On Brewing: The almighty can keeps chugging in Colorado

By Eric Peterson / CompanyWeek | May 08, 2019

Brewing & Distilling Food & Beverage

Like millet and skiing, the beer can industry in Colorado blows away every other state's.

Consider: Coors was the first brewery to put beer in an all-aluminum can in 1959, aluminum packaging giant Ball calls Colorado home, and Oskar Blues pioneered craft beer in a can in 2002.

It's a container. It's a canvas. It's 100 percent recyclable. It's a revolution.

I remember driving up to Lyons in 2003 to report on Oskar Blues' "canned beer apocalypse" for ColoradoBiz. I left with a six-pack of Old Chub, and wondering if craft beer in a can was a gimmick, despite the obvious benefits -- lighter weight, more recyclable, and longer shelf life.

There was a certain tongue-in-cheek tenor to Oskar Blues' pitch, but it was no gimmick. In Colorado, Oskar Blues led the charge as cans went from zero to about half the craft beer market in 17 years.

The Brewers Association estimated that a nation-leading 45 percent of craft beer produced in Colorado in 2017 was canned. That's a entirely different scale and market perception than the 50th, Oklahoma, where about 5 percent of craft beer comes in a can. In Colorado, a can has emerged as the preferred vehicle, not an inferior substitute.

Nationally, cans are on the rise for beer as a whole. The Beer Institute reported a U.S. packaging mix of 56.1 percent cans, 33.5 percent bottles, and 10.4 percent kegs for 2017.

Cans are up in the broader beer market from 50.3 percent in 2008 as bottles dipped from 40.2 percent in the same timespan. The trend towards cans accelerated in 2018: Q3 saw canned beer's share hit 59 percent across craft, macro, and imports.

Colorado is well ahead of the curve when it comes to craft in cans. Bottles continue to dominate craft nationally (with 41.9 percent of craft beer sold in bottles versus 16.7 percent cans and 41.4 draught as of 2016), but the long-term trend towards cans is undeniable.

Glass was initially synonymous with craft because it was a good logistical fit. You can bottle a small batch by hand with a $15 capper. Cans take a little more doing.

Then Oskar Blues founder Dale Katechis caught wind of Cask's hand-canning technology via fax, bought a system on a lark, and the rest is history. The brewery leapfrogged from a 700-barrel brewpub to the linchpin of 450,000-barrel CANarchy, the collective that sells more craft beer in cans than any other business in the country.

But it's not just the brewers: A wide range of businesses have benefited from the move to cans. Wild Goose, Codi Manufacturing, Twin Monkeys, and other Colorado-based manufacturers have upped the ante on canning lines for every space and budget. Ball and Oskar Blues teamed up on the Crowler, bringing canning to the taproom.

Founded under the name Mobile Canning, CanSource in Longmont moved from canning services to providing printed shrink-sleeved cans to breweries in 2012. The company's production jumped from 10 million cans in 2015 to 55 million cans in 2018.

CanSource's sales have been catalyzed by a glaring market mismatch: Ball and other big aluminum players like to sell pre-printed cans in bulk, to the tune of minimum orders of 100,000 cans or more.

Considering the fact that Ball makes 50 billion cans a year, a high minimum makes sense. But 200,000 cans of beer is a big commitment for a small craft brewery. And it's not just a commitment to each SKU, it's can also be a big commitment in terms of floor space. Many craft breweries dedicate comparable square footage to can storage and production. That's exactly the dynamic that fueled the rise of CanSource.

This month's BreweryWeek profile of Soulcraft Brewing highlights another model: Utah-based Price Container buys the cans from Ball and sells them to Soulcraft as needed. The price is higher on a per-can basis, says Soulcraft CEO Mike LaCroix, but the Salida brewery can dedicate more of its finite space to brewing, not warehousing aluminum, and also not be on the hook for 25 pallets at once.

On-demand digital printing is something of a holy grail: A third-party warehouse with the latest and greatest can-printing technology available for quick turns on batches large and small would change the game. Several companies across the U.S. and Europe have developed digital printers for aluminum cans, but the technology has yet to gain much market traction. Based on Colorado's 60-year run of excellence with the humble beer can, one of the state's entrepreneurs might want to take up the challenge.

But one big impediment is a drag on this particular push: tariffs on aluminum.

While aluminum is 100 percent recyclable, all new cans require a boost of 30 percent primary aluminum, and the U.S. has exactly zero sources of domestic primary aluminum. Two-thirds of it comes from Canada, and none of it from China.

One could argue that a tariff on aluminum is a tax on innovation on Colorado, the beer can capital of the world.

Eric Peterson is editor of CompanyWeek and BreweryWeek. Reach him at rambleusa@gmail.com.