A Mobile Cannery Rolls Through California’s Craft Brewing Community
By Derrick Peterman • Photos by Jenn Coyle

Lindsey Herrema loads the canning line into The Can Van trailer. Photos: Jenn Coyle

If you think breweries spend most of their time formulating new recipes or experimenting with new hop concoctions, you’d be wrong. Breweries actually devote most of their time, energy, and money to the complicated logistics of getting beer from their brew kettles into your hands so you can drink it. For many local breweries with limited resources, this means taking out large loans to buy equipment. As a result, plenty of small breweries making great beer have ultimately failed under the weight of their debts.

So while canned beer is growing in popularity among the outdoor community due to their portability and lower environmental impact, small California breweries can only look on in frustration as larger breweries with deep pockets swoop in right in front of them to take advantage of these new markets.

To the rescue comes The Can Van, a new business providing mobile canning services to small breweries on an as-needed basis. This significantly lowers investment costs while reducing time to market, a major hurdle for smaller concerns. The net effect is a more level playing field in California’s beer market, where over 30 billion dollars is spent each year.

Canning Ruhstaller 1881 Kachinski Hop Ranch California Red Ale. Photo: Jenn Coyle

The Can Van was formed nearly two years ago by five friends who met at San Francisco’s Presidio Graduate School Sustainable MBA program, a program designed to create a new set of business leaders to meet the demands of running successful businesses while balancing the impact of their business on the surrounding environment.

Not only is beer packaged in cans more convenient for outdoor consumption than bottles, cans have less environmental impact. Cans are lighter than bottles, reducing the amount of energy required for shipment. Aluminum cans are also recycled twice as often as bottles, with a higher percentage of material recovered.

And not only are cans better for the environment, they’re better for the beer. Cans completely block out all external light that gives beer a “skunky” taste, which darkened bottles only partially prevent. Ever since thin polymer linings were developed in the 1980’s to prevent cans from imparting a metallic taste to the beer, canned beer has outperformed bottles in taste tests. Beer in cans easily goes to places like beaches, backpacks, rivers, or campsites where bottles would either be cumbersome or forbidden. As The Can Van’s CEO Jenn Coyle puts it, “Beer in cans is the perfect complement to California living.”

The canning line in operation, filling and labeling 16 oz cans of Ruhstaller 1881 California Red Ale with Lindsey Herrema and Brian Hicks. Photo: Jenn Coyle

For breweries wanting to leverage the advantages of cans, The Can Van provides the cans and canning equipment, while the brewery provides the beer and artwork for the labels. Both agree on a date and The Can Van rolls up and packages the beer, and once they are done, is off to the next brewery. Of course, as with any new business, there is a learning curve. “Writing the initial business plan is one thing, how it plays out is a constant re-evaluation process,” explains Coyle.

“I didn’t realize how hard canning beer was,” admits Jan-Erik Paino, owner of Sacramento’s Ruhstaller Brewery, who recently hired The Can Van to package their 1881 California Red Ale in silver four-packs. “They made some mistakes, but they learned from their mistakes, and really worked their butts off for us. The Can Van is a business the craft brewing community needs.”

The Can Van’s clients also include San Diego’s Monkey Paw Pub and Brewery and Devil’s Canyon Brewing in Belmont, CA. And business is picking up, with several additional clients lined up for early 2013, including Maverick’s Beer, a new beer brand being launched by Beer Industry Veteran Pete Slosberg, best known for being “Pete” of Pete’s Wicked Ales. See sidebar for details.

The canning line set up in the tank room at Devils Canyon Brewery in Belmont, CA. Photo: Jenn Coyle

“I’m a believer in cans,” declares Slosberg. “I was working on R&D batches at Devil’s Canyon, and The Can Van ladies were just around corner,” he recalls. Both Devil’s Canyon Brewery and The Can Van occupy the same small industrial park in Belmont.

Describing his early experience with cans, Slosberg recounts, “We put Pete’s Wicked Ale in cans in 1995, primarily for the airlines.” While this move allowed Pete’s Wicked to be sold on commercial flights where bottles aren’t allowed, it was a short lived product offering largely forgotten within the craft beer industry. Most people credit Dale Katechis of Colorado’s Oskar Blues brewery as the first craft brewer to sell beer in cans seven years later, in 2002. “Dale called me for advice before he decided to go with cans,” says Slosberg.

Slosberg also notes that The Can Van’s basic idea of providing temporary, portable packaging services to the beverage industry has roots in a California tradition. “A significant number of small wineries hire mobile bottle line services,” he states. There are several of these firms serving the wine industry. In addition, many West Coast brew pubs contract portable bottling services from a Seattle based company called Microbeer Source, a firm Slosberg has worked with on a few occasions.

So while the idea has precedent, give The Can Van credit for spotting a new business opportunity supporting both local businesses and the environment in a very California-style form of entrepreneurship. And while starting a new business involves long hours to get the business up and running, there are personal pay-offs. Jenn Coyle talks about the day she took some time off from work to take a bike trip through Marin County. “We rode from Point Reyes to the Tomales Bay Oyster Company and along the way, I found one of our cans of Ruhstaller Beer. I let out a little scream when I saw it and put it in my water bottle cage for the rest of the day.”


A Brewing Maverick Kickstarts a New Brand

Pete Slosberg’s latest beer venture was inspired by nothing more than a desire to finish his long bike rides upright. “I would go on 25-40 mile bike trips, across the Golden Gate Bridge, and eventually stop at the Marin Brewing brewpub in Larkspur,” he explained. “Problem was, after stopping there for a beer or two, I didn’t feel steady enough to get back on my bike and head home. Instead, I’d take the ferry.” This led Slosberg to consider the need for lower alcohol beers, yet flavorful enough for those who want to stay active while having a cold one or two along the way.

And he also noticed the craft brewing industry was increasingly brewing high alcohol “extreme” beers. “All the new breweries were coming out with extreme this and extreme that. There’s a time and a place for that, but we wanted to do some- thing different, and more like something I’d rather drink.”

Slosberg soon formed a partnership with Half Moon Bay Brewing to create the Mavericks Beer, a new brand of beer specifically targeted to outdoor enthusiasts, and therefore will be retailed exclusively in cans. All the beers in the line-up are geared to be highly flavorful, yet targeted to contain just 3.75% alcohol by volume (abv). For comparison, a typical Budweiser or Coors lager is 5.0% abv, while your favorite IPA is between 6.0-8.0% abv.

So far, Mavericks Beer has released two beers in their line-up: A Rye Pale Ale called “Back in the Saddle” and “Pacesetter”, a Belgian White brewed with the traditional orange peel and coriander, with lemon peel added for a different twist. While both beers are currently available on tap at the Half Moon Bay Brewpub, Mavericks Beer is planning for their major launch February 8th during the Opening Ceremonies of San Francisco Beer Week.