Craft Brewers Have a Can Problem

While the can has made a comeback in recent years as the vessel of choice for craft brewers, industry groups say recent changes in the canning industry—particularly involving a single manufacturer—threaten to crush the trend.

For microbrew fans, drinking obscure beers out of cans has become a part of life.

But the growth in craft brewing is leading to a big problem foaming up for craft beer manufacturers: There aren’t enough cans to go around.

Part of the reason is that cans have become a victim of their own success. The primary can manufacturer among small-time breweries, Crown Holdings, has found it difficult to keep up with the demand for cans. As a result, it has boosted its minimum order requirements to roughly 100,000 cans. And soon Crown Holdings is expected to set its minimum to a full truckload, which fits between 155,000 and 200,000 cans. That level is easy for a manufacturer like Anheuser-Busch InBev or even a regional brewer like Yuengling to afford, but for small craft brewers it threatens to keep canning out of reach—or to move it back out of reach for those already using cans.

Meanwhile, two other major canning firms, Rexam and Ball, are in the process of merging, which could limit the number of alternatives available to beer makers. But more troubling for small brewers is that Crown is dropping some of its craft brewers after having actively courted them.

“We were shocked by the news. I spent probably four very sleepless nights, literally, wondering if we were going to be able to continue with our most popular brand,” said Heather Sanborn, the owner of Portland, Maine’s Rising Tide brewery, in comments to the Portland Press Herald. Rising Tide lost its contract with Crown despite buying three full truckloads of cans, though it was eventually able to find a new supplier.

The problem is something that the Brewers Association, which represents the craft industry, is keeping an eye on.

“Certainly we’ve seen some of our brewery members struggle in recent months,” the association’s chief economist, Bart Watson, recently told The New York Times. “This has proven to be a real challenge for members that have built their business model around getting these cans.”

The can crunch is threatening a popular variety of cans among small brewers: the 16-ounce size. The can, which is popular as a differentiator for craft brews, is becoming harder to find due to the manufacturer environment. In comments to the Press Herald, Watson admitted that Crown’s manufacturing skills may not be well suited for small runs of cans that don’t come in traditional sizes.

“To quickly retool and rebuild for a change in the industry is challenging for these larger manufacturers,” Watson noted. “They’re built for big, long runs.”

It’s one of many frustrations facing the craft brewing industry, which sounded the alarm on a planned merger between Anheuser-Busch InBev and SABMiller late last year. The association suggests that AB InBev and other similar big players are limiting distribution for craft brewers by launching new incentive programs that require distributor exclusivity.

“The incentive program is another example of how they have influence over distributors that may reduce options and market access for small brewers,” the association’s Watson told the Times.

Speaking to the Press Herald, Maine Brewers’ Guild Executive Director Sean Sullivan suggested that the industry’s quick growth may be at fault for the can shortage.

“There’s just too many breweries,” Sullivan said.

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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