Two men from Asheville, N.C., recently stopped by Fatty’s Beer Works, not to drink beer but to make it easier for other people to do so.
The representatives of Iron Heart Canning, the country’s largest mobile canning outfit, which services breweries in 21 states, had arrived early that morning to set up the canning operation. It looks and operates the same as a traditional line except each piece is daily taken apart to fit in the back of a box truck. And the machine is covered in stickers representing breweries it has visited.
“We’ve got to get it all done before 4 p.m.,” David McLain, who owns Fatty’s, said over the blare of the operating machine, which was in the midst of producing thousands of IPA cans. “That’s when we open.”
The state-of-the-art canning line was set up in the middle of Fatty’s tiny taproom. High-top tables had been pushed aside to make room for it.
“Everyone we talk to says it works for them,” said Iron Heart's Jon Lovin, who has canned beers for dozens of breweries in the South. “If you’re a brewery that’s smaller and can’t afford to spend a couple hundred thousand dollars, what else are you supposed to do?”
The only game in town
The traditional path for most breweries, including those in Charleston, is to purchase their own canning line.
Smaller breweries such as Fatty's don't have enough space for such machines. But, to grow their business, they want to make cans of their beer available.
“This is the way the consumer is won these days,” McLain said. “They want to be able to take a six-pack with them and this is the way we're able to do that for them."
“I just don’t have the footprint or the space to have my own,” McLain added. “So we have to go with what we got.”
Lack of money is another main reason a handful of the area's micro-breweries use the mobile cannery, which comes to town once a month and, at Fatty's, fills about 400 cases of beer in a day. Canning lines cost at least $150,000.
Both Iron Heart and area breweries declined to specify the exact cost of using the mobile operation.
Iron Heart opened in 2013 as a small mom-and-pop shop in New Hampshire. That was around the start of the “canned beer revolution,” said Roger Kissling, Iron Heart’s vice president of sales.
Coast Brewing, which opened in 2007, was the first brewery in town to use a mobile canning company, which was called Land of the Sky and has since been acquired by Iron Heart.
“From the start, we knew we wanted to have cans,” Jaime Tenny, who co-owns Coast, said. “We’re all about draft beer, but you’re just not always going to be at a brewery or restaurant.”
Three years ago, Coast bought its own canning line, as most breweries do when they gain enough capital.
Iron Heart has since bought out other mobile canning companies and now has warehouses in 17 cities, ranging from Maine to Florida. It cans beer for over 300 breweries.
“They’ve cornered the Southeast market,” Hank Hanna, who owns Commonhouse Aleworks in North Charleston, said. “They’re really the only game in town now.”
For breweries that want to offer packaged cans in small quantities, the mobile cannery is filling a need.
In doing so, Iron Heart has “helped craft beer knock down market barriers in an industry long dominated by the likes of Budweiser and Coors,” according to Brewbound, a website that covers the craft beer business.
Before Commonhouse opened its doors in January 2018, Hanna knew he wanted to get cans of his beer on grocery store shelves.
“With craft beer, part of what you’re trying to do is convert domestic beer drinkers into craft beer drinkers,” he said. “Those consumers don’t always go to breweries." But they do go to the grocery store and will see four-packs of Commonhouse beer at the Harris Teeter.
The larger Edmund's Oast Brewing opened with its own canning operation in 2017 and Director of Operations Cameron Read said his team still struggles to run it without a hitch.
"Canning is a necessary evil," Read said. "There's a lot of blood, sweat and tears involved."
The cons of mobile canning
Even though it's the only option for smaller craft breweries, there are downsides to going the mobile canning route.
Iron Heart charges per case of beer, which costs breweries more than an in-house canning line.
“You make less of a margin,” Hanna said. “There will come a point where it will make more sense to get our own.”
There’s also the lack of flexibility since Iron Heart comes to Charleston breweries on a monthly basis.
“You’re on their schedule,” Justin Slotnick of Charles Towne Fermentory said. “You have to make sure everything’s ready for them. You can’t just say, ‘The beer’s not ready to be canned, so let’s do it tomorrow.’”
It's up to the breweries how much beer they want canned, and they can also determine if they'd rather have 12- or 16-ounce cans.
As these operations keep running, breweries ideally attract a wider following and sell more beer. That leads to them being able to buy their own canning machinery.
While in-house canning lines are typical for larger breweries such as Edmund’s Oast, Michael Biondi of the smaller-scale Frothy Beard said it had come time to make the purchase.
“With our own canning line, we can can our beer as soon as it is ready,” Biondi said.
Canning according to Iron Heart’s schedule could sometimes tie up the brewery’s tanks sometimes for weeks “with the beer sitting waiting to be canned.”
Now, the crew is able to package a wider variety of beers and run the canning line on their own terms.
"We don't have to can as much of one beer in one run," he said. "(We) can spread it out over the course of a couple batches."
Still, Slotnick said Charles Towne Fermentory won't likely be buying its own canning line anytime soon.
“There’s so much convenience to doing it this way,” he said. "It works really well for us."
And it’s the only way the West Ashley brewery could afford to have cans for sale on site, which Slotnick said customers see as an expectation.
"If they like this place and this beer, they want to take that sense of place with them," he said.
As canning day came to an end at Fatty’s, McLain cracked open a just-sealed raspberry-coconut brew called Doom Flamingo.
He said Fatty’s started canning “pretty much instantly” after the brewery opened on Meeting Street in 2017.
It was the end of a busy week in Charleston for Lovin, who had run canning lines at three other local breweries in the previous three days. As he does at most breweries he serves, he planned to take a six-pack or two with him to enjoy back in Asheville.