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Aluminum can shortage has MN craft breweries feeling the pinch

10March 2021

Breweries already hard-hit by the pandemic are now facing another hurdle — there’s a shortage of aluminum cans in which to package and sell their product in a retail setting.

The one bright spot for craft breweries, many of which depend on taproom sales to survive, has been strong retail sales as fewer people are drinking in restaurants and bars. But without an adequate supply of cans in which to package that product, breweries are having to limit consumers’ options.

“It’s coming at a bad time,” Surly’s VP of Marketing Bill Manley said. “We’re grouped together in the perfect storm of bad scenarios here. It’s not great.”

The shortage is caused by increased demand from not only breweries, but also the skyrocketing number of beverages that are being packaged in cans. In recent years, hard seltzers, carbonated water, still water, cocktails and even wine are turning toward the humble aluminum can.

The popularity of cans can be attributed to a number of factors: They are infinitely recyclable, they keep light and air from reaching the product, they’re lightweight, so make for cheaper shipping and storage and they’re more portable than breakable glass.

And the pandemic just exacerbated the issue.

“COVID added further to demand, as consumers bought more beverages in aluminum cans for home consumption,” said Scott McCarthy, strategic communications director for Ball, which supplies many local breweries. “Demand hasn’t slowed, and remains at unprecedented levels.”

Although Ball is working on ramping up production to meet that demand — adding lines to existing plants and adding three new plants, the answer, for now, has been rationing.

Lift Bridge Brewing has been forced to use alternative suppliers for its aluminum cans as a shortage wreaks havoc on craft breweries. Those cans cost more and will eventually cause a price increase, says CEO Dan Schwarz. (Courtesy of Lift Bridge)

“For the month of March, we got 30 percent of what we ordered,” said Dan Schwarz, co-founder and CEO of Lift Bridge Brewing in Stillwater. “They won’t tell us what we’re getting for April or any of the other months.”

At Surly, that number is closer to 20 percent this month. So the brewery, which has temporarily closed its enormously popular taproom and beer garden due to pandemic restrictions, has had to get creative.

Many times, in a brewery the size of Surly, cans don’t get used before branding or graphics are updated. Or the brewery discontinues a beer, but still has cans for it sitting around. So Surly has been slipping those cans into pre-printed plastic sleeves with the correct labels on them.

In a post on its website explaining the practice, the brewery has christened the sleeves “cantyhose,” and apologizes for times when the sleeves don’t fit just right.

The statement reads, in part: “Surly’s official statement on this matter is ‘F*ck it, let’s drink.’ It’s already been a long year; if the worst thing that happens to us in 2021 is an occasional run of less-than-ideal beer cans, we’ll take it every day of the week and twice on Sunday.”

Still, Marley expects to run out of those outdated cans to slip into plastic sleeves any day now. So the brewery is limiting its packaging options and being very careful with the cans it has until supply can meet demand. They’re also asking that if you get beer with the plastic labels, you remove them from the can before recycling.

At Lift Bridge, Schwarz is ordering cans from an alternative supplier, but they charge two or three times the normal cost.

At some point, Schwarz said consumers will feel the pinch, too.

“The amount of the increase can’t be absorbed by craft breweries,” he said. “You gotta pass that cost on somehow.”

Both Schwarz and Marley said that a bill going through the legislature that would allow larger craft breweries to sell growlers direct to consumers would help ease the situation.

Surly is well above the 20,000 barrels per year at which growler sales are disallowed by state law, and Lift Bridge is knocking on that door, although the pandemic significantly reduced its sales for 2020.

Manley, who worked for breweries in North Carolina and California previously, called Minnesota’s liquor laws “bananas.”

“We are one of the five breweries in the country that can’t sell any beer directly to the consumer,” Manley said. “Let that sink in.”

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