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Friday, 15 November 2013 18:07

A talk with mobile canner Iron Heart

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Carton Brewing has put its Boat beer into the liquor store pipeline. See the distribution list here.

Once a draft-only beer, Boat (4.2% ABV) was the Atlantic Highlands brewery's answer to the question of which New Jersey craft brewery would be the first to can its beer. (A Jersey-brewed craft beer in cans was always a when, not an if.)

Last summer, Carton struck a deal with mobile canner Iron Heart and took with it a little bit of glory and the kind of mentions that typically come when craft beer trends from other parts of the country surface in the Garden State.

Founded earlier this year, Iron Heart Canning is enjoying a buzz as well, a growing profile in the mid-Atlantic and Northeast. Based in south central Connecticut, the company has packaged for production and pub brewers from Pennsylvania to Maine. With its four-tube Wild Goose filler , Iron Heart has done more than 150,000 cans since summer, when it began actual packaging work for clients. 

Iron Heart's backstory is one of a fortuitous fork in the road.

With a decade of homebrewing as his tailwind, Tyler Wille, a former accountant, was intent on opening a brewery. But the research for his business plan said otherwise: Scrap the brewery, open a mobile canning company; it's an emerging service sector in mid-Atlantic and Northeast craft brewing, and craft beer in cans continues to see widening appeal among brewers and beer drinkers.

So far for Iron Heart, things have met or done better than projections. During a phone interview in late October, Tyler talked to Beer-Stained Letter about launching Iron Heart with his friend, Jeremy Costa, and how far the company has gone in a relatively short time.

Tyler Wille (left) and Jeremy Costa of Iron Heart Canning BSL: Your story is one of having a pretty sharp eye, realizing a potentially better opportunity in the details of your original plans. How long was it before you had the "aha moment" and your plans went from opening a brewery to starting a mobile canning service?
TW: It was really fast. I saw the demand out there. When I first came across Mobile Canning Systems in Colorado, it was actually late January of this year. I booked a flight and went out there within a couple of weeks and met with the guys. A couple weeks after that, I had my down payment on the equipment … So I really made a fast decision to go forward with this.

BSL: Some folks would be reluctant to set aside their aspirations to brew beer in favor of packaging someone else's.
TW: Business-wise, it really made a lot of sense to get on the services side, and actually serve all these great breweries, as opposed to competing with them. It's a really exciting time now for the beer industry; breweries are just popping up. Craft beer in general is going through a really exciting period of expansion. I wanted to be a part of that industry, and that's why I was planning a brewery launch. But I also found there was a niche for this service. To me, it was a really good decision as far as being able to stay in the brewing industry and have my own business, which was paramount.

BSL: Including Carton, how many breweries do you have as clients?
TW: Right now, we're working with seven … a couple more are coming on in the December and January timeframe. We're starting to get to a point now where we're actually considering expansion of our own ... We're over 100,000 cans at this point, pushing 150,000 actually. A run of 1,000 cases at KelSo (recently) helped that. It's pretty exciting to have that many out there in only about (three) months of operation. Our goal is to be the canning infrastructure for breweries. We don't want to work with a million different breweries. We want a network of long-term and strong partnerships with the breweries we are working with. ... We'll never get to the point where we overbook ourselves for one truck. If it gets to the point where we're at capacity, that really means us getting another truck. That would not only allow us to do two canning jobs in the same day, but for some of the bigger clients that we're working with, for instance Shipyard, we'd be able to bring both to the location on the same day and run at twice the capacity.

BSL: When you were working out the mobile canning details on paper, how many clients did you envision picking up in the first year? And is the current count close to your projections?
TW: When I was going through the business plan and making the decision to actually go forward with it, the response I got from my initial market research of going out and talking to breweries was overwhelming, to the point where I had guys (say), "If you had a canning line, we'd want you here tomorrow." ... By the end of year one, I had me at maximum capacity, which is roughly around 10 to 12 breweries for one truck. I had forecast by the end of year one, we'd be basically getting there. And it looks like we'll be there within a six-month period, which is pretty exciting.

BSL: You mention maxing out on capacity. How does that break down in actual days of production?
TW: Maximum capacity is 18 canning days a month. That's for one truck. When I'm at 18 canning days per month, that's when I'm not taking on new days for that month. Part of our plan is to not only provide scheduling, but we also want to be able to have the flexibility to do on-call services. It's like if a brewery has their own canning line, they can use it whenever they wanted. We want to emulate that, so that means we have to have a certain amount of floating days within each week to be on call.

Canning Boat beer at Carton Brewing, October 1, 2013. This was the second run of Boat in cans.BSL: A typical canning day lasts how long?
TW: It depends on how much the brewery wants to do. For instance, at Carton, we're doing between 350 to 400 cases there. That's between five and six hours. That's roughly between 35 and 40 barrels. Forty barrels is what we consider our average day.

BSL: Carton Brewing holds the distinction of being the first Jersey-brewed craft beer to be canned. There was a growing sense in the New Jersey craft beer industry that having one of the home-state brands go into cans was just around the corner.
TW: That's one of the reasons why we moved forward so quickly. We were on this cusp of canned craft beer making its way to the East Coast. It's been big out West for a while, but it slowly trickled its way here. We're able to be on the forefront of that push into cans on the East Coast. Carton, that was one milestone. Then (in October) we were at KelSo; that was the first canned beer in Brooklyn in 30 years – to actually be canned in Brooklyn. The guys at Carton and KelSo are super-excited about it, and so are we. That's our product as well.

BSL: One of the big considerations with canning is labeling and container stock ... 
TW: A big decision for breweries to make is, "Do we want to commit to an order of preprinted cans and really get the production-style margins, or do the smaller one-off runs with the shrink sleeves?" You can emulate the printed cans with the shrink sleeves, but you're never going to get that superior quality of the printed cans. Crown cans recently got their minimums way down, so it's a lot more reasonable for some of these breweries around the size of Carton, for instance, to buy the printed cans at this point. That's really where you're going to get your margins at, as well. Shrink sleeves are great for one-off runs and small batches, but they definitely are more expensive.

BSL: What about sanitation and purging the cans of beer-staling air? Those are always big concerns for brewers and their packaging.
TW: Those are the first two questions we get asked in pretty much any meeting we go to … definitely sanitation and the air content. We have an extremely rigid clean-in-place process that we run before and after canning. We thoroughly clean our equipment both on the spot and when we get back to the warehouse. By the time we're canning the next time, our equipment is basically brand new. ... As far as air content goes, the Wild Goose machine is actually a very good machine when it's running efficiently at getting the air content down. We were at Shipyard (in October) and they were continuously testing cans through out our run. We were coming in under their bottling line, which was really, really great for us to hear. They were extremely happy with that. It means we were better than their bottling line.

Boat Can3

Read 10926 times Last modified on Monday, 02 December 2013 17:27

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