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A Crush on Cans: Ball Packaging

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It's American Craft Beer Week - seven days that even the United States Congress felt should be set aside for drinking micro brews. But Colorado's beer culture is worth a deeper look, since 100 craft breweries operated here in 2008, producing 75,000 barrels of delicious beer.

Of particular interest is the continued growth of canned micro brews, a trend that started in 2002 at Oskar Blues Brewery in Lyons and continues with at least seven other breweries that now can their beers and two that are about to start.

To laud the pioneering spirit of Colorado's canned crusaders, Westword is featuring an online article each day this week about some aspect of craft-beer canning. Click here for previous stories on Oskar Blues, Ska Brewing and the Breckenridge and Wynkoop breweries; look below for today's story on the company that makes the cans.

Ball Packaging

God bless beer!

Those are the sentiments of Jay Rein, quality assurance supervisor at Ball Packaging's Golden canning plant. Soda sales have gone flat in a sour economy, but canned beer sales have picked up as people switch from bottles to a cheaper form of liquid therapy.

In fact, if things go well for the company - a division of Broomfield-based conglomerate Ball Corporation - the plant could add a third canning line to the two that already fill this factory at the corner of 44th Avenue and Indiana Street. And that's saying a lot because the two lines - one makes twelve-ounce cans, the other produces 24-ounce bad boys - turn out four million aluminum cans a day, every day, almost 365 days a year, Rein says. (For more on the tour, see below.)

Coke, Dr. Pepper, Joose, Mountain Dew, Coors, Tecate, Miller Lite, Big K Root Beer. You name it, Ball probably makes, labels and ships the can it comes in. But Ball also makes cans for seven Colorado microbreweries (Oskar Blues, New Belgium, Ska Brewing, Upslope Brewing, Steamworks, Arctic and the Wynkoop) and 27 other craft brewers nationwide that are currently canning or planning to can their beer.

A minimum order at Ball is 24 pallets, or 196,056 twelve-ounce cans - far more than some of these small breweries could sell in a year - but the micro brewers and Ball have worked out an arrangement with a middleman, Cask Brewing Systems in Canada, which also sells the small canning lines that craft brewers like Oskar Blues, New Belgium and Ska Brewing use to fill those cans and seal them up.

So while Ball could make a year's worth of cans in less than a day for all the craft brewers in the nation combined, the brewers themselves are relying on that blip on the Ball radar screen to be smooth enough for them to get their money's worth. The Wynkoop Brewing Company, for instance, will pay $30,000 for its first batch of cans this year, says head brewer Andy Brown.

"Being able to purchase smaller numbers of cans has certainly been a big driver behind craft breweries using cans, because they do not produce or sell anywhere near the amount of beer that major breweries do," says Ball spokeswoman Jennifer Hoover.

Last summer, Ball added a new kind of technology called Eyeris, which can reproduce high-resolution, photo-quality images on the side of the can. New Belgium was one of the first to try out the technology (which costs extra) for its brand-new Sunshine Wheat cans; the cans feature a green and yellow watercolor painting of wheat and a landscape.

And Sunshine Wheat is just one of many beers that will be canned for the first time this year in Colorado. Others include Oskar Blues's Mama's Little Yella Pils, Ska's Modus Hoperendi and True Blonde Ale, Steamworks Kolsch, Breckenridge's Avalanche Ale, and Wynkoop's Railyard Ale and Silverback Porter.

God Bless Beer, indeed.

A Cantastic Voyage

The canning process starts with 10,000-pound coils of thin aluminum sheeting that are unrolled and stamped into a rough, can-like shape. From there, the vessels travel through a series of massive green, yellow and blue machines that continue to shape the cans at a rate of 1,500 to 1,800 per minute. The automated machinery then adds the neck around the top edges, reshapes the cans, trims them, washes, dries and sprays the insides with a food-safe polymer coating and then applies a logo -- Tecate, while I was there.

Cameras that look for holes, scratches and other defects scan each can as it races by -- so fast that the human eye can't catch up. The rejects are tossed out into giant bins that look like trash cans on the day after a frat party. The whole process is overseen by 300 employees, who typically work twelve-hour shifts, four days on and four days off.

Rein guided me through the plant using a microphone hooked up to earphones to keep out the deafening noise of the can-making machinery. He also kept me from being run over by fork lifts and electric cars that scooted every which way.

Meanwhile, another series of robotic machines stamp out the tops of the cans and the tabs that you use to open them. The tops are added later by Ball's customers.

When they're done, the cans take an automatic spiral staircase up to an area where they are loaded onto shipping pallets - 8,169 12-ouncers per, or 4,082 24-ounce cans. After that, the pallets are stacked four high by forklifts and later loaded on to trucks, where they take off for destinations as close as the Coors plant a couple of blocks away and as far as California, Georgia and Mexico, where they are filled and the lids added.

And from there, well, that's where you come in. Cheers.

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