Wine | Packaging
Why the future for wine in cans has arrived
Not one to normally get excited, Chris Losh has surprised even himself with the level of enthusiasm he is (finally) mustering for a development in the wine industry. Credit must go, then, to his 'can-do' attitude.
en years ago, if I'd told you that I currently have six cans on my desk, you'd have assumed either that I was writing about beer or that I had a raging soft drink habit.
But, all of these cans contain wine. And, in 2021, that doesn't even seem particularly unusual.
The last time I reported on canned wine was a couple of years ago, when my take was that, while they looked exciting in theory and ought to be made to work, it all felt slightly academic. Now, the number of launches alone shows that we are steadily moving from theory to actuality.
Last year, Euromonitor estimated the can market at 295m units, and predicts it will hit 440m by 2024. This is double where it was in 2017. Growth has been steady at 10% a year and Euromonitor sees this rate continuing.
I'd argue that this is too conservative and, rather like the screwcap explosion, we could be on the threshold of something much bigger.
Can it make sense?
Cans have always had plenty going for them. But now, their USP chimes very neatly with trends in society. You can see how much this is true by switching the can/bottle situation round. Imagine that 99% of the world's wine was sold in cans, and someone was attempting to break into the market with 75cl glass bottles.
They'd be told that they were too big, heavy and fragile; that clear bottles were susceptible to light strike; that the cork closures were technically imperfect and unnecessarily fiddly, and that they didn't fit modern 'single-serve' consumption patterns.
In other words, they might be okay for some situations but, generally, cans are better.
Eurostat estimates there are 75m single households in the EU alone, and single-serve can sizes (particularly 18.7cl or 25cl) are hands-down the most convenient format for this demographic.
Singles can crack open a can without feeling under pressure to finish a bottle (or to finish it within two days); couples can drink a different wine each, according to their preference; it's easier for the health-conscious to reduce or keep track of their units, while explorers can cheaply and easily try myriad different wine styles.
Not only that, but cans are light to transport, relatively indestructible, and fully recyclable.
There is still a large risk there for every consumer goods manufacturing company because of their reliance on packaging and shipping.
Can consumers latch on?
So they're green, convenient, fit the single/on-the-go lifestyle and are affordable. It's no surprise that canned wine has surpassed 1.5-litre bag-in-box in the US, according to market research firm Wine Intelligence.
Of course, all of this comes with a caveat: namely, that canned sales are still minuscule. That same Wine Intelligence data puts canned wine sales at or near the bottom in the UK, US, and Sweden in terms of wine sales by format. However – crucially – in all three markets, the format is growing, despite the fact that consumer awareness is still very low.
Only around 40% of wine consumers in the UK and US even realise you can get wine in a can, while in Sweden it's just 16%. This, in other words, is a format where the trade is still some way ahead of the consumers. There's a long way to go yet.
The good news from the perspective of can producers is that once the wine-drinking public are aware of cans, they see few negatives. They're curious to try cans out and like their convenience and recyclability.
The only downside is that they're not seen as something you might take round as a gift. Even the most ardent defender of cans would struggle to argue that this is their strongest selling point.
Certainly, cans seem to be less contentious than screwcaps, which were adding a non-traditional closure to a highly-traditional format. From a wine perspective, at least, cans are a new idea, and come with little baggage.
It doesn't hurt either that so many craft beers have made the shift from bottle to can over the last decade either. It may be a convenient format, but it's also one that is considered premium, rather than budget.
Branding can make a difference
Oddly, given all this, one of the elements holding back canned wine could be the brand owners themselves. The majority of wines I've been sent to try seem to be breezy 'Sauvignon' type white wines or rosés. Reds are usually in the lighter 'Beaujolais' spectrum. Oaking is rare or minimal. They're 'pleasant' rather than 'ambitious'.
There's no technical reason for this. Since cans are inert, literally any wine style can be put into them. It seems to be more a feeling on the part of the producers that consumers expect wines in this format to be fruity and refreshing rather than richer and more complex.
This could, I suppose, be a hangover from our association with the sound of a ring-pull with 'refreshing' soft drinks. To me, it also looks like a missed opportunity – as though the industry is painting itself into a corner.
One wine-bar owner told me he is incredibly excited about the potential of cans in hospitality, but warned that the industry's message needs to focus less on the packaging format and more on the contents – just as it does with glass bottles.
Sure, it's great for venues that cans make it easy to create a range of easily-storable, single-serve, by-the-glass wines – particularly for non-wine-focused venues.
But, the packaging benefits should be an added extra, not the focus of the story. Why not a Rioja Reserva, an oaked white Burgundy, or an old vine Barossa Shiraz?
The potential for cans in wine is enormous. But, it will only be when the packaging message becomes as inert as the packaging itself that they will properly be able to fulfil it.