Taprooms were closed. No orders were coming in. The usual buzz on patios was gone when the pandemic began almost a year ago. So what did Charlotte’s brewers do? Put the party in a can.
Why it matters: Canning beer was a necessity for many local breweries to make it through the worst of the pandemic. Now it’s changed how the scene does business with more emphasis on grocery distribution.
One local beer sums up the story of 2020 better than any other: Juicy Jay. “What we were selling in one week with draft sales, we’re now selling in a day of can distribution,” Legion Brewing owner Phil Buchy tells me.
Canning was still a couple years off for Legion Brewing prior to the pandemic. At the time, Buchy says the brewery could barely keep up with demand for kegs of its Juicy IPA, but when restaurants and bars closed, orders nosedived.
By the numbers: Since releasing Juicy Jay four-packs in April, Buchy says they sold 600,000 cans of the beer in 2020, all in the Charlotte area.
- Legion also sold about 100,000 of Penguin Pilsner.
- And that doesn’t even represent the full demand. “Beer is evaporating for us,” Buchy says. “We can’t supply everyone that wants to carry our product.”
Local beer sales are up across the board. NoDa Brewing co-founder Suzie Ford tells me their distribution team went from filling orders daily to restocking some grocery stores three times a day during the peak of quarantine. In 2020, the brewery sold 2.7 million cans of beer, more than three (!) times the population of Charlotte.
Triple C owner Chris Harker tells me the brewery saw an 8% increase in can sales in 2020, but a 55% decrease in keg sales. In total, revenue was down by a quarter.
Food Lion has also seen an increase in local beer sales. A spokesperson wouldn’t provide specifics, but told me the grocer now carries over 200 unique beers from Charlotte-based breweries, a 25% increase from 2019.
“A year ago it was a lot harder to get into Harris Teeter than it is today,” says Brian Quinn, Town Brewing’s head brewer and director of operations.
Shelf space in a grocery store has helped smaller, newer breweries like Town gain visibility, but margins are tight. Like many breweries, Town uses a mobile canning service, which charges a fee. In order to decrease overhead costs, Town is hoping to invest in an in-house canning line.
Yes, but: Demand for canning lines is high. Shipping and installation of one can take up to seven months now. Then there’s the capital investment of about $220,000, Quinn estimates for Town’s needs.
- The ongoing aluminum can shortage is another hurdle. Last spring, crowlers were nearly impossible to get at one point. Quinn tells me he had to close Town for a week because of the short supply.
Still, the pivot to canning isn’t temporary.
Despite the hurdles and thin margins, canned beer kept Charlotte’s brewery scene from collapsing. Kept it so we still have patios to go back to when this whole thing is over.
What’s next: A number of brewers and owners, including Buchy and Free Range’s Jason Alexander, tell me canning is the reason they’re still in business and growing.
- Free Range opened a new taproom in Camp North End amid the pandemic and has anywhere from four to eight beers canned at a time.
- Town has put expansion plans on pause for right now as they focus on getting a canning line and increasing distribution. In March, they’re planning to launch a new core beer in grocery stores called Spratt’s Premium lager.
- NoDa continues to expand into new North Carolina markets despite the pandemic.
- Legion is opening a new 25,000-square-feet production facility and taproom at 2001 W. Morehead this summer so they can keep up with demand and churn out even more cans. “We had West Morehead designed one way,” Buchy says, but those plans changed after customers’ response in 2020. “We grossly underestimated how much Charlotte loves our beer.”
The bottom line: Canning was on the rise even before COVID-19 to keep up with Americans’ craft beer obsession. The pandemic sped up that process and forced neighborhood breweries to retool their business models for good.