Good Beer Hunting

Can You Dig It? — Aluminum Breaking Glass’ Stronghold for Packaged Beer

 photo by Ale Sharpton

photo by Ale Sharpton

THE GIST
A glass production factory in Massachusetts is shuttering, citing decreased interest in mass-produced beer and the packaging it creates. European-based Ardagh Group plans to close its Milford, Mass. factory “on or after March 31,” according to the Milford Daily News. In announcing the move, the company specifically cited “mass” (as in “mass-produced,” not “Massachusetts”) beer as the reasoning behind its restructuring, which will include laying off around 250 people, according to the Irish Times. On its website, Ardagh says it supplies glass bottles of “various shapes and designs” for Budweiser, Carlsberg, Heineken, Peroni, and Stella Artois products.

WHY IT MATTERS
Anecdotally, it may have been easy to see this coming, as store shelves have been increasingly filled with aluminum cans in recent years. Breweries have even gone as far as creating press releases for the simple act of putting a product in a can instead of glass. What a time to be alive. While the process has not been revolutionary, in a small way, the financial impact has been.

According to market research firm IRI and its multi-outlet and convenience retail channel universe (MULC), cans have been a monumental source of dollar sales in grocery, convenience, and other stores, representing the top-10 spots in dollar sales growth for commonly-used packaging over the three-year period from 2015 to 2017. Part of this is simply a result of more beer being offered in this fashion, which automatically inflates overall sales by virtue of more options being available. But cans still represent seven of the top 10 spots in straight dollar sales for commonly-found packaging in MULC stores last year:

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The challenges facing Ardagh Group seem obvious. Among the three best-selling beers in the country (Bud Light, Coors Light, and Miller Lite), only two packaged versions of these brands showed growth between 2015 and 2017, both in 12-pack, 12-ounce cans. Coors Light (+7.1%) and Miller Lite (+10.9%) were the lone bright spots. Growth in IRI dollar sales among the top-three brands for 6-, 12-, and 24-packs in glass and aluminum was a combined -4.4% during this timeframe (-7.4% glass vs. -1.5% can).

No wonder Ardagh said it was decreasing interest in Big Beer that was dragging down their bottom line.

But the other plotline to this story is the shift in IRI-defined "craft" beer too, which includes brands beyond the Brewers Association's own definition, such as Blue Moon and Goose Island. Three-year trends for commonly-found packaging styles show the disparity between glass and aluminum:

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One note: the above chart doesn't include two packages that have no direct comparison for glass: four-packs of 16-ounce cans (+22.9% 2015 to 2017) and the 15-packs of 12-ounce cans (+448% 2015 to 2017). The latter is essentially carried by Founders All Day IPA, which accounted for 53% of total 15-pack dollar sales in IRI MULC stores in 2017. That brand, along with New Belgium Dayblazer Easygoing Ale, accounted for two-thirds of total 15-pack dollars.

So while it’s clear that prognosticators should continue to eye aluminum as an important future for beer categories, trends also point toward the single-serve can as a valuable option.

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Individual sales of 19.2 (#1), 12 (#3), 16 (#6), 24 (#7) and 32-ounce (#8) cans were all among the fastest growing, most common packaging for beer from 2015-2017. Two-thirds of sales of 19.2-ounce cans come from IRI-tracked convenience stores, and this format has been of particular interest for breweries like Lagunitas (12th of Never), Oskar Blues (Dale’s Pale Ale), Dogfish Head (SeaQuench and 60 Minute) and many others. One company recently saw c-stores as such an opportunity that it launched a contract-brewing business to capitalize on that potential growth in Florida.

All of this has added up to a problematic situation for Ardagh, which says it’ll shift attention to packaging opportunities in wine, spirits, and food. Glass bottles aren’t going away for beer, of course—6- and 12-packs accounted for about $10 billion of IRI MULC sales in 2017. But it also seems clear that a bright and shiny future reflects off aluminum.

—Bryan Roth