The standard 12-ounce beer can is being squeezed off store shelves as beverage makers try to one-up each other not only with what's inside their cans but what the can itself looks like.
Consumers can now choose from cans with temperature-sensitive ink indicating a drinkable chill, wider tops meant to release more flavor and simulate drinking from a glass, or re-closeable lids.
Steep competition is driving companies across all beverage sectors toward customized aluminum can shapes, sizes, colors and textures — spurring innovation, and significant investment in new technology, among the world's can manufacturers.
Seeing the writing on the wall three years ago, Broomfield-based can-maker Ball Corp. invested $400 million into growing its speciality can capabilities.
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"The primary reason (we did) is because our customers wanted us to," said Jay Billings, Ball's vice president of global innovation. "From an advertising side, it's a really tough world out there, but you can talk to the consumers through the can."
A number of marketplace changes led to the growth in specialty cans — including craft brewers no longer discriminating against the can, as well as a growing understanding of their benefits like sustainability, affordability and portability — but Ball's marketing manager Jared Brody says it comes down to the ability to differentiate a product in a teeming marketplace.
"The American beer consumer wants more and more of the latest and greatest thing, and the specialty can fulfills that from the packaging side," said Marty Jones, conductor and idea man at Wynkoop Brewing Company. "It's that specialty beer in a specialty package."
The ultracompetitive nature of the beer-can market was highlighted earlier this month when Anheuser-Busch filed a complaint with the Advertising Self-Regulatory Council against rival MillerCoors over slogans made on its Coors Light packaging, claiming to be "the world's most refreshing can" that is "as cold as the Rockies."
While the argument is between the two beer producers, Ball sits in the shadows, keeping its mouth shut. Ball is the world's largest maker of aluminum cans, producing nearly 2.5 billion cans last year for companies like MillerCoors, Anheuser-Busch, New Belgium Brewing Co., PepsiCo, Upslope Brewing and countless others.
"If our customers are talking about a feature's benefits, they've probably done their own testing," Brody said.
Ball's leadership is embracing the burgeoning specialty market, which they say sets them apart from their aluminum can competitors. Because of its proactive investment, Ball controls 47 percent of the North American specialty beverage can sector, accounting for 25 percent of its business.
However, each new product design carries risk.
"Often our customers have an idea. It's not always feasible," Billings said. "Flash-in-the-pan fads typically don't have financial rewards, so we try to look at technology with lasting power."
Ball must balance the customer's wants with its mechanical and design logistics, because, ultimately, the company is the one altering its facilities to cater to this growing trend.
"We all have some skin in the game (when we try a new product), but we try to take risks we think will pay off," said Scott McCarty, Ball's director of communication.
Pressing a can into a new shape, size or color is an expensive endeavor and is a cost that, for the most part, Ball fronts.
Ball's manufacturing plant in Golden is the company's largest in square footage. According to plant manager Mark Middleton, some specialties are more expensive than others to implement. Changing ink color or quality is a simpler process than making an aluminum can with a narrow neck or resealable mouth, which requires a whole new production line.
The company has transformed the expansive facility to include three lines devoted to specialty cans and one remaining for production of the standard 12-ounce design. It recently added the third specialty line, which is not currently running due to contractual delays with its first interested client.
While there is no guarantee that every new design will have holding power in the market, the risk for Ball has so far been worth the reward.
"Being the largest can manufacturer in the world, we have ongoing business that provides a good base of constant business as we continue to innovate," Billings said.
The company is also looking toward emerging markets that may soon be transitioning to cans from other packaging forms like glass.
"One of the things that we are seeing is that in emerging markets, they aren't always starting with the 12-ounce can. It hasn't been standardized there, so they are sometimes skipping that (step)," Billings said.
Recognizing the growing interest in energy conservation, Ball often touts the 65 percent recycled rate for cans, which is much higher than any other beverage packages. This, the leadership hopes, continues to drive sustainability-minded craft brewers and other large beverage producers toward their products.
"There's a little bit of risk with everything," McCarty said. "(But), at this point, specialty has been a success story."