Almost two years since voters chose to make “America first,” and about six months since the initial threat of tariffs on aluminum that are now enacted, it’s becoming clear that things might not be so great for some U.S. brewers. In recent months, both supply and cost of aluminum cans have changed for the worse, creating a situation where brewers are scrambling to fill orders and empty tanks.
CanSource, a Longmont, Colorado-based supplier of shrink-sleeved cans, first told its customers in June that “there is a shortage of aluminum cans throughout the country,” particularly impacted by Crown Holdings’ underestimation of need by about one billion cans. A month later, in an email to clients, Dan Reese, vice president for sales and marketing, spoke of a more dire situation as the shortage “rocked our industry.”
“The primary supplier that we have used for years now has missed several weeks of deliveries and obviously this is having a huge impact on us and of course you, the customer,” Reese wrote in an email to businesses. “To make matters worse, communication from our supplier has been non-existent, making it next to impossible to plan and fulfill your order. With little to no visibility as to when cans will show up, this has obviously compromised our own production schedule.”
As a standalone challenge, less access to cans would be problematic, but it’s compounded by the rate at which the craft beer industry has shifted to the format. At the beginning of the year, various package formats, including 19.2 ounce cans and 15-packs of 12-ounce cans, were among the fastest growing in IRI off-premise sales. In 2017, can sales of IRI-tracked craft brands achieved $932 million in sales, more than twice the $419 million of just two years earlier.
To put in perspective how big the shift has been from bottles to cans, the year-to-year dollar growth for IRI-tracked craft bottles went negative from 2016 to 2017 (-2.2%) while cans grew by 43.2%. Whether anecdotal or by cold, hard cash, there’s no denying the impact aluminum has had on the U.S. beer industry. It’s just that, all of a sudden, it now takes on a whole different kind of meaning.
One of the weirdest parts to this story is an unclear narrative of how real the near-apocalyptic scenario CanSource’s vice president suggests may be, mostly because of the caginess created around discussing the topic of a can procurement crisis. In June, IronHeart Canning sent an email to customers alerting them that it had placed its Printed Can Program on hold and under internal review, and were holding off on any new orders “while the status of the program is evaluated.” No specific reason was given for the change.
Several breweries, including those who have partnered with canning companies that have said there is a supply issue, expressed no knowledge of a shortage when contacted by GBH. Others showed much more worry, saying there is definitely a problem and agreeing only to speak off-the-record for fear of damaging relationships with companies that have remaining stock or tipping off competing breweries who might swoop in and take away from what's left on the market.
One communication between a supplier and brewer obtained by GBH acknowledges a nationwide shortage of 16-ounce brite cans, the blank vessels that allow for easy labeling via print or sleeve. In conversations with GBH, some brewers who’ve been told delays may be “indefinite” expressed interest in using 12-ounce cans, since they could be more readily available, or switching to glass bottles.
“I found a place to get [cans], but think the situation will become more difficult once people find out about this company,” Neal Engleman, brewmaster at Atlanta’s Wrecking Bar Brewpub, tells GBH. He didn’t want to name his new potential supplier in order to not lose out, and is considering alternatives like moving to glass should his situation become dire. He says the new company is “fully stocked,” but “I think that will end shortly, though.”
HenHouse Brewing co-founder Collin McDonnell tells GBH that he’s heard from some brewers hurting for cans, but also that the shortage should only last through September. A similar timeline was mentioned to brewers by Berlin Packaging, a Chicago-based company with locations around the country. A representative even suggested that orders be placed four months ahead of time to be safe. Engleman says he’s been told six months by Berlin, which he’s ordered from in the past. Another brewer told GBH that their problem has been going on for months and that he hasn’t been told when relief would be coming.
While on a much smaller scale in impact and importance, the back-and-forth of it all sounds oddly like financial crises that have impacted the country in recent years, where there’s no agreed upon common ground on what the problem is or if it even exists, despite warnings from peers. As with many such instances, it could be the case where people won’t know what hits them until it does. Companies who source cans from Ball Corporation seemed to have less worry than those that get supplies from Crown, although there was no set consistency for either.
Crown did not return messages seeking comment. Scott McCarty, director of strategic communications for Ball, noted that staff have not reported any notes of specific shortages, though wait times on certain products can happen based on supply and demand. Ball recently opened a new plant in Goodyear, Arizona, specifically for specialty sizes other than standard 12-ounce cans.
Does that mean the new facility exists to avoid shortages for which brewers have recently expressed worry? “Sort of,” McCarty tells GBH.
“We build plants where demand is growing, and it’s growing in the American Southwest where population continues to increase,” he says. According to analysis by Bump Williams Consulting, IRI craft can dollar share reached 23.1% in 2017, including an increase in every region of the country.
Peter Bissell, co-founder of Maine’s Bissell Brothers Brewing Co., says he’s had no trouble sourcing cans for his brewery. Smaller companies who order ad hoc may be more likely to run into trouble, he says, but his brewery has had no issues by communicating monthly needs far in advance.
“People will always manufacture some crisis or another,” he tells GBH. “It’s the nature of society and of journalism. We can only have so much press about, 'Damn, how are things even possibly this good?'"
Whether or not the ramifications are long-lasting, one direct impact has been cost. Back in February, a report prepared by John Dunham & Associates for the Beer Institute intimated increased material costs due to tariffs would hit shoppers. Since then, MillerCoors has said that it might have to raise prices on its products to compensate for $40 million lost in profits. The Beer Institute has suggested that at a penny more in cost per can, consumers could end up paying five more cents in the end. Between last summer and this spring, the cost of shipping and storing aluminum via the U.S. Midwest Transaction Premium has more than doubled, according to Brewbound.
One industry pro in a Brewers Association-defined craft brewery who spoke to GBH noted that an immediate impact following the tariffs was a 3% increase on all aluminum products, followed by a more recent 6% jump on top of that. This also includes lids for cans, which now have an added penny per lid. At 24 cents a case, it may not sound like a lot, but when added up, the employee said it quickly becomes a real cost to the company which is likely to be passed along to consumers in the end. According to the Brewers Association packaged can production for U.S. craft brewers is closing in on a third of products.
As companies work to reinforce stock or even jockey for position to replenish supplies before others, there’s another layer to the unfolding story. In addition to America’s tariffs aimed at China, in a separate decision pre-dating its trade war with the U.S., the country decided to stop accepting many recyclable goods—including aluminum.
For years, China has accepted items from America and elsewhere, essentially transforming them back into consumer products and returning them to their origin in a new state. But now, a backlog has occurred in the U.S. and elsewhere, causing “a major upset of the flow of global recyclables,” Steve Frank, owner of Oregon’s Pioneer Recycling, told The New York Times earlier this year. This is in addition a 25% tariff on aluminum scrap imported from the U.S., announced in April. China processes about half the world’s waste paper, metals, and used plastic.
Which is all creating an even more confusing scenario, one where it’s getting harder to obtain aluminum cans (for now), and if they can be had, the prices are increasing for brewery and customer. And even at the end of its life, once beer has been emptied and its can tossed in a recycling bin, a logjam is building.
Taken together, these difficulties are creating pressure from both ends. And the thing about pressure is that either something comes along to relieve it, or it explodes.