Innovative, Collaborative Process Gives Printed Packaging Second Life
Fort Collins, Colorado-based Hello Brew Co. is, in a word, small. With a “one and done” approach to brewing — beers are available until they’re done, and then they’re gone — that smallness is a key part of its charm, and its value proposition. Since opening in July of 2022, Hello’s offerings have been available only in its taproom to drink on-site, or carry away fresh in a “crowler.” That is changing.
For Hello’s first canned beer release, a dark Czech style pilsner of which only 11 cases (264 individual cans) are made, owner and brewer Ryan Maliski wants a product that conveys the upstart brewery’s aesthetic. “It’s another way to share our narrative and our story with a can … a new way to share our look and our vision.” That vision includes the use of “zombie cans,” purchased from Longmont, Colorado-based Canimal, which is an upcycler and printed packaging provider, via a partnership with Boulder, Colorado-based Sticker Mule.
The Zombie Can Option
According to Lindsey Brandt, Canimal’s sales manager, a zombie can is an already-printed beverage can that is an over-purchase, over-run, or misprint that would otherwise end up in the recycling stream. Using a patent-pending process, the cans are sprayed with a food-safe, water-based varnish the company refers to as “zombie juice,” which makes re-use possible. During the process, the top of the can is sealed to keep the varnish on the exterior only. The cans, she says, are shipped to the customer “totally ready to use.”
Maliski says he was looking to acquire empty cans and learned of Canimal’s zombie cans from another brewer. He was particularly drawn by the finish of the cans, but also by Canimal’s more sustainable upcycled approach. “The more I dug into the zombie can story, the more excited I got,” he says.
Asked about the supply chain that feeds Canimal, Brandt says the company gets most of its supply from breweries. She says she receives four or five emails per week from companies with extra pallets of cans. “They are keen to get their cans to us,” she says, noting that some customers are both supplying to, and purchasing from Canimal. “Mostly,” she says, “what we’re selling trends to the small brewers.”
Environmentally, Brandt says the creation of zombie cans, versus the creation of new cans through recycling and remanufacturing, saves, “quite a bit of water, and creates less CO2.”
Maliski says Canimal was able to provide him with the small quantities Hello needs, at roughly 25% less per can than purchasing new empties. Hello, he says, has neither the need for, nor the storage space to contain a full pallet (8,169 cans) of unfilled, 12-oz., two-piece aluminum cans. While Canimal has no minimum on quantity, Brandt says the company’s average order is “roughly two pallets.” Canimal also has plans to grow. She says the company has plans to vastly expand its capacity and will be able to process up to 1 million cans per month.
Hello Brewing’s can release makes strong use of the unique finish of a zombie can. A half-label, Maliski says, is used to share the brand “without shouting.” The labels, inkjet printed by Sticker Mule using Epson SurePress technology, are elegantly designed to create a calming, minimalist look. About decoration, Brandt says roughly 30% of Canimal’s cans receive a label, while the rest are printed. Canimal offers printing through a strategic partner that uses a Hinterkopf inkjet container printer.
For businesses, the idea of “scale” is often associated with profound growth. But scaling a business can also mean gradual growth — the incremental steps taken to build a business and expand its reach. For Hello Brew, the ability to operate at a small scale, using Canimal to provide the small quantities it needs, and using digital printing to produce short-run labels that match the metrics of its small quantity approach, being both small and successful is possible. And there is beauty in helping small companies do small things very well.
This first can release for Hello is the beginning of Maliski’s desire to expand outside the taproom. Sure, he would like to get his canned product out into local stores, but he also sees the availability of canned products as a way to raise per-customer taproom revenue: “We need packaged beer ready to go.”
Brandt says Canimal helps small brewers and start-ups move into canning their products because they are willing to deal in small quantities. “This helps quite a bit,” she says, “because they get a good price and a good, sustainable product at a lower volume.” She adds that using zombie cans allows small brewers to make a defined, affordable, sustainably focused step.
The Results, Described
While the packaging that holds the product is important, the quality of that product is truly essential. It must taste good to be good. So, how did Hello Brew Company do with its first canned release?
This beer pours a dark brown that reveals a transparent copper hue when held to the light. A light-colored head stays in place atop the liquid. On the tongue, it reveals an initial, pointed bitterness that, with time, yields to a bloom of malty, almost chocolaty notes. While the flavor sticks around, offering a pleasant aftertaste that grows over time, the mouthfeel is soft and light. Overall, this is a beer and canning concept worthy of further exploration.