Packaging is about more than money for breweries

Posted at 1:05 PM, Apr 24, 2016
and last updated 2016-04-24 13:10:32-04

As more craft breweries open in Greater Cincinnati, competition for beer enthusiasts’ dollars becomes more intense.

Increasingly, breweries are turning to packaging their products not just to earn money, but in many cases as a way to further their brand recognition and loyalty.

“It definitely makes them more accessible,” said Sara Levin, brewery liaison at Cappy’s Wine and Spirits in Loveland. “We have limited taps, so there’s much more of a chance of getting sold in our store if it’s in packs.”

Cappy’s carries all of the Cincinnati brands that are available in packs, including the recently launched Old Firehouse Brewery.

Some breweries, like Rhinegeist, put a high emphasis on packaging beer. Last year Rhinegeist produced 31,470 barrels, of which 1,600 were sold on draft in its taproom. The brewery had 13 different cans and 30 different 22-ounce bottle releases.

Rhinegeist operations manager Cole Hackbarth estimated that 50 percent of all the beer the company brewed went into packages, as opposed to remaining kegged. He said this year levels should remain around the same.

“As you get bigger, that’s where the volume is,” he said. Rhinegeist upgraded its canning line, so it can produce 2,000 to 3,000 cases per day on a single shift, with four people working the line. “This new system is faster and higher quality. We were canning 24/7 last year.”

An Alternate Approach

Some established breweries prefer to take an alternate route to build their rep and attract stalwart customers. Fifty West, while expanding its operations, doesn't plan to bottle or can beers on a mass scale – at least not yet.

“We like to think when everyone else is zigging, we zag,” said Bobby Slattery, co-owner at Fifty West. “We take a lot of pride in our liquid when it comes out. We want people to get it right from the source, from the people who care about it. We sell growlers now, and it’s a great solution.”

Fifty West is expanding into outdoor volleyball and other outdoor activities, such as kayak, canoe and bicycle rentals.

“We made a decision to be the oddballs. Our business is one big road trip. It may not be the road everyone else is on, but it’s the one we think will get us where we want to go,” Slattery said. “Is a market-wide release really the right thing for our experience?

“We may miss out on opportunities to gain exposure, but our belief is if we can keep having and coming up with creative and fun experiences that will keep us relevant in the marketplace, that’s going to resonate way more than picking up a can,” he said.

Hackbarth said there is no one secret to success in the craft beer industry.

“That’s the cool thing about brewing," he said. "There’s no one way to do it, no one business model. It allows for a lot of innovation and creativity.”

The Packaging Debate 

For new breweries, though, packaging is a big consideration. Package distribution has its advantages, such as reaching consumers that live nearby but don’t frequently visit taprooms or those that live farther away and can’t.

“We are talking about distribution, exploring many different options,” said Chris Mitchell, co-owner of the soon-to-open Woodburn Brewery in East Walnut Hills. “There are too many factors to say it’s make or break. Rhinegeist and MadTree started distribution the day they opened their doors, and that’s great. It worked for them. But we can’t gauge how much beer people will consume on-site until we are open.”

There are challenges in package distribution, as well, though. This is especially true with canning, which seems to be particularly popular in Cincinnati.

“From what I’ve heard, it’s just a trend in Cincinnati,” said Levin, citing breweries in Cleveland and other surrounding areas that bottle. “I prefer cans personally for accessibility. A lot of people want cans in the summer for canoeing, going to the pool, things like that.”

“We do about a dozen cans, Zen, Truth, Cougar and seasonals,” said Hackbarth of Rhinegeist. “The one downside is cans are getting hard to get ahold of. Sourcing cans, especially for smaller breweries, will be tough.”

But he believes the advantages outweigh the problems.

“It’s a better package all around,” he said. “It’s cheaper to ship, easier to store, has zero light oxidation and it’s sturdier.”