The UK’s craft and microbreweries are putting more of their beer into cans as they seek to reduce packaging costs and appeal to younger, environmentally-conscious drinkers.

That was the message from this year’s BrewLDN, the UK’s leading craft beer festival, held in the former Truman Brewery in London’s East End.

Most of the 200-plus exhibitors promoted brews packed in aluminium cans, many for the first time. While organisers were unable to provide historical data on how many of the brewers have promoted canned beer at previous events, exhibitors said the 2020 show was a bumper one for metal packaging.

“I’ve never seen so few bottled beers here,” Chris Halls, sales manager of Signature Brewery, told The Canmaker at the event. “Bottles are the packaging of the past. Everybody is moving into cans.”

Good news, bad news
If anecdotal evidence from the show suggested good news for canmakers, industry data released a week later would have made disappointing reading for brewers. 

Sandy Sohal of Hoppin Rabbit

Craft beer lost its crown to low- and no-alcohol (known as lo-no) beers among the key 18-24 demographic last year – the first time since 2014 – according to the Society of Independent Brewers (Siba).

The Siba figures show that millennials have also cut down on their alcohol intake and a quarter of them became teetotal.

For many of the exhibitors at BrewLDN 2020, that will come as a shock. One of the key reasons many migrated from bottles is to win over younger consumers. Millennials are perceived as being attracted to the sustainability of metal packaging and more receptive to the sorts of imaginative can designs that typify the craft sector’s packaging strategies. 

Kentish Pip Cider’s Freddie O’Sullivan

“Cans are the future for beers and ciders – it’s the environmental factor,” said Freddie O’Sullivan of Kentish Pip Cider, based near Canterbury in south east England. “We do still package some in bottles, but that’s because our restaurant customers prefer to bring bottles to the table. Otherwise, customers want cans.”

Chris Williams, so-called digital brother at Scottish brewer Williams Bros Brewing, agreed.

Ali Wild at Caps Off Brewery

“Cans are better for the environment, and younger consumers know that,” he told The Canmaker. “They also look better – again something that appeals to the younger crowd.”

Winning by design
Williams has its own canning line at Alloa in Scotland, and co-packs for the British division of supermarket chain Aldi and a half-dozen other brands. 

It’s been packing some brews in cans for six years and has seen total output soar to 18,000 hectolitres a year.

Hannah Rhodes of Hive Honey Brewery

With a larger variety packaged into cans decorated to resemble Marshall music amplifiers – favourite kit among rock musicians – Williams Bros was among dozens of brewers at BrewLDN that used lively, witty and pop culture-linked designs to appeal to younger consumers.

Halls’ Signature Brewery, for instance, has become famous for inviting rock bands to create their own brews. The latest, selected by Bristolian punks Idles, is a ‘toasted’ lager in 500ml cans supplied by Crown. Others were created by heavy metal stars Mastodon, local band Slaves and Scottish art-pop purveyors Mogwai, among others.

“We try to sell directly to music venues because our belief is that a great gig can be ruined by bad beer,” said Halls.

Scotland-based Williams Bros is promoting its range of limited-edition flavoured beers

But even as Halls and his fellow brewers trumpeted their clever marketing ploys, a completely different product was demonstrating its potential to steal some of their thunder. 

Hard seltzers are low in calories, medium in alcohol and fizzier than prosecco. Made from fermented fruits, they have taken the US market by storm. And if the huge queues at the handful of hard seltzer makers’ stands at BrewLDN were any indication, the same may soon happen in the UK.

Trendy new British companies with hip names like DRTY Hard Seltzer and Sence are not only tapping into demand for lighter alcoholic drinks, they are also deliberately appealing to youngsters’ green values.

Pip Cider is marketing a range of unusually flavoured ciders

South London-based DRTY launched in October and has been selling online since January. Already sales of its cans-only conceptions have risen to four cases per day on Amazon and the company is shifting more each month through Ocado and Whole Foods. Director Oli Clements sees expansion continuing.

“It’s a young category but there’s so much hype coming from the US that it’s catching on here,” Clements said. “Cans are in vogue, they are part of the package and image – it’s an environmental choice as much as anything else.”

Healthy demand
Growing demand for healthier alternatives to traditional beverages has transformed the broader drinks market and seen hard seltzers eat into sales of mainstream US brewers. They’ve even contributed to a plateauing of what had until recently been double-digit annual growth in the US craft beer sector. According to American beer blog Good Beer Hunting, sales of seltzers have rocketed, with growth rates of 300 per cent in 2017 and 200 per cent in 2018.

Craft beer with an amplified brading message

The success of independent brands such as White Claw and Mike’s Hard Lemonade has prompted mainstream breweries, including Anheuser-Busch InBev and Molson Coors to launch their own varieties as beer sales flatten. Craft beer sales in the UK have similarly levelled out, and Clements sees an opportunity for domestic seltzer brands.

“I think people are going over to the US and trying drinks like White Claw and asking for the same sort of thing back home,” he said. Among his competitors are London-based Sence, which also took the fight to craft brewers at BrewLDN, Balans and Bodega Bay.

With their growth levelling off, craft brewers may decide to make their own lo-no brews. That wouldn’t be easy.

“You can’t just decide ‘okay I’m going to make my own’. It’s not as simple as that,” warned Sam Laub, co-founder of Highgate-based Gorgeous Brewery. “There’s a lot involved in making it – it’s not something I think many breweries will want to get into because it will require a lot of planning and expertise.”