Beer to go is nothing new in Colorado: Most breweries sell glass, plastic or stainless steel vessels, known as growlers, that they fill right from their tap lines. But some of those containers have developed a reputation for being too big, unwieldy or worse -- for letting their contents go flat after only a day or two.
At Oskar Blues -- a company whose name has become synonymous with aluminum since it canned the first craft beer in 2004 -- those materials aren't going to cut it, anyway. That's why the Longmont brewery spent two years creating a prototype for a machine that could seal a growler-sized can right at the bar and send it home with happy customers.
Oskar Blues debuted its first table-top seaming machine last November at its Tasty Weasel taproom in partnership with longtime can supplier Ball Packaging, which now makes a 32-ounce can called the Crowler.
In the months since, as word got out about the Crowler, Oskar Blues has requisitioned and sold about three dozen machines to breweries across the country, including Cigar City, Due South and Cycle Brewing in Florida; Ska and Wonderland breweries in Colorado; and Arizona's SanTan Brewing.
"The Crowler name is the trademark property of Ball, and it refers to the container itself," says Jeremy Rudolf of Oskar Blues. "But the machine we use to close it is made by a separate company, Wisconsin Aluminum Foundry. That machine is sold exclusively through us."
Table-top seamers have been around for decades and are typically used by people who can homemade goods. Most are made of steel, so Oskar Blues worked with Wisconsin Aluminum Foundry to modify their home-canning machines for aluminum by changing several pieces of equipment.
The brewery also buys Crowlers in bulk from Ball -- the minimum order is 60,000, which can make storage prohibitive for many breweries -- and then resells them to its table-top seamer customers in smaller amounts.
"We want to be as accommodating as possible. The whole purpose of this is to get more cans into more places," says Rudolph, who led the project for Oskar Blues and has done most of the sales and support work.
Other customers include bars and growler stores in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Ohio and Texas, which allow non-breweries to sell growlers.
"Different states have different laws, and it's interesting to see the types of business that are interested in this," says Oksar Blues spokesman Chad Melis. "We think these have got a lot of legs because they are a low-cost option for getting a low-cost package off premise."
The cans are filled with beer and then purged of oxygen by inserting a Co2 tube down to the bottom. Then the metal lid is attached to the can with the table-top seamer. The entire process takes just a few seconds.
As a result of the process, the beer inside can stay fresh and carbonated for weeks or months, and maybe longer. Since the cans are only used once, they don't have the sanitization problems of glass growlers, either.
"That's the only drawback as well -- that it's a one-time, one-way package," Rudloph acknowledges. "But as long as you are not a jerk, and you recycle it, it will become a can again in about a month."
The Crowlers currently start at $6 -- which is a bargain for 32 ounces of any craft beer -- and range in price, depending on the beer. "We are kind of giving them away right now," Melis says, in order to get the word out.
Oskar Blues isn't actively marketing the machines, just selling them via word-of-mouth at $3,000 each. But that could change in the future. In the meantime, though, breweries continue to show interest.
When Sierra Nevada founder Ken Grossman was in Colorado in July for Beer Camp Across America -- a traveling festival that the California brewery hosted in seven cities -- he ordered three, and took one along on a bus that several big-name brewery owners were traveling in for the festival. They even canned Russian River's Pliny the Elder, often rated as one of the top beers in the world, while they were on board.
But Melis says the goal isn't to create a scenario in which the Crowler machines are being made by the handful and used to package beers for store shelves. "This was designed for instant gratification," he explains. "For people who discover a great new beer and want to take it with them so they can drink it fresh and share it with friends."
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