As draft beer has almost entirely stopped flowing in the U.S. due to on-premise shutdowns caused by efforts to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus disease COVID-19, craft brewers are turning to crowlers — 32 oz. cans filled and sealed on demand — to sell the beer left in their kegs before it oxidizes.
The problem is that the only supplier of crowlers, Ball Corporation, is entirely out of stock of crowlers until April, American Canning co-founder and CEO David Racino said.
Ball manufactures crowlers quarterly and the unprecedented shutdown of all on-premise consumption in the U.S. could not have been forecasted.
Multiple requests made to Ball for comment were unreturned.
“Once stocks are out, they’re out until the next round,” Racino said. “What happens is, they do their demand planning based on some given throughput of historical data, primarily, and then when something like this happens, obviously historical data is not of much use, so we end up with a shortage.”
Racino’s Austin, Texas-based company sells cans to beverage manufacturers in bulk, both blank and decorated, and offers mobile canning services. In the past week, Racino said requests for crowlers have increased 100 times over the norm. American Canning’s website lists 32 oz. crowler cans, 19.2 oz. cans and 375 mL cans as sold out.
American Canning’s team has been working around the clock since governors across the country have issued temporary bans on on-premise dining and drinking.
“Folks that have never put their beer into a package before are literally scrambling to figure out what to do, you know, their draft business all but dried up overnight,” Racino said.
Mobile canning business remains strong and American Canning has converted part of its facility into a packaging plant where brewers can bring kegs to be canned into 16 oz. and 12 oz. cans for to-go sales, which were legalized in Texas last fall for manufacturing breweries.
For craft brewers who can’t access crowlers, Racino recommended purchasing can seamers fitted for standard sized cans, which can seal 12 oz., 16 oz. and 19.2 oz. cans.
“We’ve got hundreds of thousands to millions of those in our warehouse and access to millions more in short order,” Racino said of the standard size cans.
Oktober Can Seamer, one supplier of can seamers Racino recommended, said it can ship orders in two weeks.
“We are still working around the clock to keep shipping seamers and cans, but between keeping everyone separated, constant hand washing (work safe, ya know), and the very large increase in orders (thank you!) it is going to take a little longer to get stuff shipped,” the company’s website said. “We should be able to keep our two week lead time for seamers, and we will work to ship cans within a few days.”
For small craft breweries who rely on taproom sales, two weeks “might not be a big deal ordinarily, but right now, one to two weeks might be the difference between these little guys going out of business and keeping the lights on,” Racino said.
Can seamers are normally used to fill on demand and are not subject to rigorous production use, so brewery staff should be careful to follow the seamer manufacturer’s maintenance recommendations.
“The one thing that we’ve tried to impress upon everybody that certainly has not done this before is these seamers need to be calibrated from time to time,” Racino said. “Check your seams, check your seams, check your seams. We don’t want people sending out cans that are leaking or bad or don’t last in the market.”
American Canning’s office staff has been working remotely and the warehouse is now off-limits to non-employees to limit in-person interactions. The company has been providing lunch from local restaurants to both support local businesses and make sure that employees don’t have to leave during the day, Racino said.
Racino stressed that brewers flummoxed by packaging their product for the first time should reach out for advice. Due to large call volumes, American Canning’s phone line goes to voicemail only, but the company’s support team is responding to emails.
“If they’ve got questions, concerns, we’ve got a team of mobile canners that are experts and fillers and seamers,” he said. “If they really struggle or are having issues or need some advice on what to do or what to buy, they can always shoot us an email and we’ll get it over to the right team and get them answers quickly.”