Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Clearly the Wrong Container

I have mentioned my disdain for beer in clear bottles several times here on the blog, but a reader's recent comment prompted me to elaborate on this.

Fairly early in my beer tasting adventures I noticed certain beers, like Newcastle Ale and Samuel Smith's Oatmeal Stout, would get high marks and sometimes (especially in the case of the latter) even rave reviews. But I bought these products a couple of times and found them lackluster at best and, at times, downright distasteful. I continued to encounter the rave reviews, so I figured I must be missing something. Eventually I tried samples of both which displayed all of the fine qualities that others had been highlighting. What was going on?

I can't prove it, but I think it may have something to do with the clear bottle. Beer has compounds in it from the hops that are light sensitive. Try this experiment: pour a beer (pretty much any beer, but try it with a pale variety) into a clear glass. Set it in the sun for twenty minutes or so. Now, take a sniff, take a taste. If the old factory and your tastebuds are well calibrated, you will probably detect a phenomenon which beermakers call "skunking", an off-aroma and flavor slightly reminiscent of the odor/flavor of skunk (anybody here know what skunk tastes like?) The ultraviolet light in sunlight reacts with chemicals in the beer to produce this skunking.

Brown bottles filter out the light at these wavelengths and so protect the beer. Clear bottles don't; neither do green bottles. And although commercial beer isn't likely actually to sit out in the sun for any length of time, there is UV light in indoor florescent lighting as well. So although the required exposure time is longer, the effect can be the same: a degraded product over time.

Why do breweries use clear bottles, then? I understand that the move to package these fine brews in such containers has to do with marketing appeal, meshing (I think) with our Western fetish for "white". White sugar, white flour, white eggs, and beer in clear bottles....they're all of a piece (and they're all bad, except for the white eggs, I guess, which are nutritionally equivalent to their brown counterparts.)

The last straw, for me, was a (clear) bottle of Old Speckled Hen I had a couple of years ago. I had had this ale once before (out of a can.....more to say about that in a moment) and it was wonderful. This bottle was horrible. I'm ashamed to say that I drank the whole thing, because it literally made me sick to my stomach. That was the last beer I've purchased in a clear bottle.

Now, I cannot prove that all of my disappointments stem directly from clear bottles. But at least in my experience my chances of getting a decently fresh bottle of beer go up dramatically if it comes in brown, rather than clear or green, bottles. Some of these beers are pretty pricey and I'm just not interested in playing those odds anymore.

There is a container for beer that is superior in every way, namely, the can. There is a lively debate going on in wine circles about the abandonment of the natural cork (an inferior way of capping wine) in favor of other approaches such as synthetic corks or screw tops. The screw tops, like the can, are vastly superior in terms of preserving the wine over time. But I have to throw my vote in with those who contend that there is something tr├Ęs romantique about uncorking a wine bottle, so my nod goes to the synthetic corks.

I don't think there's quite that same dynamic with beer containers. Cans are tacky to drink from, but you shouldn't be drinking good beer directly from can or bottle anyway. Once the beer is decanted into an appropriate drinking vessel, its freshness and full flavor are vastly more important, in my opinion, than what container it came from. So by all means, drink wonderful beers like Newcastle and Old Speckled Hen, from a can. But boycott the clear bottles.


Big Tex said...

Recently in BYO, Mr. Wizard was posed a question about light and skunky beer. Here's his reply.

Anonymous said...

I concur w/your disdain of cans excepting the occasional Sapporo, which i properly imbibed ice-cold from a can.

Also, our local "Hopluia" here in Nebraska, I prefer in its pastel green can: not a fantastic beer, but occasionally pleasant excursion into hopiness.

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Jarrod Morgan, Slamwire Inc. said...

I think you are absolutely right... clear glass containers are so hard to keep from skunking that I just stay away from them all together. Unfortunately, the average person doesn't know what beer tastes like when it is "skunked", and they just think that the beer isn't any good.