Business & Economy

The Alchemist abandons plastic handles for its 4-packs

Workers run the canning line at The Alchemist brewery in Stowe In October 2021. File photo by Glenn Russell/VT Digger

Customers carrying away four-packs of Heady Topper, Focal Banger, Light and Luscious are now taking along some extra plant material.

That’s because The Alchemist, the Stowe brewery that prides itself on its environmental sensibility, has replaced plastic handles with those made of plants.

For years, The Alchemist has been trying to address the environmental problems that plastics pose by using 100% recycled plastic in its handles, said Joel Hartman, the operations manager at The Alchemist. 

But the brewery wanted to move away from plastic altogether.

“Science is showing us that the more we use the plastic, the more opportunities we are giving it to become microplastics in the environment,” Hartman said.

Joel Hartman, operations manager at The Alchemist in Stowe, is seen with some of the biodegradable handles for the brewery’s four-packs on Thursday, Aug. 18. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Last year, The Alchemist learned that a Mexican company was making a new handle out of plant-based fiber that is both compostable and biodegradable.

“If the rings are thrown away or discarded improperly and they reach a landfill, they are biodegradable,” said Ricardo Mulas Ocha, director of logistics and sales for E6PR, the manufacturer. “So if somebody carelessly throws it out the window, it will biodegrade.”

The fiber comes from the stalks of grain plants after the grains are removed for brewing, he said.

E6PR’s director of operations made the first prototype in his kitchen oven, according to Mulas Ochoa, who said more than 500 breweries around the world now use the handles. Most of those are smaller breweries that apply the carriers by hand. 

Such a time-consuming process would not meet the needs of The Alchemist, so the brewer waited for the maker to develop a machine to apply the handles directly to the cans to turn them into four-packs.

“We needed something with some automation,” he said.

The Stowe brewery is field testing a first-generation machine made by Tecma Aries in France, which has partnered with E6PR to make applicators for the handles, or carriers, as they are known in the trade.

“I think it’s a great move by what is arguably the most environmentally conscious brewery in New England,” said Rob Vandenabeele, who writes the Eco Friendly Beer Drinker blog. “I'm optimistic that it might finally redirect the trend away from the industry’s current reliance on plastic packaging.”

Vandenabeele said Hill Farmstead, in Greensboro Bend, also uses E6PR handles. Some of Vermont’s smaller brewers, including Hogback Mountain Brewing in Bristol and Kraemer & Kin in Alburgh, have also turned to biodegradable handles, although their smaller size allows them to manually apply the carriers. They told VTDigger they have no plans to buy automatic applicators.

“As we are a much smaller scale, we will continue with the manual applicator for the foreseeable future,” said Samantha Sawyer, owner at Hogback Mountain Brewing.

The Alchemist is one of just three U.S. brewers, along with Jackie O’s, in Athens, Ohio, and Elevation Beer in Poncha Springs, Colorado, that have acquired the high-speed machines to apply the biodegradable handles, which Hartman said cost about two cents more than the plastic model.

The brewer started using the new handles five weeks ago, Hartman said. So far, they have proven to be very sturdy.

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Fred Thys

About Fred

Fred Thys covers business and the economy for VTDigger. He is originally from Bethesda, Maryland, and graduated from Williams College with a degree in political science. He is the recipient of the Radio, Television, and Digital News Association's Edward R. Murrow Award for Investigative Reporting and for Enterprise Reporting. Fred has worked at The Journal of Commerce, ABC News, CBS News, CNN, NBC News, and WBUR, and has written for Le Matin, The Dallas Morning News, and The American Homefront Project.

Email: [email protected]

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