Now Trump Is Coming For Your Beer

The president’s aluminum tariffs will squeeze small producers.

For indispensable reporting on the coronavirus crisis, the election, and more, subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter.

Since its emergence in 1935, the aluminum beer can has been a fixture on the US drinking scene. About half of packaged beer of the country’s two dominant mega-brewers—AB InBev (maker of Budweiser) and MillerCoors—comes in cans. And now their fast-growing craft competitors have discovered the allure of the aluminum vessel: About 17 percent of craft beer is now sold in cans, up from 2 percent in 2011. 

So it’s no surprise that the beer industry is united against President Donald Trump’s plan to impose a 10 percent tariff on imported aluminum. Last week, Pete Coors, chairman of Molson Coors Brewing Co.—a global behemoth that owns the US-based giant MillerCoors—published a Wall Street Journal op-ed decrying the tariff. Coors, scion of a prominent right-wing Colorado brewing dynasty, is normally a Trump supporter. Back in June 2016, he co-hosted a $10,000-per-couple fundraiser for the then-upstart presidential candidate.  

“Since January, as the president’s tariff talk intensified, aluminum prices have risen in the US, even for domestic aluminum forged from scrap,” Coors complained in the Journal. All told, he added, dislocations to the US aluminum market triggered by the tariff could cost cost his company “tens of millions of dollars each year.” 

That amount of money is tiny in the grand scheme of the Coors conglomerate’s $1.4 billion in annual profit. Though the Beer Institute, the trade group that represents big producers like MillerCoors, claims the industry’s annual hit will total $347 million, and “put breweries at a competitive disadvantage” to competitors like wine and spirits, which don’t rely much on cans. 

What about your favorite craft beer? I asked Brad Farbstein, founder and owner of Real Ale, a brewery in Blanco, Texas, that’s popular in Austin. Real Ale started in 1996 as an all-bottle operation; in recent years, it has moved aggressively into cans. Farbstein says he opposes the tariff, but adds that the cost of aluminum in a typical six-pack is “pretty small.” The tariff probably won’t force the company to raise prices to consumers; instead, it will be absorbed by Real Ale’s profit margins without too much pain, he says.  

But in the craft-brew world, Real Ale is an established mid-sized player. Bob Pease, president and CEO of the Brewers Association, the craft industry’s trade association, says the tariff will fall harder on small brewers. While the levy might translate to just a penny per can in added costs, craft brewers typically have to buy cans in massive volume to get the best price. 

“Say a small brewery buys a million cans up front,” he says. “An extra penny per can means $10,000—for small or new breweries, that could mean laying off an employee, or delaying an expansion.” 

For economic reasons, more and more beer startups are relying in cans, Pease says: Setting up a canning facility is cheaper than setting up a bottling operations, and cans are cheaper than bottles per unit, too. Brewers Association data shows that small craft operations rely much more heavily on cans than their larger peers. 

So while Trump’s trade machinations may not affect nationally or regionally available craft brands too much in the short term, they may squeeze your neighborhood brewery. 

DEMOCRACY DOES NOT EXIST...

without free and fair elections, a vigorous free press, and engaged citizens to reclaim power from those who abuse it.

In this election year unlike any other—against a backdrop of a pandemic, an economic crisis, racial reckoning, and so much daily crazy—Mother Jones' journalism is driven by one simple question: Will America will move closer to, or further from, justice and equity in the years to come?

If you're able to, please join us in this mission with a donation today. Our reporting right now is focused on voting rights and election security, corruption, disinformation, racial and gender equity, and the climate crisis. We can’t do it without the support of readers like you, and we need to give it everything we've got between now and November. Thank you.

DEMOCRACY DOES NOT EXIST...

without free and fair elections, a vigorous free press, and engaged citizens to reclaim power from those who abuse it.

In this election year unlike any other—against a backdrop of a pandemic, an economic crisis, racial reckoning, and so much daily crazy—Mother Jones' journalism is driven by one simple question: Will America will move closer to, or further from, justice and equity in the years to come?

If you're able to, please join us in this mission with a donation today. Our reporting right now is focused on voting rights and election security, corruption, disinformation, racial and gender equity, and the climate crisis. We can’t do it without the support of readers like you, and we need to give it everything we've got between now and November. Thank you.

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate