Photo via Flickr user Alan Levine
Walk down the fridge aisle of your local beer store, and real estate that used to house bottles is now home to something new—sixer (or four pack) after sixer of cans with brightly colored labels proclaiming bold beer names like "Defiance Brewing Co. Thrasher" or "Killer Whale Cream Ale." For a few years now, cans have been a preferred packaging method of craft brewers who find the can to be an affordable and effective way to get their product to the masses who aren't able to stop by the taproom.
But the growing craft beer industry has led to increased demand for cans, and now can manufacturers and breweries alike are feeling the crunch. Brewers are competing for cans, and the wait to secure cans is growing longer. Some brewers are finding themselves wondering when, or if, they are going to get their next batch of cans."This has proven to be a real challenge for members that have built their business model around getting these cans," Bart Watson, the chief economist at the craft beer trade group Brewers Association told The New York Times.In the past, many small-scale brewers ordered their cans from Crown, a can manufacturer that would fill orders of just a few thousand cans. But with craft breweries popping up across the country, Crown found themselves unable to keep up. Crown had to raise their minimum order of cans to a half a truckload, about 100,000 cans, and they have announced they will require breweries to purchase the industry standard truckload containing somewhere between 155,000 and 200,000 cans.That's a lot of cans, more than some breweries need or can afford.Canned beer was once derided, the pedestrian container of choice for the very mass-produced swill that craft brewers railed against in their mission to create better brews. But the can has regained some standing over time as a cheap and worthy vessel, and craft brewers have bought canning machines, which run well under $50,000, and have been buying cans from wholesalers and canning up their product. Many have opted to go for 16-ounce cans sold as four packs, which distinguish their beers from the standard 12-ounce six packs of corporate breweries. Sixteen-ounce cans are particularly affected by the current can shortage.
"Cans are much more accepted on the market now," Paul Halayko, the co-owner and president of the Newburgh Brewing Company told The New York Times. "I think for a very long time, people thought that beer should be in a bottle."Sociable Cider Werks in Minneapolis opened its doors in 2013 as a taproom making cider and beer. This year, Sociable began canning some of their best selling core products, their FreeWheeler Apple Graff and Spoke Wrench Stout Apple. Co-founder Jim Watkins says that, contrary to baby boomers' perceptions that that cans denote inferior products, cans are better containers for his ciders."They are like mini kegs that keep out oxygen and UV light, both of which are detrimental to product quality," Watkins tells MUNCHIES. "Couple that with the portability, recyclability, and the amount of space available for artwork and branding, and you've got a combination that aligns pretty nicely with craft beer and cider."Watkins says the wait for 16-ounce cans has grown to about two months, whereas in the past he was able to secure cans in under six weeks. The New York Times spoke with some brewers who have had their wait go from under a month to three months. Whitewater Brewing Company in Ontario told The New York Times it had to lend cans to some can-less neighboring breweries that were unable to fulfill orders.The can shortage reflects an industry in flux. Craft brewers have been growing at a double digit pace for some time and now account for 10 percent of the beer market in the US. Blue chip brewers like Anheuser-Busch and AB InBev are scrambling to buy up craft breweries. On the can side, Ball, another industry heavyweight, has announced it will buy its competitor Rexam in February, further worrying brewers who are unsure where they will get their cans.The can shortage is particularly tricky to navigate for brewers who have relied on can manufacturers to print their labels for them on the can. Switching to a canner that requires a smaller minimum order than Crown can mean sacrificing a fee paid for printing plates, which one brewery said cost nearly $30,000. Crown, meanwhile, has told BrewBound that the small-batch printing demands are what are leading to delays on their end.And while some brewers put sleeve-like or stick-on labels on cans in house, a shortage of 16-ounce cans is still a problem—they may not have labels designed for a smaller can. Similarly, at a certain scale, putting sleeves on cans isn't feasible for a brewery that is no longer truly small time but yet to crack into the big leagues. And any new label would have to be approved by federal and local liquor authorities, which takes valuable time.Meanwhile, the Brewers Association just recently announced that there are now 4,000 craft breweries in the United States, just about a year after the 3,000 mark was breached. And we haven't even reached peak craft beer. It looks like the can conundrum (CANundrum?) will continue for some time.