As craft brewing explodes, businesses along the fringes of the industry — from hop farmers to distributors to liquor stores — are booming as well. And, as with the beer itself, Boulder County is taking the lead.
Mobile Canning, a Longmont business that road-trips to breweries, sets up its canning unit and packages their beer, is helping Colorado’s small brewers get their products on liquor store shelves.
The only company in Colorado offering mobile packaging to craft brewers, Mobile Canning got its start when co-founder Pat Hartman realized he wasn’t going to cut it in the brewery world.
“I realized that, you know, I don’t make that good of beer. … I came across the idea of mobile packaging and was like, well, cans are the superior package,” he says.
There are a variety of arguments for canning instead of bottling beer — arguments that Brian O’Connell, chief beer officer and founder of Denver’s popular Renegade Brewing, is happy to run through.
“Cans are a better package,” he says. “There’s no light penetration and there’s no oxygen penetration, and those are the two biggest spoilers for beer. They’re also a lot more energy efficient, they’re lighter, they cool a lot faster, [it takes] less energy to recycle them. Colorado’s an outdoorsy state, and bottles don’t travel very well and cans do.”
Renegade has been canning its rye IPA, Ryeteous, through Mobile Canning for about eight months, and recently started the process with two other beers, Elevation Imperial IPA and 5 O’Clock, a blonde session ale.
As Hartman points out, Colorado beer drinkers in particular should appreciate the convenience of cans.
“Floating down the river or backpacking, drinking it right out of the vessel, glass just doesn’t make sense,” he says.
Tom Horst, owner and brewmaster of Boulder’s Crystal Springs Brewing Company, brings up one more point. He says Crystal Springs’ Summertime Ale, a kolsch-style beer, wasn’t keeping its flavor for very long.
“It doesn’t really do well in a bottle,” he says. “It’s a beer that needs to be pretty fresh. So I wanted to see how it went with the can, and it’s worked out just wonderfully for us.” Crystal Springs also cans its South Ridge Amber with Mobile Canning.
The centerpiece of Mobile Canning’s operation is basically a 10-foot-long table on wheels. A conveyor belt carries freshly cleaned empty cans through a four-step process, filling them first with carbon dioxide, then filling them with beer, then topping them with familiar aluminum punch-top lids and finally sealing the lids so no air can escape — and, more importantly, no air can infiltrate.
“Since these are not can-conditioned, we don’t want any oxygen in there,” Hartman says, which is why the cans are first filled with carbon dioxide — so any remaining gas in the can is CO2, not air.
The unit was designed collaboratively with Wild Goose Canning Technologies in Boulder, Hartman says. The companies engineered a unit that could withstand road trips and still precisely seal the tops of cans.
“We roll this right into the brewery, and if you picture the bright tank sitting right there,” Hartman says, gesturing around Mobile Canning’s Longmont warehouse, “we try to get as close as we can.”
These days, they’re getting particularly close with Renegade. O’Connell estimates he’ll have Mobile Canning in “probably once a week” now that the Denver brewer is canning three of its beers. Even with that frequency, O’Connell says Mobile Canning is a better option than trying to upgrade his facility.
“We have no space for a canning line,” he says. “The day that they’re in here we’re jammed in here.”
Hartman says Mobile Canning primarily serves smaller breweries like Renegade that don’t have the capital, capacity or space to start canning on a rigorous schedule. But Mobile Canning also serves Boulder Beer Company, a brewery that has long bottled its beer. When Boulder Beer decided to start canning some of its brews, the company contacted Hartman.
“Their manual canner is up on the shelf and it’s still there. We look at it every time we’re down there,” he says.
Mobile Canning may be the only company of its kind in Colorado, but it’s working to spread the concept, setting up a network of companies under the Mobile Canning brand in other states.
This affiliate program, Hartman says, comes in response to inquiries from across the country about how to replicate Mobile Canning’s model.
So far, affiliates in four other states — New York, Virginia, Ohio and Michigan — have made progress on opening their businesses, with more on the way, Hartman says.
“We basically provide a full package that helps them get started, helps them with operational support down the road. If they’re going to have a problem in the field, they’re going to call us and most likely we’ve run across it,” Hartman says. “If we haven’t, then we’ll work collectively on it together.”
As the Mobile Canning brand expands, the operation here in Boulder County will as well. Hartman says the company is building a second unit “just to keep up with demand.”
As for Renegade and Crystal Springs, you can find Renegade’s Ryeteous, 5 O’Clock and Elevation in several Boulder liquor stores. Crystal Springs could soon be adding a third beer to its canned line, which Horst says will probably be Marilyn Belgian Golden Ale.