Those of a certain age remember when the only beer that came in a can was cheap and watery. A generation or two later and the opposite is true. Today, craft beer is almost exclusively in cans.
This transition has been gradual over the last several years, with the pandemic accelerating the transition from bottles to cans.
“If you go back a decade, it was hard to find craft beer in cans. The share of cans continues to grow,” said Bart Watson, chief economist with the Brewers Association, a trade group for independent craft brewers. “It’s driven by a bunch of different reasons. Economics is one. Cans are lighter, so it’s cheaper to ship.”
He also points to the shift in consumer expectations.
“Cans were perceived as lower quality. But we’ve seen a shift and that has gone away,” Watson said.
“Most breweries don’t do both. They have to make a choice. If they are starting a packaging line, they are putting in a canning line.”
This is true for Solano Brewing Company in Vacaville which canned its first beers the last week of August. A mobile canner set up in the parking lot where the brewery’s top three beers were packaged in the inaugural canning.
“It’s a test run to see how it goes,” explained Mark Shaw, head brewer of the 4-year-old brewery. “Right now the trend is for cans. There is less chance of oxidation, it stays fresher longer. You can put a lot more artwork on the can; making for more cool marketing that way.”
Solano Brewing tries to distinguish itself on store shelves by using a metallic element on the can “so it will shine a little bit to help catch your eye and give it depth.”
Solano Brewing is starting with 50 cases of each of the three beers.
In 2022, more than 65% of independent craft brewers in the United States used cans, according to Circana, which studies consumer behaviors.
Reluctant to change
Lagunitas Brewing Company, one of the oldest craft breweries in the Northern California, was resistant to jumping into the canning frenzy.
“If you look at the entire history of Lagunitas, everything was in a bottle. It was about holding the paper label in your hand and reading the story on there,” brewmaster Jeremy Marshall said. “There was a lot of reluctance to put Lagunitas IPA into cans. A lot was due to the tactile sensation of our label. It has vertical groovy lines and this papery feel that (founder) Tony (Magee) said was an inspiration from Maker’s Mark (bourbon). A can would take away that label.”
Today their flagship IPA is available in cans and bottles.
Magee started Lagunitas on a kitchen stove in Marin County in 1993 at a time when breweries were rare in the North Bay. Now based in Petaluma, the brewery has been fully owned by Heineken since 2017.
“Tony was vocal he would be the last large brewery to put beer in a can,” Marshall, who has been with the brewery since 2003, said.
That day came in 2016 with 12th of Never, a tropical pale ale, being packaged in a hard to miss purple can. Showing a bit of rebelliousness, a beer cap is part of the graphics to remind people of bottles.
“12th of Never instantly became a resounding success. This was when craft seemed unstoppable. I pinpoint it as roughly the same time cans were gaining acceptance,” Marshall said. “Cans were helping fuel the meteoric rise in craft’s popularity.”
Even with the can trend not letting up, Lagunitas plans to continue to package its beer in glass and aluminum.
“The can format continues to rise in popularity because of its versatility to multiple occasions that are a prominent part of the younger consumers lives. Particularly during the summer months when hiking, boating, beach visits and pool side chilling are some of the preferred activities to engage in—a can offers a convenient way to crack open and enjoy your favorite beverage,” Lagunitas’ interim CMO Hannah Dray said. “We can all agree that cans are now dominating the beer industry, but with that said we continue see a role for and have bottle loyalists, therefore we’ll always be listening to that consumer and doing our best to deliver the right formats for the right and range of occasions that our consumers demand.”
In a four-year period, Lagunitas has shifted from 70% bottles/30% cans to 46% bottles/52% cans.
Nationally, according to market research firm Nielsen, in this same time period all craft beer has gone from 49% bottles and 51% cans to today being 32% bottles and 68% cans.
Another Sonoma County brewery that has been slow to embrace selling canned beer to the masses is Russian River Brewing Company in Windsor. In September the brewery began putting its two lagers in 12 ounce cans, and made them available at local stores in October and plan to release them to the broader market in the first quarter of 2024.
“We have a lot of demand for cans. The consumer likes the ease and convenience of cans,” Natalie Cilurzo, co-owner and president of the brewery, said. “It will give us different shelf placement in stores as well. Right now we are only in bottles (at stores).”
Russian River has put several beers in 16 ounce cans, with this fall being a first for 12 ounce cans.
At this time these are the only two beers that will be put in 12 ounce cans, and the only two cans available outside of direct to consumer sales.
“It’s interesting to see the sea of cans on the shelf in the markets and then our bottles,” Cilurzo said. “Our bottles stand out among all the cans. It’s one reason we wanted to stick with bottles.”
Bucking the trend
Nile Zacherle, owner and brewer at Mad Fritz Brewing Company in St. Helena, has no intentions of every canning any of his beers.
“It’s about how I think about our product and what we do, which is part of the ethos I subscribe to in our product,” Zacherle said. “I feel like cans the aluminum is outside, but you have a plastic liner. Different types of liners are used and sprayed in there during fabrication. If you subscribe to the concept nothing is inert, you are really drinking out of a plastic bottle.”
He doesn’t disagree that consumers like cans, that it’s easier to transport for distribution and to take to the beach, and that aluminum weighs less than glass. Still, Zacherle believes at the end of the day glass is a better product, and is willing to pay more for it than he would if he used aluminum.
“Cans can fail, liners have failed and breakdown over time,” Zacherle said. “Bottling gives us control. We do it all in house. We are about authenticity of our ingredients, but if we put in a can, it would devalue the product.”
Content to be in cans
Plenty of other breweries are happy to predominantly or exclusively use cans for packaging.
“We do the majority of our beer in cans. Once or twice a year we do some specialty hand bottled stuff,” said Trevor Martens, who with wife Stephanie owns Pond Farm Brewing Co. in San Rafael. “Cans are ultimately better for beer. There is no possibility of degradation. They are lighter, so shipping costs are cheaper. They are safer. If we drop one during canning, it is no big deal.”
Pond Farm has been around for almost five years, with canning introduced in the fourth month of being in business.
Instead of incurring the expense of putting in a canning facility, the Marin County brewery hires a mobile canner for that part of the process. On average about 150 cases of 16 ounce cans are packaged every 2½ weeks, with 24 cans in a case.
Martens doesn’t see cans going away. He said people who came of age drinking beer during the craft beer boom expect cans, adding that those people don’t necessarily know anything else.
Fogbelt Brewing Co. in Santa Rosa made a concerted effort post-pandemic to focus less on bottles and more on cans.
“We had done seasonal canning from 2017-20. As soon as Covid hit, the owners started investing in buying a canning line. We received it Christmas Eve 2020 and have been using it nonstop sense,” JP Balatti, head brewmaster, said. “We can do 80 to 90 cases of bottles a day. Now that we have our own canning facility, we do 300 to 500 cases of beer a day.”
Balatti echoes that over others when he says they are easier to transport, don’t get broken in travel by distributors or consumers.
“Cans don’t get lightstruck, it’s better for beer. With glass, most use amber to prevent lightstruck,” Balatti said. “Overall quality of beer goes up with canning of beer. We can reduce the oxygen levels a lot. And the shelf life in longer.”
When Balatti started at Fogbelt the brewery had five core beers that all came in 22 ounce bottles, or growlers. Now only specialty beers are in bottles, with the rest being in cans.
“I like to think cans are going to stay a while. We are investing more in our canning line,” Balatti said.
Note: A version of this story first appeared in the North Bay Business Journal.