Retail sales of canned beer continued to surge last year, but the shift toward aluminum isn’t limited to just the off-premise. Bar and restaurant operators say canned beers—particularly crafts—have become perfectly acceptable to guests, and even sought-after.
Sharyn Hooks, director of marketing at Wild Wing Café, which has 45 locations mostly in the Southeast, says 30% of the chain’s packaged beer sales now come from canned beer, up from less than 10% a decade ago. “We always wanted to sell cans in the past, as the margins tend to be better versus bottles, but customers didn’t want them,” she notes, adding that thanks to the ubiquity of canned beer at retail and events like beer festivals, patrons have come around.
The number of canned beer options at Wild Wing varies by location, according to Hooks, but most are craft brews, generally priced from $5-$7 a 12- or 16-ounce can. The opportunity for canned beer on-premise hasn’t been lost on brewers, she says. “There are only a limited number of taps per account,” she notes, so in order to get placement, many have turned to canned offerings. That has worked out for bar and restaurant operators fearful of putting an unknown beer on tap. “It comes down to a case of canned beer at a cost of $40 versus $190-$250 for a keg,” Hooks says. Like its draft selections, Wild Wing Café rotates its canned beer offerings.
At O’Donovan’s pub and restaurant in Chicago, meanwhile, manager Ginger Capps says, “We’re buying more cans, particularly crafts with cool, funky designs.” While mainstream domestic brews are served in bottles, some 20 different crafts and imports are available in 12- or 16-ounce cans at O’Donovan’s, priced at $6-$7. Capps notes that canned beer has served as a convenient and safe alternative to bottles at the eatery’s beer garden during the pandemic.
And then there’s AmeriCan bar on the Las Vegas Strip, where canned beer accounts for the vast majority of beer sales. According to Jaimesen Mapes, marketing director at parent company Fine Entertainment Management, the American-themed bar opened five years ago, around the time that canned craft beer started to see some traction. The venue typically offers between 70 and 80 different canned brews ($6-$12 a 12- or 16-ounce serving), with a goal of carrying as many different options from as many states as possible. “We educate our guests about the benefits of cans, including that they prevent light infiltration, are convenient, ship easily, and keep the beer colder,” Mapes says, adding that, with glass bottles not allowed on the Strip, “cans have become a big selling point.” Among the promotions AmeriCan runs is the “It’s 5:00 Somewhere” program, in which East Coast canned beers are featured starting at 2 p.m. Pacific time, followed by beers from the Central time zone at 3 p.m., Mountain time zone at 4 p.m., and then West Coast beers an hour later.
“We’ve seen a massive shift over the past five years” in consumer acceptance of canned crafts, says Aaron Baker, senior marketing manager at canned craft beer pioneer Oskar Blues Brewery, who notes that the package’s old stigma as inferior to glass is abating. He points to the boom in hard seltzers and hazy IPAs, largely packaged in cans, for driving the acceptance. “This has forced many on-premise operators who may have held outdated ideas about cans to pick them up or risk being left behind by shifting trends,” he says. Indeed, Baker adds that even high-end accounts are “more receptive to cans,” and voice “no issues of perceived quality.” Oskar Blues’ sales team works to train on-premise staff about the benefits of canned craft beer during pre-shift meetings.
Cans are likely to continue to gain share at Wild Wing Café for the foreseeable future, Hooks says. She notes that with younger consumers so exposed to the package, “they have no predisposed notions. And that will give bar and restaurant operators the opportunity to offer guests more beer options.” Baker adds that Oskar Blues has seen cans take share in both the on- and off-premise for nearly 20 years. “We see no reason that this shouldn’t continue for years to come,” he says.