer. Now would you like that in a glass bottle, a can, or draft?
The way we drink beer has certainly been changing, but the basic delivery systems are essentially the same. When you buy beer, it comes either bottled (typically 12 ounce bottles, though certain specialty beers also come in larger-format bottles) or canned. When you order a beer at a bar, your options might also include draft—beer poured straight into the glass from a tap line.
It might seem like a small matter—bottled, canned, or draft, it’s all delicious beer—and to a certain extent, it is. But there are a few essential differences in what bottles, cans, and tap lines can do for a beer, meaning there are certain beers that do better in one vessel or another.
Bottles are the oldest vessels for beer, with the 12 ounce green or brown bottle being the one we all know today. And while green glass bottles—popular for lagers—have been shown to make your beer more susceptible to skunking, amber glass bottles have generally proven reliably safe, and in fact are good for heavier, fermentation-driven beers, where a little extra aging wouldn’t hurt. Unlike cans, bottles take longer to cool down, but they stay cold longer. (Not that “cold” is necessarily the goal.)
Cans are increasingly used in craft beer, which may surprise some of us given certain negative connotations associated with cans (crushing them against our foreheads, e.g.). Yes, cans have historically been relegated to mass-marketed beers, theoretically less about quality than convenience; they’ve even been accused of imparting metallic flavor to beer. But cans are gaining in popularity and positive image thanks to increasing usage among craft brewers (over 500 craft breweries are currently canning beer).
And there’s good reason. Unlike glass bottles, cans block out all UV rays, meaning the chances of your beer’s flavors being compromised, or your beer being skunked, are nil. Cans also cool down more rapidly than bottles, meaning shelf-to-serving time collapses. As for those metallic flavors, a polymer coating (which does contain BPA, though presumably at little to no risk to consumers) separates the beer from the aluminum; any imparted metallic flavors likely come from aromatics, e.g. what your nose is smelling as you take a sip. The best solution is to pour your beer into a glass—that way you can taste it more thoroughly anyway.
As for what’s best on draft, the short answer is “fresh beers,” or young, dry hopped beers with fresher flavors. (Dry hopping is when hops are added during later stages of fermentation to impart certain aromatics and flavor.) The slightly longer answer is that all draft beer relies on tap lines—a system that can, if not properly maintained, develop bacteria that may impart “off” flavors to your beer. This is especially an issue at busy bars with lots of taps, where maintenance might be a challenge. When in doubt, send it back and order a bottle. Or a can.