Cans are cool in 2019. You couldn’t say that 4 or 5 years ago when the entire market pivoted away from 16 oz cans after consumer demand fell. But thanks to some counter-trend brewers in New England who associated a beer style with the packaging format, cans are now consumers’ packaging format of choice.
Thankfully, canning technology has become affordable for most brewers who want to package their beer, as options range from relatively inexpensive manual one-off seamers from Oktober Designs to tabletop canning lines from Twin Monkeys to more automated and integrated units from Wild Goose, Cask, American Beer Equipment, Codi, Pneumatic Scale Angelus, and others.
But the myriad options also pose challenges for brewers evaluating the various ways to package beer for their consumers, and as with all technology, the machine alone does not guarantee great results. As you’re thinking about packaging options for your brewery, here are some tips, strategies, and techniques that can help you get the best results out of your packaging program.
Growler and Crowler Best Practices
Glass growlers are, for all intents and purposes, dead. That’s not to say that some breweries don’t still use them successfully—there are exceptions to every rule—but the days of breweries accepting dirty growlers from clueless customers are all but gone. Crowlers have taken the beer world by storm, and while the recyclable one-way packaging may be slightly less environmentally friendly than glass growlers, their shelf life more than makes up for it.
Joe Mohrfeld, director of brewing for Pinthouse Pizza in Austin, Texas, relies heavily on the crowler as a to-go format, but over the past few years has found that there’s a wide difference in the way breweries treat them.
“We always purge our crowlers, then fill very full,” says Mohrfeld. “One time the Anton-Paar mobile lab was in Austin, and we took some crowlers to them to have them analyzed. We prepared them a few ways—non-purged, CO2-purged, full, and standard headspace. It was crazy to see how different the cans were. For one, the difference between purged and unpurged was a completely different ballpark.
“Unpurged crowlers were in the 500–600+ ppb range for dissolved oxygen. Purged, if it was a lower fill, would come in around 100 ppb. But if we were purging and filling to the top, pressing the lid on foam just like a canning line, our numbers were as low as 40 ppb.”
Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine has tested crowler longevity and found that certain beers can maintain satisfactory carbonation and oxidation levels for 6 months or more in a crowler. Mohrfeld has found the same. “Internally, we’ve held crowlers for months, and they hold up really well if they’re filled properly.”
Still, crowlers (like growlers before them) are a bridge technology of sorts for brewers dipping their toes into packaging, as any filled-to-order to-go package is going to incur additional taproom labor costs (and unhappy delays in customer service on busy days). Breweries can mitigate some of that by having staff pre-fill crowlers of popular beers before the taproom opens, but that only works to a point.
Lee Cleghorn of Outer Range Brewing in Frisco, Colorado, still offers a limited number of beers in counterpressure-filled glass growlers, but the growth of their canning program has allowed them to shift resources away from that labor-intensive filling process.
“With cans, the time to deliver to-go product to a customer on busy day in the taproom is greatly reduced. The line will go from six people to twenty-five people if there are two growlers ordered because we have two bartenders, and they’re trying to fill growlers and write the beer name on it, and it’s a huge operational frustration for bartenders. So we’ve loved the transition to mostly cans. We still do growlers, of course, but it’s become a very small part of our business. Of our total on premise sales, growlers are probably 2 percent, cans are 50 percent, and the other 48 percent is draft.”
Mobile Canning Strategies
At Pinthouse Pizza, Mohrfeld currently cans with a local mobile canner in Austin but spent a year researching and observing canning runs by mobile canners at other breweries before they took the leap. The initial intention was to see how their audience responded to beer in 16 oz cans as a proof of concept, but the response, Mohrfeld says, “was insane.”
Now, they can every 3 weeks or so—enough so that they can sell every can themselves without having to distribute to other retailers. That point is important to Mohrfeld. “Our goal has always been 100 percent direct-to-consumer canning. We want to be able to control the product and control the quality—especially with mobile canning where there is more potential for variability. Being able to keep it cold until we sell it makes a big difference.”
Dissolved oxygen (DO) through well-run mobile canning lines can be surprisingly low—lower in many cases than faster, more expensive canning and bottling lines. While many larger-scale production breweries tolerate DO levels in their systems of 100 ppb or more, the hoppy beers that Mohrfeld cans require less oxygen in the package for greater longevity.
“We had Anton-Paar out during one of our canning runs to watch ours,” says Mohrfeld, “and we would see maxes around 60 ppb and minimums around 40 ppb. We were really happy with that. I think a dialed-in small canning line can do really well, dissolved oxygen–wise.”
The first place to address oxygen in packaging is the brite tank, and Mohrfeld recommends that all brewers review the paper Sierra Nevada published 7–8 years ago on the brite tank–purging curve. Additionally, Mohrfeld uses yeast to his advantage.
“We don’t filter, and we always send a little yeast over to the brite tank so it has a scavenging effect. When I was at Odell, before we had a centrifuge and were filtering our beers, we would bypass our filter with unfiltered beer just to give a scavenging effect because unfiltered beer always holds up a little bit better. When you’re putting it into a new tank, the yeast will consume some of that oxygen.”
Fill level is another way to keep oxygen out of the package, and Mohrfeld is a firm believer in overfilling.
“We fill very full cans because headspace is going to give you much more potential for oxygen pick-up. We saw that direct correlation when we had Anton-Paar out. We measured fill level by weight and would hand them cans. If we were at the low end of what would be considered a full can, our DO levels were higher than 100 ppb. But at our higher fill level/weight, we were seeing levels in the 40–60 ppb range. A ‘full’ can isn’t quite full, but if you can fill up that headspace with beer, it will improve your quality.”
It’s important that canning remain a priority for brewhouse staff even when using outside service providers because operator quality matters with mobile canning. “Whoever the operator is on the canning line really dictates the quality of the canning process,” says Outer Range’s Cleghorn.
Making the Leap from Mobile Canning
At Outer Range, Cleghorn was more than happy with the quality of mobile canning provided by Craft Canning, so it was no small decision to purchase their own canning line.
“We developed a financial model that told us, based on the price of a canning line and cost of sourcing our own packaging materials, what the break-even point would be,” says Cleghorn. “As soon as we were above packaging that break-even amount, I knew from an investment perspective that it was more beneficial to buy the canning line immediately. But from a cash-flow perspective, it was not. So that’s why I built a cash-flow model to see when it made sense to buy a canning line. And once we started hitting that level pretty much every week, we decided to pull the trigger on a canning line. The difference was thousands of dollars in cash flow to us per month.”
However, the financial benefit alone is not the only consideration. A mobile canner will store and deliver the packaging materials (cans, lids, case trays, PakTech carriers, etc).
“Once you leave a mobile canner, it’s all on you,” says Cleghorn. “You’ve got to be out there sourcing all of your packaging. For a small brewery in 2,000 square feet for production and taproom, managing the logistics of getting those materials in on time, at a good price, and managing where they’re stored when not used, is a challenge we didn’t have when we used mobile canning.”
Scheduling flexibility, however, is a positive offset. “Having our own line and being able to postpone a day if we need to (whether it’s equipment issues or from the standpoint of making sure that the product is stable and ready before it goes into the can)—being able to control when the beer goes into the can has been a great thing for us,” says Cleghorn.
The other primary argument for Outer Range was the institutional knowledge gained and maintained in their brewery by owning and operating the equipment.
“From seeing mobile canning operations on the East Coast and seeing what happens when an operator you don’t control moves on (and the effect that has on your beer), I didn’t want to expose our company to those risks later on,” says Cleghorn. “In buying a canning line, one of the major motivating factors was that I’d be able to train my own people and be able to ensure the stability of operators for the long-term for our packaging program.”
No matter how you package, attention to detail in reducing oxygen in the finished package can be the difference between a 60-day-old fresh beer and an oxidized mess.