As the COVID-19 pandemic forced bars to empty out, brewers and drinkers alike found ways to bring the taproom atmosphere back home—mostly in the form of canned beverages. The pivot was so hard, in fact, that by early October, can manufacturer Ball Corporation reported a United States shortage of 10 billion cans.
According to Scott McCarty, director of strategic communications at Ball Corporation, 2020 was already positioned for “notable aluminum can growth,” due to factors like the increased popularity of hard seltzers and a broader trend shifting away from single-use plastics. However, the rise of at-home consumption during the pandemic, plus a summer heat wave, left local breweries scrounging for solutions.
For Anthony Martuscello, owner and founder of five-year-old WestFax Brewing Company, the pandemic had already caused a major blow to business. Built around the in-house taproom experience, the majority of WestFax’s business came from on-premise drinking. When the novel coronavirus hit, the team had to completely alter their business model. “No one is ready to switch 100 percent of their product to packaged materials,” Martuscello says.
They began by upgrading from manual canning machines to an automated, professional set-up from Louisville-based Wild Goose Filling. But an immediate shortage of crowlers and cans from local suppliers caused a hiccup; the team was able to catch up to demand after a month or so. By the time summer arrived, Westfax began feeling the shortage again—although this time, even larger manufacturers like Ball felt the strain of an increased nationwide demand for cans. With larger manufacturers prioritizing bigger beverage brands, Martuscello was forced to seek out suppliers across the country, eventually securing a connection in Pennsylvania.
According to Great Divide Brewing Company’s marketing manager Matt Sandy, the 27-year-old operation faced a similar canning situation. The brewery’s original taproom, located in the heart of Denver’s Ballpark neighborhood, has long benefitted from fans pouring out of Rockies games, along with lunch and happy hour crowds from local businesses. After COVID-19 restrictions set in, though, crowds stopped gathering. Great Divide decided to increase the volume of its packaged product from 60 to 80 percent in order to accommodate an off-premise sales spike. When consumers’ thirsts for canned brews became even more desperate, the team got creative. They recovered an unused supply of cans from their storeroom printed with labels from brews no longer on the market. With the help of one of its vendors, Great Divide wrapped the cans with current labels, though you can still catch a glimpse of the original packaging peeking through on some cans.
“It’s one of those 2020 things,” Sandy says. “People have gotten used to some oddities, and when it came down to being able to put beer in a can or not, we decided it was more important to put beer in a can and get it out there.”
In other Great Divide news, the company announced plans to consolidate operations earlier this month by shutting down its Barrel Bar and Packaging Hall at 35th Street and Brighton Boulevard in RiNo, which opened in 2015, and moving all packing and production operations to the Arapahoe Street facility. “COVID has had a huge impact on our 2020 volume and this decision,” says founder and president Brian Dunn, in a statement. “With the substantially reduced draft sales to bars, restaurants, music venues, and ski areas due to the restrictions, our production volume is down a little bit. Arapahoe is the right-sized facility for us and we’ll be glad to get brewing and packaging back under one roof. It’s the building where Great Divide started in 1994, and we have deep roots in the Ballpark neighborhood. ”
Even for breweries with well-established lines of distribution, the past year has been a departure from the otherwise predictable seasonal changes in demand, according to Brita Mines, director of sales operation at eight-year-old Rowdy Mermaid Kombucha. In the early days of the pandemic, Mines says it seemed like demand for the company’s probiotic-packed beverages had gone down as a spate of panic buying for essential items like toilet paper took hold.
When the mad dash for essentials died down, business went up again for the Boulder-based brewery. And in May, Mines says increasing demand prompted breweries to snatch up whatever packaging materials they could. “It created this panic buying within the aluminum industry,” Mines says. As suppliers struggled to keep up with an influx of orders, Rowdy Mermaid’s formerly predictable 12-week distribution timeline was pushed to 25 to 30 weeks out. Strong connections with suppliers helped the team adapt quickly, according to Mines.
In the meantime, bigger distributors are also making major plays to catch up with can demand. According to McCarty, Ball Corporation recently began distributing cans from its global plant network to quell the shortage. Looking ahead, the aluminum giant plans to build two new plants by the end of 2021 in Glendale, Arizona, and Pittston, Pennsylvania.
Despite all of 2020’s challenges, Mines and the other brewers we talked to agreed that the smaller size of independent breweries was an unexpected asset, allowing businesses to apply their creativity and flexibility to meet market changes.
“It was almost like a familial bond of compromise that got us through it,” Mines says, describing Rowdy Mermaid’s cooperation with distributors and suppliers. “Just the understanding that we’re all in this together.”