Yes, you can be a connoisseur of both creative packaging and fine brews.
Great beer packaging will whet the appetite of potential buyers.
There are a lot of ways to package your beer or cider for retail sales. Will you go with the popular and traditional 6-pack or the more specialty brand 4-pack? Is your brewery ready for a 12-pack or maybe a mixed pack or gift pack? Most breweries start out as a draft only, but what happens when you’re ready to make the next move in your brewery’s development: packed beer or cider?
The first step for any producer is to decide what size package you’re going to start with. Most new producers tend to go with the most basic introductory package: the single-serve package; meaning a 22 ounce, 750ml, or 375ml bottles. When it comes to the single serve package, your first concern for corrugated product will be the mother carton.
Definition: corrugated is the term to use when referring to the type of product you’ll need for your mother carton. This is the type of material with an outer wall, inner wall and a corrugated layer in between.
Mother cartons allow bottles to be carried safely.
Most producers will start out with the most basic and least expensive package combination: a 22oz in a plain brown box. This allows a producer to interact with most mobile bottling companies who mainly specialize in this size. Consumers are used to this size as a new package from newer producers. It makes for a good “sampling” size for new & unfamiliar products. This unmarked box allows you to affix your beer’s label to the outside to identify it. But what happens when you want a fancier mother carton?
Higher end mother cartons look better when put on display. They’re more eye catching and help relay and build your brand’s image. If the liquid in the bottle and the brewery behind it have a premium image; an attractive, glossy mother carton can help extend that image to the bottle shop and grocery store display. However, this will add to the expense per carton. When shopping for a producer, ask about quantity discounts. If you have the money and space to store a larger order, you can get a better price.
Bottle Carrier/Baskets - Material Grade
If you’re ready to release a 12oz bottle, the most common smaller size in the United States, you’ll be looking for a producer who can make a bottle carrier (sometimes referred to as a “basket”) that advances your brewery’s needs. Before we explore the difference between 6-pack and 4-pack carriers, we should look at the material of the carrier.
Your new carrier should be made from “Wet-Strength Beverage Board” which is designed to meet the needs of beverage producers and the varied end consumer uses. It will retain 80% of its strength when wet which is the real benefit of this grade of board. Once your package leaves your brewery, it will be subject to temperature and humidity variances that will create cardboard weakening condensation. You can find producers who sell non Wet-Strength Beverage Board carriers, but you probably shouldn’t use this product even if it is significantly less expensive. Your brand image and product safety/integrity is worth more than the savings.
Not all cardboard is the same.
I spoke with Robert Drumm, President of Atlas Labels & Packaging, about the properties you should look for in your carriers. Atlas uses 80% virgin fibers which give much better strength than recycled products that come from a variety of sources. The combination of longer virgin fibers and special resins create a product that will hold its strength in humid environments and protect your bottles and consumers from failed carriers and broken bottles. A failed carrier and a cut customer can lead to litigation. If you wish to read more about majority virgin fiber carriers vs majority recycled carriers, check out Atlas’ post about the subject.
Bottle Carrier/Baskets - 4-Pack or 6-Pack
Each of the main pack sizes serves a purpose, it all depends on where you're trying to position your individual beers. Many breweries use both in their lineups. Sierra Nevada Brewing releases their frontline full time beers and seasonals in the 6-pack and their special releases like Bigfoot Barleywine or Narwhal Imperial Stout in 4-pack. For instance, here in Oregon, you can buy either a 6-pack of their Pale Ale for around $10 or a 4-pack of Bigfoot for the same $10.
Sierra Nevada Brewing uses a 4-pack in their special release beer, Narwhal.
This is the trick. The 6-pack is used for frontline volume beers. The 4-pack is used for higher value beers. The 4-pack keeps the price for the total pack down so there’s less of a perceived sticker shock. The individual bottles cost more than the comparative 6-pack option, but the overall pack comparison is more closely aligned.
Besides the added value of a more limited/high-cost beer, you’ll need to figure in the cost of the carrier itself. On average, according to Robert Drumm, 4-pack carriers are about 20-25% more expensive than 6-pack carriers, when you figure them by the cases, i.e. 4x6-packs vs. 6x4-packs. The individual 4-pack is slightly less expensive, but when you add up 6 vs 4, the price tips the other way.
Bottle Carriers - 12-packs and Mix/Variety-packs
Most breweries don’t start their packaging programs with 12-packs. This package size is for higher volume products, usually the brewery’s flagship line. Typically a brewery will introduce a 12-pack to its lineup when they’ve achieved a fairly high volume base and chain demand for the product.
12-packs are reserved for high-volume product.
The other option you see most commonly in the 12-pack carrier is the increasingly popular mix-pack or variety-pack. These packs allows a brewery to offer an array of their product. Often a seasonal or special release will be included to entice the consumer into purchasing the pack. If there’s something in the pack the consumer is really interested in and they can’t get it elsewhere, they’re more likely to buy it. This is a good way to introduce a consumer to a brewery’s main beers.
The big thing to understand about variety packs is they are more labor intensive. Automated bottle packing equipment won’t mix the packs for you. Each pack will need to be individually packed by hand. This can lead to increased costs. You’ll have to decide on whether to increase the costs accordingly or cut your margin and keep the mixed 12-pack closer in price to your other packages so the package is more enticing.
Whether it’s a standard 12-pack for a variety 12-pack, you’ll want to consult with your distributor on whether you should deliver the 12-packs loose or in a tray. Having a tray holder added to the package will add costs to your purchase. Other factors to consider when deciding between purchasing the tray or not will be your state’s laws. For example, Pennsylvania requires a case of 24, or if you’re selling to a price club warehouse which often prefers a full case of 24 as the selling unit.
Producers of packaging will have several shapes to choose from depending on your package and bottle size. If you want a unique bottle carrier or alternative package like a gift box, your producer can build you a custom design. Say you want higher walls or a custom shape or little windows that show the labels. You can get this. But of course, it will cost more. How much will depend exactly how exotic your design is. The production plates will definitely add cost to your overall purchase. But the more you order over time, the more the initial production costs will be amortized.
Selecting a Producer
When I asked Jason Yester of Trinity Brewing, who is introducing his first 4-pack 375ml bottle package after only selling single serve 12/375ml cases, about what the main factor was in choosing his producer, 5280PKG, his response was one word: Price. His answer may represent the majority, but his reasoning remains in the minority. “I was buying my packaging out of Eastern Canada. The shipping was about $4,000. Now even with custom boxes and added packaging, I’m paying less.” 5280PKG is located in Denver, a short distance from Trinity Brewing in Colorado Springs. 5280PKG stores the packing at their facility for Yester, which saves him space in his tiny brewery. He can order what he needs - when he needs it.
If you don’t have a producer in mind, take a walk down the grocery store aisle. Grab a some 6-packs or 4-packs and look for the manufacturer. If you like the look, shape, and texture, give the producer a call and see if they can meet your needs. There are six key things you’ll need to investigate:
- Lead Time: Atlas Label & Packaging, as described by Robert Drumm, has about a 4 week turnaround for first orders. The 1st week involves the creation and approval of proofs. Then there are another couple weeks for production. Once you add in a few extra days here and there, you’re looking at about a month. After the first run, you’re looking at about 2-3 weeks for your next batches. Each supplier will be different. You’ll need to investigate the lead time you’ll need for any initial purchases and follow-up orders.
- Minimum Runs: You’ll want to find out what the minimum productions runs are along with where the discount breaks are. If you can afford a slightly larger run, the price break may be worth the upfront investment in long term savings.
- Design: Although most breweries get their packing designed by firms, many producers do offer in-house design. A word of advice from someone who has seen a lot of poorly designed packaging: Get your imagery designed by a professional. Often times, people trust a friend who fancies themselves an artist. This can be a costly and unattractive mistake that can slow the development of your brand.
- Pre-produced Styles: Producers will have a variety of standard shapes and sizes to choose from. You’ll want to investigate how many and if they have one you think will work for you brand imaging.
- Storage: Does the producer offer storage on-site or do you have to take receipt of your entire purchase?
- Shipping: From how far away will your product be delivered? A good deal can be entirely lost in shipping costs.
The Road to Packaged Beer & Cider
There are a wide variety of small, medium, & large producers of mother cartons and bottle carriers to choose from when it comes time to seek out packing for your brewery. You’ll want to investigate all your options, ensuring you’ll be getting quality material (Wet-Strength Beverage Board) to meet your needs. Whether your new release is going to be priced at a specialty 4-pack tier or at a flagship 6-pack, you’ll need to find a producer that can turn your design and brewery’s image into a tangible pack that will help advance your brewery’s sales in the off-premise world. Ensuring you’ve done your research on every aspect of your new packing will lead to a successful rollout.
If you liked reading this article, you may also like: How to Build Your Craft Brewery Brand.