For craft beer brewers hit hard by a pandemic that left them with countless untapped kegs originally destined for now-shuttered restaurants, there’s a new, looming concern: who can can?
According to the National Brewers Association, there’s about to be a significant aluminum can shortage, and the major manufacturers are likely to be first in line to get the vessels they need.
“The can shortage may threaten the ability to survive the pandemic for some craft brewers,” warned the association, which represents small and independent craft brewers, in a July 31 memo. “The smallest brewers are most likely to have orders delayed or canceled, as can manufacturers are more efficient when they don’t have to change out the printing plates as often. A company ordering a half or full truckload may be less of a priority.”
Remember hearing stories of farmers dumping milk because they had too much and couldn’t move it through the market? Something similar happened earlier this year with ales and lagers.
“At the beginning of the pandemic, we had a lot of beer come back in kegs that we had to drain,” said Matt Nadeau, owner of Rock Art Brewery in Morrisville. “Especially a lot of IPAs, because they don’t have a long shelf life.”
Nadeau said, pre-pandemic, about 75 percent of Rock Art’s beers were packaged in cans, and 25 percent kegged for restaurant draft lines. With restaurants closing down — completely, at the beginning of the pandemic, and now at 50 percent or less capacity — a quarter of the brewery’s output had to go somewhere else.
Extra cans will likely be harder to come by, at least for small breweries.
“It’s the big guys, the national ones who have massive can contracts with those (manufacturers),” Nadeau said. “And, well, you know, s**t flows downhill.”
The Alchemist Brewery in Stowe hasn’t put its beer in kegs or bottles or anything else in years. Its 16-ounce cans of Heady Toppers and Focal Bangers, once famously hard to find, are now staples in grocery stores and gas stations all over the state. Same for restaurants and bars.
“We stopped kegging years ago. Pretty much, if you want our beer in a restaurant, you get it in a can,” Joel Hartman, the brewery’s operations manager, said.
Hartman said the Alchemist’s supplier in Saratoga Springs — one of more than 30 of Ball Corporation metal beverage container manufacturing plants across the country — has assured the brewery a steady supply.
Still, the Alchemist monitors its supply chain every week.
“If there’s one thing COVID taught us, it’s to be prepared,” Hartman said.
The Aluminum Association, which represents manufacturers of that metal, noted it’s not due to an aluminum shortage, but a lack of capacity on the production side.
“The aluminum beverage can manufacturing industry has seen unprecedented demand for this environmentally-friendly container prior to and especially during the COVID-19 pandemic,” the association told USA Today in July. “Many new beverages are coming to market in cans and other long-standing can customers are moving away from plastic bottles due to ongoing environmental concerns around plastic pollution. Consumers also appear to be favoring the portability and storability of cans as they spend more time at home.”
Amy Cronin, the festival and marketing manager with the Vermont Brewers Association, said she’s heard Ball Corporation plans on increasing its capacity, but the plant overhauls aren’t expected until next year.
“It’s pretty scary, actually,” she said. “Everyone has changed their format.”
The aluminum production crunch comes on the heels of a 10 percent tariff that President Donald Trump placed on imported aluminum in 2018 — the day after he announced the tariffs, he tweeted, “Trade wars are good, and easy to win.”
Nadeau said Rock Art “definitely saw an increase there,” which confused him. He said he was under the impression the tariff was on imported raw aluminum, and yet the trade association touts they use almost completely recycled materials in its beverage cans. Remember what Nadeau said about effluent flowing downhill?
“They passed those costs down to us, as well, which at some point has to go down to the consumer,” he said.
Hartman is aware that seemingly every segment of the beverage industry is turning to cans, if they weren’t already canning. For instance, all of those soft drinks you see coming out of bar soda guns or soda fountains at bars and restaurants typically come in big plastic bags packaged in sturdy cardboard boxes.
Kombucha, wine, even bottled water are all destined for cans, too.
But, just like how restaurant closures have shrunk the kegged beer market, it’s prompted soda companies to ramp up their can production to keep supermarket shelves stocked — grocery stores are among the few industries thriving in the pandemic.
Still, even popular beverages like Dr. Pepper — which has ties to erstwhile Vermont beverage company Keurig Green Mountain — are feeling the pinch. The fizzy drink maker acknowledged the production troubles earlier this month.
“We know it’s harder to find Dr. Pepper these days. We’re working on it — hang tight!” read an Aug. 10 tweet from the company.
When Nadeau put in a purchase order for 16-ounce cans in March, Rock Art’s supplier upped its price by $1,000, an increase of 25 percent over what it previously paid. He is willing to chalk that up to a math error on the supplier’s part, but he has since switched to another supplier.
Luckily, the Nadeaus — wife Renee is the other owner — are frugal folks, and have accumulated five years’ worth of miscellaneous cans. Nadeau said when Rock Art orders pre-printed cans, suppliers require a minimum order — a whole tractor trailer truck full of that one particular can. That’s more than a small brewery can use, so they end up with a lot of leftovers, which can either be scrapped or saved.
Matt and Renee’s son Dylan is a graphic designer and a college student who has designed many recent Rock Art labels. The Nadeaus worked with Dylan to create larger labels that can wrap around the whole can and cover up the old graphics.
“Rock Art’s brewing philosophy has always been reduce, recycle and repurpose and the can shortage is just another way the brewery is adjusting with the times,” Nadeau said in an Aug. 11 memo via the Vermont Brewers Association.
As of this week, Rock Art has 22 skids of cans at the ready, according to Nadeau. He did the math: about 390 cans per layer, 17 layers high; that’s about 6,600 cans per skid. Based on Nadeau’s calculations, Rock Art has roughly 145,200 cans available for re-labeling.
“So, sometime in early winter/stick season, we’ll be out,” he said.
No going back
Some have proposed going back to bottles until the can manufacturers can get caught up. Dan Kenary, CEO of Massachussets Bay Brewing Co., which owns Harpoon Brewery — there’s a location in Windsor — suggested the state’s brewers association launch a social media campaign asking craft beer drinkers to buy bottles “for a while to help us all get through this.”
“Craft brewers are certainly not at the head of the line at a time of shortages versus the big national and international brewers,” Kenary told Boston Business Journal last week.
Nadeau, however, is loath to go back to bottling. For one, bottles are far heavier than cans. He said you can take a skid stacked 17 high with cans and pull it across the production floor with a rope. One four or five deep with bottles requires a forklift.
Plus, bottles break. Nadeau said when Rock Art was putting all of its products in bottles, the brewers’ boots would get cut up and spring leaks from tiny, stubborn shards of broken glass.
“I don’t miss glass at all,” he said.