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Brewers have been all bottled up, but now they're canning it

You may have noticed a trend clinking around on the shelves of your local liquor store: More and more fancy craft beer is showing up in aluminum cans.

For decades, canned beer was the stuff you bought cheap — the PBR or Natural Ice — bottom-shelf beer. But that layout has changed: The number of craft breweries putting their beer in cans has more than doubled since 2012, according to Russ Phillips, author of a recent book about the art gracing those craft beer cans and manager of the website CraftCans.com. He says five years ago, just a few dozen craft brewers in the U.S. were canning, while today there are more than 500. It seems the association of canned beer with cheap, watery stuff has been gradually washing away.

Can advocates and brewers who are choosing cans say there are clear advantages over bottles: The beer in a can cools faster. The can protects from beer-degrading light. Beer cans are portable and take up less space, advantages both for retailers and for consumers who want to take them camping, hiking or fishing. (See our 2009 piece on Alaska's beer can craze.) There's also more space on a can for wraparound design and decoration.

But there were reasons for the popularity of glass in the first place: While glass bottles take longer to cool down, they also stay cold longer once they come out of the cooler. Plus, glass producers and plenty of brewers will tell you translucent amber glass has been working fine to protect beer from light and air.

The biggest selling point for the bottle, though, is flavor. There's at least a perception that cans impart a metallic taste, whereas liquid stored in a bottle comes out tasting pure.

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