The joke reel video above (also posted on our Facebook page) shows Warehouse Manager Casey O’Donnell trying to hand customers a four-pack of our top selling Be Hoppy IPA only to have the cans fly out of the flimsy four-pack rings and crash to the taproom floor. Can after can bounces around Casey’s boots in the video. The punchline comes with a smile on O’Donnell’s face and the cannons of the 1812 Overture booming on the background soundtrack as a new ring handle securely holds the cans in place — success — no loose cans plunging floorward. The 60-second video encapsulated Wormtown Brewery’s several months journey finding the Roberts PolyPro can handles showcased in the video.
How Wormtown Brewery found the right handle for can packs
As part of our expansion from a 10-barrel to a 30-barrel brewhouse that began in 2015, the economics of bringing packaging operations inhouse made economic sense. When considering the capital cost, staffing, training and contractor communication time involved in building an automated bottle and can packaging line, ring handles may seem like a small consideration. Can packs, however, would often be the first touch point customers have with our beer. Cans that fall onto the floor or are overshaken when trying to yank them out of a ring handle create negative impressions. We knew this first hand from customer feedback on the mobile canning developed packs that we used prior to the new inhouse packaging lines.
At a recent Craft Brewers Conference, we visited various handle suppliers. We stopped the longest at the Roberts PolyPro booth. The first thing that caught our attention was the open top design of the patent pending Roberts PolyPro handles. We had experience with handles that covered the can top. In our opinion these covers trap moisture, creating an environment for mold growth. You can wipe off the top, but you’re not going to want to drink out of the can. Even when pouring the beer into another container there is the “ick” factor. If you’re going camping or at some other outdoor activity, you’re probably packing light and you want something that is going to be ready to go, not a can you need to find a clean towel to wipe off. Yes, open tops caught our attention.
We also liked the overall appearance of the handles. The substantial handles stand out on a four- or six-pack. If these handles caught our eyes, they’d likely do the same for consumers. Subsequent feedback proved our initial impression correct — consumers like the look. While Roberts PolyPro offers every PMS color as an option, we thought the standard black, which is always in stock, would look great with our Be Hoppy pre-printed black and yellow motif cans. We liked what we saw, but how would they go on and stay on?
Working with the new handles
Via email, we ordered a trial batch of handles. When they arrived, we set aside an accumulation table where two members of our packaging team would manually create 4,500 four-packs in 750 cases during a trial run. These team members spent about a half hour getting the feel of the handles, looking for the best process. Each ring of the four rings of a four-pack only have two lips that fit over the rim of the can. While the lips have good gripping power, they also require less pressure to fit over the rims. The down pressure worked best, using shoulders, arms and wrists, and was faster to apply than rings with 360-degree contact with the rim. After 750 cases of four packs were completed, we found that we cut two hours off the anticipated handle application time. Roberts PolyPro manufactures a range of applicators. If we ever want to step up to semi-automatic or automatic application, we have options.
The next step was the crucial one — customer impressions. We don’t want our customers to have to use excessive force to free a can from the ring. Subsequent customer feedback was positive. A modest sideways twist and the can snaps free. It is even easy to snap empties back into the carrier for the trip home to the recycling bin. Both cans and handles are 100 percent recyclable. And there isn’t an issue of cans spontaneously detaching themselves. When we received that feedback, our marketing team made the joke reel.
Lastly, the cost/benefit ratio was positive. We have a handle that sets our craft brew apart on store shelves, pleases our customers with comfortable use, saves us time on the packaging line, and a supplier that is easy to work with. Other brewers have called asking where they can buy the handles, and we’ve unhesitatingly put them in touch with Chris Turner, Roberts PolyPro sales manager.
There’s so many factors that go into a handle decision: labor, appearance, cost, consumer reaction and experience. Our biggest piece of advice is to examine all these different aspects. What makes sense for one brewery may not for another. We’ve certainly had a rewarding experience with Roberts PolyPro.
Ben Roesch is the brewmaster and John Fitzgerald is the packaging manager at Wormtown Brewery in Worcester, Mass.