Skip the bottle, ditch the box — wine in a can is about to break big

Underwood wine in a can
Underwood's wine in a can, one of Craft Canning's clients

Lindsey Herrema and her partners started the Can Van, a mobile canning company in 2011, inspired by the mobile bottlers who packaged wine up and down California’s wine country. “We decided to apply that to cans and beer and offer the same service,” she says.

After five years of packaging more than 3 million cans of beer for craft brewers all around the Bay Area, Herrema is returning to the beverage that sparked the idea. With ample opportunity surrounding the Can Van’s San Francisco Bay location, she and her partners are hoping to replace some of those glass bottlers by capitalizing on one California’s hottest movements: wine in a can. “If we don’t start offering this service, someone else will,” she says.

Actually, several someones already are, and more are coming. Owen Lingley of Craft Canning says he was the first in the U.S. to can wine on-site, at Underwood wines, a vintner we’ve written about before. “Wineries package once a year, their entire production, so it really doesn’t make a lot of sense for them to buy their own [canning line],” Lingley says. Wine is still a small percentage of what Lingley does — together with coffee, it makes up just 5 percent of Craft Canning’s business — but Lingley says interest is growing, and he’s recently had six wineries reach out about getting their juice in cans.

“We’re making more wine cans than we ever have, and we expect that to continue,” says Jared Brody, the business development and strategic marketing manager for Ball Corporation’s North American beverage division. Ball makes the bulk of cans used for wine in the U.S., including the only 187 mL can, which, packaged in a four-pack, makes up the volume of a bottle of wine. Ball’s European division is also the only company exporting the 375 mL cans that Craft Canning and the Can Van favor for wine.

However, these cans create one of the biggest hurdles to getting more wine in cans. The U.S. has standard-fill laws that require wine — in fact, all liquors over 7 percent alcohol by volume, including cider and spirits — to be packaged in metric containers, rather than the 12- and 16-ounce cans used for craft beer. These different dimensions mean that mobile canners have to alter the canning lines they use to fill beer cans.

“Right now with our current canning line, we can run a 375 mL can, which is just a fraction of an inch taller than a standard 12-ounce can,” says Herrema. “But in order to do any of the smaller cans or the slim cans, we would need a fairly extensive retrofit or a new canning line.”

While the slim cans are domestically produced, the 375 mL cans that have the same diameter as 12-ounce cans are only produced by Ball Europe. “You’re basically shipping air all the way [across the ocean] for thousands of dollars,” says Herrema. Ball is always looking at introducing new can sizes, Brody said, though he couldn’t confirm any plans to begin producing 375 mL cans stateside, like it does the 250 mL and 187 mL cans.

Canners would prefer to see the packaging law go altogether. “If they could just move into 12-ounce cans, I think the industry would blow up overnight,” Lingley says. “It’s a better package than a bottle. It’s more recyclable, and just from an economic standpoint, it’s a tenth of the cost of the packaging.”

There are still sizable cost hurdles for mobile canners hoping to add wine to their repertoires. In addition to the different-sized cans, mobile canners must be equipped to package a still product. Beer’s carbonation keeps its cans rigid, but flat beverages like wine and coffee need added gas to give cans the stiffness shoppers are used to. Since carbon dioxide gives wine a bitter taste, canners use a pricey nitrogen doser, a machine that injects nitrogen to fill the space between the wine and the lid of the can, creating the necessary tension. Scott Richards, head of Indiana and Michigan Mobile Canning, is hoping to start canning wine in 2016 to take advantage of Michigan’s many wineries, but knows it’s a risk. “We have to add another pretty expensive toy to our lineup,” he says.

Even Lingley hasn’t invested in all of the equipment upgrades necessary to make canning wine easy. “Getting [the cans] to within acceptable weight and tolerance ranges for coffee and wine is one of the hardest things that we do,” he says. He’s considered a dedicated canning line for still products, but says the industry is a long way from delivering a return on that investment. “I probably can more wine than anybody in the country, or coffee or still products,” he says. Yet to make his money back on a dedicated line, “I would need [the market] to be 10 to 15 times bigger than it is now, pretty easily.”

That may happen in relatively short order. “The snobbery around wine is going away,” says Ball’s Brody. “People want to bring wine to similar places that they want to bring beer. They want to be outside and they want to do activities and the can’s perfect for that.”

Herrema has no worries about whether the wine industry will continue adopting cans in the future. “It’s just a matter of us biting the bullet and investing small capital in another canning line,” she says. The opportunity is clear.

“Wine packaging is kind of like where craft beer packaging was maybe five, six years ago,” Herrema says. And anyone who’s perused the shelves at the liquor store knows how that went.