What’s Really Causing the National Can Shortage?

Craft Brewers Act Fast to Get Around the National Can Shortage

After long days of working from home and making sure the kids are attending all of their online classes, Americans are winding down by grabbing a cold one from the fridge. And thanks to the growth of craft beer combined with the evolution of at-home beer delivery services like Tavour, it’s never been easier to stock up.

But is this why there’s a growing aluminum can shortage?

Not exactly, say craft brewers. The can shortage is more complex than it appears, and it’s something they’re working swiftly to overcome.

It’s can sizes — as opposed to aluminum in general — that are largely affected. Standard 12oz cans have grown particularly scarce, despite many craft breweries switching over to 16oz sizes in recent years.

“Our can supplier communicated to us about a month ago that they would no longer be taking any 12oz can orders through the end of the year,” says Kristin Scott, president of Odd13 Brewing in Colorado.

Scott maintains the can shortage is driven by two things: skyrocketing sales of non-alcoholic beverages and rising interest in hard seltzers, both of which largely use standard 12oz cans.

Canned soda sales have indeed spiked considerably since the onset of the pandemic thanks to consumer hoarding, to the point that Reuters recently reported some Coca-Cola bottling facilities are facing bankruptcy. Nielsen statistics meanwhile show hard seltzer sales grew a whopping 395% between Labor Day 2019 and Labor Day 2020. While beer still holds strong among American adults, hard seltzer grew from being virtually non-existent two years ago to taking over 10% of all beer sales.

And there’s another factor contributing to the shortage: cans are not being recycled at the rate they were before the pandemic. Thanks to concerns over germ spread, many recycling facilities and redemption centers were shut down in spring.

This is difficult for the brewers dependent on cans to make a living. In addition to selling locally, Odd13 has continued to send beer through Tavour throughout the pandemic, providing them with a way to reach craft drinkers all over the country in spite of mass bar and store shutdowns. The home delivery service sells both cans and bottles from over 600 American craft breweries, though cans are the clear frontrunner.

It’s not hard to see why. Brewers prefer cans because they protect beer from light and air exposure better than bottles, while consumers like them because they transport easily and allow them to stock up on more beer at once.

But between COVID-19’s increased orders and recycling delays, the factories that make the cans are unable to keep up. Scott says her supplier is “in the process of opening up multiple plants over the coming 12 months” in an effort to meet demand for 12oz cans, though unfortunately, that won’t be fast enough.

“Luckily, we have been able to make the pivot to 16oz cans,” she says. “We’ll be launching those later this year.”

For Odd13’s Denver-area neighbors at River North Brewery, it comes down to timing.

“We had a little bit of a scare finding blank 12oz cans recently, but we were able to locate some after a couple weeks of searching. We’re ordering cans much earlier than we normally would so it doesn’t happen again,” says Founder Matt Hess. “If the shortage gets worse, we would pivot to a new can or bottle size as quickly as we could. Switching a canning or bottling line over to a new size is no small task, but the beer must keep flowing!”

Hess also says his brewery, which like Odd13 sells beer nationally through Tavour as well as locally, has also been bottling more since the start of the pandemic. As a brewer with a large focus on long-term, cellarable beers, Hess says he already prefers bottles for many of River North’s offerings. Still, he doesn’t take cans for granted.

“I have heard of some other Colorado breweries having their can deliveries delayed,” he says. “We’re in contact with multiple suppliers to make sure we don’t run out.”

Down in Texas, 903 Brewers co-owner Natalie Roberts is feeling the squeeze.

“Things have gotten very tight,” she says. “12oz cans are very hard to get, but 16oz cans are starting to get tight.”

903 Brewers regularly offers a combination of 12oz and 16oz cans through their local venues and through Tavour. Roberts says she has managed to keep up so far with stock needs and is exploring potential solutions, including the possibility of switching to bottles. However, she is hesitant to do this as it would likely “come with a whole new set of problems.”

Outsourcing also doesn’t seem like a viable choice.

“I have gotten emails from vendors selling cans from China and Jordan,” says Roberts. “Some of the prices are so high it’s not even worth packaging.”

Others, like Scotty Hunter of Ohio’s Urban Artifact, are still bracing for the shortage to hit.

“We have been impacted but not to a large extent yet,” the brewer co-owner says, explaining that some recent orders have had to be pushed back or trimmed down. Like others, Urban Artifact has been canning more beer to meet changing pandemic demands. According to Hunter, the 12 oz can format is easily the preferred can size for beer in the region.

“We have some contingency plans in place to deal with the can shortage, and we are taking it a week at a time.”

Fortunately, consumers are able to help too. Early on in the pandemic, ordering through Tavour emerged as a way to support their favorite breweries. Now as recycling facilities and redemption centers open back up across the country, it’s more important than ever to recycle both the cardboard delivery boxes and all the cans that come in them.

In the meantime, craft brewers are finding silver linings.

“We figured since we are required to re-format every label due to the different [16 oz can] dimensions, we should take this opportunity to re-brand slightly,” says Odd13’s Kristin Scott. “We are super pumped for the new look and feel of our packaging, and given our amazing [can artwork] I think this will be a positive change.”

903’s Natalie Roberts is also optimistic: “This is just another fire for us to put out. Us brewers are a resilient bunch.”

The Brewers Association published an advisory about the shortage in July, 2020: https://www.brewersassociation.org/association-news/can-shortage-advisory/

For more information about Odd13 Brewing, visit: http://www.odd13brewing.com/

For more information about River North Brewery, visit: https://www.rivernorthbrewery.com/

For more information about 903 Brewers, visit: http://903brewers.com/

For more information about Urban Artifact, visit: https://www.artifactbeer.com/

For more information about Tavour, visit: https://www.tavour.com/