When we visited Other Half’s brewery last month to photograph the highly anticipated and quickly sold inaugural canning of Green Diamonds—my favorite, and perhaps the ooziest, within its current crew of hop-oozing ales—our attention was apprehended by the aromatically awesome innards of every 16-ounce can sealed, grouped into packs of four, assembled into cases of 24, and ready for defiling: the actual beer, an imperial IPA, which, when consumed moments after packaging, I could only describe as “simultaneously chewing an entire pack of Juicy Fruit.” (I was a satisfied defiler.)
As I effortlessly slammed a fresh-ass can of Diamonds that afternoon, however, I was not just drinking a great beer in a new way; I was also swallowing the Juicy Fruits of a new relationship between Other Half and Iron Heart Canning. The latter, owned by Tyler Wille, is one of the country’s top mobile canning companies, a relatively new and burgeoning business. These fledgling migrant operations tow their equipment to breweries to fill cans with beer, inject correct, then schlep to the next customer. This has enabled brewers without the funds to purchase costly canning lines, like Other Half’s Matt Monahan and Sam Richardson, to enter the craft-beer industry’s most popular packaging realm.
Iron Heart operates warehouses in Monroe, Connecticut and Londonderry, New Hampshire. Wille is rarely present at either; he travels constantly, sometimes to breweries in six different states in one week. This may include Rising Tide Brewing in Portland, Maine; Blue Hills Brewing in Canton, Massachusetts; Half Full Brewery in Stamford, Connecticut; or Carton Brewing in Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey.
Iron Heart services breweries of all sizes and desired outputs. Wille once packaged 24,000 cans of Long Trail Brewing’s Ale and IPA, then, two days later, 7,200 cans of Wormtown Brewing’s Be Hoppy. Before the canning of Green Diamonds (which produced this video), a batch of Other Half’s Superfun! Pale Ale was entered into 7,500 cans.
For these jobs, or any, an MC-250—a long and bulky machine described by Wild Goose Engineering as a “quad-fill, two tower automated canning line … With the ability to comfortably can at 36-40 cans per minute…”—is simply wheeled into the brewery by two Iron Heart employees. Then it starts. The transient process is surprisingly intimate: 12-ounce or 16-ounce cans are fed to the 900-pound apparatus and filled with a quick discharge of beer and two blasts of carbon dioxide through a plastic tube. Each can is sanitized, filled, sealed, rinsed, and packaged. An employee is always nearby, monitoring fill levels and volumes, seam specifications, carbonation, temperature, and pressure (“Ideally we like 31-32 degree beer while canning,” Wille says). After the job is complete, typically eight hours later, the MC-250 is returned to one of Iron Heart’s two 26-foot-long box trucks and driven to the nearest warehouse—or the next customer.
Before launching Iron Heart in August of 2013, Wille was a homebrewer at a crossroads. “I was working for a hedge fund and commuting daily from Connecticut to [New York City] and I just wasn’t happy.” He believed the path to bliss was paved by professional brewing, but as he chatted with more and more brewers in the industry, most noted both the financial and spatial constraints with packaging their beers, and the growing desire to offer them in cans, rather than bottles. His focus shifted to mobile canning, a new service bubbling in the Pacific Northwest and on the West Coast. There was Oregon’s Craft Canning and California’s The Can Van, but no companies based in the Northeast. Wille recognized an opportunity.
“It was like an epiphany,” he told me last year, for a story in the Yankee Brew News. “I had the chance to launch the first mobile cannery in New England. It was a business opportunity too good to pass up. This type of equipment would easily cost $200,000 and that’s a big burden for most craft breweries.”
Rob Burns, co-owner of Night Shift Brewing, agrees. Iron Heart currently packages three beers for the Everett, Massachusetts-based operation: Marblehead, Morph, and Whirlpool. After pricing different canning lines, Burns realized that utilizing Iron Heart, instead, was better for his brewery’s long-term growth. “When you could purchase a new fermenter to increase production or put that money toward buying a canning line, with a guy like Tyler, we don’t have to make that decision now. Now we can buy the fermenter to make more beer and he cans it.” Monahan echoes Burns’ sentiments: “We really need to expand our brewery and we’re going to do it this year. The margins that canning with Tyler provides is going to be a huge help for us to do that.”
Iron Heart has only visited Other Half twice thus far, but it travels to Night Shift every three weeks to can between 20 and 40 barrels per trip. Burns is pleased with the sales since partnering. “They’re usually all sold out in a week. And Tyler shrink-wraps the labels at his warehouse, so there isn’t any excess room taken up at the brewery. The cans are brought here all ready to go.”
Wille doesn’t require a deposit or set number of visits. He also assists breweries source smaller minimums of required packaging materials—shrink sleeve-labeled cans, tops, and cardboard trays—and offers off-site storage. “It’d be impossible for us to store pallets and pallets of empty cans. It’s space we really don’t have,” says Michael Philbrick, owner and brewmaster of Port Jeff Brewing, which launched Party Boat IPA in 12-ounce cans last year using Iron Heart. Philbrick also had another motive for partnering with Wille. “I wanted to bring Party Boat on my boat,” he laughs. “Bottles can’t go on boats, ball parks, or beaches. The can gets in more hands this way.”
The first company to offer mobile canning, the aptly named Mobile Canning, launched in 2011. Pat Hartman, one of the company’s two owners, was enrolled in the Intensive Brewing Science for Practical Brewing class at the University of California, Davis. During the weeklong course, mobile bottling services for small winemakers were discussed. “I started thinking that cans were actually the better package for craft beer, and now breweries are migrating there at a staggering rate—so why not mobile canning?” he asked.
Hartman introduced the idea to long-time friend and homebrewer, Ron Pompa, and both forged a partnership with Boulder, Colorado’s Wild Goose Engineering to design the first mobile canner. “When we first approached Wild Goose they were not keen on the idea of building a canning line that would be moved around on a regular basis. We quickly convinced them this was the way to go,” Hartman says.
Mobile’s first client was Greeley, Colorado’s Crabtree Brewing in November of 2011. The second, Boulder Beer, followed at the beginning of 2012, and by that summer, Mobile was servicing nine regular clients. Its growth continued. Mobile Canning later launched Mobile Canning Systems, an affiliate program to help mobile canning startups by providing the training and resources to operate in their own territory. “We tell them what and what not to buy and help them source the equipment. They also go through a full training program and can our clients’ beer. Having them join us also adds to the collective benefit of all involved, as the larger group can buy bulk quantities and lower costs overall,” Hartman says.
Mobile’s program has proved successful: There are currently over 15 affiliates, including Iron Heart. Before his company launched, Wille flew to Colorado and visited Mobile’s 10,000-square-foot facility for five days. “I went just to check it out and learn more about the concept. The next thing I knew, I was picking out my equipment,” he says. “They let me can their own clients for the whole week with my new machine. That gave me the groundwork, the confidence to do this.”
Wille’s confidence is deserved. Since opening in August of 2013, Iron Heart has packaged over 3,000,000 cans. The company now services over 20 full-time clients—including KelSo Beer, which was its first client in New York City—with five full-time employees, including Wille’s wife and sister. They recently acquired a third warehouse, in Burlington, Vermont, and a third MC-250. “Getting additional equipment is essentially the only way to expand our business,” he says.
The satisfaction of his existing clients helps, too. Monahan and Richardson’s profits triple when canning the same amount of kegged beer, they say, and they recommend other breweries to use Iron Heart for similar benefits. “There’s no hassle of keeping track of those kegs, too. Once the cans are sold, it’s a one-time thing. They’re out of our hair. It should be a no-brainer for a brewery looking to grow their brand without laying down the investment of a big canning line,” Monahan says.
“We’re just thankful Tyler is doing what he’s doing,” Richardson adds. Their praise seems pure, as soon Other Half will start canning two more hop-oozing beers with Iron Heart: All Green Everything and Hop Showers. Their sexy and understated labels, designed by Small Stuff, are below: