Sales increase when craft beverage makers add canned options, but many consumers and industry traditionalists won’t get on the bandwagon.
Ultimately, the craft beverage industry relies heavily on perception. When you hear diehard craft brew fans lamenting the "winification" of beer, they aren’t afraid that their favorite suds are going to change. They simply fear that the culture and perception of beer is changing. The word that sums up some beer drinkers’ worst nightmares is fussy.
On the other hand, craft brewers often seek to promote themselves as serious artisans, worthy of the same fussiness and sense of occasion that has long been associated with fine wine. Of course, craft beer is artisanal — by definition it isn’t a mass-produced commodity, and the subtleties of each brew are what bring consumers to the table.Nowhere do these competing perceptions come to a head more than in the realm of canned craft beer. Bottle purists are often aghast that their highly hopped beverage could be delivered in the same container as Pabst Blue Ribbon. Can advocates mock the persnickety purists. Battle lines are drawn all over the Internet, and the topic itself teeters on the verge of becoming a click-bait subject for any discussion group looking for more traffic.
Cans Are Popular
Beyond the heated consumer debate is the reality: Canned craft beverages — including beer, cider, and now even wine — are popular. Despite the debate among consumers, brewers almost unanimously report that offering their product in both cans and bottles increases overall sales. Distributors love cans — they are considerably lighter, stack more easily (and higher), and are much less fragile than bottled products. Retailers love cans — they take up far less shelf space in the highly competitive beer aisle, spills from dropped product are less disastrous, and they have larger and brighter packaging than typical bottles.
The equation is a bit complex for brewers. Offering both bottles and cans would appear to be the safe route. There is little evidence that adding a canned version negatively affects the perception of the bottled version. Of course, in the increasingly crowded marketplace, gaining shelf or bar space for two versions of a single beer is a challenge.
Ironically, a few intrepid wineries are seeking to establish a trend of “beerification” of their product. Ryan Harms, owner of Union Wine Company in Tualitin, Oregon, began offering a limited selection of his wine in cans in 2013. He explains, “Putting wine in a can not only saves on packaging costs, but opens up the wine drinking experience to places where it had previously been difficult, such as outdoor events or when portability is needed. Canned wine costs approximately 40% less to package compared to the equivalent 9-liter case of wine in glass bottles. Overall, we believe that Union is at the forefront of this beerification of wine trend, a movement which aims to break down the pretense and formality often associated with wine drinking.”
Union Wine Company offers pinot in a can.
Much like the craft brewers adding cans to their bottled selection, Harms claims that offering wine in both cans and bottles has increased overall sales. In other words, the canned version hasn’t dissuaded consumer confidence in the same wine sold in bottles. On the other hand, consumer perceptions of the bottled wine’s value may have been affected by the alternate packaging only to have the novelty and increased exposure of the winery offset them.
It’s clear that packaging is a critical component in building and maintaining a brand and a perception of quality and value among consumers — it's almost as important as educating and informing the marketplace. Union Wine Company hasn’t just thrown canned wine into their product mix; they’ve built a companywide identity that reaches far beyond the availability of aluminum packaging.
Harms explains his winery’s “pinkies down” marketing concept: “The cans were first released in 2013 through a campaign that was wrapped around our ‘pinkies down’ philosophy. We wanted to shift some of our focus back to something that has more fun, rooted in craft but less stuffy. #Pinkiesdown is the way we communicate that big idea, simply. Ultimately the cans represent a small portion of our business, but the interest and enthusiasm around it makes it appear substantially larger.”
New Can Technology Opens Doors
Cans do have a somewhat higher cost of entry for small brewers. The higher costs are mostly in establishing the packaging design and the actual can-seaming equipment. Fortunately, there are options that can ease even the smallest craft operations into can production. Mobile canning services combined with heat-shrink labels on blank cans can allow brewers to produce relatively small runs affordably. According to Mobile Canning Systems, affordable shrink labels can be made for runs as small as 5,000 units as opposed to preprinted cans, which often come in minimum orders of 200,000 cans. Smaller runs are the obvious choice for smaller brewers, given that the initial capital outlay for 200,000 cans is steep and adding storage space for those cans — about a 5-year supply for a 500–600 bbl brewery — is a huge consideration. For larger brewers, the sleeves and mobile lines allow specialty/seasonal beers to be produced as needed without disrupting the main lines. Some of the mobile canning services also now include warehousing services and will store preprinted cans.
Finally, for microbreweries simply wanting to test the market, hand-canning lines are now available. These lines are relatively slow and prone to oxygen contamination, which impacts shelf life, but do provide the option for the small brewer to produce a product that can be sold at events and venues where bottled beers can’t, such as golf courses, river/lake events, and other outdoor venues.
One canning option for even the smallest brewers is just coming on the scene. Crowlers are 32-ounce cans filled from the tap and seamed at the bar using an affordable device that includes an oxygen-purging CO2 system. (Approximatly $3,000 buys a starter package that includes the seaming machine, cans, and lids.) Unlike the popular glass growler, the can version is not reusable (although it can be recycled); however, it doesn’t have the sanitation issues of customer-owned glass or plastic versions. Reportedly, crowlers offer a much longer beverage shelf life (months to even years) than the typical growler (hours or days at the most). The crowlers also chill more quickly and enjoy the durability and portability advantages of their smaller siblings. Oscar Blues and Dixie Canner offer custom seaming systems that use Ball Crowler brand cans.