‘Can’ you see the problem with canning?

Brewery News

By: Dom Metcalfe

COVID-19 has had a profound impact on everybody’s lives without exception. However, aside from the most obvious factors, there is a supply issue in the brewing industry which is going to affect the playing field for the foreseeable future.

I am talking about something that both breweries and consumers have taken for granted in the past few years – cans.

Historically, cans were the vessel of choice for low grade, cheap to brew, high strength beer that tasted more like the can itself, than it did beer. Back then, ring pulls fully detached and the can itself was probably made from steel as opposed to aluminium. Fast forward a couple of decades and cans were suddenly making a comeback for a whole host of excellent reasons compared to glass – aluminium was considerably cheaper than glass as a commodity and is also more easily recycled by both the consumer, due to the ease of crushing, and by the councils. Cans also chill down much quicker than glass and there is no ‘dead space’ in a transit box which you get around the necks of bottles meaning far more efficiency during transportation. This ties in with possibly the most important factor – weight. As a socially and morally responsible company, we need to reduce our carbon footprint where possible, increasing can usage allows us to do this. To give you an example – a full pallet of cans is 198 cases of 12x330ml units and weighs 851kgs whereas a full pallet of bottles is only 120 cases of 12x330ml bottles and weighs 804kg which means considerably less articulated lorry journeys and a sizeable financial saving when shipping 1000’s of pallets per year.

I remember chatting to Logan Plant (founder of Beavertown) back in 2012 and he said he was considering becoming the first craft brewery in the UK to only package beer in cans. At the time, this maverick idea seemed very brave as the vast majority of small pack beer was still in bottle and the consumer image of cans for beer was still, largely, terrible. Fast forward to 2021 and the majority of breweries who have been founded in the last 9 years have probably never filled a bottle at all!

This gradual shift to cans is not exclusive to breweries. Growing pressure on soft drink manufacturers to shift from PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate – or plastic, to you and I) to cans has significantly increased what was already a large chunk of the total global usage of cans. Furthermore, new emerging categories such as ‘Hard Seltzers’ (flavoured alcoholic water) and the growth of ‘RTD’s’ (Ready To Drink – pre mixed gin and tonics, rum and cokes etc) have all had an impact. On a recent trip to a local butchers I could even buy half litre cans of stock and gravy! As we currently stand, rumours swirl that there is a global shortage now in excess of 20 Billion cans and this number is still growing.

This growing demand for cans has mostly been fulfilled by the four largest global can manufacturers (Crown, Ball, Ardagh and Can Pack) as they have forecasted the growth and responded accordingly. However, in March 2020 when pubs, bars, clubs and restaurants were forced to close, breweries who had traditionally only ever filled casks and/or kegs with beer, suddenly had no market for their product. As a result, this led to thousands of breweries around the world frantically looking at all options to get beer that was already brewed and in tank – into ‘small pack’. Contract packaging companies – ‘mobile canning’ operations who quite literally travel the length and breadth of the country generally visiting smaller breweries to package beer on a mobile canning line they transport in a trailer, and ‘fixed site’ canning operations who specialise in packaging larger volumes for breweries with national supermarket contracts but no canning line of their own) were over-run with demand and couldn’t keep up. The manufacturers who produce the actual canning lines were inundated with requests for timescales on installation and breweries with existing canning lines were being asked by fellow brewing friends if they could help them out and package some beer for them into cans.

The pressures put on supply gradually built through 2020 and inevitably the conversation came with our sole manufacturer to discuss our requirements for the final quarter of 2020 and all of 2021. To give you an idea of our growth in cans – we filled approximately 2.5M cans in 2019 and we finished 2020 having filled over 6M. As craft breweries go, we are probably one of the most significant users of cans in the UK which affords us the option to buy fully printed cans straight from the manufacturer (a minimum purchase for printed cans of one design is 70,000 cans!) and were essentially told that our requirements could not be met and that they understood if we needed to source an alternative manufacturer. Now here is the kicker, the alternative manufacturers are in exactly the same boat – completely unable to keep up with demand. This left us in a precarious position due to contractual obligations with supermarket chains and the need to push on with our ambitious plans for new beers in 2021. As a result, we had to contact ‘agents’ who essentially have large volume contracts for plain cans with the main manufacturers for onward distribution to smaller companies who can’t meet the minimum order requirements to trade directly with the manufacturer. This added middle man obviously increased our costs, but also meant that our beloved fully printed cans would have to be sacrificed in the short term for plain silver cans and a wraparound label. Far from ideal.

Where does this leave us currently? We have been assigned a monthly fixed number of cans by our manufacturer for 330ml and 440ml production – this number is approximately 30% less than we forecasted. Anything over and above this allocation can not be guaranteed and will need to be sourced via other manufacturers or agents. As a result, it is possible you will see more 330ml Jaipur cans with a label as opposed to full print and you may well see some of our new releases in 330ml bottle.

Please bear with us whilst we attempt to navigate through these uncharted waters! Rest assured, we will continue to ensure that the beer inside the cans will always be prioritised and that we keep our valued customers aware of what is happening in the industry… who knows, perhaps TetraPak or Bag In Box will be the next aluminium can….. 😉