Many homebrewers have probably wondered at one point or another whether they should be using glass or plastic bottles for their beer. While glass was, is, and probably will forever be the traditional choice, there are a few reasons why someone might want to use plastic when bottling their beer so I thought we could dive into this topic today to see what the answer looks like.
Using plastic bottles for homebrew beer has many benefits for brewers as they are lighter weight, inexpensive, and less likely to explode if over-carbonated (bottle bombs). However, long-term storage in plastic bottles can cause issues with under carbonation, oxidation, and potential off-flavors in the beer.
With that said, there are many factors to consider when deciding whether or not to use plastic or glass. Plus, you could get the best of both worlds by using both types of containers to bottle your beer! Let’s go further into each material and see what the pros and cons are of each!
Homebrewing plastic vs glass bottles
That magical clink of a glass, the whoosh of gas escaping as you pop the top off of a cold beer, the feel of the glass in your hand as you drink it.
Yes, drinking beer from a bottle just feels right for more people.
And of course it does! After all, beer has always been served in glass bottles (or poured into glasses for that matter) for most of beer’s modern history. In fact, brewers have been pouring into glass containers in England since the late 1500s. Sure, they used corks instead of metal caps and the bottles tended to explode fairly often because of secondary fermentation, but it worked pretty well!
If we fast forward to 2020, however, technology has changed and it is now possible to put beer in glass bottles, plastic bottles, aluminum cans, and all manner of other containers. While commercial brewers often prefer cans, homebrewers are often left reusing old glass beer bottles by cleaning, filling, and recapping them. While it may come as a surprise to some, plastic bottles are a viable option for homebrewers when it comes to bottling their beer.
As a novice brewer, I would say that there is probably a case to be made for using plastic in some situations. In fact, it probably makes total sense for some brewers to only use plastic.
Now, for some people, bottling beer in plastic is borderline sacrilege.
On the surface, plastic bottles look like a cheap substitute for glass (and it is) and there is reason to suspect that it could cause real issues with your beer (it could).
So, why would you even want to bother?
Well, plastic is super convenient for a variety of reasons but let’s address a couple of the biggest questions that you probably have when it comes to plastic homebrew bottles.
How long does beer last in plastic bottles?
This is a big question.
Many homebrewers simply wouldn’t believe that beer could last just as long or longer inside a plastic bottle as it could inside a glass one. And, they would be right! That’s because standard PET plastic bottles (like you would find in the soda section) do a great job of keeping CO2 inside the bottle but a poor job of keeping oxygen out of the bottle. As we all know, oxidation will kill a beer pretty quickly by making it taste stale or creating off-flavors.
Typically, beer will only stay fresh inside of a standard PET plastic bottle for a couple of months. After that point, there will likely be enough oxidation to taste a difference.
Something to point out, however, is that it is possible to buy special plastic bottles that are made of PET but include polyvinyl alcohol or another polymer to help reduce oxygen permeability. These bottles advertise storage capabilities on par with glass bottles. If these bottles can truly remove this potential plastic issue, then we might have a much stronger case for using them!
Does beer taste different in plastic bottles?
The short answer is no. The long answer is maybe yes.
What I mean by that is that if you are only storing your beer in plastic bottles for a short amount of time (such as a few weeks of bottle conditioning or filling up a bottle from your keg to bring somewhere) then there shouldn’t be any noticeable difference between glass, all other things being equal.
The longer you store the beer inside the plastic, however, the more likely there will be off-flavors stemming from oxidation if you are using standard PET bottles.
If you are able to find the more specialized PET bottles that include the material to help reduce oxidation, then you might not have any issues. There is, however, a risk that PET bottles can leach antimony into your beer over longer periods of time as well – so there’s that. Generally, however, as long as the bottle is kept at room temperature or lower, there is very little risk.
Who sells beer in plastic bottles?
At least in the United States, it’s actually pretty rare to find beer sold in plastic bottles commercially which isn’t a great indicator that it’s the best way to go for your homebrewing. If it’s cheaper to use plastic, there must be a damn good reason for the big beer companies not to use it all the time. At the same time, it’s not nearly as strange to see this in other countries, although it’s still uncommon.
With that said, you are likely to see plastic beer bottles in places that put a high premium on safety such as:
- Sporting events
- Outdoor festivals or events
- Larger quantity beers (like 40’s in the gas station)
Which are the best beer bottles to reuse for home brewing?
Since homebrewers, like most people, are trying to do things as frugally as possible, we tend to reuse anything we can to get the job done. Typically, this means drinking commercial beer from glass bottles, saving them, and then reusing them when it comes time to bottle our homebrew. This is how it has been done for a long, long time. This isn’t truly free, however, if we consider the fact that we still have to buy the new caps.
Since you can also buy new PET bottle caps that twist on and recreate a seal on old containers, it’s actually possible to reuse most plastic soda (or whatever) containers that you have around the house assuming that the lid is the same size. Importantly, these everyday containers will have the oxidation problems that I talked about earlier. Still, they are cheap!
Glass bottles for homebrew
So why would you want to use glass bottles for your homebrew? For most people, I think this is more of a question of why wouldn’t you want to use them because there is such a positive bias attached to them in the first place.
In the majority of cases, glass bottles will probably let you have a better homebrewing experience because the beer will be able to condition in the bottles for longer and you won’t have to worry about the beer going bad before you are able to drink it. For novice brewers, there are also way more resources out there dealing with glass bottles to help you when you don’t have your technique down yet.
Here are the pros and cons of using glass bottles for your homebrew:
- Readily available through empty commercial beers or homebrew supply stores
- Dark color reduces light reaching your beer
- Will not allow any oxygen to reach your beer – the cap is still the weakest link
- No off-flavors imparted to the beer
- Easier to clean (you can scrub glass without much fear of scratching it)
- That hard-to-describe feeling of drinking from a glass bottle
- Heavy when full
- Relatively easy to break (when transporting or accidentally dropping)
- More likely to explode when over-carbonated (bottle bombs)
- Hard to check carbonation levels and clarity
Plastic bottles for homebrew
However, there is a case to be made for using plastic if you aren’t able to physically move around the heavier glass bottles, you tend to bottle lighter beers that don’t require as much bottle conditioning, or you tend to drink your beer very quickly.
There is also another interesting use case. Some homebrewers have mentioned that while they would never use plastic bottles for their entire batch, it could make sense to bottle a couple of plastic bottles so that you can watch the bottle conditioning process because they are clear. This will let you check the clarity and color of your beer as it conditions. Also, because plastic is bendable, you can even check to see how your carbonation is coming along.
Some brewers even mention that they like to bottle beers made with brett or wild yeast in plastic bottles because of their tendency to over carbonate!
Here are the pros and cons of using plastic bottles for your homebrew:
- Almost impossible to break when transporting or if dropped
- Less likely to have issues over-carbonating (cap will usually go before the bottle)
- Easy to find generic PET bottles
- Capping process is extremely easy
- Can check clarity and carbonation levels of conditioning beer
- Can be easily used to transport kegged beer (with a Carbonator Cap)
- Less classy/traditional
- Generic bottles are prone to quicker oxidation
- Possible off-flavors from plastic leaching
- Plastic is usually clear – lets more light into beer
Hopefully, you have a little more understanding at this point about the differences between plastic and glass bottles for your homebrew. At the end of the day, which one to use is really a subjective question that you will have to answer for yourself.
Personally, I think that I will try bottling a couple of brews in plastic for each batch so that I can have a good gauge of the conditioning process. Then, I’ll simply drink those first to make sure they don’t get left in the plastic for too long.