One of the burgeoning trends in the beer business today is the proliferation of canned craft beer. This, in and of itself, is not an issue. With lined cans and a glass, the quality of the beer and the experience comes through despite the medium. However, the plot thickens. Harpoon added cans last year, Sierra Nevada this year, and Wachusett is set up to contract canned beer after adding a used canning line purchased from Coca-Cola. Cisco now has four packages in 12 pack can format.
This new trend can be traced back to Oskar Blues, a Colorado brew pub, starting to can their beer in 2002. As their product has remained consistent and of high quality, others have gotten involved. Now, look around and there is quality craft beer everywhere in a variety of styles, everything from Belgian Wits to Stout and an ever growing list of breweries coming out with beer only in cans, like Butternuts and Baxter, or those adding to their bottle selections with can options, Sierra Nevada, Cisco, and many, many more coming down the line. Of course, as mentioned, Wachusett is going to enable large numbers of these additions to the market.
Cans, of course, have many benefits. Unlike glass, cans are opaque, and provide much better protection from light, ensuring fresher beer. Cans weigh less and fit in a smaller space, allowing more economical shipping, more product, fewer containers, less weight. There are many venues, such as boats, pools, golf courses, concert venues, beaches, ski slopes and others that do not allow glass, giving an instant edge to products in cans. Add to that cans are the most recycled package in the country and there are many advantages to this package.
I have been taking some issue with the proliferation of cans. The biggest one, is the breweries that are simply adding cans to the portfolio without replacing another package. From my biased position in retail it can be inconvenient. Space in a store is limited, and breweries are trying to leverage more packages of the same product into limited space. Sometimes it is just more options on how to hit a drop… sometimes it is other incentives.
For those who know me, that hits on one of my big frustrations. I want variety. I want to fit items into the store that are hard to get, different, unique and distinctive. In pursuit of this I have put in a shelving unit of local beers, an entire shelf of sours, two Gruits, beer from the all over the US, Belgium, Great Britain, France, Germany, Spain, the Caribbean and Central America. I have beer from Russia, Italy, Poland, Lithuania, Czech Republic, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Japan and that faraway exotic land, Somerville. What I don’t want is duplication of packages, one beer in six packs, twelve packs, singles,etc… Even worse is two packages with the only difference being glass or can. I have started to answer the question “Will you bring in another beer in cans? They just started doing it for the summer?” with “Sure, what do you want to take out so I can fit it?”
Cisco is doing it right. I have multiple flavors in bottles six packs, and the same products in canned twelve packs. Those are two different sized packages, I can do that. They are different customers, different needs and different parts of the store. They also don’t have those can packages in glass twelve packs. All is well with the world. On the other hand, a brewery from California has two packages that I have had in both six and twelve pack glass bottles. Their primary package was in a 24 ounce bottle, as well. This spring, all of a sudden their primary beer is also in twelve pack can packages and their secondary beer is in four pack pints and 24 ounce glass bottles. This brewery is possibly the irritant that convinced me it was time to sit and write. It is good beer. I don’t , however, need to fill six slots with two beers.
It will be interesting to watch how this develops over the next year or two as important questions find answers. Will breweries add more packages or replace them, switching from glass to cans? (I suspect “add” because those bottling lines they are using are expensive and shouldn’t go to waste). How wide will cans spread? Will they become an all year option for these breweries currently only using them during warm weather? Will I be the lone rebel demanding a decision or will other store managers take a stand to protect variety? Where is the tilt point?
I have also started to wonder about the drive behind this movement. It seems to be the breweries imposing a concept. The question, as always, is this: “Will the public be sold on the concept.” We have seen this happen repeatedly. Every year, there seems to be a new trend driven by the suppliers, which everyone else jumps on in the following year, then we see if it catches hold or not. We went through, in no particular order, the start of flavored vodkas, one year it was flavoured Tequila, which flopped, flavoured rums now have a place, cider is a big kick now, as well as shandy.
It is too early to tell for sure, but so far the consumer does not seem to be jumping on this canning trend. Yes, they sell, a few brands particularly, some faster than others… it will be interesting to watch the fallout. Does the trend continue to grow? Do the breweries make a big push over the next couple of years and go back because people don’t buy in? What will Wachusett do if the trend doesn’t pick up and they are left with a canning line that isn’t busy? Quality wine in screwcaps and artificial corks is a slowly growing trend, but a lot of consumers are still leery… Will canned craft beer win, lose or draw? Only time will tell.
I guess that is one of the great things about the beer business these days… everything is so dynamic, so in flux, new breweries all the time, some fading away, new beers, new styles, innovations and interpretations. It never gets dull and is just an amazing time to be a part of it all, the good, the bad and the inconvenient.