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Why Some Idaho Breweries Are Marking Up Beer Cans With Sharpies

Sawtooth Brewery
The canning line at Sawtooth Brewery in Ketchum, Idaho. Sawtooth installed its own canning line in June and is still waiting on its first shipment of cans ordered in May.

As bars and restaurants reduced service or closed during the pandemic, draught beer consumption fell dramatically — 47% according to March data from the federal Tax & Trade Bureau for tobacco and alcohol.

Many breweries compensated by ramping up production of packaged beers to get more of their product on grocery store shelves, but there’s a problem: There aren’t enough aluminum cans to go around.

When demand is this high for cans, only a few beverage producers get priority. Ryan Valley co-owns Boise River Canning, a mobile operation serving about 15 clients. When he shows up on a canning day, he brings the canning equipment, cans, can holders and everything else needed to do the job — except what’s going in the cans.

He’s small, but can still buy in bulk. When it’s hard for him to get cans, he knows where they are ending up instead.

“Pepsi, Coke, Anheuser-Busch [In-Bev]; they’re going to get first dibs on every can,” he said. Beer giant Miller-Coors is another dominant force.

Boise River’s domestic can supplier, Ball, cut them off due to shortages earlier this year. Valley said he was able to get a few pallets of cans from a South American manufacturer to meet his needs.

Then, “Anheuser-Busch went in and bought all the supplies of South American cans through the end of the year,” he said.

Valley said he’s also sourced some Australian-made cans, but hasn’t run out or had to turn down jobs. Costs are higher, and surplus cans he might normally sell to a brewery in a pinch aren’t available. The market is starting to loosen and Valley expects to receive backordered shipments from Ball again starting this month.

“Most people aren't as lucky as we've been, but we've had to search high and low to find these cans,” Valley said.

Kevin Jones can relate. He co-owns Sawtooth Brewery in Ketchum and previously used Boise River to can beer. (Editor’s note: Reporter Troy Oppie was formerly employed by Sawtooth Brewery, most recently in 2013.)

Sawtooth launched its own canning line in June, and made its first can order from a domestic supplier in May. Those cans still haven’t shown up.

“We're almost at 20 weeks,” Jones said of the wait. He’s not on a contract with the supplier, so he’s stuck. “They keep pushing it back eight weeks every time,” he added.

Competing breweries have come to the rescue. Sawtooth has bought leftover pre-printed cans from breweries in Boise, Utah and Wyoming. The existing label gets covered with a sticker from Sawtooth. For some cans, it’s as easy as that.

“Ideally, there's not much marking on the neck of the can, which shows with our sticker,” Jones said.

That doesn’t always happen.

Credit Kevin Jones, Sawtooth Brewery
A Sawtooth Beer Can with a sharpied-over section of a different brewery's can. A can shortage is pushing some breweries to buy unused cans they need to re-label in order to get beer to store shelves.

Beer labels are tightly controlled by TTB. Labels must be approved before use, and buying leftover cans as Sawtooth has is called ‘use-up’ labeling. The purchasing brewery has to submit before and after pictures, a letter from the selling brewery granting permission to use the leftover cans, and meet all the regular label requirements. No competing identification can be part of a can label.

“Roosters Brewing [cans] said, ‘Brewed and Canned in Ogden, Utah,'” Jones said. “So we had to sharpie over that on every single can.”

Jones said they filled about 24,000 of those cans, waited for them to come up to room temperature (have you ever tried to sharpie over something damp from condensation?) and got to work.

Sawtooth hopes to purchase additional leftover cans from a different brewery requiring multiple sharpie coverings —but considering the alternative, it’s worth the extra labor.

“It’s a little bit more work, it’s not terrible,” Jones said. “It’s better than having empty shelf space.”

It’s also more expensive. Blank aluminum cans, called ‘brites’ are about a dime each. Printed cans are about a nickel more. If you’ve noticed rising beer prices at grocery stores, the can shortage is a reason why.

Imported cans cost up to $.25 each, Jones said.

The Brewer’s Association has advised its member craft breweries that can producers are at capacity and shortages are likely to come and go until more production capacity is available in 2021.

Follow Troy Oppie on Twitter @GoodBadOppie for more local news.

Copyright 2020 Boise State Public Radio

Troy Oppie is a reporter and local host of 'All Things Considered' for Boise State Public Radio News. He's also heard Saturday nights on Boise State Public Radio Music's Jazz Conversations.