The craft beverage canning trend is well underway, and consumers are coming around to the benefits of canning. Over the last few years, canning equipment has become more affordable, simpler to install, and easier to operate in the small production facility. But the cans themselves still pose a challenge, especially for the small producer. An order for a trailerload of 12oz preprinted cans (about 200,000) or 16oz preprinted cans (about 150,000) for one style is a substantial inventory investment. That order takes up a lot of room—about 450 square feet. And most importantly, that order takes a lot of faith…a firm conviction that the beer styles for the cans you order are the styles that your consumers will be buying for the long haul, until those cans are all filled and shipped to market. Of course, for an upcharge, the can manufacturers will allow you to split your trailerload between two or three styles, which mitigates the problems above, but the split doesn’t solve it.
By contrast, the small bottler has a great deal more flexibility. A 1000-bbl to 3000-bbl producer orders a few skids of unlabeled long necks, or even a whole trailerload, and then can use them for whatever they brew, quickly switching from style to style with a quick change of pressure sensitive roll labels, and developing packaging for a new style almost as quickly as the first batch is brewed. Label minimums are lower, and the one-time investment in plates and proofs for a new label is much lower than that for prep and proofing a new can.
For the canner, there’s also the challenge of handling special releases and seasonal beers. The substantial packaging commitment is a disincentive for experimentation with new styles. You may not fret much before you order preprinted cans for your flagship IPA or amber, but then it comes time to order a minimum 50,000 cans for your Special Gooseberry Helles, that huge hit in your taproom last summer. You wonder, “If this flops, I’m stuck with maybe 40,000 empty, unusable cans!” Or if you only brew 30-bbl a year of a special seasonal release, then you’re sitting on five years of inventory with those 50,000 cans. That’s about 4 years too much, isn’t it?
But there is a way to participate in the canning trend while retaining flexibility, managing your working capital, and conserving warehouse space…all without without some psychic ability to see the future. Actually…there are two ways: shrinkwrapping and can labeling.
Shrinkwrapping allows you to achieve 15-20 day lead times on new styles, 10-15 day lead times on reprints, the same style-to-style flexibility that bottlers enjoy, and a high-quality, fully-covered can package that looks and feels almost exactly like a preprinted can. Your can manufacturer delivers a trailerload of “silver bullet” cans, and you design and order shrinkwrap labels as you need them. The wrap is printed on polyvinyl shrink film which is seamed to form a tube and can be delivered sheeted (for hand application) or on rolls (for automatic application). The film is affordable and does not affect the recyclability of aluminum cans. And an order of shrink sleeves comes in a few ordinary shipping boxes—not a 53-ft semi-trailer. The brewery will need to invest in a dry heat or steam shrink tunnel (which are available in a wide range of costs and configurations) and your packaging staff can hand-apply the sheeted wraps, or can invest in an automatic applicator, such as the LSA series offered by Tripack.
To our knowledge, the Great River Brewery in the Quad Cities was the first craft brewer to shrinkwrap cans in the US. We stopped on our way through Iowa and picked up a few cans of their Farmer Brown ale, and it’s both a great beer and a great package. Labels can be ordered in quantities as low as 5,000 (although significant savings can be achieved by grouping orders to get a total quantity of 25,000 or more). To learn more about what Great River is up to, and how it’s positively impacted their brewery’s growth, read this article in Packaging Digest.
If you’re looking for a slightly less expensive alternative to shrink sleeves, there’s also the option to label cans. Can labeling allows you to achieve short lead times (10-15 working days) and is a very economical solution that gives you the style-to-style flexibility that a bottler enjoys. Again, your canner delivers a trailerload of generic, unprinted (or base printed) cans, and you order (or reorder) label styles as you need them, in quantities as low as 5,000 or 10,000. Typically, the label is a clear BOPP (biaxially-oriented polypropylene film) printed in five colors (opaque white and four-color process), but special colors, foiling, and other features of bottle labels can also be achieved on the can label. They are delivered on 8” to 14” diameter rolls and applied using just about any automatic or semi-automatic application equipment that can be used on bottles; however, they are best applied with a “spin in place” labeler such as In-Line’s 700SP.
In-Line’s Greg Brandon posted a YouTube video showing the 700SP in operation on cold, wet cans. You might have seen that video running at his booth at last year’s CBC. It’s under two minutes long, and it’s worth your time to watch. Until you see it in action, you might think a can label is schlocky and cheap-looking. So did we, until we saw them on the cooler shelf. A well-designed can label is hard to spot at a casual glance, even by experienced eyes. There’s only one major limitation to can labeling: the beveled throat of the can can’t be labeled; only the smooth sidewall.
If you’re thinking Atlas only supplies bottling materials, think again! We can provide the canning brewer with labels and shrinksleeves for cans, as well as case trays, wet-strength four-can and six-can wraps, and several configurations of 12-pack boxes for the increasingly popular variety packs. If you’re canning now, or if you’re thinking you’ll start with or switching over to cans, give us a call, and we’ll help you with your packaging plan!