An inconvenient bottle cap

The decision by a beer brewer to move from twist-off caps to pry-offs is a radical challenge to American consumer capitalism.

Published June 18, 2007 6:10PM (EDT)

Tiny pin-pricks of blood dotted the webbing between the thumb and index finger of my right hand. I stared at them in alarm. Something was very wrong. Why was this bottle of beer so hard to open? I examined the bottle cap more closely, and was stunned to see, in tiny print, the words "pry off."

"Pry off"? In my hands I held a bottle of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. For as long as I had been patronizing the brewery, its bottles have featured twist-off caps -- although they were never labeled as such. As someone who has lived through and profoundly appreciated the twist-off revolution, I've been accustomed to a steady succession of beers that once required bottle-openers switching to twist-offability. But a change in the opposite direction? A change so earthshaking that it actually required the brewery to warn consumers that some kind of mechanical assistance was required? What could possibly explain this? Why would a brewery want to make it harder to drink its beer?

A quick perusal of beer aficionado bulletin board sites revealed that the switch was made in April, and has been trickling through the supply chain ever since. A letter from the Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. making its way around the Web explained the rationale: "Oxygen is the enemy of beer." For years, the company has been looking into ways to prevent unwanted, taste-ruining beer oxidation. Typically, a plastic liner inside the bottle cap is employed to prevent the dreaded blight of "oxygen ingress." But the polyvinyl chloride lining used by Sierra, in conjunction with twist-offs caps, had been judged insufficiently impermeable. The brewery discovered that a new, super-dense, non-PVC plastic had superior oxidation-resisting qualities. But there was a trade-off; the new material required the exertion of greater pressure to create a tight seal -- pressure that a twist-off cap could not deliver. Therefore, motivated by the noble desire for beer perfection, and with an environmental boon as a side benefit -- PVC plastic is nasty stuff -- Sierra made the switch.

Home brewers are generally applauding the decision, because they prefer non-twist-off bottles for home bottling efforts. But what about the rest of us, who have been accustomed, over the years, to the principle that beer bottles should get easier to open as time goes by, and not harder? How are we to bear this burden?

Doesn't Sierra's decision go against one of the primary dictates of American consumer capitalism -- that life should be progressively more convenient, and not less?

Even though the environmental benefits of Sierra's new pry-offs do not appear to be the primary motivation for the switch, the metaphorical symbolism of Sierra's inconvenient bottle caps should not be ignored. We live in a world that is not only faced with the dual threat of an energy crisis and devastating climate change, but also is populated by billions of aspiring consumers in the developing world who are dedicated to the proposition that they too deserve American standards of convenience.

To even entertain the thought that "convenience" is a luxury that humanity might not be able to afford is to radically set oneself athwart the tide of history. It's a fundamentally un-American stance, an argument that will be resisted with all the stubbornness our culture can muster. God forbid that the quality of light from a compact fluorescent bulb might not be as "warm" as an incandescent, or that there's a possibility one might get wet while bike-commuting in bad weather. If stopping global warming means my life must become more inconvenient, well then, let the seas rise and the rain forests turn to deserts. Sacrifice is just too hard.

Or is it? Sierra says otherwise, in its uncompromising dedication to the quality of its product, in its almost inconceivable bravery in making its beer more difficult to consume. Sure, the effort required to find a bottle opener may not seem like such a big thing, but symbolically speaking, the message is nontrivial. A better world isn't necessarily an easier world! Convenience is overrated.

I don't want to take this too far. It's not like I'm advocating physically getting off the couch to change the channel on the TV, or yearning for the days when a laptop had to be physically plugged into a phone line for Internet access. There are limits! But maybe we can stretch those limits, just a little bit.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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