How To Start Canning Your Craft Brew Beer
Where to start when it’s time to fill, label, and multipack your product
Congratulations! You’ve been brewing craft beer for a while now. You’ve learned a lot, and made a few mistakes. Your customers, friends, and fellow brewers have high praise for your brewing skills and the brews you produce. You’re hearing from more people who want to drink your beer at home. Maybe you want to broaden your offerings, take advantage of new sales channels, or make more efficient use of your brewing equipment.
Canning has been the first choice for craft beer packaging for some time, but the pandemic increased interest in canning beer as public gathering spaces like brewpubs, taprooms, and breweries had to shift their focus to selling beer to go and finding retail sales options.
All this has you thinking about canning your craft brew; but where do you start?
If you want to start canning your craft beer, but don’t know where to start, you’re in the right place. This overview should help you understand the steps within the canning process, from brewhouse and processing to filling, labeling, and multipacking, and various solutions and approaches for each.
Begin With the End in Mind
What do you want or need to accomplish? How much demand is there? How much beer do you need to can, and what throughput speed do you need to do that in a timely manner? It’s common to focus on cans per minute (CPM), but you may need to look at how many barrels per batch you brew and how many barrels per hour a canner can process. Downtime for system failures or routine maintenance will cut into your production rate, so you need to account for that in your projections.
What’s your budget? Can you get financing? Should you try mobile canning first, or should you select and install your own, permanent system? Mobile can be expensive, but it lets you test the waters before committing to buying a system. Is contract canning an option, and can you ship your beer to the contractor while maintaining quality? What will the total system cost to have your own canning line installed, including options, shipping, and any other fees or taxes.
Will you load the line manually, or do you plan to automate this? Likewise, at the finished product end, how will you handle packaging finished cans as they exit the line? How many employees will you need to manage these tasks? How much technical skill and experience do they need?
What are the chances you will need to expand? Is there a practical way to increase production with a specific canning machine? Are your canning line components upgradeable, or will they need to be replaced?
Are the needed utilities set up, or do you need to add or extend water, power, air, or CO2 to where machines will be installed? Are there adequate and properly placed drains? Can the system easily access your brewing tanks? Do you have enough space to queue up adequate supplies so production keeps flowing?
This sets the foundation for determining the space you need versus the space you have, how it’s set up to provide maintenance access to your machinery and for overall production flow, the components you must have to start, those you should consider because they will be difficult and expensive to add later, and what you can add later for more throughput at a reasonable cost and minimal disruption. For example, an inline automatic handle applicator can be added fairly easily, while a depalletizer is something to include in your plans and design early on.
Canning Components to Consider
The end product relies on the can you start with. Garbage in, garbage out. Choosing a high-quality can and end (or lid or top) that your canning line works well with helps make sure you keep production moving at a reasonable speed and reduces waste of cans, ends, and beer because of leaks or jams in the system. Slim or standard cans? What size do you need? What end or lid type? Where will you get them? Canning lines are designed around the can and lid specs.
Important considerations when choosing a filler include: precision–don’t underfill and disappoint customers, don’t overfill and waste product; flexibility–you may need to quickly and easily change can size; speed–it adjusts to filling speed to meet time constraints or line demand variations; and oxygen pickup–it has to eliminate oxygen that shortens the shelf life of your canned brew.
Does counter-pressure filling meet your needs, or is atmospheric filling a better choice? Counter-pressure is more forgiving with products that are warm and carbonated, and these systems tend to be easier to learn. Wider adoption of volumetric filling has led to breweries realizing the benefits of more accurate filling and less product waste.
How consistent and accurate is the seamer? Bad seams leak, which means product wasted and money lost. Switching end sizes tends to be a lot more complicated than changing can size. An important part of your quality control program is seam inspection equipment, or, you can send can samples to a third-party seam tester.
Sleeves and Shrink Sleeving Applicators for Cans
Shrink sleeves are a popular choice for labeling because they offer design flexibility and deliver eye-catching cans that stand out on shelves. The numerous finishes available for shrink sleeve printing create a bold look with metalized inks, pearlescent varnish, color shifting inks, and more. When it comes to applying the sleeves, you may choose to apply sleeves by hand and select a shrink tunnel to add to your existing line, or choose to specify a complete system with shrink applicators for improved operational efficiency. Shrink sleeving is a simple, economical method to label your cans on-demand, offering flexibility to change design to meet fluctuations in demand and accounting for seasonality.
Craft Beer Multipacking Options and Solutions
The temptation is often to go with multipack packaging options that are performed manually. This approach may work for you, but if your market grows and your output increases, can your workers keep up? Can you account for increased labor and material costs to support production increases? Again, it’s best to look ahead for what you may need down the road, and set your packaging state up for long-term success.
For a small and growing brewery, multipacking offers a number of opportunities and advantages. It provides a path to increase awareness of your brand and brews, grow your sales, and consider the realm of wholesale distribution opportunities.
You have choices when it comes to materials used to multipack your products, including plastic rings, plastic handles, shrink wrap, and paper-based products like cardboard holders. Each has advantages, each requires some compromise. What is your best option for package size? Four-packs may make more sense than six-packs.
If you have a small operation and canning speed is not a major concern, shrink wrap packaging can be the right choice. Choose from 2-, 4-, 6-, and 8-pack options. This approach works well for many small craft breweries, convenience stores, co-packers, and craft beer shops.
If your sales volume is growing but still relatively low, manually applying can carriers may work perfectly for you. As your sales grow, you and your canners will no doubt need to consider inline applicators to improve efficiency and handle the increased workload.
Finally, done right, multipacking holds the promise of significant cost savings. Shrink wrap is fast and low-cost on a per-package basis, but it requires a significant investment and consumes substantial energy. Cardboard is also up there in initial investment and energy use. Handles and carriers can be cost-effective, recyclable, and versatile. You can choose from flexible low-density polyethylene (LDPE), rigid injection-molded HDPE, and paper-based with and without a plastic coating … each has advantages and drawbacks to consider.
Choosing the right multipack solution for you means identifying each option’s benefits, including shelf appeal and convenience, combined with overall operational costs and potential savings for the full system, including handles, initial required equipment investment, and energy costs.
Conveyors are key to keeping product moving from one production phase to the next. You want equipment that meets your needs and is safe, easy to use, with a long life. They should be straightforward to maintain and sanitize. You likely won’t need conveyors when you first start canning, but understanding their utility as you grow gives you a better understanding of how that might look when the time comes.
Installation, Maintenance, Service, and Parts
Your canning equipment vendor may provide installation services, or they may have a list of partner installers they can recommend.
Staying on top of your preventative maintenance schedule for each of your canning system’s components is critical. How easy is it to access the areas where work is done, sometimes daily? Failure to perform simple daily tasks like cleaning and sanitizing or ensuring bearings are properly greased will lead to more breakdowns and can trigger multiple problems at once. Product quality and safety suffer. These failures and general neglect will ultimately shorten the life of your equipment.
When it comes to minimizing downtime and handling more complex repairs, your choice of partner to service your canning line components is important. Is it easy to contact someone when you need assistance? How do they charge for service calls and repairs, and how much will it cost? Ideally, they know, understand, and have worked on a wide variety of equipment brands and automation systems and can service your equipment in a timely manner.
Choose components with robust warranties and reasonable service intervals and costs. If there are parts that are consumable, at what rate must they be replaced, and how much does that cost? You should also incorporate downtime as a variable when calculating how many cans you can produce in a specific amount of time.
Finally, it’s especially important in this era of supply chain disruption, to know that parts for your equipment are available. It’s wise to have on hand one or more of each and every key part that your machinery depends on to stay up and running. When something breaks and it’s hours or days before a replacement part arrives, you’re losing time and money.
Beyond parts availability, cost, and delivery time, the relationships you have with your canning equipment vendor are just as important, and in some cases even more so. Do you have a personal relationship with one or more people at your equipment provider? Do they provide informative counsel and advice when you are evaluating your options, need to repair or maintain your equipment, or are looking to upgrade? Can you call them directly and know they will answer? In an emergency, how quickly will they respond?
Your Next Steps
If you’re considering upping your craft beer production and starting to package your product, Roberts PolyPro and our partner ProMach subsidiary brands have a complete set of products for your processing, labeling, and multipacking needs. Our craft brew customers appreciate the benefits of our best-in-class canning solutions.
The ProMach family of best-in-class product brands supports your operation from processing, all the way through filling, sleeving, labeling, end of line packaging, and system integration to help you brew and package your craft beer to perfection, every time.
Our brands include:
Roberts PolyPro offers bottle and can handle solutions to meet the challenges of the market for plastic packaging handles and components. Roberts Polypro can handle solutions come in 4-pack and 6-pack options. Handles can be applied by hand, semi-automatically, and more.
TechniBlend, Inc., parent company of ProBrew, is a market leader in brewing and other industries. For more than 12 years, craft brewers seeking beverage processing equipment, technology, and services have turned to TechniBlend and ProBrew. Known for working with some of the largest organizations in brewing and beverages, the ProBrew team has created specific products and services designed to help craft breweries “Brew Like A Pro.”
Axon makes shrink sleeve and stretch sleeve applicators for ready-to-drink beverages, including craft beer. All Axon sleeve shrink systems can apply and shrink full body and multipack sleeves onto a wide range of container shapes and sizes. Axon shrink sleeve label applicators provide a simple, flexible, economical labeling option for brewers looking to start or scale their canning operation.
For more than 40 years, CL&D has offered a range of flexible packaging solutions to the beverage industry. CL&D provides high-quality flexographic and digital printing for most unsupported film applications, including shrink sleeves. The company produces digital short run, production quality prototypes and promotional samples to help bring products to market quickly.