In the past five years, a quiet revolution has been taking place on the UK's supermarket shelves. Craft beer - previously the preserve of small, hard-to-reach microbreweries - now makes its presence loudly known in almost every drinks section up and down the country. Coming in a cornucopia of bright and vivid designs, its ascendancy would not be possible without the helpful intervention of one particular can maker.
"We were one of the most supportive manufacturers to start with," says Florian Combe, marketing manager at Crown Bevcan Europe and Middle East. Founded in 1892, after its founder William Painter patented his 'crown cork', the company has since become one of the largest metal packaging manufacturers in the world. Crown produces metal cans of every description, for anything from biscuits and beer, to vegetables and pet food. As such, their factories are geared to mass production, so much so that they belong to a select group of manufacturers capable of producing metal containers at speeds of up to 3,000 per minute. "It's one of the fastest manufacturing process in the world," explains Combe.
This makes Crown's decision to support craft beer's growth all the more startling, since most of it is produced in small batches of thousands to tens of thousands of cans at a time. The lines at the can maker giant's factories simply aren't "designed to do such small runs", says Combe "our lines are designed to manufacture fully printed cans in batches of hundreds of thousands to millions of cans at a time." Nevertheless, Crown saw vast potential in supporting the sector, having, for several years, monitored the move towards cans in beer production.
"It all started in the US," says Combe, when several breweries began running comparitive taste tests between bottles and aluminium cans, and found out the beer tasted better from the cans. This result is easily explained: exposure to light degrades the drink's taste, which is why so many brands opt for cloudy or dark-coloured bottles. Even so, a glass bottle cannot compete with the barrier properties of the metal providing complete protection against light and oxygen. However, to sell in cans, craft breweries needed a way to distinguish themselves on the shelves. The beverage can, with its unrivalled 360° decoration, provide the best canvas for craft bewers' creativity. The result - a newfound variety in the UK beer market, and a lot of satisfied customers - continues to please Combe. "The consumers shopping experience has been significantly brightened by the variety of striking and unique designs," he says. "It's been very successful."
The process from the commissioning of a can design to a finished can rolling off the end of Crown's manufacturing line is a highly collaborative one. "We like to start that collaboration as early as possible in the creative process to understand the brand's needs, and share with them the options we can offer in terms of decorative options," says Combe. "We have teams of experts in different fields to help our customers get the most out of their campaign through the can design. So, if after a session meeting the client says, 'We really would like to do something with thermochromics and our aim is to appeal to 25-35-year-olds,' we can throw that challenge to our packaging designers, who will come up with a number of feasible concepts."
The range of decorative finishes at Crown's disposal remains formidable. "A client can look at things like matt varnish, loss varnish, or fluorescent colours to stand out on shelves at the point of purchase," says Combe. "Or choose one of the reacting inks to create interaction with the consumers at the time of consumption" Indeed, Combe and his colleagues stand ready to educate clients on what is possible in a print at every step of the way. "Traditional flat sheet printing, allows you to have CMYK full-colour printing," he explains. "Beverage can printing is very different, in the round on the finished can and at high speed, which means we have to separate our colours completely differently"
This is why the expertise of the reprographics team at Crown - responsible, for every design printed on the cans they manufacture - is so important. "All of our pre- press work is being managed by one studio team," explains Combe. "Having everyone in the same team helps deliver recognised best in class support to our customers." This enables a collaborative process between Crown and the client, "the closer the better", as Combe knows from experience. "If we present a customer with 15 different options and offer advice on each one, the ideas can be forgotten and lose their power. Instead, we encourage our clients to choose which finish will best enhance their campaign, and we can come back and support them get the most out of it."
Crown's significant investment in research and development has yielded several new decorative innovations, showcased this year at BrauBeviale 2018, in Nuremberg, Germany. Chief among them was the company's new 'Reactinks' technology: a new ink that reacts to both the temperature and exposure to sunlight revealing four different colours in one.
"Originally, thermochromics was used to indicate that the can was cold," explains Combe. "The main brand using this technology was Coors Light, with its trademark 'blue mountains', where you can see the mountains in the background of the design turning blue when the drink is cold and ready to drink."
Since then, the industry has learned to be more audacious in its use of thermochromic inks. Coca-Cola Turkey has launched its summer promotional range, making unprecedented use of thermochromic inks to add colour, function and fun to ten new aluminium beverage can designs. For the first time, Coca-Cola Turkey was using thermochromic ink technology as a true decorative tool, making it an integral part of how the can looks. Four separate inks have been used to create bright designs that stand out when the cans are chilled and the drinks ready for consumption.
Crown also showcased its new range of fluorescent inks, which recently saw use in a new range of cans for Pepsi in the Middle East. "They wanted to launch it for their Mountain Dew drink," Combe explains. Pepsi had found that its recent roll-out of a more fluorescent Mountain Dew bottle had boosted sales, and wanted to repeat this with a new range of cans.
"We had to quickly liaise with the customer, talk to ink suppliers and qualify the inks by conducting all of the regulatory tests - because none had been done yet," says Combe. "But we managed to get everything ready in time for the summer for Pepsi and Mountain Dew, and we produced several million bright-green cans for them. Fluorescent inks are now firmly part of our colourful-world range of 15 decorative finishes."
Both cases also highlight another one of Crown's key differentiators: all the decorative finishes the company showcases have been fully tested, and Crown is confident they are ready to launch with no impact on manufacturing lines or customer filling lines. "We may not have the largest range of finishes, but that's because every single one that we do present to the market is fully tested," explains Combe. "This allows for the successful launches of our customer's marketing campaigns first time."
In addition to shelf appearance, Crown never forgets its commitment to running a sustainable enterprise. That's admittedly easier when one considers that its overwhelming focus is on producing aluminium cans. "Our material, metal, is permanent," says Combe. "It takes as little as 60 days for a beverage can to come back as another beverage can."
Aluminium is fully recyclable. "As a permanent material," says Combe, "it cannot be destroyed and it doesn't lose its properties, however many times it is recycled. Without an end of life, aluminium is a perfect material for the circular economy. As long as the consumers disposes of their cans in the recycling stream, the material is never lost. It is little wonder aluminium is the most recycled packaging material in the world."