Amid craft brew boom, mobile beer canning business is crushing it

The idea came to them while they were still in graduate school for business administration in the Bay Area. With so many new craft breweries up and running, Lindsey Herrema and Jenn Coyle zeroed in on a business plan that would help more startups with little infrastructure to package their beer in cans and, consequently, increase their profile in the marketplace.

Canned beer, once stigmatized as the refuge of cheap lager, had in recent years become hip in craft beer circles. It was environmentally friendly (the aluminum could be recycled more times than glass), it was easier to pack and ship and, more than anything, cans preserved the original flavor and aroma of the beer significantly better than did bottles.

By 2011, before they had even completed their MBAs with an emphasis in sustainability at Presidio Graduate School, the two women had done enough homework to launch The Can Van.

They raised money, bought a small, high-tech canning line, put it on wheels and started a mobile beer canning business.

It was an instant hit, and the demand was soon more intense than the two entrepreneurs had anticipated. During one stretch, they worked 28 days straight, including weekends, bouncing from one small brewery to the next.

Earlier this week, they were on track to can their 3 millionth beer. The Can Van has done so well that Herrema and Coyle bought a second $100,000-plus canning line and set up a satellite operation in Sacramento, where business is also booming. Next spring, they plan to have a third canning machine up and running.

“The Sacramento market is big,” said Herrema, 30. “We definitely made a conscious decision to locate our second line up here because we are here more and more, and a lot of our growth is in this area.”

Locally, The Can Van cans beer for Ruhstaller, Track 7, Out of Bounds, Ol’ Republic and New Glory. Several other breweries say they are eager to get their beer into cans once they can brew enough for it to make economic sense.

As with many successful new ventures, The Can Van was not only a good idea, but the timing couldn’t have been better.

In the Bay Area and beyond, dozens of breweries were opening and many saw their businesses grow rapidly, even while operating on a tight budget. Many had started out bottling but were becoming inspired by the trend of selling high-quality beer in the once-lowly can.

Several high-profile craft breweries were already proponents of the can, including San Francisco’s 21st Amendment Brewing, which began packaging its entire retail lineup only in cans in 2006, when it was still a tiny operation. In recent years, New Belgium, Sierra Nevada and Samuel Adams have begun canning beer.

Cans better seal in beer, while bottles can let in oxygen between the cap and glass. Light can also enter the bottle and affect the brew inside.

“It’s not going anywhere. I think there are over 450 breweries that are currently canning their beer and it’s growing every year,” said Shaun O’Sullivan, co-owner and brewmaster at 21st Amendment, which recently launched a $1.2 million canning line at its new San Leandro brewery that handles 500 cans a minute.

O’Sullivan said The Can Van, whose more modest machines handle 36 to 37 cans a minute, is ideal for new breweries eager to get into canning without breaking the bank.

“Small breweries are scrappy and capital is king,” he said. “If you have the opportunity to utilize a service that comes in and packages your beer, I think that’s a great savings.”

That was the idea with Track 7, though the brewery’s rapid success means it will eventually outgrow The Can Van and invest in its own canning line, which is projected to cost about $350,000, according to Ryan Graham, Track 7’s co-owner. Coyle says she anticipated that kind of thing from the outset.

“We definitely knew that would be the case. We hoped we could start with people and do their first packaging, then grow with them until they were able to buy their own equipment,” the 32-year-old said.

New Glory enlisted The Can Van to package two of its beers, the Farmhouse French Saison and Extra Pale American IPA. It also bottles several of its other beers.

“We didn’t invest in a canning machine from the get-go. The minimum cost is $100,000,” said owner Julien Lux. “It has been really nice working with The Can Van. … They understand beer and they know what can go wrong with beer.”

With its recent growth, New Glory is poised to buy its own small canning line, said Lux. He figures that consumers tend to sample a brewery’s beer by buying 22-ounce bottles (called bombers) and will look to buy cans as repeat customers. More than anything, he likes the quality control of cans.

“We’re giving the can a six-month shelf life, as opposed to 90 to 120 days in the bottle,” Lux said. “The Can Van gave us the opportunity to put some cans out there and see what the demand was like. Now that we’ve done that, we realize it’s worth the investment.”

Herrema and Coyle mastered the technical elements of canning early on, instilling confidence in the brewers who closely monitored their work in those initial canning runs. What The Can Van does is a crucial part of the business – getting the beer out of the tanks and into cans with little waste and no spoilage issues. The machine functions like a compact assembly line, filling four cans of beer simultaneously, moving them along where the lids are placed on top, then to the final station where they are sealed airtight. Ideally, the beer is very cold during the canning process to prevent a mistake or oversight. Poorly calibrated equipment could ruin an entire batch of beer.

These days, their reputations precede them when they walk into a brewery and set up their equipment.

“If I was to give them a rating out of five stars, I would give them six stars,” said David Mathis, owner of Rancho Cordova’s American River Brewing. His business contracts brews for Ruhstaller, and he has overseen the canning of Ruhstaller’s popular Gilt Edge lager.

Mathis is so enthusiastic about The Can Van that he recommended it to several other breweries, including Track 7, which in turn recommended it to New Glory.

During two recent visits to Track 7’s brewery in Natomas, The Bee observed Herrema and Coyle can Bee Line Blond, a light ale made with a touch of hops and local wildflower honey, and the very popular Panic IPA, an India pale ale known for its robust hop aroma and bold flavor profile.

“Cans are a great packaging format,” Graham said. “They limit UV light. It’s a lighter package and is less costly to ship. And consumers tend to recycle cans more than bottles.”

Herrema and Coyle say their gender has rarely been an issue, though they occasionally have been met with condescension by people on the fringes of the craft beer industry. Once at a trade show, for example, a man asked the diminutive Herrema how she would lift the pallets of cans. With a forklift, she replied.

The two owners say they want to provide an example that craft beer can be a viable career option for women. Unlike those early months, which were spent drumming up business, now they’re busy squeezing new clients into their increasingly tight schedules. They say a big part of their latest growth has been in cider and, yes, wine, an industry that has begun exploring cans. They recently canned wine for a new product called “Mancan.”

“Over the past few years, it has been nice to see how many more women are working in the industry,” said Coyle. “It’s growing and there are tons of opportunities.”

Blair Anthony Robertson: 916-321-1099, @Blarob