The dark glass bottle vs clear glass debate
When I first wrote for my beer blog, I was eager to review Innis and Gunn; a beer I love. However, I found myself in a bit of a compromising situation… How can someone who refers to himself as a beergonaut praise a beer that is bottled in clear glass? Yes, one of my favorite beers comes in a clear bottle which many purist-amber-glass-bottle-beer-aficionados refuse to consider.
For valid reasons, there is a negative perception towards beers bottled in clear or green glass yet many brewers, big and small, don’t seem bothered by it at all. Other than Heineken and Corona which tend to be under the watchful eye of the anti-skunk police, Newcastle, Sleeman and Innis and Gun have chosen clear glass for a home. Last I checked, they were doing well for themselves. So when researching this topic thoroughly, most of the articles I found on the web praised the use of amber bottles over clear and green ones and according to the web, I should have a bone to pick with users of clear glass bottles, but the question is, why? Why, if true, would a quality brewery compromise the taste of their beer by bottling it in a container that is susceptible to U.V. ray? I was determined to find out.
Lately, thanks to Zite, I came across an experiment conducted by Rhett Allain, an Associate Professor of Physics at Southeastern Louisiana University. Allain’s experiment clearly demonstrated how U.V. rays behaved towards clear, green and amber glass bottles using a very simple method; UV ray sensitive beads. An equal amount of white U.V. sensitive plastic beads were inserted in a number of clear, green and amber glass bottles then exposed to the sun for an equal amount of time. Conclusion; the beads in the clear and green glass bottles changed color while the ones in the amber glass bottles remained white, and this is not a question of clear and green color glass scoring slightly lower than amber glass; clear and green glass bottles failed in protecting their content from U.V. rays. The result; amber glass is king.
So what does this all mean? In that same article, another Allain shared his findings, Eric Allain, Rhett’s brother. Eric Allain, a bio-chemist and beer aficionado explained the effects of U.V rays on beer and quite frankly, he has a compelling argument. Hops react negatively to U.V. rays. There are a certain amount of light sensitive compounds in hop that releases the skunk-like smell when exposed to light. U.V. rays cause these compounds to release MBT (3-methyl-2-butene-1-thiol) and the aroma it releases is very similar to that of a skunk’s defense mechanism.
So why are many brewers using clear or green glass bottles when clearly amber glass offers protection that is second to none in comparison? And, most importantly, should we stop buying beers bottled in such glass? Well, before I explain, I am certainly not the one who will stand on the soap box and call Corona, Heineken, Newcastle and Innis and Gunn, negligent or ignorant. I did however write to a handful of brewers and none responded; hmm… Then I spoke to a handful of micro breweries and bloggers about it and everyone reinforce the use of amber bottles for the very same reason. Eventually, I asked Eric Allain, the bio-chemist, and his answer was spot on with what I suspected; it’s marketing! It’s so unfortunate when marketing decisions over ride quality control. Until a brewer using clear bottles tells me otherwise the consensus within my peers is that, marketers may have painted their brand into a corner way back when establishing the look of their bottles. Working in marketing, I can’t blame them for not reverting to amber bottles. Clear and green bottles do look sexy and quite frankly, contribute a whole lot to sales by simply offering something different. Meanwhile, the U.V. ray effects on hop went somewhat unnoticed for years and now that the brands are huge, I suppose there isn’t much they can do. Changing their bottles for amber bottles would be a very unwise marketing decision. In fact, I took the liberty of having our graphics department make a mock-up of such a new look and one must admit that Heineken and Corona in an amber bottle aren’t sexy at all.
Today, both breweries manage to curb the “skunk” issue in their own distinctive ways. Heineken for starters, when one looks at Heineken’s yearly production which counts for approx. 8.8 million hectoliters per year in all of America alone1, the complaints they get count for an infinitesimal amount which they deal with the best they can. By avoiding the subject all together, they emphasize and bank on the hip factor of their green bottles and it seems to work. They have got such a huge following that the few complaints known to the world come off as bad press by a handful of anti-heinekenians. As for Corona, the good old South American method of inserting a slice of lime in the mouth of the bottle to keep bees out has turned into a ritual. A ritual that serves two purposes; It gives the beer an added taste and makes it different and best of all, it’s a clever way to conceal a skunk taste –if there should be one.
So should we stop buying these beers? The answer is yes and no. If it bothers you that much, then stop drinking them but for the love of God, stop being a brown bottle snob and know that there are many remarkable brands out there worth trying that use clear or green glass. In this day and age of Franken-beans, modified DNA cows and other gracious man made improvements to anything edible –pardon my sarcasm-, modified hops or hop extracts are now available and used. Terrific! This is one theory and a valid one. Last but not least, personally, I have never come across a skunked Innis and Gunn or Newcastle? Two factors are at play here, the first one is the fact that both these beers have a lower hop presence (or perhaps use hop extract as described above. I don’t know and I am not saying they do). The second, both are considerably darker in color which acts as a protection in itself.
So in the end, I play the devil’s advocate and question how much all this is spilled milk –or should I say beer. If consumers keep drinking Heineken and are okay with it, then let them be. If a new brewery decides to bottle their beer in clear or green glass, they have probably calculated the risk factors and adapted their recipe accordingly with whatever measure needed so give them the benefit of the doubt and try their beer. Also, in today’s consumerism, when one looks at the shelf space, transit, packaging, warehousing and home storage of beers, one needs to wonder how much beer really gets exposed to sunlight. Quite frankly, beer is almost always in boxes, refrigerated, jammed in a cooler, a trailer, the trunk of a car, a closet… you name it. Very few of us put beer directly in sunlight and if the bar you go to doesn’t care to protect their beer from sunlight, then drink elsewhere. There is always somebody, somewhere eager to share a skunked beer story, but the fact is, clear glass isn’t a reason not to try a new beer or not consider bottling it in clear glass if, you’re a producer.
Plus, for all the purists out there, know that no brewery from hundreds of years ago knew the negative effects of clear glass, they bottled their beers in clay jugs and brown glass simply because, it’s all they had at the time. Eventually, when clear glass was introduced, it was more expensive therefore economics played a major role in choosing amber glass. And as for green bottles, they are nothing more than the product of a brown glass shortage in Europe, during WWII. That’s when green glass bottles became popular and to do so, they were marketed as a symbol of quality and high end goods.
Last, we should also keep in mind that stale beer and skunked beer are not exactly the same yet often interpreted as the same for many beer drinkers. A stale Heineken is not a skunked Heineken. So keep in mind shelf life when drinking beer. For example, with the exception of Sleeman, many clear or green bottle beers are imports which means, they sit in ships, warehouses, containers or silos and distribution centers, much longer than local beers. Beers with a shelf life of 4 months may see their shelf life float by while in transit and in customs and that has got to count for something. The solution here, again, is not to stop drinking imported clear or green glass bottled beers; there are too many gems worth trying. If you’re going to drink an imported beer, be aware of its shelf life; some are 4 months, some can be as high as 1 year. The higher the alcohol content and/or the more hop in the beer, the longer the shelf life –the raison d’etre of an IPA or Saison. One sure way to do this is to buy your beer at a reputable retailer and it doesn’t hurt to watch for dusty bottles or worn out labels; they are true signs of old age. As for clear bottles, be wise, keep them out of the sun and make sure to return your beer to the bartender when it’s skunked and tell him why. With time, who knows, maybe every beer listed in this article will end up in amber glass bottles. As a consumer, you are more in charge than you think…
Hope you see bottling clearer…
- According to Heineken’s Annual Report 2012