Sending Beer to Mars

Daniel Strangfeld
7 min readApr 9, 2023

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The story of the first (failed) COPV beer keg company.

Why the hell did we think it was a good idea to make a keg made from rocket ship fuel storage technology? Well, maybe we could have been the first keg company to help send beer to Mars…

Spoiler alert. Our idea failed. But it was a good ride with great people and lifelong learnings.

The Team

Our team consisted of Ashton focusing in marketing and sales, Jimmie as the ops guy and part time engineer, Eli our lead engineer, and myself for leadership, fundraising, and design.

So why a keg company?

Four Coloradan dudes in an engineering projects class at CU Boulder — hindsight it does feel a bit on the nose. At the time though, the idea originated with insight from a teammate’s family member who worked in brewing.

Their family member’s insight was that beer kegs are incredibly costly for breweries and can eat into their margins for both small and large breweries.

The standard keg is solid steel. Meaning it’s an absolute beast to carry, move around, and to store. That extra weight is costly during transportation from brewery to final destination. Just imagine the cost to ship a 150lb package. That’s a full keg. Then, you AND your customer need to store the thing when it’s empty.

Verifying this was indeed a problem

We needed to talk to as many brewers as we could in our area to validate that heavy kegs was in fact a problem in the industry. Luckily, Colorado is packed with over 400 great small, medium, and a few large breweries brewing some of the nation’s best beer.

Armed with no more than a few paper sketches and some calculations, we went out and talked with ~50 Coloradan brewers.

We learned that yes, heavy kegs, the space they took up, and all of the logistics costs were in fact a pain point in the industry.

With this, we set off to make a keg that was both lighter and could collapse when empty to save space in storage.

The collapsible, lightweight keg

A new type of keg that could reduce logistics and storage costs AND make less of an environmental impact than traditional kegs (aka, the truck uses less fuel because the kegs are lighter).

We spent a few months building out the product with renders, making a few ghetto prototypes (and I mean GHETTO as seen above), and were consistently pitching to potential investors, advisors, customers, and other stakeholders.

Problems arose. It just wasn’t sticking.

The collapsible functionality wasn’t something brewers wanted. In fact, it was actually viewed as worse than the current steel kegs. A collapsible keg was of marginal benefit for them and caused serious concerns around the safety of the keg. Kegs can be incredibly dangerous pressure vessels. If used or treated improperly, boom.

So, lesson learned. Safety is brewers’ #1 priority regarding kegs.

A collapsible keg introduced too many variables into the system for things to go wrong with the keg. So 4 months into this endeavor, we pivoted…

The 40% lighter keg

Even though brewers didn’t want collapsible kegs, one thing did stand out in every conversation we had with a brewer: They were highly interested in a lighter weight keg.

We decided to focus all of our energy on that.

We looked into plastic, carbon fiber, fiberglass and several other materials. Ultimately, the material needed to be able to:

  • withstand pressure
  • handle drops
  • handle temperature extremes (both hot and cold)
  • not alter the flavor of the liquid (meaning plastic was out of the question)
  • and be lighter than traditional steel kegs

We discovered COPV technology after looking into the worlds lightest pressure vessels that were also the strongest/safest. Turns out NASA uses COPV for fuel tanks in their rockets because it is both lightweight and durable.

Long story short, we ended up making the worlds’ first COPV keg (COPV = Carbon Overwrapped Pressure Vessel). Even got a provisional patent for it too (let’s not talk about the $$$ involved for that). Mars here we come.

The real test: putting a price on it

At this point we started to try to sell pre-orders at a mid-market price-point for this product to see if we could get real, committed interest.

You can ask people if they would buy something and they can tell you yes all they want, but that doesn’t mean sh*t until their dollars are in your bank.

During sales, we learned our next critical data point: Small breweries were our perfect beachhead.

  • They were easier to get “in with”
  • They had a lower switching cost to new kegs than mid size breweries (only replacing 50 kegs vs 1000+).

They would also allow us to gain traction in order to start selling to small to mid size keg leasing companies, who stood the most to gain financially from our product. Ideal target. However, they wouldn’t buy before others were already using and loving the product. Being the “guinea pig” was too risky in their line of business.

We managed to get pre-orders (signed docs, and deposits in the bank for a few orders!) for just over 1,000 kegs from two brewers in Colorado one in Brazil.

We weren’t entirely bootstrapped

Alongside product development and pre-order initiatives, we were also trying to raise money from angel investors to help fund our first order of kegs (once we had a few orders on hand and all safety tests run on our “test keg”).

We entered campus pitch competitions at CU, community pitch competitions, applied to and went through an accelerator, and had several angel investors ready to write checks. All together, we had $30k of “equity free” money from pitch competitions and accelerators (as in no one got any part of the company for that) to be able to put towards product development and legal fees.

We made the mistake of thinking we needed to be a C-corp because we got the advice that is was better protected and better for taxes. Nine months of headache and about $10k later, I do not advise going this route before your first round. We should have stayed an LLC and switched to a C-corp later in the process when we had some funding.

We also spent a large chunk of money on getting a provisional patent. A painful process, but still a good one to go through.

So why did we close down?

We had pre-orders for just over 1,000 kegs from brewers, some interested angel investors, a patent filed, and a tested product.

What we didn’t have were detailed calculations on how much we would actually have to charge to make a profit on each keg based on the manufacturing costs we learned about during our testing phase.

And that was the critical data point. The killer one.

We would have to charge over $180 per keg in order to make a tiny profit, even with mid-scale orders. This is $50 over some of the most expensive steel kegs on the market. Typically brewers spend less than $80 per keg (in 2021).

Even though our keg saved money during shipping, this price difference was too large for brewers to see a return on investment for at least 10 years. Steel kegs last around 20 years.

If we could scale to a massive order quantity quickly, this business/product might make sense, but ultimately we decided that we simply didn’t want to take this any further.

Winding down

The wind down process of a business is another learning process.

  • How much are you going to have to pay the lawyers to dissolve the corporation?
  • Who takes what from what’s left of the businesses assets?
  • What happens to the patents?
  • What the hell are you going to do now in your career?

Ultimately, we all ended up a-ok and with a few lessons which helped shape us in our careers today.

Lesson 1 — Start sales as soon as possible. It’s all bullshit until money is in the bank.

Something that we did right in our business was trying to sell before we even had a product to give the customer. This helped us understand what customers would ACTUALLY buy. Customers vote with their money, not their promises.

How do you sell a product that doesn’t exist yet? Letters of intent (LOIs) and preorders allow you to take deposits before being able to deliver the product to your customer.

Lesson 2 — Be open.

If you aren’t building a product that is a breakthrough technology in an industry, talk about what you are building.

Show people.

Test your product/service with them. If you absolutely must, use an Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA) with them.

There is no better way to learn if what you are doing will sell than by talking with people who will give you their honest thoughts, and just maybe some of their money.

Lesson 3 — A good team culture gets you through hard times.

Hard times are commonplace in the sea of early stage business.

Having a good culture amongst your team is like having a well functioning crew on a sailboat in the middle of rough seas. Not only do you have to sail well, you need to keep one another’s moral up to help the sailing go well.

If you’re a lone founder, find a close network of other founders who you can talk with and where you can act as a support network for one another.

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Daniel Strangfeld

Part-time and contract designer. Thoughts on design and free tools to help entrepreneurs improve their businesses. https://danstrangfeld.com/