‘Can-demic?’ Nationwide aluminum can shortage hits Washington beverage makers

VIDEO: Nationwide aluminum can shortage hits Washington beverage makers

SEATTLE — There’s a new shortage in America -- this time for aluminum cans -- and the COVID-19 pandemic is again to blame. It’s impacting Washington breweries and seltzer makers, adding to the challenges of operating a business.

Part of the reason for the shortage is the lack if dine-in eating. When Washington state shut down and restaurants closed, beer poured on tap dried up, eliminating the need for kegs.

That has made the production line at Reuben’s Brews in Ballard busier than ever before.

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“We lost 40% of our business overnight and moved a lot more into cans. But everybody in the country moved into cans,” said Adam Robbings, owner of Reuben’s Brews.

That switch launched the country into an aluminum can shortage, putting small businesses in competition with beer giants for the same product.

“We got notice our can orders were going to be reduced by 40%,” Robbings said. “Only lifeline was cans and getting told that was getting cut was kind of an oof,” he said.

There’s another twist -- adding to the can demand is the quickly rising popularity of spiked seltzers.

San Juan Seltzery in SODO opened in 2018 and the bulk of their revenue – about 95 percent - has always come from grocery sales. But recently, demand for their product is up 400%.

“Totally unexpected,” said Ron Lloyd, President and CEO of San Juan Seltzer.

“Nobody could’ve forecast how large and how quickly this category is expanding and it’s driving to a large part of this canned shortage,” Lloyd said.

When the pandemic hit, San Juan Seltzer got worried about the supply chain and stocked up on everything they'd need, including a warehouse full of aluminum cans – 4 million total.

But they’re going through a million cans a month and will need more soon. The shortage impacts them too – they have to order in bulk months ahead of time, and pay the cost long before they are able to get, produce, then sell the product

“The industry is in turmoil,” Lloyd said.

Reuben’s Brews is filling some of the gap in their can needs by buying what’s called “shiners” -- cans with no label. They are doing the labeling in house, though that’s much more expensive and actually turns the product into a loss.

“It’s double the cost,” Robbings said. “It’s interesting the supply chain is really fragile in everything and a big existential shock like this exposes that,” he said.

He said they still choose to produce some beers at a loss because it keeps their distributors working and the whole system more stable.

The bright side? The outdoor seating at their taproom has reopened with plenty of distancing and hand sanitizer.

And they've been able to keep all their employees.

Now they’re just taking things one step -- or can, if you will -- at a time

“It’s about survival at the end of the day,” Robbings said.

The can shortage is expected to continue into next year, according to Lloyd.