July 24, 2018 News & Features » Cover Story

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Crushing It 

Craft brewers increasingly look to aluminum as a vessel for profits.

click to enlarge Vasen Brewing Co. is one of several local breweries to offer 32-ounce crowlers.

Scott Elmquist

Vasen Brewing Co. is one of several local breweries to offer 32-ounce crowlers. 

Aluminum has become a big part of craft brewery playbooks when it comes to creating silver linings for profit margins. In-house sales are the backbone of brewery finances — pints, growlers, six-packs, and, increasingly, cans and crowlers, the popular marriage of cans and growlers into 32-ounce single-use containers.

Brendan Pevarski, sales executive for Lucky Clover Packaging, which sells aluminum packing to breweries for canning operations, says that he's seen a huge increase in popularity. Demand is so strong that the three major manufacturers of cans in the U.S. are struggling to keep up with production orders, he says, especially for the 16-ounce tallboy cans that have inspired a cultlike following at the Veil.

Limited canning of some craft beers can be an engine for growth at breweries that aren't able to run their own canning operation. Even breweries planning their own in-house canning operations like Väsen Brewing Co. have bought into the packaging.

"Crowlers have been a great option to offer beer to go with minimal capital investment," says Joey Darragh, president and cofounder of Väsen. "The reaction to our crowlers has been super positive among our customers, and we've been seeing great photos on social media of folks enjoying our beer outdoors, which aligns heavily with our brand." 

The issue of scale is a challenge that Lucky Clover and other companies are trying to help overcome. Purchasing cans in smaller amounts makes the venture possible and also increases tasting room sales and potentially expands the customer base when people buy beer to consume at home or with friends.

The profit margins on cans, Pevarski says, are also really nice for brewers, often netting them more per unit depending on the can size. For example, a six-pack of 12-ounce cans if sold for about $12 nets 17 cents per ounce. A four-pack of 16-ounce cans sold at $14, not uncommon for a can release at the Veil shakes out to around 22 cents per ounce. Scale that up to crowlers and you've got even more room for a higher valuation of the product per ounce.
Ardent Craft Ales recently began offering cans of certain brews. Before the brewery had even celebrated its first year of operations, Väsen introduced its own bespoke crowlers while urging fans to #drinkoutside. It's a practice many in the beer world trace back to Oskar Blues, a self-described funky little brewery in Colorado that realized the right vessel matters just as much as the suds you pour into it.

"Cans are by far the most outdoor-friendly package out there," says Vasen's president Darragh. "Not only are they 100 percent recyclable but they're lightweight, easy to pack, and extremely compactable when you're done with them."

It's not just the margins than make canning an attractive option for brewers. Stacked up against regular growlers, crowlers offer freshness for longer. Aluminum also provides protection from two of the most destructive things for beer — oxygen and sunlight. The lids slide into a double seam used to keep oxygen from creeping in, which is great news for fans of the India pale ales common around town. For anyone not sipping their brews right away, the crowler seal protects beer better than in the reusable glass growlers.

On the consumer side, cans travel well — whether to the pool, the beach or down the river. And they are lighter than glass to ship.

While canning has been on a roll in craft breweries, it's also a sector to watch considering how tariffs on imported aluminum might increase the cost of production — and how those costs get passed to suppliers, brewers, and ultimately, the consumer.

Pevarski says it's too early to tell how the aluminum tariffs will affect the price and production of canning for craft breweries. Last month, major U.S. beermakers complained in The New York Times that producers and manufacturers were using the tariff threats to artificially inflate prices. They continue to worry about pricing irregularities and anti-competitive practices and have warned the U.S. government to monitor this seeming ability by some to manipulate pricing. The newspaper cited the Beer Institute's assessment of the increase as a modest one of a penny per can. That still adds up to a $350 million per year.

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