Despite the widespread use of plastic bottles, most consumers in the United States have only seen beer in glass bottles or aluminum cans. This discrepancy between plastic use for alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages prompts the question: why doesn’t beer come in plastic bottles?
The plastic bottles used for soft drinks do not provide the same level of protection from oxidation as glass or aluminum containers, which can significantly impact the shelf-life of alcoholic beverages. Plastic containers designed specifically for beer are generally more expensive than glass and thus rarely seen in the United States.
Read on to learn more about why beer is rarely seen in plastic bottles and when and why you might actually find alcohol stored in plastic:
Why is beer not sold in plastic bottles?
Packaging is a critical component of industrial beer production; good storage procedures are essential to maintaining long shelf life and consistent quality. To properly protect the beer, a container must be impermeable to the air and block harmful ultraviolet rays that can speed up the rate of oxidation. In addition, breweries must consider the cost of sourcing different containers and any potential effects on the flavor of their final product.
In general, beer is not sold in plastic bottles simply because the bottles themselves are more expensive to produce and are often less effective at keeping the beer fresh with a long shelf life.
Here’s a breakdown of how each material holds up in each category:
Permeability to Air
- Aluminum is completely impermeable to both oxygen and carbon dioxide. This means that no oxygen can enter an aluminum can to negatively impact flavor or shelf-life. In addition, no carbonation can escape, meaning that your beer will not go flat while properly stored in a traditional can of beer.
- Glass is also impermeable to air, making it another great choice to store beer. The main distinction between canned and bottled beer is that glass bottles cannot provide a perfect seal around the cap. While this slight impermeability will have very little impact on the shelf life of beer under normal conditions, a completely sealed aluminum can will provide better protection than a capped bottle.
- Plastic is permeable to air, though the exact amount is highly dependent on the type of plastic used. Some plastics used to make bottles like low-density polyurethane are incredibly permeable to air, while polyethylene terephthalate (PET) only allows for extremely low levels of gas exchange. This means that while more expensive PET plastics may be suitable for bottling beer, the cheaper options used in other industries are off the table.
Winner: Aluminum Cans
Protection from Ultraviolet Radiation
- Aluminum is the best option to protect against UV radiation. Canned beer is completely encased in opaque plastic and will not be exposed to light until it is opened.
- Glass, specifically colored glass, offers significant protection against UV light. The best choice by far is to use amber bottles, which almost entirely filter out the ultraviolet spectrum.
- Plastics, like glass, rely on color to provide UV protection. The main difference in this regard is that the kind of thick, colored plastic needed to offer equivalent UV protection is both expensive and difficult to recycle.
Winner: Aluminum Cans
Effects on Flavor
- Glass is the best choice in regards to taste, since glass is taste neutral and completely stable.
- Aluminum beer cans are treated with special polymers designed to reduce the risk of aluminum leaching into beer. These polymers prevent the development of any metallic flavors or harmful aluminum buildup.
- Plastics, specifically PET plastics, can leach low levels of antimony into beverages. While the levels observed in laboratory settings have been deemed safe, exposure to extreme heat could draw out potentially dangerous levels of this toxic metal. In addition, because plastics are not completely inert, extended exposure to plastic could produce unpleasant flavors or aromas.
- Glass is the cheapest option for breweries, since glass bottles have lower order minimums and bottling equipment is less expensive than canning equipment. Glass does use a lot of energy to produce because of the high heat needed to melt and blow glass.
- Aluminum is more expensive to produce for smaller scale operations, but can save money in the long run. They are lighter and less likely to break, saving money on shipping and handling. In addition, they are better for the environment, since roughly 70% of aluminum cans are made from recycled materials.
- Plastics are the most expensive option for standard 12 ounce beer packaging. On average, a standard glass beer bottle costs 5.4 cents less than an equivalent PET bottle.
Light, shatterproof plastic bottles offer some of the same advantages as aluminum when it comes to shipping costs, though, and the difference in price between plastic and glass diminishes as the size of the bottle increases.
From this overview, it should be clear why breweries usually avoid plastic bottles. Even the best plastics offer no improvement over aluminum or glass when it comes to preserving the shelf life or flavor of the beer. Moreover, while plastics are usually cheaper packaging options, they are actually the most expensive choice in the 12-ounce form factor.
Can beer be bottled in plastic?
While there are significant disadvantages to using plastic bottles for beer, there are certain circumstances where it can actually be a good idea. Breweries will often choose plastic bottles when the need for a safe and lightweight packaging option outweighs the higher price.
Plastic bottles can save on shipping costs, and the difference in price between glass and plastic decreases as the size of the bottle grows. That means plastics are often the cheapest option for breweries that sell beer in larger volumes than your standard 12-ounce bottle.
In Russia, a country where beer is commonly sold in larger shareable containers of 1.5 liters or more, it is estimated that 42% of beer is sold in plastic bottles. While single-serving bottles are the norm in the United States, manufacturers like Olde English have embraced plastic bottles for larger beer and malt liquor bottles.
You are also likely to encounter plastic-bottled beer at sports events, concerts, and festivals where the safety benefits of shatterproof bottles are significant. One notable example was Heineken’s choice to produce a limited line of beer bottled in plastic for the 2012 Olympic Games in London.
What other alcohol is sold in plastic bottles?
Some liquor is often sold in plastic bottles for many of the same reasons the breweries might choose plastic containers for beer. PET is cheaper for large-scale operations selling alcohol in large bottles: a plastic 1.75-liter bottle is cheaper, lighter, and less likely to break, saving alcohol producers on shipping costs and reducing the likelihood of rejected products.
The main worry with plastic bottles is increased oxidation. Still, larger producers move quickly enough and with enough safe handling practices that this isn’t an issue until after it reaches the consumer.
Can you bottle homebrew beer in plastic bottles?
As a homebrewer, you may want to consider plastic bottles for your own beer. While the main question comes down to a choice between quality vs. convenience, there are several specific factors you’ll want to take into account:
Pros of using Plastic Bottles
- Plastic is lighter and more portable.
- Plastic is safer, since it will not shatter.
- Plastic bottles are easier to cap.
- More flexible; less likely to explode due to overcarbonation.
Cons of using Plastic Bottles
- Plastic bottles have a shorter lifespan and are more likely to scratch.
- PET plastics will allow beer to oxidize faster, decreasing shelf life.
- Possible off-flavors from plastic leaching.
Overall, glass is a high-quality traditional choice that many homebrewers will never give up. However, if you value safety, portability, and convenience, plastic bottles might be the right choice.
If you choose to bottle your beer in plastic, be sure to purchase specially made bottles like the ones found here. Stable PET plastics are a must since reusing LDPE or HDPE bottles will severely impact the flavor of your beer through plastic leaching and oxidation.
How long does homebrew last in plastic bottles?
With proper storage and handling, plastic beer bottles can have the same shelf-life as glass bottles: 6 months to 2 years.
High-quality plastic bottles protect against UV light and only allow for low levels of oxidation to occur, so if you keep your beer in a cool dark place (like the refrigerator), you shouldn’t see much of a difference in your beer’s shelf life.