Bottle vs Can for a Craft Brewery

One thing we have long struggled with is the type of packaging we are going to put our finished product in.  Speaking with other craft breweries, we are not alone in the uncertainty we face in making this decision.  I have summarized the pros and cons of each decision, and I hope at the end of the post, you can give me some feedback on what is the best in your mind.  Starting your own brewery is a great thing, but it is important to have a firm sense of what you want, and merge that with the financial and marketplace dynamics you face.  In other words, what you started out wanting may not be what you end up with.

Really there are 2 choices that you can put beer into.  Either cans or bottles.  Before I dissect each of the options, here are some general comments.  I had long thought that cans were the clear environmental choice, but a few articles haver pointed me back in the direction of uncertainty.  Click here to read one article.  So with no clear winner on the environmental side, what about taste.  I hear anecdotally that people can taste the plastic in cans.  Does this mean they don’t pour the beer out of cans into a glass (yikes).  Also there is the image.  Is the wider market really ready for high quality craft beer in cans?  I know Steamworks and Central City have their beer in cans, and by all accounts do very well, but could you imagine a much smaller player, like 33 Acres or Bridge Brewing putting their beer in cans?  Would it make a difference at all to your perception of them.

Cans:   Cans are a good option for a brewery for a variety of reasons, but there are some downsides to them, which I have tried tried to summarize below.  Essentially, there are 2 options for can sizes 355ml or 500ml.  The smaller can is more North American while the larger can has a much more European feel to it.

  1. More transportable and lighter than bottles
  2. Beer keeps better in cans than bottles
  3. Per unit cost is less expensive than bottles
  4. About 66% of all beer sold in BC is sold in cans
  5. Government liquor stores want new listings in cans
  6. Canning lines are more expensive than bottling lines and notoriously more finicky.  We have quotes for a canning line at $90,000, and the price can go sky high from there
  7. Minimum orders for cans are about $30,000
  8. You need to figure out what beer you are going to sell and then hope the market likes it, as production time for cans is much longer
  9. Image of someone drinking from a can doesn’t always conjure up quality craft beer
  10. Lead time for can orders is much longer than a bottle label order
  11. A couple different sizes of cans which completely change the look and feel of the marketing

Bottles:  On the other hand, bottles are a great option for a new brewery, as the 650ml bottle is the standard size for craft beer, and is well established in the BC marketplace.  Not unlike cans, there are both pros and cons to packaging beer in bottles.

  1. About 33% of all beer sold in BC is sold in bottles
  2. A beer bottle doesn’t put off any odd tastes, whether perceived or not
  3. A beer label allows for more colours and detailed artwork
  4. The amount of time needed for artwork and printing is much shorter than producing cans
  5. Bottling lines are less expensive than canning lines, and you can buy change-over parts to switch between bottle sizes
  6. We have quotes for bottling lines at about $60,000 and the price can go way up from there
  7. There is a much wider variety of bottles available to put beer into (all are in ml):  330, 341, 350, 500, 650, 750, 1000
  8. Government liquor stores are trying to get out of bottles, so a listing with BCLS is much harder to obtain
  9. In my opinion, a bottle of beer put out a different image than a can of beer

So you can see how we are conflicted on the decision that we are going to make.  We have flip-flopped back and forth from cans to bottles and we have really wrestled with the decision.  What would you do?  What would you want us to do?  The trouble we now have is that we can no longer waffle on this decision.  We need to place our order so that we can get our equipment in time for the launch of our brewery.

So vote here, and let me know what you think.  I would love to hear from you as well.

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25 thoughts on “Bottle vs Can for a Craft Brewery

  1. Lisa

    seems like your decision is quite clear.. to get sales and get on the shelf at all you have to go cans. You can invest in bottles later? although as a consumer a bottle is like saying/feeling/thinking I am buying a quality beer so its better in bottle…can is for the bud light drinkers…Make the label basic and colorful and you might turn some beer snobs over to your product

    Reply
  2. mikescraftbeer

    Don’t forget that some smaller guys are canning like Bomber Brewing and Coal Harbor. They are smaller Micro Breweries. I have no issues with cans other than one thing. Many craft beer fanatics do not buy 6 packs of anything. It’s just to much of one single beer at a time. 341ml bottles are a little more varied with 4 packs and 6 packs. My personal opinion is the sweet spot with craft beer lies in the 650, 750 and 1L options. 650ml is great as it is just over a pint of beer so if you have a standard pint glass you can top up your beer. 750ml is the gold standard if corks are being involved. With Iain’s love of Sours this is probably a great choice as they often are quite lively in the bottles. 1L are fun as you can recap them like the Howe Sound Bottles. Home Brewers go out of their way to buy these bottles as they are amazing to use for themselves. If you can’t tell I am all for the large format bottles. It works for Driftwood and Hoyne.

    Reply
  3. Dave

    I like the idea of 4 packs of 500 ml cans for mainline beers. It seems as though several American craft breweries are doing that. Ideal world, you could do that and then have seasonals and limited releases in bottles?

    Reply
    1. West Coast Canning

      Dave. You are correct in alot of 4packs in the US for mainline beers and even some big beers, however they are 16oz ( 473ml) as the minimum orders on 500ml cans is 100k to 200k cans per SKU, not manufactured in North America and most breweries don’t have the space or cashflow to sit on that many cans.

      Reply
  4. Ian

    It depends on the style of beer and the lineup that your brewery plans on producing. But I would be mindful of the preferences of BCL.

    Beers that people typically drink more than one at a time such as pale ales, lagers and IPAs lend themselves to cans.

    750 mL bottle filling stations are relatively cheap compared to bottling or canning lines. You could easily put special release beers in 750 mL corked bottles like how Four Winds has done with their Wildflower Saison.

    Reply
  5. West Coast Canning

    Call us bias, but there is a craft can revolution coming to Canada and lets face it CAN is in our country name. Of course there is pros and cons to both and certain beers should be in bottles vs. cans and vice versa, but there is alot of breweries doing very well exclusively in cans. Convenience and the outdoor market of Vancouver and the West Coast Lifestyle should be something to consider (camping, fishing, hiking, biking, golfing). When looking at size of bottles, keep in mind sorting fees for non-standard sized or custom bottles. In terms of cans sizes there is also a 473ml can and the minimum orders are manageable vs. the 500ml cans that come from Europe by the container load. There are sleeved can options to get around the minimum orders for seasonals or to test the market and a can provides 360 degrees of marketing for your brewery. Whether you decided to go cans or bottles (or both) it all comes back to the consumer you are trying to serve. Hope this helps a bit. Here is a great source for information on the craft can revolution http://www.craftcans.com

    Reply
  6. Glen

    1. Decide what kind of beer you’re going to be making.
    2. Determine packaging options appropriate for the style(s) of beer.
    3. Make a final decision based on cost, distribution and branding considerations.

    If you’re going to be making premium Belgian-style ales, you’re probably not going to want to sell it in cans. A lager in 750ml bottle would be similarly incongruous.

    Reply
    1. locuswest Post author

      Hi Glen, thanks for the feedback. It seems so easy when you write it down like that :o) Your input will certainly weigh in our decision.

      Reply
    2. Frank_Z

      That’s just my thinking. E. g.
      Bavarian style beer: 500 ml bottles.
      Belgian style beer: 330 ml (341 is close enough).
      Not sure about sour beer, but I’d prefer less than 650 ml.

      Personally I don’t like cans because of the taste. I thought also they are less environment friendly, but I guess that comparison was made with reusable bottles common in Germany. Central City gave away their ISA at the MEC bike expo without providing any cups/glasses, uh.
      Flip-tops are my favorite, especially the 330 ml and 500 ml size. I never drank a 1 l bottle alone, that is just too much, unless you have friends over, Howe Sound is missing out on me.

      Reply
      1. locuswest Post author

        Hi Frank, I feel the same as you as well. I don’t drink a lot of beer at one sitting, unless it is Friday or I have a friend over, so smaller bottles seem more in-line with that. Your opinion about the cans is something that many people share, so it is something that we need to weigh in our decision. Thanks for the feedback, I really appreciate it.

  7. Tye L.

    My preference would be bottles. As you said, a can unfairly projects a certain image. I associate high quality craft beer with bottles, and I’m even the type to resist this type of conventional/stereotypical thinking. Bottle labels will also allow you to pump out small release brews if you choose.

    As for size, I think the perfect size is 650mL. It’s small enough that I can pop one open if I’m just in the mood for a ‘single’ beer, but big enough that I can pour two glasses to share with a buddy. It’s the sweet spot. My ideal packaging would be 341mLs for the mainstay styles and 650mL for the seasonals, sours, on-offs and limited release beers. Like how Parallel 49 does it. If I’m choosing one size though, it’s 650mL.

    Don’t underestimate the draw of swing-tops. The craft beer demographic and homebrew demographic has a huge overlap. I imagine there is quite the cost to this though. Maybe for very special releases?

    Reply
    1. locuswest Post author

      Being a home brewer, I love the swing tops. As for 650ml they are such a versatile bottle, its hard not to use them. But do you think that everyone is using them so something a little different would be good?

      Reply
      1. Tye L.

        Hmmm, a different size might be good to stand out. I’d assume retail stores would prefer you to stick to the standard 650s because they fit nicely with the displays and shelving already. I look forward to drinking some Strange Fellows brews, whatever the packaging. Any update on what you’re considering?

  8. mikescraftbeer

    One comment you mentioned on cans was that government liquor stores want new skews. This may be true but I would assume most of the quantity of craft beer moving in the market is probably from high end private stores. I have probably walked into a government store 3 times in 12 months. I find them to be a horrible place to find new exciting beers. One time I went was just to put my name in the utopias draw. No purchases as there was nothing there I was need to try.

    Reply
  9. Dominique

    Looking at your post about unexpected costs, I would expect a bottle line is the way to go. Don’t worry though, I’ll be happy to buy Strange Fellows beer in any container.

    Reply
  10. Jodie Orange

    I’m torn on this one too….if it helps I’m between cans 500 and bottles 500 and 650. For a multitude of reasons I’ve ruled the other options out. I will vote on one once I’ve absorbed my thoughts a little but for all the reasons you mentioned and the comments above…this is indeed a tough one!

    Reply
  11. Ben Coli

    Selling beer to consumers is important, but first you have to sell it to liquor stores. It’s much easier to get a store to take a chance on a 650 ml bomber than to convince them to give up one of their precious high-volume six pack slots on an unknown new brewery. And besides, going in bombers will put you in the same fridge as the rest of the small craft breweries, which is where you want to be, because that’s where your best customer is: the adventurous craft beer enthusiast who is always looking for a new to try.

    Reply
    1. locuswest Post author

      You make very good Point Ben, and I appreciate your feedback. I hope that we make the right choice, and I know that given enough time, we will do that. Sometimes it just seems to take a while to get to the right decision.

      Reply
  12. Frank_Z

    The German Wikipedia article about “Dosenbier” (canned beer) states that the beer is pasteurized after canning at 70°C and the “German Brauer Bund” (German Brewers Federation) says that there is a risk of loss of flavor. Is this always the case, or is there also unpasteurized beer in cans?

    Reply
    1. locuswest Post author

      I wasn’t aware of this pasteurization of beer in cans. I can’t imagine that this would happen, but I could be wrong? Will need to look into this.

      Reply

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