Canned Beer On The Rise

Craft brewers and mainstream players discover the benefits of offering beer by the can.

Left Bank Burger Bar in Jersey City, New Jersey, specializes in canned beer.
Left Bank Burger Bar in Jersey City, New Jersey, specializes in canned beer.

A little more than a year ago, Hooligan’s—an 80-year-old institution on Milwaukee’s East Side—largely abandoned its bottled beer list in favor of canned beer offerings. The move was designed to allow the bar to stock a wider variety of packaged brews for its guests without having to create more storage space. According to owner Mark Buesing, the tactic has been a wild success.

Hooligan’s has more than doubled its packaged beer menu, moving from about 40 bottled brews last year to 99 canned beers at last count. And the options continue to rise. “A year ago, I struggled to find enough cans to offer,” Buesing says. “But in just one year, there’s been an amazing influx of craft beers available in cans.” Overall, guests have been happy with the switch. “While a handful of people still will only drink beer out of a bottle, consumers are more accepting of beer in cans these days,” Buesing notes, pointing to the trend of craft brewers embracing cans.

Indeed, beer consumers around the country are increasingly embracing cans over bottles. According to the Beer Institute, canned offerings comprised nearly 55 percent of all beer sold last year, compared to 48 percent in 2006. Meanwhile, bottled beer’s market share has dropped from 42 percent to 35 percent in the same period and draft beer’s stake has risen from 9 percent to 10 percent.

Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. offers some of its beers in 16- and 12-ounce cans, which are more environmentally friendly and preserve beer quality better than bottles.
Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. offers some of its beers in 16- and 12-ounce cans, which are more environmentally friendly and preserve beer quality better than bottles.

Retro Chic

While expanded craft beer offerings in cans are contributing to the share gains, major beer marketers also continue to put a big focus on cans. One of the most successful recent examples is MillerCoors’ reintroduction of the original Miller Lite beer can late last year. The move has proved so popular that the brand’s previously declining sales have dramatically turned around. Senior manager of marketing Cris Rivera reports that as of May, the Miller Lite can was enjoying a 10 point swing compared to a year earlier. He adds that beer retailers have expressed positive feedback and that the label is being supported with numerous large displays.

The return of the original Miller Lite can—which was initially designed as a limited-time offering but has since become permanent—has received strong response across various demographics. According to Rivera, millennials have embraced the can’s retro characteristics, while consumers aged 30 to 45 recognize the familiar packaging. As a result of the success, Miller Lite bottles will also soon feature the original design. Rivera says cans account for 55 percent of packaged Miller Lite sales.

Among other MillerCoors labels, the Coors Light can—which represents 60 percent of the label’s packaged sales—currently features special-edition summer graphics while the brand’s first-ever seasonal line extension, Coors Light Summer Brew, is packaged exclusively in 10-ounce cans. Coors Banquet cans have also featured limited-edition graphics that commemorate the brand’s heritage.

Rival Anheuser-Busch InBev received lots of attention last year when it introduced Budweiser in a bow-tie shaped aluminum can to mirror the brand’s logo. This summer, Budweiser continues its limited-edition patriotic packaging efforts with red, white and blue graphics on cans and bottles.

Lonerider Brewing Co. is completely eliminating bottles in favor of canned production.
Lonerider Brewing Co. is completely eliminating bottles in favor of canned production.

Quality In A Can

Cans have made particularly dramatic inroads in the craft beer segment in recent years, with leading smaller brewers like Oskar Blues, Sierra Nevada and New Belgium touting the benefits. Earlier this year, Sierra Nevada rolled out its flagship pale ale in four-packs of 16-ounce cans. “The versatility cans provide is exciting for our entire industry,” Sierra Nevada founder Ken Grossman stated in the announcement. The California brewery also packages the pale ale in 12-packs of 12-ounce cans, along with Torpedo Extra IPA in four-packs of 16-ounce cans and Summerfest in 12-packs of 12-ounce cans. “We’re proud to be among the craft brewers elevating a format that moves quality and sustainability forward,” Grossman added.

After a $1 million investment, The Boston Beer Co. launched its first foray into cans last year. “The response has been extremely positive,” says director of off-premise national accounts George Ward, who notes that cans have contributed positively to volume sales of Samuel Adams Boston lager. The “Sam can”—available in 12-ounce and 16-ounce configurations—features a flared lip and wider top than standard cans. This packaging option is also being used for Samuel Adams Rebel IPA and the brand’s seasonal offerings. “I believe craft drinkers still prefer bottles, but see cans as a great option for some occasions,” Ward says, citing trips to the beach, the golf course and camping. He expects cans to continue gaining share, but not dramatically. “I anticipate more and more craft brewers will offer their beers in cans,” he adds.

Raleigh, North Carolina’s Lonerider Brewing Co. is going all-in with cans this year, transitioning from glass bottles to aluminum cans. “We had to make a choice—bottles or cans. We can’t do both,” explains CEO Sumit Vohra, whose brewery sold 13,500 barrels in 2013. He believes that cans are the future for craft beer. “They’re more cost-efficient and treat the beer better than glass,” he explains, adding that most craft brewing fans now accept them. In addition to opening up venues like outdoor events and concerts, Vohra and other industry members point to even more benefits for cans over bottles, including ease of recycling, less breakage and shrinkage, and savings in transportation and handling costs. “I would take 50 cases of cans over 50 cases of bottles any day,” says Nolan Rodman, vice president of the three-unit Rodman’s Drug Stores in Washington, D.C., which offers a large selection of craft brews in cans.

Rogue Ales released its American amber ale in 16-ounce grenade-style cans.
Rogue Ales released its American amber ale in 16-ounce grenade-style cans.

Open To Innovation

A growing number of new products are launching in cans only. Constellation Brands’ Modelo Especial Chelada is exclusively available in cans, as is MillerCoors’ Smith & Forge cider. Smaller-sized cans than the traditional 12-ounce package are also trending, including Summer Brew’s 10-ounce container and Heineken’s 8.5-ounce “slim can.” Tristi Pfeiffer, marketing director for Coors Light, explains that the smaller cans appeal to millennial and Hispanic consumers, as “the beer will generally remain colder, from start to finish.”

Aluminum cans continue to provide beer marketers with innovative packaging tactics. Rogue Ales and Spirits of Newport, Oregon, recently released its American amber ale in four-packs of 16-ounce grenade-style cans. Pottstown, Pennsylvania’s Sly Fox Brewing Co. markets its Helles golden lager in a 12-ounce can with a “360 lid,” which is completely removable so that the container can be used like a glass. “We have had tremendously positive response to the 360 lid,” says brewmaster Brian O’Reilly. In fact, the company will launch another label, 360 IPA, in 16-ounce cans with the same type of lid this summer. The only problem that Sly Fox has encountered with the package is that its doesn’t comply with litter laws in many states.

Rodman in Washington, D.C., confirms the renaissance beer cans are enjoying. “I’ve definitely seen an increase in canned beer sales, particularly during the summer months as people switch to cans for outdoor activities,” he says. To help drive sales of canned brews during the summer, Rodman will often drop a bottle version of a brand—a move that helps him manage space while educating customers that cans are a good package for beer. With craft beers now on board the “can wagon,” Rodman believes imported brews stand to gain by moving to cans. Canned crafts are generally priced at $5.99 to $14.99 a six-pack in his store.

Ed Thompkins, wine and beer buyer for Heinen’s grocery stores—with 19 locations in Ohio and Illinois—says that canned packaging has transformed craft beer “from an oddity to the mainstream.” As a result, “the anti-can bias toward beer has disappeared,” he adds. Among the tactics Thompkins has employed to help increase awareness are large multi-brand displays of craft brews in cans under the banner “Yes, We Can.” Six-pack cans of craft brews at Heinen’s are generally priced between $8 and $11.

While cans have traditionally held a small share of on-premise beer sales, that trend may change, with venues like Hooligan’s leading the charge. Hooligan’s promotes canned beer—priced from $1 to $7.50 for cans up to 16 ounces—with programs like “Trash Can Monday,” featuring popular-priced brews for $1 to $2. The Milwaukee bar serves its canned brews with a specially designed can-shaped beer glass from Capital Brewery. Buesing notes that he’s been able to pass along improved margins from canned beer sales to his customers via slightly lower prices.

Left Bank Burger Bar in Jersey City, New Jersey, meanwhile, has been specializing in canned beer from the start. Opened in October 2013, the eatery offers 17 different beers in cans—mostly domestic crafts like 21st Amendment’s Live Free or Die—priced between $4 and $7 for 12-ounce and 16-ounce servings. “I like the canned beer concept,” says owner Daniel DeAlmeida. “Many of the brands have cool logos.” Canned beers featured at Left Bank, which also offers six beers on draft and a limited number of bottled brews, include a 16-ounce can of Narragansett cream ale with a shot of Jim Beam for $5.

Buesing sees the growing popularity of canned beer as win-win for his customers and the bar. “The cans have raised awareness among consumers that good quality beer is packaged in cans,” he says. “And I’ve seen an improvement at the bottom line.”