We’re more than a year into the COVID-19 pandemic and the aluminum can shortage is still affecting the beverage industry in a big way. Aluminum beer isn’t a new thing (more on that later) so how could something like this “CANdemic” happen, you ask? Let’s start at the beginning by looking at the data.
Cans, Cans Everywhere
While the aluminum can has been around for more than a century, it never saw much use in beer production until the 1920s but was temporarily put out of commission by prohibition. Fast forward to today, and aluminum cans have slowly been rising as a method of packaging for craft brewers throughout the past decade, though it wasn’t until the beginning of 2020 that we hit the watershed moment where aluminum cans officially overtook glass bottles as the preferred method. These little silver bullets of metal now make up 60% of the packaging for all beer sold. But that’s not all--in the past five years we’ve also seen the steady growth of ready-to-drink beverages, including hard seltzers, canned cocktails and canned wines. Add that to the existing slew of products put out by the Pepsi and Cokes of the world and you can see how detrimental an aluminum shortage can be to the packaged beverage industry.
How the Pandemic Became the CANdemic
Even before the pandemic became a worldwide issue affecting manufacturing, the aluminum can market was already stretched thin. The aforementioned growth of products shipped and sold in aluminum cans had been steadily growing and production was already having to frequently adjust to keep up.
When bars and restaurants had to close their doors due to safety concerns, the lucky ones switched to take-out and delivery with some opting to mix cocktails-to-go along with their signature dishes. This rapid change in operations had a big impact on the container market, but the most significant impact was on aluminum. As more customers began to purchase their alcohol off-premise or from local bars and breweries in to-go containers, this shot up aluminum can sales at a time when the aluminum shortage was already in effect. Small brewers have been most affected, as they’ve had to make the switch from serving glasses of draft on-premise to scrounging up aluminum inventory to sell cans to go. In Buffalo, NY, one local brewery claimed they went from selling 50% of their beer in cans to 95%.
The good news is that production is continuing to ramp up to meet the shifting demands, but it still might not be enough. John Hayes, CEO of Ball Corporation, says despite the aluminum-can-producing-behemoth’s production expansion, the demand for aluminum will continue to surpass supply well into 2023. So even though companies are ramping up and pivoting to meet the demand for aluminum cans, there is still a period of catch-up on the horizon. So what can be done?
Some breweries have opted for relabeling old cans. This is not only a great example of the old adage “reduce, reuse and recycle,” but it can help in a pinch when a new batch is selling well and needs to be canned quicker than a different product.
Flexibility in can sizes is another way breweries have been coping. Juggling between the tried-and-true fat can and the newer slim and sleek can popularized by hard seltzers could be a “take what you can get” approach when stock is limited, opting to can the product in whatever is available.
Other than that, it’s more or less a waiting game for production to catch up to the demand or for consumer habits to adapt. A lot of this comes down to very meticulous inventory planning, number crunching and praying to the golden beer gods that supply works in everyone’s favor.
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