By Cory Phare
Aluminum-can manufacturers were already pressured to meet the demand from the craft-beer industry. Then came the Covid-19 pandemic.
With bars and taprooms shuttered, breweries scrambled to put their products in cans for the retail market. At the same time, global supply-chain disruptions and unusual supply/demand ratios put an even greater squeeze on the simple beer receptacle.
In the industry, the ever-tightening supply of aluminum cans during Covid has become known as the “candemic” – and it’s hitting Colorado brewers.
This past fall, the Tivoli Brewing Co. got an email from Ball Corporation: It would have until Oct. 15 to put in a final request for its usual order of 204,000 aluminum cans. After that, the minimum would increase fivefold to more than 1 million cans per order for noncontracted customers.
The aluminum-can supplier announced this week that it was delaying its minimum-order deadline until March, but when it hits, the move will present a significant challenge for craft brewers like Tivoli, said Chris Thibodeau, a graduate of Metropolitan State University of Denver’s Brewery Operations Program and the inventory-and-logistics manager of the historic brewery on the Auraria Campus.
“Even if we could go that route, we don’t have room to store a million cans of each beer,” Thibodeau said.
Toby Eppard, faculty member and director of MSU Denver’s School of Hospitality Brewery Operations program, sees the move by can suppliers as a result of the rising cost of aluminum and the related shortages associated with everything required to make smaller orders viable.
“The supply chain has been interrupted, and the cost of everything is going up,” he said, adding that that affects the economics of changing out labeled cans for smaller runs.
“When you change out print on single product,” he said, “regrouping and emptying all the lines takes a lot of time and your variable cost of production just goes through the roof. The economics of the situation determine the need and the industry response.”
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Jeremy Rudolf, vice president of operation strategy for Oskar Blues-affiliated independent brewer collective CANarchy, is seeing a tipple ripple throughout the beer world. He noted that total material costs have increased by roughly 17% annually before inflation.
“Cans were a dime each before, but now they go for around 13 cents,” he said. “Plastic, resin, shrink wrap, paper – they’re all in short supply too. It’s one of those moments of reckoning.”
Eppard, a past president of the Master Brewers Association of the Americas and a 33-year veteran with MillerCoors (now Molson Coors), says warehousing challenges are another part of an uncertain road faced by Colorado’s craft-beer industry. Driven by a 37% year-over-year increase in the cost of aluminum, it’s a landscape that the Boulder-based Brewers Association expects to extend through 2022.
With such volatility, it’s tough to predict exactly how this might hit consumers. Eppard noted that once prices go up, they don’t generally come back down. He added that brands need to be upfront about what’s happening and what to expect so as to not lose volume and profitability with rapid price hikes.
“These kinds of challenges also always drive innovations, which I’m hopeful for,” he said. “The small guys will come up with some new solutions, which will ultimately benefit the consumer.”
Rudolf knows this firsthand. During 2020, he saw lines running at full capacity for cans and 5% on kegs as taprooms shut down during the pandemic. And as the originator of the “crowler,” his Longmont-based Crowler Nation outlet helped craft brewers stay afloat by offering the 32-ounce sealed cans to go. MSU Denver students can work with a crowler-canning machine donated by Rudolf, who contributed to the University’s brewing-operations board.
He and Eppard envision a future in which smaller breweries, as a possible way to keep costs down, join forces for bulk orders of “brights” – the shiny silver nonbranded cans – and sharing stockpiles and printing solutions.
There may be an end to the crisis on the horizon. Nationwide, seven new canning facilities are slated to come online in 2022, which should increase capacity. But non-beer-industry aluminum demand, strapped smelting capacity and recycling rates (currently around 70%) have variable impacts, Rudolf said. For businesses that have the means, vertical integration and direct sales to the consumer may help sustain profitability.
Regardless of the price-increase and supply-chain challenges, however, the fact that a return to comparatively prohibitive alternatives such as glass bottles is unlikely means that aluminum as the preferred material for retail beer sales isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Today, two-thirds of beer on the market comes in a can.
“Eventually…you’ll need cans,” Eppard said.
The historic Tivoli brand, which moves about 800 cases each week of its flagship Helles Lager, decided it was in their best business interest to switch to another supplier to maintain lower minimum-order shipments.
Thibodeau, the inventory-and-logistics manager at Tivoli, credited the operational expertise he developed in the MSU Denver Brewery Operations Program, including courses in statistics, accounting and managing an inventory, for setting him up to help the brewer through this disruption, not to mention a global pandemic.
“It’s not just making the beer but how to start and manage a brewery, from when the water hits the grain to packaging and getting it out the door,” he said.
And though the current moment is a hiccup for brewers, at least one group is positioned to benefit.
With so many locations choosing to switch to brights and adding their own branding, Thibodeau said, “it’s great business for the labelmakers.”
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