What do you think? Does beer taste better from a bottle or from a can? Research, both controlled and anecdotal, suggests that most people would say that the same beer tastes better when it’s in a bottle versus when it’s in a can.
What accounts for this preference? Is there something about a can that construes a negative image in the mind of the consumer? Is there something about the shape, weight, or design of the packaging that influences their preferences? Does the metal of a can impart certain flavors that glass keeps more pure – perhaps beer actually DOES taste better from a bottle due to chemical and physical interactions within the packaging?
Last year, a study in the journal Beverages aimed to answer this question once and for all. There were three parts to this study: 1) a questionnaire aimed to determine demographics and preferences for drinking beer out of bottles or cans; 2) the main portion of the study: a taste test; and 3) a blind taste test. This study took place in the UK, with the main taste test study taking place just before the Edinburgh Science Festival in Scotland.
62 people participated in this phase of the study. It was a relatively short questionnaire, asking about various demographics such as age and gender, as well as two questions regarding their beer drinking habits. The first question asked how often they drank beer (the average was once a month), while the second question asked if they preferred beer from a bottle, can, or both (no preference/”it all tastes the same”).
MAIN STUDY – THE TASTE TEST
151 people participated in this phase of the study. A little less than half of them were served beer from a bottle, while a little more than half of them were served beer from a can. (NOTE: it was the same beer from the same brewery, just in different packaging).
Participants were shown the bottle or can and were told they could pick it up and examine it prior to tasting. Then, the researcher poured the beer out of the bottle or can into a plastic cup and it was subsequently served to the participants. This way, the researchers could control for potential confounding factors such as head space, packaging weight, etc.
After tasting the beer, participants completed a questionnaire regarding several factors including demographics and participants’ evaluation of the beer.
FOLLOW-UP BLIND TASTING
To control for potential psychological influences of seeing the packaging prior to tasting, a blind taste test was performed.
29 people participated in this phase of the study. Each participant tasted two glasses of beer: one of which had been poured from a bottle, and the other of which had been poured from a can. Both beers were the same beer, just in different packaging. The difference in this phase compared with the main part of the study was that the participants were not allowed to see the researchers pour the beers into the glasses. Participants were told nothing about the beer. After tasting, participants answered some questions regarding demographics and had to indicate which beer they preferred (if they even had a preference toward one or the other).
The results of the first questionnaire suggest that people have preconceived preferences for beer packaging types. Specifically, the researchers found that 61.29% of participants preferred beer from a bottle, while 11.29% preferred beer from a can and 27.42% thought they both tasted the same.
The results of the main test showed that participants rated the beer poured from the bottle as tasting significantly better than the beer poured from the can. Perceived quality was also rated as slightly higher in the beer coming from the bottle, but this result was only marginally significant.
Since it’s possible the participants seeing the packaging could influence how they rated the beers, the blind tasting follow-up phase of the study was performed.
Results from the blind taste test – when participants had no knowledge about the beers or where they came from – showed that there were no preferences for bottled or canned beer, one way or another. Nearly 45% of participants rated the canned beer better than the bottled, 41% of participants rated the bottled beer better than the canned, and close to 1.5% said they both tasted the same.
(It is important to note that the demographics of participants from all three phases of the study were similar, indicating that comparisons between phases is justified).
The results of this study confirmed what was already known both in the literature and in casual conversations that people tend to prefer beer that is from a bottle compared with beer from a can. Even if the beer is poured into a “neutral” packaging type like a plastic cup in an effort to remove any potential confounding factors that the packaging itself might have on the results, people still preferred the beer from the bottle compared with beer from a can when they could see the original packaging format. What was most interesting, however, was that when you take away any knowledge of the beer and what the original packaging format was, the preference for bottled over canned beer disappears. So, in essence, your preference for bottled beer over canned is likely all in your head.
There appears to be some psychological aspect regarding preconceived preferences for certain packaging types that influences consumer preference for beer, which is a concept well known to researchers and beer marketers alike.
With the rise in cans as a packaging format for beer (and wine, for that matter), marketers can use this study to help change the stigma of the can. At the end of the day, when the beer is poured into a glass, it all tastes the same regardless of whether it originally came from a bottle or a can. Of course, if you’re drinking the beer directly from the bottle; such as the Saranac Brewery Pale Ale which was chosen as a gold medal winner in the 2017 NY International Beer Competition (incidentally, all winning beers for NYIBC are chosen by trade buyers and cicerones from blind tastings) or the can; such as The Bronx Brewery Bronx Banner, another gold medal winner in the same competition; there may be other factors that come into play that could potentially confound the issue and change consumer’s preferences. However, what this study shows is that the beer in the can is the same as the beer in the bottle, and that what vessel you put it in isn’t going to directly alter its chemical composition and flavors.
Becca Yeamans has a Bachelor's of Science in Biology from Saint Michael's College in Colchester, VT, and a Masters of Science in Environmental Sciences from the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, VA. She has extensive research experience as well as experience working in the wine industry. She is a freelance writer with a focus on wine science and research, and is the author/creator of the technical wine blog, The Academic Wino (www.academicwino.com). You may also follower her on twitter @TheAcademicWino.