Cans, chemicals and craft beer
Brewers have no options for canning their suds that don't contain bisphenol A or BPA in the cans.
In 2012, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned the use of bisphenol A — better known as BPA — in baby bottles and sippy cups.
Around the same time, reusable water bottle companies began to proudly tout their "BPA-free" products, spawning a cottage industry for high-end bottles and cups. Bend-based Hydro Flask went from selling its unlined stainless steel bottles out of the back of a truck in 2009 to selling the company for $210 million earlier this year.
On grocery store shelves, glass jars and other BPA-free packaging elbowed their way onto the shelf alongside traditional canned goods.
At the cash register, retailers began to offer BPA-free receipt paper.
In short, consumers are turning away from packaging that contains BPA.
Most of the time.
A glaring exception is the beer aisle. Canned beer has exploded in the past five years, and we're not talking about your grandfather's summer sipper. According to the Brewers Association, the organization that tracks and promotes the craft beer industry, 10 percent of all craft beer is now sold in cans. That number hovered below 2 percent just three years earlier.
It's easy to see why. Cans are lighter to ship, more portable to carry, easy to recycle and relatively cheap, if purchased in bulk. And for beer drinkers of a certain age, the crisp pop of a can offers a warm nostalgia you simply can't find in a bottle. Right now, consumers are crazy for the can.
But cans aren't perfect. Mike Wexler owns Royale Brewing and Portland-based Green Bottling, a mobile bottling service that helps brewers big enough to package their beer, but too small for a bottling line. Wexler points out that for all of cans' ballyhooed sustainable cred, you still get aluminum from huge open-pit mines that scar the landscape and require an enormous amount of electricity to produce. Wexler's company has packaged more than 10 million bottles of beer for breweries across the region in the past five years — so breweries haven't abandoned glass — but he sees consumers showing stronger interest in cans these days.
"You can explain the issues with canning to someone until you're blue in the face, but if they really want a can, you can't change their mind," Wexler says.
Then there's the BPA issue. BPA is still used in a wide range of aluminum packaging to prevent foods and beverages from reacting to the aluminum.
BPA has been linked to a host of health concerns, including reproductive issues, childhood development, even cancer. France has banned the use of BPA in all food packaging. In the United States, it's been banned from all children's drinking bottles and virtually eliminated from the reusable bottle industry. But the FDA says BPA is OK for adults in the relatively small amount found in canned foods, while medical researchers continue to study the issue.
When Southeast Portland-based Baerlic Brewing considered packaging its beer, the BPA issue was a factor in its decision to go with glass. The company bottles several regular and seasonal beers in 22-ounce bottles, and barrel-aged beers in 500-ml bottles.
"BPA was one of the things we considered. I think in a couple of years there will be a BPA-free option, but there isn't with beer cans right now," says Baerlic brewer and owner Ben Parsons. "BPA is really the elephant in the room with cans.The BPA issue has come up with kids, and it's come up with canned food, but most people don't know beer cans have BPA in them."
And even those who are aware of it might not know just how hard it is to completely eliminate BPA. Parsons notes that it's important to store beers upright to avoid having the liquid touch the cap. Why? There's even BPA in bottle caps.