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Beer can shortage hits Durango brewers

COVID-scrambled supply chains force microbrewers to plan ahead
Jordan Bodwell stacks cases of Ska beer on a pallet to be loaded onto a delivery truck at the company’s warehouse off La Posta Road (County Road 213) in 2016, about the time the brewery phased out most of its 12-ounce bottled beers in favor of cans. (Durango Herald file)

Supply chain disruptions have been a feature of the COVID-19 pandemic, and to the misfortune of Durango’s craft brewers, a beer can shortage has proved to be particularly troublesome and persistent.

Ska Brewing Co., Steamworks Brewing Co. and Carver Brewing Co. all have been hustling since late spring 2020, when the shortage of beer cans first became acute – especially for craft microbreweries and beer pubs.

Ska was the second craft brewer in the country to begin canning its beers in 2003, and it has used the same supplier, Ball Container Co. of Broomfield, which David Thibodeau, president and co-founder of Ska Brewing Co., said has helped navigate the beer can shortage storm.

“We have had the same supplier the whole time. And that goes a long way,” he said. “We understand the problems they are having. We understand what’s going on. We worked with them this summer, and we adjusted our brewing schedule to deal with the problem.”

Knowing that certain brews, such as Mexican Logger, were going to be popular in the summer, Ska concentrated on brewing those beers so they were assured they would be ready when cans were available.

When Ball Container was particularly hard-pressed, Ska worked with independent brokers who could source a few pallets of beer cans, but those cans were more expensive than those provided by its main supplier.

Ska Brewing Co., Steamworks Brewing Co. and Carver Brewing Co. are working through a beer can shortage that has forced them to adapt and increase prices during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

In March, Ska increased prices for its canned beer an average of 7%. It produces about 650,000 cans a month. Currently, Ska is canning 14 different beers and six different hard seltzers, and costs of production for all of them are headed up.

“It’s not just beer cans,” Thibodeau said. “It’s every single thing we use has gone up this year pretty substantially. It’s pretty crazy right now.”

The problem stems from COVID-19-disrupted supply chains, with suppliers like Ball Container having trouble sourcing aluminum, among other supplies, and that works its way down to the consumer, Thibodeau said.

In addition, the labor shortage is hitting not only Durango restaurants but manufacturers like Ball Container, and that, too, comes with increased costs that get passed down to the consumer.

Ska’s long history of canning its beer gives it a lot of data about sales, and Thibodeau said that has helped Ska plan by ordering beer cans earlier based on past sales and by adjusting its brewing schedule.

Ball Container has two new manufacturing plants under construction, and Thibodeau hopes that will ease the shortage.

Relief from the shortage is expected perhaps by the end of the year or early next year, Thibodeau said.

Cans of Mexican Style Lager Dark make their way through the canning process at Ska Brewing Co.’s Durango headquarters. (Nick Gonzales/Durango Herald file)

The COVID-19 pandemic also has contributed to the shortage because canned seltzers, hard seltzers, sodas, beers and water all took off during the pandemic, creating more demand for cans.

“It’s not necessarily a beer can shortage more than an increase in demand for cans,” Thibodeau said.

“This all happened at the same time people were stocking up their pantries,” he said. “It was like the toilet paper shortage.”

Kris Oyler, co-founder and CEO of Peak Food & Beverage, said Steamworks, like almost all craft brewers, has been hit by the beer can shortage.

Steamworks has looked at sourcing beer cans from multiple vendors and relabeled some older cans, all of which has added to costs.

“It has definitely been challenging,” Oyler said. “That’s kind of the long and short of it. Really, we just have to source cans from where we can get them, and we’re paying more for them, and we’ve had to adjust our prices a little bit.”

Oyler said the price of Steamworks four-packs and six-packs have increased 5% to 10% this year, with the average price increase closer to 10%.

Oyler, like Thibodeau, hopes Ball Container’s two new manufacturing plants under construction will help ease the shortage, but Oyler thinks tight beer can supplies are likely to extend until the end of summer 2022.

Particularly difficult for Steamworks is getting a consistent supply of 16-ounce cans, which it uses for some of its brews.

And it’s not just beer cans, Oyler said.

“We’ve been seeing across our whole supply chain logistics issues. Stuff is unavailable, and when it is, how much does it cost?” Oyler said. “And we’ve seen delays in it getting shipped to us. The labor shortage is affecting everybody. It’s not just the can industry. It’s an economic issue, and it’s not just the United States. It’s international.”

Patrick Jose, head brewer at Carver Brewing Co., said Carver’s began canning beer right about when the beer can shortage started about a year ago, and it’s been dealing with the problem ever since.

Carver’s knew a beer can shortage was in the offing when it started canning, so it ordered 17,505 cans initially, thinking it could build up a good reserve to outlast the shortage.

However, because varnish used in labels on the preordered cans was affecting the taste of the beer, Carver’s had to shelve those cans and turn to newer orders with different labels that do not affect the taste of the beers.

Of the 17,505 cans, 15,000 have been warehoused.

Usually, beer can suppliers can fulfill an order in about two weeks, but at the depth of the shortage last year, it was taking 10 weeks to fill beer can orders, Jose said.

Currently, Jose said it takes anywhere from three to four weeks to fulfill a beer can order, so Carver’s has begun ordering earlier than normal, and that has kept the brew pub canning operation going.

“Every time we want to get something, we hear: ‘We can get it to you, but it’s going to take about eight weeks,’” Jose said.

parmijo@durangoherald.com

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