Boulevard Bets $10 Million on Cans

Austin Ray

THE GIST
Citing continued growth in demand, particularly in the Midwest, Boulevard Brewing Company is embarking on a significant expansion to dramatically increase its output of canned beer.

Earlier this week, the company announced it would break ground on a $10 million buildout of a 24,000 square foot facility to host a canning line capable of filling 350 12-ounce cans per minute. To date, the Kansas City brewery has outsourced packaging of canned offerings to a number of “sister breweries,” including Firestone Walker—also owned by Duvel Moortgat Brewery—and Summit Brewing in Minnesota, the latter of which is unrelated in ownership.

“We learned that cans are becoming a big part of our portfolio, and if we want to do this right, we need to bring can production back to the brewery,” Steve Pauwels, Boulevard brewmaster, tells GBH. “They’re very popular on the coasts, but it seems in the Midwest they’re really gaining momentum also.”

WHY IT MATTERS
It’s not exactly revelatory in 2017 to note that aluminum has done a complete about-face in the craft beer industry. In fact, Pauwels concedes Boulevard was “a little bit late” with cans, having only debuted them in its portfolio back in 2014. But despite all that, the can has become hugely important to the company, accounting now for “about 15% of our business,” he says. “And it’s growing. It’s one of the fastest growing parts of our different packaging.”

To that end, when the new canning line is up and running, Pauwels says there's potential—depending on demand and brewing capacity—to grow Boulevard’s canned output ten-fold. And there are a number of different routes the company can travel to get there.

For starters, Boulevard plans to extend its canned portfolio by packaging beers that are currently only available in bottles (Pauwels would not divulge which bottle-only brews might be first to see the can treatment). Currently, the brewery cans five beers: Ginger Lemon Radler (“The leader, our biggest volume… basically the one that helped us push this decision,” Pauwels says.), Heavy Lifting IPA, American Kolsch, Tropical Pale Ale, and the company's flagship Unfiltered Wheat Ale.

Furthermore, Boulevard hopes to establish the can as a packaging format conducive to year-round consumption. Right now, Pauwels says, “they’re very seasonal for us,” performing best in the spring and summer. Meeting that seasonal demand was a driving motivation behind this expansion, he says, but the company also plans to “try everything we can” (pun intended?) to bridge the gap between seasons.

“We do a Cranberry Orange Radler in fall and winter, and that’s in cans only,” Pauwels says. “We will come up, probably, with more of these initiatives with beers only in cans in winter time, but that’s still to be determined.”

To top it off, the expansion will afford the company the ability to explore 25-ounce cans. “We think there might be a future there,” Pauwels says. However, he views this route through a more skeptical lens. Asked what he personally sees in that future, Pauwels says he doesn’t see anything. It’s more a sign of the company not wanting to be late again.

“If you told me 10 years ago, ‘Hey, the majority of craft brewers are going to be in cans,’ I’d say, ‘Yeah, sure, tell me another joke.’ But now everybody is. We’re just trying to look into the future, but we don’t have a crystal ball.”

The expansion will do more than satisfy Boulevard’s growing canned needs, too. Pauwels says the goal is to make the equipment available to its Duvel-owned sibling breweries Firestone Walker and Ommegang, depending on their respective needs and capacities.

The company plans to be packaging cans out of the new facility in the first quarter of 2018.

—Dave Eisenberg