The coronavirus pandemic came for our toilet paper, cleaning wipes and hand sanitizers. Then the virus put another important, albeit less-vital resource, at risk — canned beer.
We are currently facing an aluminum can shortage. Consumers may not feel the impacts, but the supply chain is impacting beer manufacturers hard. According to CNN, breweries are seeing massive delays in receiving cans, taking up to five weeks versus the standard four to five days. As easy it is to blame the Trump administration for imposing aluminum tariffs in March 2018, which the president re-upped on Canada earlier this month, this is a simpler issue.
In 2019, canned beer accounted for 60 percent of all beer sales, with bottles making up 30 percent of sales and kegs taking up 10 percent, according to the National Beer Wholesalers Association, a trade distributor for US beer manufacturers. Shelter-in-place orders put a pause on keg sales as consumers were no longer frequenting bars and restaurants for draft beer. Instead, beers destined for the keg were being canned and sold at record-breaking sales, peaking at 67 percent since COVID-19 hit.
Beer in bottles is not uncommon. However, craft brewers have leaned towards cans for its superiority as a storage vessel. Cans are less fragile, easier to stack and have a higher recycling rate than glass bottles. The types of beer craft breweries make plays a part, too, with smaller brewers producing more and more beers with shorter shelf lives, like the New England-style India Pale Ale (NEIPA). Since cans are better at reducing beer degradation caused by light, craft brewers increase the shelf life of their NEIPA's by packing them in cans.
The demand for cans has led to individualism in the craft beer world, according to reporting by Good Beer Hunting. A once open and collaborative community has had to guard its supply of cans amid the shortage, when at one point supplies were open to sharing. Breweries are also having to eat the cost of inflated prices if they want to continue to can their beer. Good Beer Hunting spoke with Denizens Brewing Co.'s chief beer officer Jeff Ramirez, who said his brewery's cost for cans had increased by 50 percent.
Breweries that haven't been hit with price hikes are being hit in other ways. East Brother Beer Co., in Richmond, California, purchased cans in bulk. Despite cheaper cost-per-unit, the upfront purchase was hard to bear, and the brewery was forced to find storage for its massive supply of cans.
Tree House Brewing Company, a Massachusetts-based craft brewery, may be one of the first mainstream craft breweries to shift to bottles. The brewery posted on social media an image of its Green IPA, regularly packed in 16-ounce cans, in a 12-ounce bottle. Though there's no word on whether the beers will be packed in four-packs or six-packs, beer drinkers have had mixed responses to the transition to glass.
Ball Corporation, one of the US' primary aluminum can manufacturers says there is still hope for can production. The company has increased production, as well as opened new manufacturing plants. But relief isn't expected until 2021, and considering the slim margins craft breweries operate with, there's no telling the damage the shortage could sow.