ST. PAUL — Early last March, Stonehome Brewing Company made the decision to buy a canning line.
With it, the Watford City, N.D.-based brewery planned to package its beer for distribution throughout the state and, in time, beyond. Cans, of course, were ordered around the same time.
Eventually, the machinery arrived. Unfortunately, so did the coronavirus pandemic.
As for the cans themselves, there was a snag.
"There was, I believe, almost a six-month wait just to get our order," Rick Diaz, Stonehome’s head brewer said.
"We got this machine installed and ready to go," he said, "but no cans to put our beer in."
Demand for cans among beverage makers was already high before the pandemic, fueled in part by the growing popularity of alcoholic seltzers and flavored sparkling water. A health crisis that has consumers wary of eating and drinking outside the house has only exacerbated what is now an aluminum can shortage.
Regionally, that shortage "certainly has materialized," according to Lauren Bennett McGinty, executive director of the Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild. Many Minnesotans are drinking at home and breweries, by extension, are pouring fewer drinks in their taprooms.
Diaz said Stonehome was able to buy cans from a neighboring brewery to hold the company over until its own order for them could be delivered. (Craft brewers, he said, are a "collaborative bunch.) As of now, he said, the brewery has the cans it needs and is trying now to secure more.
Cans, Diaz as said, are preferred to glass bottles by some brewers because they are easier to obtain. They're lightweight and easy to stack, making them less of a hassle to ship. They also keep out light that can cause beer to spoil.
"The product actually lasts longer, tastes better, out of aluminum cans," he said. "whereas bottles, you have a shorter shelf life."
Bottling beer generally requires other types of equipment, so breweries that have already opted for canning systems aren't likely to make the change.
"My canning line, when it was new, it was $100,000," Patrick Sundberg, owner and founder of Jack Pine Brewery in Baxter, Minn.
Going for bottles now, Sundberg said, would be cost prohibitive. And any rate, he said bottles themselves are in short supply these days, too.
Unable to get cans from his usual supplier, Sundberg said he has instead been buying them at twice the cost from a different vendor. He said he has enough to last the next few weeks but needs to shore up a lead on more for afterward.
McGinty, at the Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild, said the shortage even has some colleagues looking to import cans from outside the U.S.
The Ball Corp., one of the major can makers in the country, is responding to the shortage in part by building out its existing factories and opening three new ones. A spokesperson for the company, Scott McCarty, said in an email that Ball's move to "flex our production into Crowlers" was one example of how it has tried to support craft brewers during the shortage.
A trademarked product, the Crowler is a 32-ounce aluminum can that can be filled from a bar tap and sealed using a tabletop canning press. Smaller breweries without the room or resources for a full-size canning line could hypothetically adopt a Crowler set-up and package beer to go for less money.
As the company's expanded canning operation comes online, McCarty said, Ball should be able to provide at least "6 billion units of can capacity by the end of 2021."
"Today, we are working with our customers to minimize short-term impacts by distributing cans from our global plant network, as well as continuing to improve the efficiency and production of our existing aluminum can, bottle and end lines," he said.
Contact Matthew Guerry at firstname.lastname@example.org or 651-321-4314