Craft Brewers Get Canned

By Christopher Furnari

Shaking off their lowbrow reputation as only having value as a conveyance for products like Natural Light, cans have become an increasingly popular packaging format for craft beer.

In fact, larger companies like Sierra Nevada and Magic Hat, both of which recently made announcements about adding canned packages to some of their key brands, are following the example of Colorado-based brewery Oskar Blues, which has become one of the fastest-growing craft producers in the country via canned selections like Dale’s Pale Ale.

That’s not to say that cans are dominant – as of 2010, only 3 percent of total craft beer volume was canned, according to craft beer industry group the Brewers Association. The top-selling 25 SKUs in craft beer are all bottled as well, according to retailing information service Symphony/IRI Group.

Nevertheless, things have come a long way from when Oskar Blues’ founder Dale Katechis took a chance in 2002 by installing a canning line. In September of 2009, Charlie Papazian, president of the craft beer trade group the Brewers’ Association, put the number of craft breweries that can at 52; now, the same group puts the number over 100. Craftcans.com, a website that started up 11 months ago for the purpose of tracking craft beer in cans puts the number at 117 breweries and 309 craft-brewed canned beers.

While bottles tend to be more frequently associated with high-end products, cans do offer brewers advantages the bottle cannot. They block ultra-violet light, which can ruin a beer. Also, the filling and sealing process for cans not only removes more oxygen than for bottles, it also does a better job of keeping it out once sealed, increasing freshness. Canned beers also go more easily to places bottles cannot, such as camping, fishing and to the beach.

Consumers are responding to the increased supply:  2010 IRI data shows that craft beer in cans is up significantly across all channels. In the food channel alone, 12-packs are up 61 percent, while 6-packs are up over 91 percent.

“It’s really starting to turn right now,” said Chad Melis, the Marketing Director for Oskar Blues. “Now we are able to provide information that shows distributors how we are can provide healthy revenue streams for them.”

For some breweries, those healthy revenues will come from marginal increases. Sierra Nevada’s canning line will initially be dedicated to its popular Pale Ale and Torpedo Extra IPA, both of which are top sellers. But smaller startups, like Maine-based Baxter Brewing, will rely on cans exclusively as they try to get their products out to consumers – and at the rate canned crafts are growing, their risky decision might be whether or not they should move into bottles.