Picture a packaged craft beer.
Did you picture a 16-ounce can? If you’re thinking of a local beer in a can, that image was likely made possible by Sacramento’s Can Van, the unsung heroes of Northern California’s craft beer scene who waited years for cans to become cool.
It’s paying off.
Founded by Jenn Coyle and Lindsey Herrema seven years ago, The Can Van’s job is to help put brewers’ pints in your refrigerator. While there are plenty of financial reasons for brewers to outsource the work to The Can Van or one of its competitors, there’s a practical reason: The brewers didn’t get into this business to learn the intricacies of canning.
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“Someone who’s a brewer is more like a chef. Someone who’s running a packaging line is someone who’s like working in a factory,” Coyle said.
A sticky, sticky factory.
There’s no way to can beer without spilling some, and if you’ve ever walked around a college house after a keg party, you have some idea what it’s like on a brewery floor after a canning run. It’s not a business most people would consider a calling.
For Coyle and Herrema, it started as a fun project while they were getting master’s degrees at Presidio Business School in San Francisco. They wrote a business plan and visited breweries in the name of research (and also in the name of drinking beer). At the time, there were a few dozen small breweries that couldn’t afford a $200,000 canning line. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a business that went from brewery to brewery to can beer?
Coyle and Herrema thought so. They raised money from friends and family to get the business off the ground; they figured no bank was going to loan money for the first-ever mobile beer canning company. They were sure cans were going to take off in California. Eventually, with a little help from the state, they were right.
Though pint cans became popular in other parts of the country earlier, cans didn’t get big in California until a state law change in 2016 made it easy for brewers to get a new label.
Since that change, and with a proliferation of 16-ounce craft cans around the country, the can explosion has hit California hard. Go to a beer store and look at the local labels. There aren’t many in 12-ounce cans or bottles.
There’s a reason for that, said Dan Rafferty, head brewer at Big Sexy. Cans are better. Drinkers have been trained to think “craft” when they see a 16-ounce can, and the aluminum tubes are ideal for keeping beer fresh. With local big names like Moonraker and New Glory almost exclusively in 16-ounce cans — and with new hop houses across the country almost exclusively using cans — people are looking for a hunk of metal when they go beer shopping.
“It’s pretty significant just for brand recognition sitting on a shelf, but also because of the quality cans bring,” Rafferty said. “You’ve got an oxygen-free barrier, a light-free barrier. All great things for the bulk of what our business is, which tends to be hoppy beers.”
As with anything in business, money is also a key concern. A canning system might cost more than $250,000, Big Sexy owner James Thompson said, but it only costs around $1,500 or $2,000 to use a mobile canning business.
“You want to deploy your money in other places until you can afford” a canning system, Thompson said. “At a certain point, there’s a time when you need to have one. It’s better to buy more storage and higher quality hops, that kind of thing.”
There’s a risk, as there is in any business, for companies like The Can Van. Breweries could all get big enough that they buy their own canning lines. If there aren’t a bunch of new breweries cropping up, The Can Van might run out of customers.
But Coyle said she isn’t too worried about that. Many new breweries are trying to stay small and manageable. They just want to make beer for their friends and their neighborhood, not the entire state.
“There are a lot of breweries operating in small facilities where it just doesn’t make sense to make the investment not just in the equipment, but the space for it to be stored and the space to store cans. Plus there’s the investment for people to maintain it and keep it going,” Coyle said.
Besides, The Can Van has already diversified.
In addition to the six canning lines they have for breweries, The Can Van is now canning wines for Northern California vintners.
Maybe when you picture a merlot, you’ll picture a gleaming can.
James Patrick has covered the beer industry across the country for five years.