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Monday, April 15, 2019

Wrapping Up the Can Phenomenon

Several years ago, I met with the owner of an established local brewery to discuss the trajectory of that brewery. It had struggled to stay relevant in a market increasingly packed with shiny new breweries. This was and is a serious issue among older breweries in craft heavy areas.

A recent wrapped can
Brewery consulting isn't something I do. I'm much more an observer of this industry than a part of it. I met with this guy because I knew him and had a mostly cordial relationship with him. I'm sure he consulted others. There was no compensation involved, other than a beer or two.

At the time, we were entering a period in which tried and true brands were struggling. This brewery had several well-known brands that previously had a solid following in retail, pubs and specialty shops. They were declining in popularity and he wondered what they should do about it.

This brewery didn't have any beer in cans at the time. Just 22 oz bombers and six-packs. It was just beginning to become apparent that cans were going to be a thing going forward. One of my suggestions was that they start canning some of their standards. Easy enough.

But there was more to it than that. Another challenge established places have grappled with dating back several years is the flood of small batch, new stuff. They were accustomed to fielding a few standards, which were getting stale and lost in the sea of rotating beers offered by newer places trying to make a name.

That trend had not yet reached the crushing crescendo it has attained today. I suggested they start playing around with creative new names for existing brands and slightly modified versions of those brands. In short, create buzz mainly via the use of fresh new names. My feeling was that the beers themselves probably didn't need to change that much, that altered naming would be enough.

They eventually started canning. More recently, they began to build a portfolio that includes standards, one-offs and rotating seasonals in cans. I don't know how many, but they are, in effect, emulating what many newcomers are doing. There's surely still a relevance issue due to the "establishment" history, but at least they're working a plan.

I have to admit I did not anticipate the latest craze: the wrapped can. It somehow signifies the nearly complete insanity that has engulfed craft beer. You know what I'm talking about. These are the cans that often feature catchy artwork on labels affixed to (typically) 16 oz cans that sell for (typically) $20 (or more) per four-pack or $5 to $7 per can. The beers may be one-offs or rare species from nearby or outside the area. They create automatic interest, intrigue and sales.

But wrapped cans didn't originate as part of a profit motive. They started out as a way for small breweries to get their beer into cans without having to order a semi load of pre-printed cans. Instead, they buy blanks and use limited run label wraps. Along the way, wrapped cans morphed into a sort of code for rare and special among craft beer fans. I suspect that was accidental; I could be wrong.

My experience is that wrapped can beers aren't always great. In fact, they often aren't very good at all. But the artwork and the custom label convey the illusion of something special, in much the same way that wax dipped bottles create the impression of quality and value. As someone may have once said, when you resort to selling packaging, you've entered a new dimension.

No matter. Imitation being what it is in craft beer, the wrapped can phenomenon is spreading like a virus. Seeing consumers willing to spend megabucks on packaging that creates an aura of rarity and value, large and small breweries everywhere are anxious to enter the fray. That's why we see constant wrapped can brand churn in bottleshops and specialty stores.

When will this nutty fad run out of gas? Possibly when consumers become skeptical of packaging gimmicks and overpriced beer. Or maybe when the frenzy swirling around craft beer subsides or collapses. Which happens first? We shall see.

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