An Aluminum Can Shortage Is Stretching Breweries Even Thinner Right Now

The United States alone is short about 10 billion cans.

Manufacturing companies in many industries have been caught off guard in 2020 as society adapts to the challenges of life in a pandemic, creating a surge in demand for a variety of everyday products. So far this year, we've faced shortages of household items, plexiglass, beef, pepperoni, ginger, soda, and Mason jars.

This summer, beer professionals got word of a new shortage that had started to brew—an aluminum can shortage. Months later, they're still caught in its tide.

Of course, a dearth of cans doesn't only affect the beer industry, but it's posing a unique threat to breweries, which began relying on packaged beer sales when COVID-19 precautions shut down bars and restaurants, effectively wiping out their draft beer revenue.

Dining restrictions have eased up in some places, but the market for beer hasn't reverted to normal. People continue frequenting grocery and convenience stores to buy packaged drinks, and suppliers continue to play a game of catch-up as they scramble to make enough cans to keep shelves stocked.

"If a company had extra manufacturing plants on hand... everyone would think they were crazy and wasting their money."

Though can manufacturers are at the root of the shortage, Bart Watson, chief economist for the national Brewers Association, says it's not totally their fault. If anything's to blame, it's the coronavirus.

"We were already seeing an increase in aluminum can demand, but in normal times, aluminum can manufacturers could have seen those trends and build more capacity before we reached a shortage," Watson told Thrillist in an email. "If a company had extra manufacturing plants on hand to prepare for the eventuality that an unexpected global pandemic would raise demand 10% out of the blue, everyone would think they were crazy and wasting their money."

Still, the pressure falls on suppliers to quickly rise to the occasion and save businesses from drowning. Ball Corporation, the world's largest manufacturer of cans, told investors last month that the US market alone is short 10 billion cans this year.

Ball's plan to alleviate the strained supply chain is already underway. The company expanded operations at two facilities and is building two completely new packaging plants in Arizona and Pennsylvania. Still, it'll be a bit before the upgrades make a real dent in supply. Watson doesn't anticipate any dramatic changes until the second half of 2021. By then, it could be too late. 

"Many small breweries are going to struggle to make it through the winter," he said. "More can manufacturing capacity will help many brewers, but it alone isn’t going to help everyone, since many breweries never really focused on packaged beer."

For the most part, slowed draft sales have had the biggest financial impact on small brewers. Pivoting toward packaged products made up for some losses, but with limited cans, there's limited opportunity for revenue there now, too.

We the beer drinking public don't have much power over the aluminum can supply, but we can rally around our favorite breweries. If you can safely do so, order a local brew on tap at your neighborhood bar or restaurant. If your favorites are still available in the coveted aluminum cans, go ahead and snap 'em up, since their makers could use the cash. And if all else fails, see if you can show your support by buying merchandise or gift cards for future use. Cheers to having something to look forward to!

MORE: We're in the Midst of a Mason Jar Shortage and the Culprit Is Shockingly Obvious

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Kyler Alvord is a news writer at Thrillist. Find him on Twitter and Instagram. Or don't. It's really up to you.