By Martin Constable, chairman, The Can Makers

The term ‘craft’ continues to dominate many areas of the drinks industry, with soft drinks being the next big craft opportunity, inspired by the huge success craft beer has been enjoying.

A new generation of entrepreneurial producers, including Windsor & Eton, Uprising, Concrete Cow and Beavertown, have been successfully competing with the big brands, each one bringing its own unique and special flavours to the craft scene.

Artisan techniques and personalised stories are giving consumers an experience as well as a great drink, and this trend looks set to continue. Let’s take a look at what’s driving this and why cans are increasingly becoming the pack choice for these innovative new brands.

Market is in new growth phase

The UK’s craft drink sector for alcohol and soft drinks has seen significant growth since 2014. For example, more than 500 craft breweries opened in just 12 months in the UK — an increase of 55% since last year — reflecting our nation’s thirst for craft beer.

Craft beer is continuing to grow at a pace, with overall sales up 85% on last year. There’s been an influx of new British start-ups inspired by local heroes like BrewDog, worth in the region of £1bn. Attracting affluent, young singles and couples, it’s the type of beer that’s important to this group rather than the price.

Retailers are stocking a much larger range of craft beers and ciders, spurred on by demand as well as an increasing commitment to source locally-available brands. Cans now account for more than a quarter of craft beer sales in terms of grocery multiples and off-licences. So, why are cans proving so popular for craft producers?

Canned craft drinks are on trend, appealing to consumers everywhere — delivering a great tasting, premium product in an easy-to-drink, infinitely recyclable pack. Metals are natural elements that maintain their physical properties forever. This means once metal enters the material-to-material loop it can be recycled again and again with no loss of quality.

Up to 80% of all metal ever produced in the world is still available for use, and 74.7% of metal packaging is recycled in Europe, making it the most recycled packaging. Beverage cans have a very high recycled content — each can is made of at least 50% recycled materials. This is important to consumers.

Beverage cans make up by far the largest sector of the 180,000 tonnes of aluminium packaging placed on the market during the year, with the UK being the largest beverage can market in Europe, and aluminium the dominant metal used for can manufacturing.

By 2016, 70% of aluminium drinks cans in the UK were recycled, according to the Aluminium Packaging Recycling Organisation. Reaching this milestone is a major contribution to the European recycling ambitions to not only reach but exceed an average 80% recycling rate for metal by 2021.

Consumers’ love of soft drinks in cans is backed up by 2016 European research into consumer perception of canned drinks, with 71% of UK consumers feeling they taste good and more than half drinking from a can at least once a week. This figure increased to more than three-quarters for 14- to 17-year-olds, linked to a love of energy and sports drinks, which are seen as “cool and trendy”.

Millennial appeal

Craft brewers worldwide are choosing cans to maintain the all-important taste and look of their drink. It is kept protected, fresh, and sealed from light and air. This is important, as any change to the taste or look is usually the result of oxidisation or an exposure to UV light. This can change the taste of the drink rapidly.

The market for craft soft drinks is hot on the heels of craft beer and cider. It’s part of a wider trend that sees health-conscious millennials drinking less alcohol, as well as seeking out brands that have personal stories to tell, have a strong environmental story, utilise more natural ingredients, and offer new taste experiences.

Canned craft drinks are increasingly recognised for their innovative 360-degree graphic design. Many up-and-coming soft drink and beer brands are setting the standard for exciting, bright and trendy cans, giving instant shelf appeal, while keeping that all-important artisan look and feel.

These bold designs are helping craft brands to secure the can as a premium pack choice. Cans also chill down quicker and are easier to store and distribute, which only adds to their appeal.

The success of small indie brewers and soft drinks producers can also be attributed to the growth in choice of low-volume mobile and contract canning companies. These options are far more affordable and a great stepping stone to setting up an in-house canning line.

Mobile canning — ideal for small or one-off brews — means brewers can retain control and feel confident about the handling of their beer as the canning is done on site. Contract canning comes into its own for drinks producers with runs of, say, more than ten barrels.

Unsurprisingly, this large increase in UK drinks producers is resulting in greater domestic competition. So, for many craft brands, exporting is the logical next step. UK Trade and Investment found that those who export are 11% more likely to survive. Cans are the ideal pack choice for exporting, due to their small carbon footprint and ease of transportation. The quality of beer is also maintained, despite being transported vast distances. Cans are also less likely to suffer breakages compared to other pack formats, and are tamper resistant and tamper evident, offering consumers peace of mind.

Millennials’ thirst for new experiences, particularly around food and drink, continues unabated. Craft drinks in cans, whether from brewers or soft drinks makers, is in growing to match this. The opportunity for independent drinks companies, offering new tastes and brand experiences, has never been so strong.