Atlanta craft brewers look to mobile canning for wider distribution

The cost-friendly alternative to in-house equipment can increase reach for new breweries

In an effort to reach more people faster, two Atlanta craft beer brewers will turn to mobile canning in the coming months to distribute product at the retail level, rather than purchase canning lines of their own.

Orpheus Brewing, which launched in May, and Second Self Beer Company, which expects to launch in September, both say the economic advantages of mobile canning outweigh the large upfront expense of high quality canning lines, especially for a new brewery.

The long-held perception that canned beer equals lesser quality is all but gone, and the myriad benefits to brewers and consumers make canning an easy decision. Light is bad for beer and cans keep brews in the dark better than glass bottles. Cans are easy to recycle, cheaper to ship, they won’t break, and are permitted in places bottles aren’t (e.g., the beach, sport and concert venues, camping trips).

For a brand new brewery, the cost of a small canning line is more feasible—they start at about $30,000, says Andrew Lorber, CFO of Orpheus. But they operate manually so the process is slow, and the small size means the line won’t return much on their investment anyway. He prefers a higher end line with larger, more automated capacity, but those can run $100,000 and up.

“We could have raised the money to [purchase one],” Lorber says. “But it’s not economically viable unless you’re doing bigger runs. We’re not ready to do that yet, based on our fermentation space and the projected size of our market.”

Besides, in a brewery, there’s always another idea on the table for how to spend that cash: “I’d rather buy fermenters and barrels,” says Orpheus brewmaster Jason Pellett, who says the cost of their ideal canning line could buy six fermenters. For now, the mobile canning route just makes more sense.

How it works

The growing popularity of mobile canning has been on the rise for several years. Colorado-based Mobile Canning Systems launched in 2011 (their mobile canning equipment built in partnership with Wild Goose Canning). According to Mobile Caning Systems’ website, their affiliate program has helped small business canners launch operations in California, Washington, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, New York, and Connecticut. Second Self will work with Toucan Mobile Canning, based out of Chattanooga. They plan to service Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee.

In addition to saving upfront costs and physical space in the brewery (refrigerated storage can be costly), the allure of mobile canning is efficiency and ease.

“They’ll bring the equipment and expertise,” says Jason Santamaria, co-founder of Second Self. “They’ll oversee the whole process. We’ll provide the beer, CO2, and cans.”

When the mobile canning team arrives, they’ll pull up to the brewery’s loading dock, unload the equipment, connect to a brite tank of fresh brew, and begin the filling process. Orpheus says they will can their tart plum saison Atalanta and Lyric Ale, the recently-released hoppy saison. Second Self says they will can their forthcoming year-round beers: Saison, Thai Wheat, LIPA, and Red Hop Rye.

With a nominal startup fee and a price-per-can cost of less then a quarter, Pellett says he likes the idea of mobile canning. Canning days will likely come in at the low thousands. Time will tell if the mobile approach might serve as long term strategy or if the benefit of purchasing an in-house line sooner than later will prevail. There’s something to be said for a brewery having full control of their packaged product, which is not the case with mobile canning (scheduled canning dates rely on the mobile canning team’s availability).

So when will Atlantans get their hands on these cans? Soon-ish, both breweries, say. Second Self is in the pre-launch stages, and Orpheus is managing the final steps in their can production. Early fall sounds possible. We will have to wait.