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Economy & Business

Supply chain problems mean your next bottle of liquor or beer might look a little different

East End 11.04.21 7.jpg
An-Li Herring
/
90.5 WESA
Scott Smith owns East End Brewing in Larimer. In response to a shortage of aluminum cans, the brewery has bought entire truckloads of the drinkware. Smith says there are about a half-million empty cans housed at the facility.

Supply bottlenecks have reached every corner of the economy — even bottles themselves.

A shortage of glass bottles and aluminum cans is causing major headaches for local breweries and distilleries, which depend on the containers to stay in business.

4Four6 Distillery in Sharpsburg has been forced to buy bottles that clash with its chosen aesthetic — a problem in an industry where glassware is synonymous with a producer’s brand.

4Four6 has had to replace its tall, rectangular gin bottle with a squat, round design, where the company’s black and pale gold labels are all out of place.

“The bottom is on the back. This back label is on the side. It just looks hideous,” 4Four6’s distillery manager, Jerry Sunday, said, holding the empty fifth next to a whiskey still.

Sunday said, given the global bottle shortage, his shop has no other choice. "There's just no stock."

Jerry Sunday 11.03.21 5.jpg
An-Li Herring
Jerry Sunday has managed 4Four6 Distillery in Sharpsburg since it opened in January 2020. The business will release its first batch of whiskey in the spring. In the meantime, it sells whiskey imported from Canada.

Sunday said he has been working with his supplier over the past year to get 10 or 20 cases of bottles at a time, about half the amount he'd usually order. "I don't even know what they are. I don't know what they look like.”

4Four6, which also sells rum at the on-site tasting room, state stores and farmers markets, opened about a month before the pandemic arrived. And although a break on rent has helped it to survive, Sunday said the bottle shortage has prevented the spirits maker from growing.

“So I would say that's probably been the most harmful to the business because, as a distillery, we like to go out and sell to different bars and restaurants,” he said. “But unfortunately, because I don't have bottles to put the liquid in, that's prevented us from doing that.”

4Four6 11.03.21 1.jpg
An-Li Herring
Owing to limited bottle supplies, 4Four6 has shifted among the original “liberty” design of its gin bottle (left), a Bordeaux-like style (second from right) and a squat, round shape (far right).

Sunday said he’s also faced a couple of price hikes on bottles.

Hitting the bottle industry hard

It’s a simple case of supply and demand. When COVID forced bars and restaurants to close, people drank more at home. Retail alcohol sales spiked, and bottle-makers couldn’t keep up.

“It takes a lot of time and effort to produce glass, and [the industry is] not as nimble as you need it to be. So finite capacity is certainly an issue,” said Jason Mietus, who oversees bottle distribution for Veritiv, a global supply company that runs a warehouse in Belle Vernon. 4Four6 purchases its bottles from Veritiv.

Mietus said, as with other types of manufacturing, pandemic-related factory closures and a lack of skilled labor have slowed bottle production. Shipping delays have also snarled global supply chains.

Mietus noted that China had been a lead exporter of glassware to the U.S. before Trump-era tariffs began to cut off that supply in 2018. Those levies created “a domino effect that led to capacity and lead time challenges,” Mietus said.

Mietus said in a best-case scenario, the glassware bottleneck will ease in a year. He said distilleries and other businesses should prepare.

Maggie's Farm 10.29.21 3.jpg
An-Li Herring
Amid ongoing supply chain disruptions, Maggie’s Farm Rum Distillery has contended with soaring shipping costs on the sugar it uses to make its spirits.

“Don't look four months out. Don't look six months out. Look 12 months out. Make sure that you are in the line when we do start to see softening,” he said.

Maggie’s Farm Rum Distillery in the Strip District took that advice early in the pandemic. Founder and head distiller Tim Russell said he’s been buying bottles by the truckload.

Before, he’d get just a few pallets at a time, but now, he’s renting a warehouse in Penn Hills just to store the unfilled bottles.

“I'm just trying to build up a giant inventory just to make sure we don't ever run out,” he said.

Tim Russell (Maggie's Farm) 10.29.21 3.jpg
An-Li Herring
Tim Russell opened Maggie’s Farm Rum Distillery in the Strip District in 2013 and plans to move production to a facility in Bethel Park next year.

Russell began to place larger orders at the beginning of the pandemic, anticipating supply chain tie-ups. He estimates his current supply will last about nine months even as his small-batch distillery, whose rum is sold in 14 states, continues to grow.

He acknowledges that buying up drinkware could drive prices even higher. There’s also a risk prices will come down before he exhausts his inventory, meaning he’ll have overpaid. But he’s not hung up on that hypothetical.

“The worst thing that could happen is that we run out, [and] we don't have any packaging at all,” Russell said. “So it's just something we have to do to make sure we can keep supplying products.”

It's not just bottles

East End Brewing in Larimer is also facing a supply crunch, which is why it’s investing heavily in cans.

Owner Scott Smith said, after a recent shipment, his business is now storing about a half-million empty cans. “So you can see this is pretty much a floor-to-ceiling maze of can pallets. And that goes all the way back,” Smith said, standing in the brew space of the 17-year-old business.

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An-Li Herring
At the beginning of the pandemic, East End Brewing was inundated with 1,500 kegs that bars and restaurants returned amid mass closures, according to owner Scott Smith. Smith said the barrels were stacked to the ceiling of the company’s brew area, two rows deep, and filled another room.

He said the price of cans has risen by about 25% during the pandemic and that shipping costs are through the roof. He also has to search regularly for new suppliers.

But like 4Four6 and Maggie’s Farm, East End has avoided raising prices on the roughly 50 varieties of beer.

“Part of it is trying to remain competitive in the marketplace,” Smith said. “We’re kind of slow and steady when it comes to that. So before I make a price change, I’m going to be very cautious about it.”

And for now, at least, East End has lightened the burden of hunting for cans by going in on big orders with another local beermaker, Hitchhiker Brewing in Sharpsburg.