The Argument Over Packaging

by Stephen Beaumont

Sitting here in a sun-drench biergarten in the middle of the massive Englischer Garten in central Munich, sipping a one-litre maß of helles lager that would be utterly ordinary almost anywhere else but is ambrosia here – Hofbräu, if you must know – it would be easy to conclude that fresh draught beer is the ultimate expression of the brewer’s art. And I’m betting that, springtime in Bavaria notwithstanding, there are a great many people reading these words who would agree with that sentiment.

But we would all be wrong, and here’s why.

While it is tempting to deal in strict absolutes during our current age of social media and “I’m right, you’re wrong” sensibilities, most things in the world exist more in shades of grey than they do in black and white, and beer packaging is no exception to this rule. Yet articles such as a recent story posted by Gear Patrol continue to quote so-called experts who insist that, as this one did, “Draft beer is definitely better than bottled, but canned can be better than draft.”

Rubbish. Okay, perhaps not complete bollocks, but damn close to it. My rapidly depleting litre of draught helles, for example, is definitely and deliciously better than it would be were it to have been poured out of a bottle. But there is also no way in the world that a can or two of the same beer would be objectively better than my stein of draught, and in Germany, at least where lagers and a pair of ales re concerned, that is pretty much always going to be the case.

Helles, bock, dunkel, export, märzen and pilsner are always going to offer greater aroma and flavour when served from the tap over the bottle or can. Kölsch in Cologne is spectacularly better when served from its unpressurized barrel, just as altbier is one city over in Düsseldorf. German-style wheat beers are arguably better in the bottle because of their refermentation, but I’ve also been served some wonderful draught examples. And the jury is out, for me, at least, on gose, only because I can’t recall ever finding one on draught in Germany.

Head a little north, however, and the bottle begins to rule. Despite their relative prevalence in keg form these days, virtually every Belgian ale I have ever supped is a better beer when poured from its bottle-conditioning package than it is from the tap. And because can-conditioning is but a nascent art, and despite their increasing presence in the country, cans don’t even factor into the equation in Belgium.

Further north still, across the North Sea divide, bitter, best bitter and extra special bitter, or ESB, are all going to be at their absolute best when served cask-conditioned, far better than in keg, bottle or can. Porter and stout and IPA can go both ways, depending on strength and the presence of yeast, but for the great trio of English ales, cask is forever the way to go.

Over here in North America, where we have all of the above listed styles and many, many others besides, it is seductive lunacy to claim that any one form of packaging is “definitely” better than another. Sure, cans are the flavour of the month these days, but I’d much rather my Godspeed Otsukaresama on tap rather than in the can, and my Bench Citra Grove in the bottle and my Granite Best Bitter Special on cask, and those are just three local beers that come easily to mind.

So, please, let us dispense with this argument over packaging and just enjoy each beer as it comes along, preferably in the best form for proper enjoyment. Like this draught Bavarian helles, which, if you’ll excuse me, is in need of replacing.