Pandemic Success Came in Cans To-Go

Now Local Breweries Navigate Market Changes, In-Person Returns

Photo courtesy of the Empourium Brewing Company

When The Empourium Brewery Company opened three years ago, the owners just wanted to serve their beer from their neighborhood taproom. Then the pandemic hit.

Now the Berkeley brewery owns a canning line and does one run a week. The packaged beer is available in a handful of nearby stores.

Canning was never part of the original business model though, said co-owner and head brewer Greg Fetzer. 

Since March 2020, breweries in North Denver have seen in-person capacity restrictions, supply chain disruptions, shortages of ingredients and aluminum cans, and a rise in the cost of raw materials. But by remaining light on their feet and responding swiftly, some breweries have figured out how to stay afloat amid all the change. 

Cans to the rescue

With social-distancing requirements in place for the first year of the pandemic, lots of breweries had the ability to make more beer than they could serve in-house. Canning beer for to-go sales became the solution, Fetzer said.

“Your capacity (to seat customers) was cut in half. You just couldn’t sell as many pints across the bar as you needed,” Fetzer said. “So you needed that extra form of revenue in to-go cans or outside sales.”

The Empourium at first offered crawlers, 32-ounce cans, that they filled straight out of the tap on demand whenever customers wanted beer to go. In December 2020, they got a single-head filler and moved to 16-ounce cans sold in four packs. Compared to a crawler, that’s a more approachable size for consumers, Fetzer said. They placed a stand-up cooler, stocked with a variety of brightly colored cans, in the taproom. 

The Empourium saw their to-go numbers quadruple, Fetzer said. 

Supply chain woes

Because the amount of beer they package is small, The Empourium chooses to purchase blank cans. They label these cans, called brites, themselves. 

Crooked Stave’s operation, however, was just big enough that purchasing pre-printed cans made sense, said Kevin Ritter, the brewery’s operations specialist. In addition to selling kegs to restaurants and bars, the Sunnyside brewery ships cans and bottles to 15 states outside of Colorado. 

Pre-printed cans made sense, that is, until their primary supplier changed its minimum order size and warehouse policies. 

Instead of one truckload (204,000 cans) per SKU, Broomfield-based Ball Corporation now requires at least five truckloads. The new policy went into effect March 1. The manufacturer also stopped storing customers’ can orders in its warehouse. Most small and mid-sized brewers can’t afford to purchase that many cans at once and wouldn’t have the storage space for the order if they could, according to trade website Craft
Brewing Business. 

Now Crooked Stave is scrambling a bit as it explores its options such as buying from vendors that use other printing processes or purchasing printed cans from suppliers outside of U.S., Ritter said. 

Ritter said the brewery is also employing a workaround called over labeling. Cans printed for one brand of beer—one selling slowly perhaps—are filled with a different beer. Labels are applied to the can, covering up the original print and graphics, so what’s on the inside and what’s on the outside of the can match. Over labeling allows Crooked Stave to package a variety of beer using cans they already have on hand. 

Ball, one of the largest can makers in the country, is also Diebolt Brewing Company’s can supplier. 

Located in Sunnyside, Diebolt was not impacted by the supplier’s new policies. The changes only applied to printed cans and, like The Empourium, Diebolt purchases brites, said co-owner Dan Diebolt.

The rise in popularity of canned hard seltzers, mixed cocktails, and wine put pressure on the can market even before the pandemic caused craft breweries to move to canning, Diebolt said. 

The increased demand for cans led to a widely-reported shortage in 2020. Can manufacturers are building new facilities and increasing production, yet Diebolt heard issues with the can supplies may last through 2022. 

Photo courtesy of FlyteCo

Cost increases

The cost to make beer has increased, Diebolt said. The price of cans alone are 20% more than they were a year ago.

But raising beer prices to pass that cost onto consumers isn’t always feasible.

“You price your beer as competitively as the other guys in the store,” Diebolt said. If they don’t raise prices, he can’t really either. 

To make ends meet, Diebolt said they’ll just have to be better at what they do.

Jason Slingsby, co-owner and head brewer at FlyteCo Brewing, echoed Diebolt’s sentiments. They, too, have seen the cost of making beer increase across the board and are looking for “other efficiencies” that they can make so they don’t need to raise prices.

Concentrating on the taproom

Like The Empourium, FlyteCo began canning during the pandemic as a way to keep moving their product. Instead of purchasing their own canning equipment, however, FlyteCo used a third party company that bought a mobile canning line into their brewhouse.

But FlyteCo’s not canning now.

For a while, it seemed like the brewery was changing its business model on a regular basis, Slingsby said, as it tried to navigate what was best for the neighborhood, best for the business, and best for everyone’s safety. 

“Myself and my business partners are very involved, and we love what we do,” Slingsby said about the brewery’s ability to navigate the dynamic pandemic landscape. “We are active on a daily basis, and so I feel it helps us react quickly.”

Now that people are eager to go out again, FlyteCo is glad to return to its role as a local gathering place in Berkeley. While necessary for a time, the brewery hasn’t canned since last summer. They may again at some point in the future, but right now they’re putting more effort into driving business to the taproom and growing within the community. 

“We’ve shifted our focus back towards the taproom and that on-premise customer experience,” Slingsby said.

Insight leads to triumph

The pandemic forced a lot of brewery owners to ask themselves how they could best grow through it and push onto the next phase, Slingsby said. Every business’s answer was a little different.

The Empourium’s original intent was to get comfortable and profitable at its current location before distributing to retail stores. The pandemic threw a wrench in that plan, Fetzer said. But he’s pleased with the brewery’s trajectory nonetheless. And he knows what The Empourium needs to do next.

“Keep making great beer… Keep people happy.”


Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.