Tuesday 4 July 2023

How can labelling enabled the craft beer revolution

The next time you pick up a beer can, take a closer look. How is it labelled – is it smoothly printed or slightly rough? Does it have a sticky-backed label, or is it shrink-wrapped with printed plastic? Is the label embossed or smooth? Sometimes it’s hard to tell. I picked up two cans that very much looked printed, and it’s only because I know where to look and what to look for that I could tell they were actually shrink-wrapped. 

It feels printed, but can you spot the shrink-wrap now?
Now think back 10 years, if you can! Apart from on draught, obviously, how did you buy your craft or specialist beer then – was it canned or in bottles? 

If you think it was in cans, either you lived somewhere a bit unusual back then or your memory is playing you tricks. The micro-canning revolution didn’t really kick off until around 2014 or 2015 – which was, incidentally, when I wrote one of the very first articles on the topic. It was published not in a beer magazine but an engineering magazine, for reasons which I hope will soon become clearer.

Yes, it was really only big-brand beers – and very often, cheap brands at that – that were sold in cans back in 2013, and the biggest reason was labelling

Sure, the fact that an automatic canning line cost serious six-figure sums – millions, even – was an issue. But you didn’t have to own your own line, because anyone who wanted to can a drink could get it done by a contract canning facility.

Minimum order quantities

In reality though, small producers almost never did it – because you had to get the cans labelled. That meant getting them printed, and the minimum order quantity for printed cans from the manufacturers was in six figures, half a million if you wanted the best price. Wastage in the canning process could be 10% or more, so even for a ‘short’ run of 100,000 330ml cans you might need to supply 40,000 litres. For a small brewer with a 10 hl brewkit, that’s 40 brews of the same beer! 

By the time I published that article in 2015, things were changing. You had multiple suppliers offering much smaller canning machines, both manual and semi-automatic, which is where the engineering interest came in. You could even get hand-operated can seamers to seal a lid on – these were picked up by some brew clubs and self-brew shops, and are the ancestors of the crowler machines you see in some bars today. 

Sticky labels: flexible and easy to recognise
But the problem was still labelling. Sticky labels were an obvious option, but they needed a dry surface. Applying the label before filling was awkward because empty cans crush very easily, and applying it afterwards meant you needed to dry the can, adding time and effort to the process.  

As time went by, potential solutions appeared. Cans could be dried more easily, sticky labels were more tolerant, labelling machinery got better, so even quite short runs could be canned and labelled. Label quality advanced hugely too, so you could have embossed or textured labels, or labels with cut-outs. 

Cut-outs make each can unique
This has allowed some designers to get really creative, for example at Brew//LDN this year I met Green Duck, whose cans have a dual-layer label. The first layer has complex patterned artwork specific to that beer while the second has a cut-out, duck-shaped of course. The neat trick is they don’t line up, so every can is unique, with the cut-out revealing a different part of the underlying pattern. 

The label's downsides

Labels or wraps still have to be ordered in quantity though, and when the cans go for recycling they have to be removed. The most likely way to do that is burning them off, which of course generates more CO2 and associated pollutants than ink does, as well as producing extra slag in the can smelter which must be disposed of. All of which is increasingly unpopular. 

The thing I wrote about eight years ago as the Holy Grail of can labelling has remained elusive, though, and that’s the ability to print cans in much smaller quantities, ideally on-demand. It’s like being able to simply print a single copy of a document on the office colour printer, instead of having to go to a commercial printshop for a minimum run of 500 copies, all of which will eventually go into the paper bin. 

But now that hurdle too has fallen. At Brew//LDN this year I met not one, but two companies with access to the latest Hinterkopf inkjet printers, capable of printing full-colour, full-wrap designs onto a can, waterproof and heat-resistant, and with a minimum order quantity of one. And that’s what I am going to write about next

No comments:

Post a Comment