Shortage of cans hobbles Colorado's craft brewers

Supply crunch causes problems for one of state's signature industries

Shannon Najmabadi
The Colorado Sun
Posted 7/31/21

Talbott's Cider Company used to package its hard cider mimosas in colorful cans purchased for 12 cents each from a Westminster supplier. But a monthslong supply crunch has forced the Palisade cidery …

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Shortage of cans hobbles Colorado's craft brewers

Supply crunch causes problems for one of state's signature industries


Talbott's Cider Company used to package its hard cider mimosas in colorful cans purchased for 12 cents each from a Westminster supplier.

But a monthslong supply crunch has forced the Palisade cidery to get creative: Now, the cans come blank from Korea and are wrapped by hand in a waterproof label — more than doubling the cost.

It's a struggle going on all over Colorado as breweries and cideries have scrambled to find new suppliers of aluminum cans and related materials due to soaring demand and an international dearth of the lightweight metal containers. The scarcity has increased costs that in some cases are passed on to consumers.

Manufacturers say the pandemic dovetailed with a growing preference for infinitely recyclable aluminum over plastic bottles, and a booming enthusiasm for canned hard seltzers. Breweries and cideries, meanwhile, abruptly shifted to cans — over kegs — for survival when the coronavirus shuttered bars and restaurants, prompting people to drink more at home.

Steve Findley, executive director of the Colorado Beer Distributors Association, said brewers have felt the pinch.

“My members carry all the major brands — Miller, (Molson Coors), Anheuser-Busch imports and also crafts — and we are seeing a lot of out-of-stocks lately,” Findley said.

Molson Coors Beverage Co. operates the Coors brewery in Golden. Anheuser-Busch owns Littleton-based Breckenridge Brewery.

Packaged alcohol sales have slowed since their pandemic highs last summer, but some breweries still can't get the price, quantity or container they want as they go through peak selling season for canned beer, said Bart Watson, chief economist at the Brewers Association, a national trade group based in Boulder. Colorado may be more affected than other states due to its concentration of craft breweries using cans, he said.

The can shortage first hit Talbott's Cider Company in the summer of 2020. Operations manager Charles Talbott said he received an email saying it would be about a year before the cidery could get cans from its usual supplier, Westminster-based Ball Corp., one of a few giant can producers in the U.S.

The company struggled to find replacements. Talbott had to store cider in chilled tanks as he tried to find cans to package it in.

He ultimately turned to cans imported from Korea (17 cents each) which an employee feeds by hand into a machine to wrap it in a high-quality waterproof label (9 to 13 cents each). They have to order a minimum of 16 pallets at a time — each with more than 7,000 cans — and have partnered with a local brewery, Palisade Brewing Company, to get a bulk-order price.

“Your bigger producers, your large domestic breweries got first right on a lot of (the cans), and unless you were ordering a sufficient amount from Ball, you kind of got put at the back of the list,” said Talbott, who now doesn't expect to get preprinted cans from Ball until 2022. “Anytime you let something sit for that long, you … can have issues,” he added, of the cider stored in the tank.

Pandemic slammed breweries

The shortages come as more than 30 breweries in Colorado have shut down during the pandemic, the greatest number of closures since Prohibition, said Shawnee Adelson, executive director of the Colorado Brewers Guild. Cideries and breweries of all sizes have been affected by the lack of cans, which industry experts forecast will continue through the next year as can-production facilities build the capacity to meet demand. Other beverages sold in cans, like soda, have been similarly affected.

Scott McCarty, a spokesman for Ball, one of the largest can producers in the world, said the company is adding new production lines and building three new plants that are expected to add at least “6 billion units of can capacity.”

Because consumers are seeking a more sustainable alternative to single-use plastics, he doesn't see the demand for cans declining. Hard seltzers have had explosive growth, and soft drinks and sparkling water are also now shifting to be packaged more in cans. Hard seltzers accounted for more than $4.6 billion in retail sales in the last 12 months, up from $910 million in the 12 months that ended in July 2019, according to NielsenIQ data provided to the Colorado Sun.

Demand for cans was unprecedented in 2020 and hasn't slowed in 2021, McCarty said.

In the meantime, some brewers have turned to bottles, which are heavier than cans and can be more difficult to ship. Others are slapping new labels on empty cans stamped with beer varieties they no longer sell. Some breweries that didn't package beer onsite before the pandemic have added small canning lines or hire mobile canners that bring equipment to the plant, said Adelson, with the Colorado Brewers Guild.

“The hard thing with a can shortage is, even if people are able to get cans, their costs have gone up,” she said. “It's a difficult time and it's unfortunate that this happened when it did because it was just like a double whammy for a lot of breweries, especially the packaging breweries, to try to handle the pandemic as well.”

The extra costs have hit Palisade Brewing Company, which began buying imported cans with Talbott's Cider Company and labeling them onsite.

When the brewery found out in September that it wouldn't get an expected shipment of 12-ounce beer cans, the news set off a whirlwind to find replacements before the company ran out of its remaining two- to four-week supply.

Head brewer Danny Wilson said he scoured a half-dozen websites each day looking for anyone selling a pallet — a piecemeal alternative to the brewery's typical practice of ordering 24 pallets at a time. The company switched over to the more available 16-ounce cans. It bought blank cans — rather than preprinted containers — and leased a labeler from another brewer to add stickers to each.

The cost per can went up. But there wasn't a real alternative.

“We are a small company so having a year's worth of revenue just sitting there — it's not what we do,” Wilson said. “We still have bills to pay, we still have contracts for hops, contracts for barley,” and rent, utilities and more than 30 employees to pay.

Wilson thinks the crunch is easing. His usual supplier said the brewery can expect to get preprinted cans for its top-selling beer — the Dirty Hippie — by mid-September. The company on July 26 also received a truckload of blank cans from a domestic supplier, saving them a few cents per can.

Manufacturers are few

There are a handful of can manufacturers in the country and even before the pandemic, they were used to dealing with companies of “extreme scale,” like Anheuser-Busch or Molson Coors, which have huge Colorado operations, said Watson, the Brewers Association economist.

Those larger companies would likely be first in line to get cans as supply becomes available. Most craft brewers, defined as producing no more than 6 million barrels of beer a year, go through intermediary brokers, and are fairly new to using cans — 10 years ago, “it would almost all be in the other bottles or kegs,” he said.

Brokers and suppliers have imported cans, but Canada and Europe have had similar supply problems, Watson said. Some buyers looked to China but there were concerns about tariffs, quality and “stretching your supply chain that far.”

Watson saw cans made in Hawaii — distinguishable for their unique ridged top — in Colorado markets, a sign of the strained supply chain, he said.

While government funding and a big uptick in to-go sales helped breweries financially weather the pandemic, he said more might have increased their package sales had they been able to get cans.

“Not being able to get enough cans meant a lot of them couldn't sell as much as there was actually demand out there,” he said.

In-brewery sales have held up better than draft sales at bars and restaurants, he said.

The shortages extend beyond cans for beer and cider.

Findley, with the beer distributors association, said his members are starting to see a shortage of bottles and are battling a lack of warehouse workers and truck drivers to deliver products to restaurants, liquor stores and grocers.

Talia Haykin, who owns Haykin Family Cider, a small-batch cider company, says the cost to ship corks, bottles and apples has shot up recently. The Aurora-based company bottles its cider due to its high carbonation level, she said.

Haykin orders German-made bottles from a company in Canada that recently warned in an email that increased freight costs would be passed on — in the form of a $175 surcharge per pallet. The corks, imported from Portugal and supplied by a California company, were out of stock for a period and then their shipping costs abruptly increased from $100 to $175 per bag. And when Haykin tried to order shipments of apples and juice from the West Coast, she couldn't find truckers to take the load.

“If all of our costs are increasing all around us, the question has to become, do we then increase … the cost of our goods?” said Haykin, noting the cost of her accounting software has also gone up. “Because there's only so much you can absorb as a small business.”

This story is from The Colorado Sun, a journalist-owned news outlet based in Denver and covering the state. For more, and to support The Colorado Sun, visit The Colorado Sun is a partner in the Colorado News Conservancy, owner of Colorado Community Media.


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