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‘A little bit of a challenge’: Baltimore-area breweries scramble for cans amid nationwide shortage

Relabeled cans from unused cans sold by a cider canning company move toward the end of the canning line at Duclaw Brewing Co. Tue., Sept. 29, 2020. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff)
Relabeled cans from unused cans sold by a cider canning company move toward the end of the canning line at Duclaw Brewing Co. Tue., Sept. 29, 2020. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff) (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

Despite its name, DuClaw Brewing Co.’s “Sweet Baby Jesus!” chocolate peanut butter porter typically comes canned in an understated black and white. But the coronavirus has forced the brewery to dress up a little flashier.

Unable to buy its own cans due to a national aluminum can shortage, the Rosedale brewery scrambled for alternatives, finding 59,000 bubblegum pink and teal striped cans from another brewery that it must slap a black DuClaw label atop. The bright stripes still peek out.

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Driven by changing consumer habits both before and during the coronavirus pandemic, the shortage is being felt across the board from the big companies pumping out Bud Lights and Coca-Colas to local craft breweries desperately searching for the once-ubiquitous cans to keep their beers on store shelves.

While the dearth of cans won’t necessarily cause a beer shortage, consumers may have more trouble finding their first, or even fifth, choice on the shelves. It could mean some “very bare” liquor stores in coming months, said Chris Wood, DuClaw’s director of brewery operations.

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DuClaw has run out of cans about once a week since late July, Wood said. Cans it orders now from its usual suppliers won’t come for two months, so the brewery has been scrambling to find cans following missed or delayed shipments.

Wayne Hill stacks the six-packs onto a waiting forklift at Duclaw Brewing Co. Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff)
Wayne Hill stacks the six-packs onto a waiting forklift at Duclaw Brewing Co. Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff) (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

DuClaw found cans on an online forum, ProBrewer.com; switched can sizes; and sometimes even relied on shipments that arrived with less than 24 hours of notice.

“We’re doing well for the most part with everything COVID-related, but this was just the other thing that hit afterwards,” Wood said. “We were in a good spot, and now we’re wondering where cans are coming from.”

Disruptions to the aluminum can supply chain are due to a variety of factors, particularly the effects of COVID-19, said Lester Jones, chief economist at the National Beer Wholesalers Association. The closures and restrictions imposed by governments to slow the spread of the virus have caused a shift away from beer being served on draft from kegs in bars, restaurants and taprooms to being sold largely in liquor and grocery stores, he said.

“Having all the beer at home in the suburbs where people are hanging out was a little bit of a challenge,” Jones said.

The surge in popularity of hard seltzers like White Claw and Truly, sold in cans, has compounded the shortage, he said.

Before COVID-19, many new beverages were coming to market in cans instead of plastic bottles due to pollution concerns, said Matt Meenan, spokesperson for The Aluminum Association.

Empty, unused aluminum cans are stacked, awaiting the filling process at Duclaw Brewing Co. Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff)
Empty, unused aluminum cans are stacked, awaiting the filling process at Duclaw Brewing Co. Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff) (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

Virus-related restrictions on taprooms have made selling canned beer all the more important for small breweries, said Chuck Skypeck, technical brewing projects manager at the Brewers Association, which supports small and independent craft brewers. The can shortage threatens to compound financial problems breweries already were up against because of the pandemic, he said.

All industries that use cans have experienced “extraordinary demand” both before and during the pandemic, Robert Budway, president of the Can Manufacturers Institute, said in a statement. Due to a “lack of available capacity,” he said, the growth of cans available on the market was slower in 2020′s second quarter than it has been.

The beer industry has taken the hit particularly hard, because breweries don’t have the flexibility of using plastic bottles as soda companies do, Jones said. And switching to glass bottles isn’t feasible for many small breweries, Skypeck added.

Smaller breweries are taking the brunt in part because can manufacturers are at capacity, often serving their larger customers first. It takes more time and effort to handle smaller can orders, Skypeck said.

Duclaw expects the impact of the shortage for DuClaw could go well into 2021, Wood said, but since the brewery relies mainly on distribution as opposed to taproom sales, it’s in a “good spot.”

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Others haven’t been as fortunate.

Beer spits out as cans are sealed at Duclaw Brewing Co. Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff)
Beer spits out as cans are sealed at Duclaw Brewing Co. Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff) (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

Heavy Seas Beer in Halethorpe is running out of cans for October, CEO Dan Kopman said. Heavy Seas' supplier is delivering about half of the cans it ordered, with no plan going forward for future allotments, he said.

This comes as the pandemic slashed the brewery’s draft beer sales by more than half while nearly doubling its can usage this year, Kopman said. In April, May and June, Heavy Seas didn’t fill a keg. It also closed its taproom and Kopman took a pay cut to help keep the company afloat. It’s aiming for a late spring reopening next year, assuming a coronavirus vaccine is in place.

“We’ll get through it, but this will be a long winter,” Kopman said. “The aftereffects will be with us for years.”

Although more people are buying beer to drink at home, sales volume for the beer industry overall is estimated to be down around 2%, Jones said, and down around 5% for craft breweries by the end of the calendar year. The increase in beer sales for at-home drinking hasn’t made up for the drop in purchases at places like restaurants, bars and stadiums, Jones said.

“Most people don’t want to admit that or recognize that or pay attention to that because there’s this narrative that everyone is drinking more,” Jones said.

But Jones thinks the worst of the shortage is now behind the beer industry. Consumers drink more beer in the summer, so the can supply can catch up as demand slows in the cooler last few months of the year, he said.

Stephen Jones boxes cans of "Sweet Baby Jesus" beer at the end of the canning line at Duclaw Brewing Co. Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff)
Stephen Jones boxes cans of "Sweet Baby Jesus" beer at the end of the canning line at Duclaw Brewing Co. Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff) (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

Skypeck, however, said the problem won’t be resolved until the can industry expands manufacturing capacity.

Peabody Heights Brewery in Baltimore’s Abell neighborhood has seen business fall 40% due to COVID-19, said Eddie O’Keefe, its vice president. With new cans in short supply, the brewery has been forced to relabel cans it already has, which don’t always look great, he said.

While Peabody Heights has an old bottling line, it hasn’t been used in several years and it would be infeasible to switch to it, O’Keefe said.

O’Keefe said Peabody Heights has struggled with the supply of cans for about two years, but the problem grew more serious in the past month or two.

“[Cans are] the only thing that are keeping breweries afloat,” O’Keefe said. “If we can’t get cans, it’s going to be very difficult.”

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