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I, Can: A Journey Through the Supply Chain

Jun 27, 2022Magazine, Transportation

Carter Damaska | Alaska Business

Here I sit on my shelf. I’m cold, as I should be. My contents are pasteurized, but I contain no preservatives, so my creator recommends that I be refrigerated.

I am a 12-ounce can of ginger beer. Non-alcoholic, despite the name. A baby could drink me, except that my flavor is, well, challenging.

“I get that a lot,” says my creator, Mike Jipping. People ask him, ‘Why would you do something so niche?’ He answers, “I’m first to admit that I have a crazy streak in me.”

I’ve heard him described as a “cowabunga-type guy.” Jipping used to coordinate events for Moose’s Tooth and Bear Tooth, the famous pizzeria and movie theater in Anchorage. They make beers at the Broken Tooth brewery along Ship Creek. Jipping noticed a need for non-alcoholic beverages at daytime, all-ages events, so he made his own.

I was the first: JGB, Jipping’s ginger beer. Then came the sweeter Red Dragon, to my right on the shelf, and now our family has six flavors. We are Beach Tribe Soda Works, now in our fifth year of—

“What about me?”

Oh, that’s my downstairs neighbor, Plain Jane. She’s a 16-ounce can of Zip Kombucha, so she’s always sour. And yeasty. Tastes more like beer than I do.

“Hush,” I tell her. “I’m explaining how we came to this store.”

How I Came to This Store

About thirty vendors from Seward to Fairbanks sell Beach Tribe. My shelf is inside a cooler at New Sagaya City Market near downtown Anchorage.

A typical American supermarket stocks approximately 30,000 different items. New Sagaya is on the small side, yet I’m surrounded by dizzying variety. My cooler alone displays a dozen choices, including major national brands.

My creator personally drove me here and to other stores in Southcentral Alaska. My route is quite direct compared to Plain Jane. She chilled in a warehouse at The Odom Corporation, whose job is to move beverages from makers to sellers. Odom puts Plain Jane on shelves at Three Bears Alaska and Carrs|Safeway stores. Her creator, Jessie Janes, is trying to get into Fred Meyer and Costco, but it’s not as easy to convince out-of-state chains.

“We are actually a bit of a sweeter kombucha than the standard stuff you get off the shelf,” he says. “We’ve pushed some of our product down to the Lower 48 and got some feedback like, ‘Oh, it’s sweet. It’s not super kombucha-y.’”

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A decade ago, hardly anybody in Alaska drank kombucha, which is basically fermented tea. Its bubbly, vinegary disposition is an acquired taste, so Plain Jane must be eye-catching to intrigue new drinkers. Janes himself designed the simple two-color graphics for his four standard flavors, three seasonals, and three “black label” alcoholic brews. The lighter colors, he says, appeal to women—turns out women buy Zip Kombucha at twice the rate of men—and stand out on the shelf next to darker-colored cans.

Janes says his other trick for catching eyes is that sometimes he discounts his wholesale price (which is typically half of the shelf price) in exchange for a store guaranteeing placement at eye level.

Birth of Brew

Ingredients are a relatively small fraction of our shelf price, compared to the expense of labor, overhead, and special brewing tanks.

Carter Damaska | Alaska Business

I was born in a brewery. Jipping leases a tiny corner of the Broken Tooth building, a forest of fat steel cylinders rising to the rafters. One of those 450-gallon tanks brews JGB, his flagship flavor, four times a year.

At a zippier pace, Zip Kombucha brews 950-gallon batches once or twice every month. The regular kind is in the tank for less than one week, and it must be tested to have less than 0.5 percent alcohol. The hard stuff takes three weeks, depending on the mood of the SCOBY.

The symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast (SCOBY) is listed as an ingredient, but it’s also sort of a brewer’s assistant. Like a sourdough starter, a SCOBY is a blob of microbes that digest sugar and excrete alcohol, which other microbes convert into acetic acid for that sour taste.

Each culture has its own character. Janes explains, “It changes over time in its own right. You feed it different teas and different sugars. We’ve got ourselves set now to a pretty set culture of being able to produce it very consistently.”

After brewing, the yeast is filtered out and flavorings are added afterward.

As a ginger beer, my flavors are brewed from the start. Jipping mixes cold-press juices and cooks them at high heat, killing any microbes in me. The opposite of a living kombucha.

Plain Jane and I follow similar paths on the canning line. An elevator raises a pallet of cans about 12 feet high, and a conveyor pushes them through a cleaning station. Blanks descend along a rail where nozzles shoot in the drink, six cans at a time. The next station crimps the pop-top lid, and then an adhesive label peels off a spool and sticks to us as we round the corner, at a rate of forty-five cans per minute.

From here, the supply chain transports me to my shelf. But the chain also links backward.

The Secret of My Ingredients

Averaging 1,500 gallons brewed each month, Zip Kombucha fills 155,000 16-ounce cans in a typical year. They are packed up so The Odom Corporation can deliver them to retailers.

Carter Damaska | Alaska Business

Most of my 12 ounces comes from Eklutna Glacier and Ship Creek, thanks to the Anchorage Water and Wastewater Utility (AWWU).

The rest of my ingredients, although a tiny fraction of my weight, make JGB unique.

I owe my sweetness to honeybees in Kenai. Jipping prefers local sources, so he’s used Alaska-grown honey for the last year.

Local sourcing is not so easy for my other flavorings: ginger, lemons, and habanero peppers. Jipping relies on DiTomaso’s, the produce supplier that delivers fresh fruits and vegetables to grocery stores, restaurants, hotels, hospitals, schools, and the military.

“We sell health, and we know that working hard to bring in the freshest possible products into this great state drives health benefits to our entire state,” says Dave Vajdos, general manager at DiTomaso’s. He’s been with the company since 1992, working every job from truck driving and street sales to buying.

“Logistics are what make or break a produce house in Alaska,” says Vajdos. “We are about as far from the growing areas as we could possibly be and still be in the same country.” His buying department stays busy coordinating multiple orders simultaneously, timing delivery trucks to arrive at growers on the day produce is harvested. “We have to fight for every single day of shelf life for our customers,” he says.

Most foods arrive in Anchorage by ship on Sundays and Tuesdays, but Vajdos says twice a week is not enough for DiTomaso’s standard of freshness. His company uses a mix of sea, land, and air routes.

“We pay more for over-the-road trucks coming up through Canada, but we save a day’s shelf life using this program,” Vajdos explains. Trucks carry lettuce, greens, peppers, squashes, berries, mushrooms, and other “volatile” items. Ships carry hardier produce like potatoes, onions, apples, oranges, melons, and pineapples. Air freight is for fresh herbs, sprouts, and special orders out of Los Angeles.

Beach Tribe’s habaneros, ginger, and lemons are grown in California. Lemons and ginger ride the boat while habaneros travel the Alaska Highway courtesy of Produce Services & Logistics of Puyallup, Washington.

Jipping is interested in ginger from Hawaii, and DiTomaso’s is trying to make that happen. “Hawaiian ginger is traditionally hotter and full of flavor,” Vajdos says. “This would be an air-freighted product with a heavier price tag, but with the ginger strength so much stronger in Hawaii, Mike thinks it may still fit his cost management, knowing he would need less of it per batch.”

Plain Jane’s recipe is, well, plainer. Water, tea, and cane sugar. Zip Kombucha orders about 20 pounds of tea leaves twice a month via UPS ground from Fresh Roasted Coffee in Pennsylvania.

The ton-and-a-half of sugar comes in the same 10-pound bags anyone can buy from Costco. Janes says he considered buying directly from the supplier in Texas, but he would have to order a 40-foot container full, and that’s the same price as Costco retail, plus shipping costs.

Fermentation gives kombucha a natural fizz, and Zip adds more bubbles with 20-pound canisters of carbon dioxide (CO2). That’s where my carbonation comes from, too.

Although every person, animal, and SCOBY exhales CO2, the gas for carbonated beverages travels a long way. A railroad tank car filled with pressurized liquid CO2 is shipped from the Lower 48 to Whittier and then tapped and bottled in Anchorage by AirGas, which also sells helium, oxygen, and welding fuels. The CO2 comes from industrial combustion, cleaned and filtered, and tested for purity. When I make people burp, the gas is essentially smokestack exhaust.

But I’m not just a drink. I’m also the can.

In a Way, Mostly Can

The nickel’s worth of aluminum in my can is worth more than the same amount that must be smelted from raw ore. When my job is done, WestRock sends me to Kentucky to be recycled.

Carter Damaska | Alaska Business

“Our total cost into it… it is ridiculous, when it comes down to it,” says Janes. “It’s about 60 percent packaging to about 40 percent [ingredients].”

Same for Jipping: “It’s crazy, man, the amount it costs me for packaging.”

At current prices, a 12-ounce can like me has about $0.05 of aluminum. For Plain Jane, who’s taller, it’s a couple pennies more. Zip Kombucha receives a 53-foot High Cube with 155,000 blank cans on twenty-two pallets, about a year’s supply.

It’s more than Jipping can afford. “For me to buy a CONEX full of blanks, that’s a great concept if you have money,” he says, “but when you’re running tight margins and you’re as small as I am, doing the scale that I am, all those things start popping up.”

When cans were in short supply last year, Jipping borrowed leftovers from other local brewers. The market has improved, so he buys pallets of blanks from suppliers in Canada or Jordan.

Zip buys cans from Ball Corporation, a major aluminum fabricator with factories worldwide. Ball sprays a super thin coating of epoxy inside and paints “Zip Kombucha” around the top of the cans, but otherwise they arrive with a mirror shine.

Labels are printed on platter-sized spools. Zip buys 20,000 labels at a time from a printer in Seattle, but smaller batches of seasonal flavors have labels from Alaska Printing, right across Arctic Boulevard.

Beach Tribe labels are also printed in Seattle. Jipping says wrap-around stickers are more customizable for small batches than painted cans. For instance, one of his spools is a blue-sky design with empty space for a second sticker specific to whatever flavors he’s testing. For tried-and-true JGB, my blue-and-gold label was created by Anchorage artist Mike Kirkpatrick of Screamin’ Yeti Designs.

That’s why I look so snazzy.

After the Store

Beach Tribe Soda

Carter Damaska | Alaska Business

I exist to be consumed. Someday, a New Sagaya customer will buy me, and I will quench their thirst.

What happens next is private, ahem, but I don’t simply disappear. My water returns to AWWU pipes and flows to the Asplund Wastewater Treatment Facility near Point Woronzof. Together with everything else flushed there, I am clarified and bleached and discharged into Cook Inlet. Fats, oils, and grease skimmed from wastewater are burned, ending up in the atmosphere. Ash, grit, and other solid crud goes to the Anchorage Regional Landfill at Hiland Road, about one dump truck per day.

I hope my can doesn’t go to the landfill. My story doesn’t need to end.

WestRock recycles aluminum cans in Anchorage, squeezing them into bales and sending them to the port. The same containers that brought lemons, ginger, and pallets of cans to Anchorage return to Tacoma, Washington mostly empty, except for recycled materials.

WestRock sells the cans to a processor in Kentucky, so the bales are sent by railroad to a factory where they’re melted down and turned into flat-roll aluminum. From there, Ball Corporation can turn the metal into cans again. And again, and again.

I might have been a can twenty times before. Hard to be sure.

However, the United States has a recycling rate of only 16 percent. Five cans out of every six go in the trash. I choke up just thinking about it. That’s about $700 million worth of aluminum buried in landfills every year.

Anita Nelson, executive director of Alaskans for Litter Prevention and Recycling, works every day to divert that material to productive use. “Maybe the larger quandary is how to get folks to make the switch of thinking of an item they are done with not as trash but as a commodity with value,” she says. “That takes education, the inclination to recycle, and the opportunity to recycle in your community.”

The supply chain, it turns out, has loops. And it’s not a single chain. Strands from Eklutna, Kenai, California, Seattle, and the Kingdom of Jordan converge to form me, a humble can of Jipping’s ginger beer.

Where my chain goes from there depends entirely on who consumes me.

Alaska Business Magazine August 2022 cover

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