From the metallic thrum of the depalletizer as cans are loaded into the machine, to the simultaneous hiss of carbon dioxide and bubbling of fresh beer as cans are purged and filled, to the hypnotic revolutions of the seamer as lids are screwed on tight, there’s something almost meditative about watching an automated canning line go about its process. Call it ASMR for beer geeks.
Walk into any bottle shop, supermarket, or, increasingly, most convenience stores these days, and you’ll see shelves stacked high with canned beer. Head to your local brewery on can release day and you’ll perhaps encounter a line that’s hours long, as thirsty beer lovers eagerly wait for their fix of the latest juicy IPA, Pilsner, Pastry Stout, or whatever. (But it’s probably the juicy IPA.)
Cans—especially the 16-ounce “tallboy” variety—are typically supplied to the brewery as a bare chrome cylinder so that labels featuring ever-changing artwork can easily be applied. And they’re among the most significant markers of what it means to be a craft brewer in 2018.
But quality canning lines are prohibitively expensive—far more so than an equivalent bottling machine. And they occupy a significant footprint. Space that a modern, urban brewery could be using for another tank, or a centrifuge, or lab equipment that will help them produce a higher volume or quality of beer, in a shorter amount of time, so as to meet growing demand. When canning technology was originally developed, those engineers never had small breweries in mind. This was about packaging huge volumes of liquid at low cost—the kind manufactured by Anheuser-Busch or Coca Cola—not the latest trade bait on beer forums.
Enter mobile canners. These are the folks responsible for transforming innocuous aluminum sheaths into coveted four packs, operations that invest in the latest canning technology, and are small enough to pack into a truck and operate in all but the most compact of brewing environments. These pioneering small businesses provide a go-to service for breweries that don’t have the money to invest in a line of their own, not to mention the time to train staff in order to make sure that the beer is packaged without fault.
“Mobile canning has been the catalyst for the flight to cans we are seeing right now,” Tyler Wille, founder and CEO of IronHeart Canning tells GBH. “It’s cheaper for breweries, better for the consumer, and has opened the door for smaller breweries wanting to produce a high quality packaged product.”
Wille set up the New Hampshire-based business in 2013. Utilizing the latest technology designed by Wild Goose Canning of Boulder, Colorado, IronHeart rapidly developed its reputation and expanded its reach. By 2016, it was operating 15 mobile canning lines along the majority of the eastern seaboard and packaging beer for breweries such as Trillium, Aeronaut, Night Shift, and Other Half, among several others—including perhaps the most coveted customer of all, Hill Farmstead.
When it transitioned from 750-ml bottles to 16-ounce cans, Trillium witnessed sales of its packaged product increase five fold. IronHeart parked one of its mobile systems semi-permanently at the Boston-based brewery. There, they canned three to five times a week.
“With up to a 12-month wait to get a line, the immediacy [of mobile canning] was critical,” Trillium co-owner J.C. Tetreault tells GBH. “We were in a situation where the expectation was that demand would spike. Mobile canning gave us the ability to better gauge that demand before investing in a line of our own.”
According to Wille, mobile canning services such as those offered by his business allows smaller breweries “to compete on the same shelf as larger brands.” It’s this reason that he describes the great brewery migration to canned products as “inevitable.”
The numbers back him up. According to IRI-tracked data, dollar sales of craft cans grew more than 43% percent between 2016 and 2017, achieving $932 million in off-premise sales—that’s double the $419 million from just two years earlier. In the same period, dollar sales of bottled craft beers fell by 2.2%.
An interesting post-script to this data is that it doesn’t include the booming own-premise market, where breweries are selling cans, oftentimes in voluminous numbers, right out their front door. In fact, such is the popularity of cans, that this boom (along with fears exacerbated by some pretty incongruous tariffs) sparked concerns that there may even be a can shortage looming.
“There is no question that mobile canning has had a positive impact on the craft brewing industry’s growth and specifically the growth of cans,” Wild Goose Canning’s International Sales Manager Andrew Ferguson tells GBH. “Without mobile canning, there would be less people in package and more people fighting for rotating tap handles.”
Ever since Oskar Blues’ Dale Katechis dropped his eponymous Pale Ale into aluminum back in 2002, the packaging format has slowly crept into territory owned by bottled 12-oz. six packs and 22-oz. bombers. Even the ubiquitous growler is making way for metal. The development of compact sealers introduced the market to “crowlers”—a technology developed by can manufacturing giant Ball and pioneered by Oskar Blues, who also acts as the machine’s distributor. Just like with regular-sized cans, the lightweight and recyclable nature of these 32-oz. containers is pushing the popularity of traditional glass flagons to the side.
But something that’s changed dramatically over the past decade or so is the consumer perception surrounding the quality of canned products. Even in the early 21st century, many beer drinkers—especially the early adopters of craft—considered cans to be inferior to bottles. These containers were the hallmark of mass-produced light Lagers, after all. (As it turns out, many craft diehards are coming around to that style as well.) Even folks like Katechis were worried—he admitted in a 2012 interview with CNBC that cans would be perceived as a “gimmick.” Those fears, with time, were ultimately unfounded.
But while breweries like Oskar Blues initially had that corner of the market largely to themselves, along with a few other can-curious breweries such as fellow Coloradan’s Ska Brewing, it would be more than a decade before the format would become the mainstay of the modern brewer. Only a few years ago, breweries had a roomier market to grow into than they do now. The ability to quickly package and distribute beer afforded by mobile canners helped a whole new wave of developing brewers breathe a little more easily within a crowded industry.
Take young Colorado brewery WeldWerks, for example. While own-premise sales were rapidly increasing, the Ball hand-seamer allowed the fledgling beer maker to grow outside of the taproom, one 32-oz. can at a time. Not only did these large—yet relatively compact and lightweight—vessels allow them to easily sell beer to-go, they also afforded their customers the ability to trade and share an increasingly diverse array of beers in a less-imposing container. Soon, WeldWerks were hand-packaging more than 1,000 crowlers per week. Then they were doing 2000, and soon enough, the laborious task became unsustainable.
“Mobile canning was the only solution due to our space limitations at the time—we simply didn't have the space to permanently house a line,” WeldWerks co-founder Colin Jones tells GBH. “The advantages of canning were visible after the first few runs. We did a ton of crowlers, but the 16-oz. can format essentially doubled what people were taking out the door, and we could ease off the tight limits that crowlers sometimes demanded.”
WeldWerks were quick to adopt tallboys when mobile outfit Craft Canning entered the Colorado market in 2017. As well as meeting customer demand, mobile canning also brought significant benefits over crowlers, such as lower levels of dissolved oxygen, more consistent fill levels, and—phew!—no more hand labeling.
Without Craft Canning, they’d still be pumping out crowlers, “which is a scary thought,” Jones says. “I think of how many more people have been able to enjoy WeldWerks due to the production increases brought on by canning.”
Like a great many things in the modern beer industry, mobile canning emerged within the U.S. And like many things within the modern beer industry, the trend was soon picked up overseas. True to style, the United Kingdom was among the first to join the bandwagon. The UK is home to the second highest number of breweries in the world after the U.S. And it turns out that a rapidly growing market with hundreds of brewers, all looking for new and innovative ways to get the product into the hands of consumers, provides the perfect conditions for mobile canneries to thrive.
Jamie Kenyon of London-based firm Them That Can—another customer of Wild Goose machines—believes that the addition of mobile canning services to the UK has prevented parts of the industry from becoming “polarized.” Services such as the one his business provides have allowed smaller craft breweries with fewer resources at their disposal to compete on the same playing field as larger independents. More and more, small brewers within the UK are coming around to the idea of mobile canning, after shaking off a similar stigma to the one seen in the U.S. Kenyon estimates Them That Can will experience growth of around 30% in the brewing sector over the next 12 months.
“It is finite, though,” he says of the growth the sector is currently experiencing. “But the peak has not yet been hit and it should continue to grow over the next few years, subject to macroeconomic issues such as Brexit.”
The acceptance of mobile canning solutions wasn’t immediately apparent among several UK brewers. Yeastie Boys brewer James Kemp was working as Head Brewer at Manchester’s Marble Brewery when he first utilized the services of Them That Can.
“I wasn't really dubious about mobile canning specifically, I was massively dubious about canning as a whole,” Kemp says. “However, I could see the way the market was going, so rather than dig my heels in and refuse to package the way people wanted to drink, I looked at the pitfalls of canning and how I could mitigate them in a mobile setting.”
Kemp’s concerns included questions such as, “How do I check the integrity of the can seams?” and, “How can I minimize the ingress of beer spoilage organisms?” But with mobile canning, a new set of problems arose. Chief among them was how to ensure he achieved a consistently high quality in the beer packaged by a machine used by several different breweries. Indeed, one that gets thrown around in the back of a truck as it’s moved from job to job.
“My reasoning was, if I can sell cans five times faster than bottles, even with the higher DO pick-up in can, the beer is being drunk in better condition purely because of the speed of sale,” he says. “The future of smaller brewers depends on the ability to recognize, switch, and shift directions quickly to what is required to sell beer—mobile canning allows for that.”
If you walked the trade show floor at the Brewers Association’s annual Craft Brewers Conference five or so years ago, you saw a few canning lines in operation. From very high-end Italian and German-made machines, designed to pump out 50,000 cans per hour, to emerging tech from folks like Wild Goose or American Brewing Equipment. If you walked the same show floor in Nashville this year, you saw multiple booths occupied by new canning line manufacturers, as well as by mobile canning operators such as IronHeart. The growing popularity of canning was here in plain sight.
Perhaps the greatest challenge the mobile canning industry faces is one of its own creation. As breweries sell more beer, raise more capital, expand production, and take on more employees, they may look at investing in canning lines of their own. This doesn’t seem to have the mobile canning folks worried, though. Craft breweries are still something of a Hydra—for every brewery that starts canning in house, there’s at least two more waiting to hire the services of a mobile line when the window of availability opens up. For the moment, at least, the mobile canning industry seems to capable of maintaining a positive growth curve.
“It is a finite market, but the peak has not yet been hit, and it should continue to grow over the next few years,” Them That Can’s Kenyon says. “If this did become problematic for us, we would look to diversify out of craft beer into other product areas, and also look to develop new markets in other territories. It’s part of the beauty of being mobile.”
IronHeart’s Tyler Wille isn’t concerned, either. Some of his former customers are investing in their own canning equipment as they expand, and he feels it’s all part of a natural process for his business. In a way, Wille almost concedes that the rise of mobile canning is less a phenomenon in itself and more likely just one of several signifiers that the industry is changing from the ground up.
“The biggest shift we’re seeing at the moment is where beer is sold,” he says. “It was previously all going into distro, but now there’s a major shift into own premise. Consumers aren’t wanting to buy beer from the store anymore—they’d rather go stand in line at a brewery.”
At WeldWerks in 2016, customers would post up at the bar for a pint and leave with a couple fistfuls of crowlers. Just a few months later, after they’d begun using a mobile canner, visitors were leaving with quite a bit more beer—24 or even 48 cans at a time. Case studies like that make people like Wille feel pretty confident.
“Several brewers have told us they didn’t ever want to can,” he says with a laugh. “Now we’re canning for them.”