Every time I drink a beer from a can wrapped with a plastic shrink sleeve label, I remove the wrap so the container can be recycled. And because they’re hard to remove, I often worry I’m going to slice my hand along with the sleeve.
Thanks to Milwaukee’s Craft Beverage Warehouse that may not be a concern for much longer.
The company, which operates out of Century City on the former A.O. Smith/Tower Automotive site at Hopkins and Capitol, is now just one of a few companies nationwide that can print directly onto cans in small quantities.
Many craft brewers use stick-on paper labels and the plastic shrink sleeves because the largest can manufacturer and printer boosted its minimum order from roughly 200,000 to a whopping 1 million cans, which is beyond the financial reach of small breweries.
“Shrink sleeve and sticker label is what we're competing with and trying to replace,” says President and Co-Founder Kyle Stephens. “Our general market is probably anybody (brewing) under 10,000 barrels a year.”
Stephens founded the business with Michael DeGrave during the pandemic. Stephens, who was working next door at Good City Brewing, saw the need among craft brewers for cans, which were in short supply, and got started as something of a side hustle.
“We were buying the truckloads of cans that our customers couldn't buy,” he says. “Because of either storage or cash flow issues. We were buying truckloads, selling pallets of cans, and other related packaging materials.
“We thought it was going to be a local play. I worked for Good City, so I knew a lot of people locally, and they were having trouble getting cans in the pandemic. So I was like, 'let me just buy a bunch of them. I got warehouse space.' We threw up a web store on Shopify. A business partner has a background in eCommerce. We thought it would just be, Wisconsin, Illinois, whoever's close by. Then (suddenly) we were selling cans to breweries in Alaska.”
As the business grew, the partners realized this was going to be their full-time gig.
“Once it got to a point where I couldn't do it by myself ... we took on 18,000 square feet in this building. At first, we were just sharing a little bit of space with Good City, while I was working there. Then I was like, ‘well, okay, this is a real business.’ It wasn't going to be just me here shipping everything out.”
Now, Craft Beverage Warehouse has five employees and Stephens expects that to grow. The business is currently running one shift, but expects to add a second and potentially a third, too. Each additional shift will require hiring three more employees.
Craft Beverage can print about 1 million cans per month per shift and Stephens fully expects the demand to be there for three shifts in the coming year.
“Last week was our first week after training was complete,” he says. "We have a sample process with our customers, where they get a physical sample to touch and feel after they order.
“We sent out all those last week and we aren't quite yet in production mode yet. We're waiting for those approvals and orders to come through. But we expect this week we'll start ramping up production.”
At the moment, local customers include Good City Brewing, which has its offices and warehouse in the same building, as well as Vennture Brew Company and Gathering Place. But clients are located all around the country.
Stephens says that printing directly to cans may cost slightly more than the sleeves, but not much.
“We’re pretty competitive,” he says, “if you just look at the all-in cost of putting a sticker or a shrink sleeve on it. It's just that the smaller guys especially are used to buying a (blank) can and having ultimate flexibility on, 'OK, do I want to put this sticker on or that sticker?' A lot of our customers are like, ‘OK, cool, you're ready. We've got a bunch of stickers to burn down that we've already paid for. So once we're through those, then we'll be switching over.'
“Our goal is to be apples to apples and then have that sustainability discussion, which puts us over the edge. That's the goal. Because a lot of our customers are conscious of that and that matters to them.”
Ditching the sleeves is a good thing for recyclers, says Milwaukee Department of Public Works spokesman Brian DeNeve.
"Eliminating plastic wrap labeling on aluminum cans is a positive thing for recycling. Cans that have the plastic wrap labels instead of traditional label printing may get sorted with plastic at some recycling facilities, contaminating plastic bales and reducing recovery of aluminum," DeNeve says.
"Aluminum buyers have little tolerance for plastic in the bales they purchase from recycling facilities as the plastic is detrimental to their processing."
Craft Beverage's equipment comes from manufacturers in the Milwaukee area, Colorado and Germany, Stephens says.
At the moment, Craft Beverage can do glossy cans and is experimenting with matte finishes, too. They can print directly onto the can to get metallic finishes or start with a white base coat if customers prefer that.
The printer – which is an astonishing to behold all-in-one-box contraption – can do 92 cans per minute at 720 dpi, which is a resolution that gives a nicely detailed result. UV rays are used to cure the ink before the can even leaves the printing machine.
“The artwork is the most important piece to this new business we are entering,” Stephens says. “Everyone has seen the phenomenal designs that breweries and other craft beverage companies come up with for their cans.
"With this new digital print process, we are charged with bringing those designs to life – and we don’t take that lightly. We’re able to provide some new and seriously cool print techniques to make our customers’ packaging pop on the shelf.”
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.