Home » Business, Food

The Great Twist Off/Pry Off Debate

Construction contractor Mike Valentine only orders chicken off the bone and only buys beer if the bottle cap twists off. “I don’t want to work for my food and I don’t want to work for my beer,” Valentine, 44, said. “Plus, it makes me feel like a man that I can open a bottle with my hand.”

On a recent Friday lunch hour, Valentine sipped a Budweiser at the Rye Roadhouse, a Cajun eatery in Rye, N.Y., the brown bottle still sweating condensation from the open ice cooler behind the bar.

Roadhouse co-owner and bartender Kevin Campbell, or “Soup” as his friends call him, uses a bottle opener on everything. “Here, I don’t twist off anything because after a long night my hands would be all scratched up,” Campbell, 41, said. “But I’ll admit at home it bothers me when it’s not twist-off and I have to get up and find a bottle opener.”

When the twist-off cap came into popular usage in the 1960s, the beer behemoths trumpeted its arrival as a modern convenience — the color television set to the outdated black and white of the pry-off top. But as national beer sales drop and corporate beer companies lose ground to smaller craft breweries, pry-off caps are seeing a resurgence, with some beer aficionados painting the twist-off as the industry’s Sony Walkman – once revolutionary but now passé.

While mass market fare like Bud Light and Coors still use twist-off caps, pry-off tops are making a comeback. (Photo by Mark Lungariello/CNS)

The reason for the pry-off cap’s resurgence is as elementary as the air we breathe — oxygen. Pry-offs keep it in, twist-offs do not, many experts say. “It’s a pretty simple equation: With a screw top, you can’t get that on as securely as a pop top,” said Joe Osborne, a spokesman for Avery Brewing Company in Boulder, Colo., a 19-year-old company that touts its “eccentric” beers and lagers. “In a nutshell, oxygen is bad for beer. It’s the ultimate enemy.”

The revival of pry-offs comes amid rising sales at craft breweries, which overwhelmingly use them. In 2010, these small-scale, independent operations grew 11 percent in production volume and 12 percent in revenue, according to the Brewers Association, a coalition with 27,000 members that includes small breweries, home brewers and retailers. Home brewers represent a growing number of people who brew their own beer and reuse glass bottles — usually with pry-off tops — to store their homemade mixture.

The craft brewing renaissance took off during the 1970s and 80s, as local breweries that had been disappearing for decades were replaced by smaller, independent firms. According to the Brewers Association, today there are 1,829 small and independent craft brewers in the country,  who account for less than 10 percent of the nation’s beer sales. In 2011, total beer sales in the country was 194 million barrels, according to the Brewers Almanac of the Beer Institute. (In the U.S., there are 31 gallons in a barrel of beer.)

By contrast, Anheuser-Busch controls 48.3 percent of America’s beer market. Its sales fell in 2009 to its lowest point in 10 years, according to Beer Marketer’s Insights, a trade publication, and its beer production decreased last year by as much as 3 percent.

Chico, Calif., microbrewery Sierra Nevada switched from twist-off caps to pry-offs in 2007. Cory Ross, a project manager at the brewery, said the decision came after nearly two decades of studying the impacts of different caps on the flavor and freshness of the beer. Oxygen seeps in through any cap, but pry-off tops offer a better and longer lasting barrier, he said. Oxidation results in a “skunky” flavor of the brew that can end up with drinkers left with a taste like wet cardboard in their mouths, brewers say.

Materials differ, but Ross said that twist-offs typically are made from softer materials, which allow more oxygen to seep in, according to studies Sierra Nevada did in assessing which kind of cap to use. Cost makes little difference, Ross said.

Even so, switching to pry-offs wasn’t an easy decision, according to Ross. Board meetings at the company focused on how to handle the expected pushback from customers and sure enough, the phones began ringing soon after the change. “We got a lot of complaints about people saying, ‘I was on a boat and I couldn’t open the bottle,’” Ross said. “I was thinking, ‘if you’re on a boat and can’t figure out how to open a bottle, you have other problems.’”

The top three best selling beers in the country – Bud Light, Coors Light and Budweiser – use twist-off caps on their bottled beer. Don Hutchinson, at Anheuser-Busch’s Brewery Technical Center, said his company’s lining material provides the best seal in the industry. “Extensive studies conducted by Anheuser-Busch demonstrated that the amount of oxygen that enters the bottle is independent of the type of crown used, but depends solely on the material used to line the crown,” he said.

Ron Kloth, 52, owns Papago Brewing Co. in Scottsdale, Ariz. He’s also a cicerone, a certified beer genius who must pass an eight-hour test that has a 50 percent fail rate. Kloth said both pry-off and twist-off bottle caps can be effective with the right machinery.

It all depends on the type of beer drinker. “For certain people, it’s a lot easier to pop it open with your hands and drink it right out of the bottle if it’s a beer like Coors, to use an example,” Kloth said. “Whereas I’d say 90 percent of the craft beer you’re drinking, you’re pouring into a glass first.”

For Kloth, however, the best protection against sunlight and oxygen is neither a twist-off nor a pry-off cap: It’s a can. Next year Papago will introduce canned beer to its roster, and Sierra Nevada will launch its canned brew in 2012.  Which means there will be a whole new argument for beer drinkers to ponder as they belly up to the bar.

Email: ml3283@columbia.edu

February 13, 2012