Aluminum can shortage begins to hit NM breweries where it hurts

Giant can stacks like these at Ex Novo could soon be a thing of the past due to a nationwide shortage.

The buzz about a nationwide aluminum can shortage has been getting louder in the last couple of months. We have been waiting and wondering when it was truly going to hit our craft breweries in New Mexico, and starting late last week we started asking around via email.

It is not something that will hit at some point in the future months. It is here.

“The can shortage isn’t coming — it’s already been (here) for six weeks or so,” Second Street owner Rod Tweet wrote. “You’ll probably hear lots about it. There was already an upward trend in package, which was making it hard for us ‘little guys’ to buy cans pre-COVID that is now amplified. The problem is there are only two places (Bell and Crown) that manufacture cans in North America. The secondary suppliers are in the same boat as everyone else, so they’re basically no help if you need to buy in semi-load quantities, which most of us do. I’ve been told that both are installing more capacity, but that won’t help until about a year from now. It’s a bitch because many of us are now tying up more cash than normal to maintain higher inventory levels in this COVID environment. Will the existential threats never end?”

Whether big by local standards (think La Cumbre, Marble, Santa Fe) or mid-sized (Ex Novo, Red Door, Second Street) or fairly small (Canteen, Ponderosa) in terms of canning, the effects of the shortage are beginning to rear their ugly heads.

Don’t go plundering the local supply of cans, please, even the giant mock-up fun ones.

However, this does not mean people need to plunder the shelves of their favorite taproom or nearby liquor or grocery store, La Cumbre owner/master brewer Jeff Erway wrote.

“La Cumbre is simply planning to raid Bosque, Ex Novo and Boxing Bear … Ya know, Mad Max style,” Erway wrote in jest, before continuing in a more serious tone. “The rumors are true. We are on allocation. We have enough cans to get us through November, but if we do not get an allocation for November, we could be in trouble. 

“We have stopped giving free cans to coworkers (including me) and have asked everyone to instead fill up their kegerators, growlers, and Boston rounds. Not a very popular decision, but I think everyone understands.

“So what can consumers do? First off, don’t panic and don’t be a jerk! Don’t go buying absolutely every canned beer you can possibly fit in your home. That will simply worsen the problem for the breweries and your fellow craft drinkers. Were you thinking of getting or building a kegerator? Now is the time. I have a four-tap that I’ve been trying to get rid of for years. Growlers — clean and polish those bad boys up. If you really want to help the breweries and your fellow craft beer enthusiasts, fill these guys up as often as you like and keep the cans for the breweries to send across the state and beyond. But, most of all, please, don’t hoard. 

“This really all hangs on people doing what they should be doing to contain this virus, allowing our restaurants, bars, and taprooms to reopen 100 percent. If we all can do this, this virus and the can shortage will be over.”

Can sales currently account for more than 50 percent of the total sales at La Cumbre, Erway added, and many other larger breweries are in a similar state of their sales breakdowns.

Ex Novo founder/president Joel Gregory has also found himself up against more problems than he anticipated.

“The can shortage has hit us for sure!” Gregory wrote. “We are still finding ways to make it work, but our supply chain has been disrupted in a big way. Earlier this year we were dropped by Crown since we were not large enough, even though we’d ordered ~10 truckloads of cans from them. We were passed over to Berlin Packaging, who works with Crown and places orders on the behalf of breweries. After placing a Mass Ascension order and having a couple others queued up, we were told after eight weeks (when we expected the cans any day now) that Crown told them they cannot have any more cans through the end of the year, so they would not be able to help us out.

“That is why we’ve been labeling Mass for the last few months. We moved over to a third party that works with Ball and are hoping our five orders go through, because if they don’t, we’re pretty screwed. (Update: we were expecting cans in the next couple weeks and they just told me early December is best-case. And, that I need to pay my order in full before proceeding, which is insane given the uncertainty.) We’re paying more for blank cans, plus quite a bit for labels, but I’m glad we’re able to keep things moving, at least for now. If we’re unable to source blank cans we are really in trouble. Since COVID, cans account for over 75 percent of our total sales.”

The smaller breweries that do a limited amount of can packaging have also felt the pinch.

“I know we have been having trouble sourcing cans for our meager 300 cases a month,” Ponderosa head brewer Antonio Fernandez wrote. “(I) don’t know if that is due to the comparatively small number we purchase at a time, though.”

Fernandez estimated that while the brewpub was shut down, can sales accounted for 50 percent of their total. Now he wrote it is down to only about 5 percent. However, with coronavirus cases rising in New Mexico and elsewhere, the danger of going back to a to-go-only model looms in the future.

Breweries like Red Door are good on the supply of their core offerings, but specialty cans could be disappearing.

Like many smaller breweries, Red Door has been expanding its canning lineup to include specialty offerings like Tropical Synonyms IPA, Prost Malone Oktoberfest, and Left Paw Lager, with the latter having the bonus of being brewed to benefit Animal Humane. Those sorts of offerings may be the first casualties of the shortage.

“We are good on our core brands (Vanilla, Red, IPA) well into next year,” Red Door head brewer Matt Meier wrote. “It’s the blank ones for specialty beers (that) I’m concerned it will be hard to acquire in the coming months.”

As Erway wrote above, this is not a time to panic and go wild in your beer purchasing. Just be prepared for the number of specialty can releases to drop. This will also affect the small breweries that have purchased crowler machines of late, as the supply of those 32-ounce cans will also become more and more limited. As this is a nationwide issue, craft breweries are facing these same challenges in neighboring states like Colorado, Texas, and Arizona, too, so it will not be any better beyond our borders.

In other words, dust off those growlers, and please be patient as brewery staffs sanitize and ready them for you when you bring them in (please call ahead to make sure they are willing to do this, it varies from place to place).

Enjoy some pints on patios and indoors while those are still allowed (and the weather cooperates). Ultimately, this is just another challenge in a year full of them.

We will keep everyone up to date on any further developments in this ongoing story.

Keep supporting local!

— Stoutmeister

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