Have Canning Line, Will Travel: The Impact of Mobile Canning

By Russ Phillips

Mobile canning is a relatively new idea in the world of craft beer. The idea is simple enough: a company brings the machinery necessary to can beer directly to a brewery that doesn’t currently have the space or money for their own. They may also provide a labeling service and off-site storage for cans. It provides an opportunity for smaller brewers to get their beers in an additional retail package—one that is becoming more and more sought after.

Surprisingly, mobile canning has just barely been around for a year. So how did it all begin and what does the future hold for this segment of a seemingly ever-expanding craft beer industry?

The Beginning

It was just over a year ago that Lindsey Herrema and Jenn Coyle received their MBAs in Sustainable Management from San Francisco’s Presidio Graduate School, and like many recent grads they were anxious to start using their newly acquired knowledge. By the time their caps hit the ground, they had already set out to make a project they had worked on during their final semester in school a reality.

The plan was to start the craft brewing industry’s first mobile canning company, which they would call The Can Van. Sighting the multitude of mobile bottling company’s that service nearby Napa Valley’s wineries, along with the high cost of canning lines and minimum can orders, they felt it was a business model that could work.

Around this same time, about 70 miles north, Pat Hartman was finishing up an Intensive Brewing Science for Practical Brewing course at UC Davis. During the class, the tried and true concept of mobile bottling was discussed, and Hartman asked himself, “Why not a mobile canning line?” He took the idea back to Colorado and discussed it with friend and homebrewing partner, Ron Popma.

Before long, Hartman and Popma set to work getting Mobile Canning, LLC off the ground. They settled on a space in Longmont—the hometown of canning pioneers Oskar Blues—and journeyed not far down the road to Boulder to pick up their canning line from Wild Goose Engineering. Mobile Canning would house the equipment in a box truck which they are able to drive directly to a brewery and easily unload.

Being located in a very craft beer-friendly state, whose residents participate in ton of year-round outdoor activities, Mobile Canning hoped to set themselves up for a win-win. It wasn’t long at all before they had their first partner in Crabtree Brewing Co. out of Greeley, Colo.

The First Mobile Canned Craft Beer

The first American craft beer to be commercially filled by a mobile canning outfit was Crabtree Brewing Company’s Eclipse Black IPA. It was canned and first released at the end of November 2011. About 4,000 cans were initially produced and the brewery continues to use Mobile Canning’s services for both their Eclipse Black IPA and their Oatmeal Stout on a monthly basis. The ability to package small amounts of cans with custom labels using Mobile Canning’s services has also allowed the brewery to release a limited amount of Trigger Blonde cans for Colorado minor league baseball team the Trinidad Triggers. Sales of the cans at a liquor store in Trinidad will help fund the team’s travel expenses. The brewery will likely soon add Serenity Amber Ale to their canned lineup with the help of Mobile Canning—with some of those cans possibly ending up for sale in Japan! Talk about mobile!

Mobile Canning has now canned beers for a number of other craft breweries in Colorado including Bonfire Brewing Co. in Eagle, Crystal Springs Brewing in Boulder, and just recently Renegade Brewing Co. in Denver. A slew of other breweries have expressed interest in canning, so you can expect plenty more Colorado cans in the future.

The Can Van Begins Operations in San Francisco

Months of planning, strategizing, and fundraising pushed The Can Van’s opening to early 2012. They settled on a canning line from Wild Goose Engineering, bought a truck and custom trailer, and hit the road for Colorado to pick up the line and get a crash course on how to run it. By mid-January they were back in California with their canning line in tow.

The Can Van’s first client would be Devil’s Canyon Brewing Co. in Belmont, Calif. By mid-February Devil’s Canyon had done some sample canning for local distributors. Like Mobile Canning in Colorado, The Can Van’s equipment can be rolled out directly into a brewery for easy operation. Devil’s Canyon’s cans are labeled with stickers, akin to what goes on to their bottles. This labeling is also a service provided by The Can Van, which is currently working with a half-dozen different breweries in Northern California, so keep a look out for more cans on shelves soon in that part of the state.

Mobile Canning in the Pacific Northwest Begins

Not so many months ago, in Tacoma, Wa., Justin Brandt took a walk down the beer aisle in his local grocery store looking for some canned beer to bring tubing. After noticing a lack of locally canned craft beer, he decided to do something about it. Brandt and college friend Arne Hakanson began talking about a business plan. They both had a love for craft beer and now shared a vision similar to that of the others—a mobile canning company that could serve the packaging needs of the smaller breweries in their region. Deciding to make a sincere go at it, they both quit their jobs as financial advisors for military families and established Northwest Canning.

Within six months they took their idea from concept to reality. They purchased a Wild Goose Engineering manual canning line and a labeling machine. Like Colorado and Northern California, the Pacific Northwest has a strong cultural love of craft beer and outdoor activities. Unlike Colorado, the region is without the large amount of craft breweries currently canning their beers. Brandt and Hakansen have begun to change that. Striking while the iron was hot, the pair have already helped Seattle’s Emerald City Brewing put their beer in cans.

When asked about what he loves most about what he is doing, Brandt offered, “Hands down, the best part about this business is providing a worthwhile service to breweries. Their beer is their livelihood, and having the ability to get that beer out the door in cans without huge expense or hassle is priceless.”

Business is already going strong and Northwest Brewing has ordered two more canning lines from Wild Goose to help with their output and to enable them to work with more than one brewery at a time. They’re currently canning for a half-dozen breweries, so craft beer lovers in the Pacific Northwest will soon be able to find plenty of canned options.

The Pacific Northwest Gets a Second Mobile Canning Outfit

The newest mobile canning outfit to begin operations is called Craft Canning. Owned and operated by Owen Lingley, Craft Canning began operations just last month (June 2012). The Portland-based company is also utilizing a Wild Goose Engineering canning line—all four currently operating mobile canning companies have chosen to use Wild Goose canning lines. Lingley chose the MC-250 model, which is fully automated and can put 30 barrels of beer in cans a day. Craft Canning also offers shrink sleeve labeling and off-site can storage, another challenge for small breweries looking to get into the canning game.

Florida Mobile Canning Outfit Set to Launch Next Month

Along with the four currently operating mobile canning companies, there are likely a number of others in the planning stages. One that will soon be up and running is Florida-based Craft Beer Crew founded by Justin Beamon. With popular Florida breweries Intuition Ale Works, Tampa Bay Brewing Co. and Cigar City Brewing all beginning canning programs in 2011, The Craft Beer Crew should find a lot of interest from smaller craft brewers in the state looking to be a part of the movement.

What the Future Holds

When asked about the future of the mobile canning industry, Mobile Canning’s Pat Hartman said, “I think the next few years are going to be exciting for not only the ones providing a mobile beer canning service, but for the breweries and consumers as well.” It will be interesting to see how things progress nationwide.

Northwest Canning’s Justin Brandt sees mobile canning’s future in a realistic light. He offers that, “The majority of the country simply doesn’t have a high enough concentration of breweries to make mobile canning feasible. The areas that do have enough breweries (like the Pacific Northwest, Colorado and California) already have mobile canning operations. Hypothetically, if one in three breweries can their beer, and one in three of them use a mobile canner, that’s only 11 breweries out of 100 who use mobile canning.”

Time will ultimately tell how this newer segment of the craft beer industry will unfold. For now, those players in the game certainly have their hands full. Their successes will be seen nationwide and most certainly bring about more mobile canning operations. As long as consumers continue to be keen on cans this should be a viable part of the industry.

Photo © 2012 Mobile Canning, LLC, Jason Kaplan and Crabtree Brewing Co.