Beer suppliers, big and small, adapt to national can shortage
Missy Votel - 08/13/2020
Just when you thought things can’t get any worse, well, they can. Or perhaps we should say can’t can.
See, along with toilet paper, Clorox wipes and N95 masks, aluminum cans are the latest staple of American life to be in short supply due to the pandemic. Guess you could call it a candemic (as much as we’d like to take credit for that, it goes to the witty folks at Ska Brewing.)
Of course, folks looking for their favorite yellow beer to bring on the river this summer have known this for some time. “It’s one of the main reasons we’ve been short on Coors products,” Mike Biery, general manager for the local A&L Coors distributor, said Tuesday.
Biery (incidentally one of the best names for the beer profession ever, although it’s pronounced more like “berry,” the fruit) said to make up for the national can shortage, Coors stopped production of all beers except its flagship Khaki and Silver Bullet for a month starting in late May. “We took a month off canning Coors Extra Gold, High Life, Milwaukee’s Best – just went to Coors and Coors Light,” he said.
And if the thought of a Coors-less Colorado makes you shudder, then the thought of a Mexican Logger-less Durango should be downright terrifying. Although Durango’s Bodo Park brewery, Ska, is still churning out its beloved green cans, the shortage has impacted the craft brewing industry particularly hard.
“I don’t know what’s going to come next,” Ska co-owner Dave Thibodeau said Tuesday.
Ska sells the majority of its beer via keg. When restaurants and bars including its tasting room) shut down this spring, and summer festivals were cancelled, it took away half the company’s revenue. Although canned beer sales stepped up to pick up the slack, the can shortage has put a dent in that, too.
“In June, we really saw demand grow for our canned beer, and we can’t satisfy it,” Thibodeau said.
Despite belief that the can shortage is the result of a lack of raw material, it’s actually a manufacturing issue. There’s just not enough plants and workers to keep up with demand.
“It’s production time they’re short on,” said Thibodeau.
When the pandemic hit, folks began stockpiling canned beverages. They also started buying more canned drinks for at-home consumption to compensate for the frosty pint they were no longer able to get down at the local pub. Add to that the already tight can market pre-COVID due to the for sparkling water and hard seltzer craze, and you have the perfect brew for disaster.
“When people are buying soda pop and stockpiling it like toilet paper because it’s their only option, the supply chain is doomed,” said Thibodeau.
Biery also said aluminum cans have grown in popularity over the years versus glass or plastic. “It used to be cans, nobody wanted to drink out of them,” he said. “Now, cans are the future.”
But before you go cry into your bottled Bud, sell your soul on e-Bay for a sixer of Mexi Logger or worse, take it out on the friendly beer delivery guy Hop (yep – that’s his real name), know that canmakers are doing all they, uh, can. (Sorry).
"The can industry is working 24/7 on meeting the unprecedented demand," Robert Budway (we swear we are not making these up), president of the Can Manufacturers Institute, an industry trade association, told USA Today in July.
Pretty much all of the aluminum cans in America are made by Ball Corp., which plans to add two production lines to existing facilities and open two new U.S. plants by the end of 2021. In the short term, the company is working with its foreign plants to distribute cans to North America.
Unfortunately, the end of next year may come too late for some craft brewers. According to Thibodeau, the craft brewing industry peaked a couple years ago, when it was seeing double digit growth. With more than 9,000 craft brewers in the country now competing for limited resources, there’s guaranteed to be some fall out. “We’ve been getting a lot of calls from other brewers saying, ‘What are you guys going to do?’” Thibodeau said. “It’s definitely going to have a huge impact on the industry.”
Ska gets its cans from a Ball Corp. plant in Golden. Thibodeau said Ska was one of the plant’s first craft brewing clients, and as such has developed a good, long-term relationship. However, unlike larger brewers that can stockpile several months’ worth of cans, Ska usually places smaller, more regular orders. The shortage has definitely cut into their supply, with each brewer being given only a set allocation of cans.
Fortunately, this is where small brewers like Ska can get, well, crafty (OK, we’ll stop).
“Over time, we’ve discontinued certain beers or made projections that didn’t play out,” said Thibodeau. As a result, Ska has a supply of cans that it won’t or can’t use that are now being repurposed, with the help of a new labeling machine. For example, the brewery had empty cans of Rudie IPA destined for the U.K. that are now being used for its deliciously popular and ubiquitous summer elixir. “That was an easy call,” said Thibodeau. “Durango drinks Mexican Logger, and they were just sitting there not being used. It allows us to use up something that we may or may not use.”
And as the stockpile of Rudie cans wanes, don’t be surprised if you see a Ska label masquerading on another brewer’s can all together. “A lot of times there are misprints or other cans that somebody can’t use,” he said. “We’re willing to use those and label over them as well.”
As for the big dogs, like Molson Coors, the pandemic has presented its fair share of headaches as well. To fill the gap, the company is sourcing cans from Eastern Europe. In addition to the can shortage, right around the 4th of July, Mexico shut down its breweries, deeming them “non-essential.” With Americans unable to celebrate with their favorite imports, more turned to domestic beers, which created a run on those, too. Although the Mexican breweries have cranked back up, there have been problems getting the beer over the border.
“Mexican beers are less than full capacity, but we are getting them again,” Biery said.
To compensate, Heineken, which owns Dos Equis and Tecate brands, began brewing Mexican beer in … Holland. “These beers now say, ‘made in Amsterdam,’” said Biery. “It tastes good, but it does taste different.”
The local Coors distributorship has 32 suppliers, including craft brewers such as Sierra Nevada and New Belgium – both of which have been doing quite well in the pandemic, Biery said. And even that beer with the coincidentally unlucky name seems to be getting by just fine. “Coronavirus has not affected sales of Corona,” Biery said, adding that the brand is owned by the mega-brewing conglomerate Constellation. “So far, it’s done OK.”
Like Ska, Biery also said the lack of music festivals has hurt his sales. “It’s been hard; it’s been a year like no other,” he said.
Despite this, he and fellow beer supplier Thibodeau refuse to go flat, keeping some bubbly optimism.
“We’re filling whatever cans we can, it’s almost enough. We’re pretty resourceful,” said Thibodeau. “The crucial thing is to keep spirits up. We’re not done – tomorrow will come one way or another.”
And then he chuckled that infectious, trademark Davie Thibodeau laugh – something we can all drink to.