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One Can, Many Beers

Brewers who want to get the popular package off to market, but don’t have the budget to buy cans for each individual beer they make, are getting creative with preprint

John Holl June 22, 2018

The package that is most popular with craft-beer drinkers, especially those who frequent and support smaller breweries, often poses a logistical problem for brewers. Cans—no matter whether they are 12-ounce, 16-ounce, or some other size—require storage space and are expensive, no matter whether they are preprinted or later outfitted with paper labels.

Many can manufacturers, such as the Ball Corporation, require that when breweries purchase cans, they do so in specific quantities, often 100,000 or more at a time. For breweries that produce only a few hundred or thousand barrels of beer per year, it can be a struggle to fill all those cans in a reasonable time or impractical to order so many for just one beer when today’s consumers require variety.

A growing number of intrepid brewers have found a workaround, ordering one “generic” printed can for the brewery and finding ways to alert customers as to what’s inside.

Generic Cans and Labels

“We can have five different beers out in the market at any time, and it’s just not practical for us to order a million cans,” says Tommy Bibliowicz of 4 Noses Brewing Company in Broomfield, Colorado. So, for the past several years, his brewery has been using one generic can and a labeler to affix stickers to the can to let customers know what’s inside the can. It’s been extraordinarily helpful, he says, allowing the brewery to quickly change beer offerings without having to wait for new labels or cans to arrive. Faster turnaround to market has meant testing a variety of beers in the market to see what resonates with consumers. It also lets them tweak their regular and seasonal lineup as appropriate. He estimates that the brewery has released about twenty different sticker-on-a-preprinted-can beers over the years.

Bumper Stickers

While 4 Noses has a labeler, one of the first craft breweries to try the generic-can method, Sun King Brewery in Indianapolis, did it the old-fashioned way: by hand. Cofounder Dave Colt says that starting in late 2010, the then-young brewery wanted to get some special releases to the market but couldn’t afford a truck trailer (or even half of one) of specific cans for the different beers.

“We started thinking about bumper stickers—how they stick to metal in all kinds of cold and wet weather—so we went to Kinkos, got a generic sticker, slapped it onto a can, and tried it out in all kinds of environments. It worked, so we went with it.”

“It” was a fully printed Sun King Brewery can, government warning and all, with a space for a clear sticker strip with a beer name printed on it. Following TTB approval, which Colt says was painless once they learned how to phrase the packaging the right way, the brewery implemented the can, finding it an “excellent [way] to get around the can manufacturer’s minimums and be able to release a wide range of beers without spending a lot of cash.”

As beers such as the brewery’s lager or Scottish ale rolled off the packaging line, employees would have a “sticker party,” making sure each and every can was labeled by hand. Depending on the size of the run, these sessions could have run from just a few hours to all day.

As Sun King has grown (last year they made 35,000 barrels of beer), most of their core beers and special releases now have their own printed cans. However, when it comes to the King’s Reserve line of wood-aged and sour beers, the brewery still has sticker parties for those, affixing wooden labels to a spot on the cans that’s deliberately been left blank.

Just a Sharpie

At the Rockford Brewing Company in Rockford, Michigan, they don’t need to have sticker parties when canning their beers; all employees need is a Sharpie. The brewery, founded in 2012, started canning last year after installing an Oktober Can Seamer for 16-ounce cans.

“At first, we just thought we’d have a generic label and employees would write on [the label] what was inside,” says Co-owner Seth Rivard, with a nod toward how many breweries identify crowler fills at breweries. “Then, I just thought, why not have all of our brands on one label and we could just check off what’s inside. I asked the designer to make the checklist, and I haven’t thought much of it since. People think it’s cool and unique.”

Sixteen-ounce cans are filled much in the same way crowlers are at other breweries, behind the bar and to order for single purchases. Folks who want to walk away with a 4-pack can find them at a fridge in the taproom where different styles are clearly marked on the shelf.

Committing to multiple specific beers on a label isn’t without its pitfalls. During our conversation, Rivard realized that one of the beers listed, Paradigm—an American pale ale brewed with all Michigan ingredients—hadn’t actually been brewed in quite some time, and there were no plans to bring it back anytime soon.

“I’m cool with that on there at least for now,” he says. “We’re not in a hurry to change that label, and when we do, it won’t be a problem to take [Paradigm] off.”

The Date Coder

While many breweries use these generic cans for a variety of beers, where the cans make the most sense, especially with today’s consumer demands, is with IPAs.

At Station 26 Brewing Co. in Denver, Colorado, the brewery began its Single Hop IPA Series as a taproom-only offering. As they moved into packaging, the brewery wanted to get the same beer out to stores but realized that changing cans each time they changed the hops would be problematic.

So the brewery settled on a single printed-can design for the Single Hop IPA Series, and on the bottom of the can, they use the date coder to reveal the variety of hops used in the final product. A new IPA is released every two to three months, says Brewery Operation Manager Dustin Darker, meaning that since they started using this approach two years ago, they’ve been able to put out seven different beers with the same can. To help consumers walking the aisles of package stores more easily identify the kind of hops inside, the brewery also prints the varietal on the cardboard packaging that holds each 6-pack of 12-ounce cans.

It’s a similar situation in Connecticut where Two Roads Brewing Company just released its SHOP (Specialty Hop) series. They, too, are printing the hops used on the bottom of the can and then adding the beer to variety packs where the specific hops is mentioned on the packaging.

As breweries grow, flexibility can be harder to achieve when it comes to beer releases. Collin Kennedy, Two Road’s senior marketing manager, says this program will allow brewers to experiment with different hops during the course of the year while still staying within the portfolio.

The brewery launched the series with a Comet-and-Galaxy-hopped beer. One with Denali is up next, and beyond that, brewers are still running trials on what could be next. The brewery has the ability to change the recipe monthly, Kenney says. “There’s room for flexibility; we plan only about two or three months out,” Kennedy says, giving brewers a chance to release a beer just when a particular hops has a buzz about it or when a variety becomes available from growers.

Even four decades into this renaissance, brewers are still a scrappy, money-saving lot, finding ways to push the envelope of taste, economics, and creativity. With this current trend, it’s worth reminding consumers to give that can in the cooler a closer look. There might just be something new inside.

John Holl is the Senior Editor of Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine®. Email tips and story suggestions to [email protected].

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