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Craft Beer Mobile Canning - Pros & Cons
In the modern craft beer landscape, packaged product is king. Small, newly opened breweries have prioritized not only offering consumers a space to drink their beer on-site, but the opportunity to bring that beer home. Growlers and crowlers offer ad hoc solutions to the packaged product dilemma, but they can be time and labor intensive. Plus, aluminum has overtaken glass as brewers continue to switch to crowlers and/or 16 oz. aluminum cans over growlers and 12 oz. bottles.
In fact, the National Beer Wholesalers Association reported that canned beer “accounted for 60% of all beer sold” with glass bottles accounting for 30% and kegs 10%. So, eventually, a brewer will have to consider the optimal way to package their beer.
Over the last few years, several mobile canning companies have hit the market offering brewery owners flexibility and ease in packaging their beer. These mobile canning solutions can offer significant upsides but there are certainly drawbacks to outsourcing your packaging needs.
We’ve pulled together resources and expert advice to put together a list of the pros and cons of the mobile canning processes. Over the next section, we will be discussing all of the pros of mobile canning.
Pro: Save Costs Over the Short Term
Canning lines are expensive. Even the least expensive ones cost over $20,000 for the machinery alone. Hiring a mobile canning company will cost between $3 and $5 a case. Over the long term, that might add up. But, if your brewery is only producing enough beer for sporadic canning runs, a mobile canning company can offer economical solutions.
In fact, a mobile canning solution can be an ideal way for breweries to test out their offerings.
“We used mobile canning at first as a way to package our product for to-go options and to send out in retail,” shares Rachel Edwards, Head Brewer at Oozlefinch Beers and Blending. “Mobile canning allowed us to pulse our product in the market when owning a canner wouldn't be an option for a while.”
Most canning lines will take up a significant chunk of real estate in your brewery. “Hiring a mobile canning company was a nice space saver as our brewery isn't very big and throwing a canner at it really took up some real estate,” explains Edwards.
So, hiring a mobile canning company for one-off batches means there won’t be any wasted space in your brewhouse.
“Mobile canners are great for both smaller breweries looking for proof of concept if interested in buying their own line,” says Chris Kinast, Brewer at Perennial Artisan Ales. “Or ones that don’t have the capital to purchase their own lines, or the space to store one.”
Pro: Equipment Storage Solution
One of the less immediate benefits of using mobile canners is that most canning companies will store the canning equipment themselves. So, breweries don’t need to worry about ordering, storing, and handling all of the equipment in their brewery.
Pro: Trained Professionals
The upside of hiring a mobile canning company, is that you have a trained professional packaging your product. You don’t need to be an expert in proper canning techniques because someone will do it for you. And you can rest assured that they will handle your product with the utmost care.
“It was super helpful to be able to perform and learn QC procedures before we had to do it ourselves,” says Jordan Wheeler, Packaging Lead at WeldWerks Brewing Co. “The year and a half of mobile canning really gave me and our packaging team the confidence of being able to run our own line.”
With a dedicated canning line specialist managing your packaging, they’ll make sure your cans are properly filled with little to no dissolved oxygen (DO) or other off flavors. And, you have the chance to improve your own quality measures for when you ultimately purchase your own canning line.
“Having your own [canning] line in house is really nice for dialing in the process that works best for the beer running through your line,” Kinast says. “We actually decided to buy the same line that our previous mobile canners were using because of the familiarity that we had built with it.”
Now that we've covered the pros, let's talk about the cons.
Con: The Costs Add Up
While a mobile canning company can save you money over the short term, investing in your own dedicated canning line will save you money in the long run. As you scale up your brewery, keeping all means of production and packaging in-house will save time and money.
“Mobile canning can be a great resource for startups that lack capital to go out and get a canning line, which is the case for a lot of people out there,” shares Lewis McCallister, Head Brewer of Mountains Walking Brewery. “At the same time, it has always been told to me that as soon as you can afford, buy one. I think both of these hold true.”
But, a mobile canning company can act as a buffer, helping brewers maintain packaging runs while they set up their own canning system.
“When we first started with Craft Canning (a mobile canning company in the PNW) we probably used them on average 2 days a week,” shares Wheeler. “By the end of their time here at WeldWerks we were using them 4-5 days a week and basically had one of their lines occupied with just our product. At this point I believe we were no longer seeing financial benefits from using a mobile canner. We also were able to get our line set up and installed while still using Craft Canning. This meant no down time. We were still able to push our product until our line was ready and did not miss a beat.”
One of the greatest challenges in working with mobile canning companies is scheduling. There are over 8,000 craft breweries in the United States alone. And there are not nearly enough mobile canning units for each brewery. So, demand often outweighs supply and you’ll likely struggle to find a mobile canning option for a time-sensitive run. “Scheduling the mobile canner to come when we had enough beer to fill their quota typically put a hold on our production schedule,” shares Edwards.
That means you’ll need to meticulously plan out your brewing schedule to line up with available mobile canning dates. Owning your own canning line means you can package your beer whenever you’d like.
Con: Packaging Is Out of Your Control
Unfortunately, because you’ve hired a dedicated canning specialist, your packaging is out of your control. While many breweries have used mobile canning solutions without issue, there are certainly stories of lapses in quality control.
“Having the same crew on the same line, in the same place, with the same tanks leads to success,” notes McCallister. “When your packaging crew really has everything dialed in it allows them to really pay attention to the finer details which is key so far as QC [Quality Control] is concerned.”
So, if you outsource your packaging to a different team, your cans are at the mercy of someone else.
Con: Unfamiliarity with the Product
Similar to the previous con, the mobile canning company you hire won’t have any familiarity with your product or your brewery. With a dedicated canning line, you can be sure that your brewstaff will have full control and understanding of the product. Plus, you have more ownership and creativity with your own dedicated canning line.
“The biggest reason we purchased our own canning line? We wanted to can live sours,” Edwards explains. “We opted to buy a machine that had fill nozzles that could be removed easily so we can do clean and live sour beers on the same machine.”
The Bottom Line on Mobile Canning:
While it’s important to consider the drawbacks of mobile canning, most of the professional brewers and brewery owners we spoke to highlighted their positive experiences working with mobile canning companies. But, the common thread? Most brewers ultimately save up to purchase their own canning line.
“I think the biggest advantage of getting your own line is the flexibility in your schedule,” remarks Kinast. “For us, it’s so nice being able to not rush beers out to have to hit a pre-scheduled canning date, and just to have the freedom to be able to move canning dates around.”