When I first interviewed Ron Popma and Pat Hartman of Mobile Canning, their business was a few months fresh off the ground. We grabbed a pint during ski-ball night at Oskar Blues in Longmont, Colorado, and we delved into the topic of the mobile canning business. They had recently canned their first run of Eclipse, a black IPA brewed by Crabtree Brewing in Greeley, Colorado. That beer would go down as the first American craft beer to be commercially filled by a mobile canning outfit, as the Brewers Association puts it.
Eclipse made a sublime impact on the country’s craft beer industry—not just as the first mobile-canned microbrew, but also as a style of beer that formerly couldn’t be found in a can. It’s a bold, bitter IPA fermented with Belgian yeast that weighs in at 7.7 percent ABV, and it’s canned in 16-ounce cans, to boot.
Less than four years later, Popma and Hartman have canned beers for fifteen Colorado breweries, including Renegade Brewing (Denver) and Big Choice Brewing (Broomfield). They’ve expanded to include eleven affiliate facilities across the country that serve fifty-seven craft breweries, and counting. Their business model allows nanobreweries and microbreweries who couldn’t otherwise afford the space or resources the ability to can their beers. It also allows larger companies to transition into their own canning lines. Boulder Beer Company, for example, began canning with Mobile Canning before they bought their own canning line. Last month, Boulder Beer put their first house-canned Mojo IPA and Buffalo Gold on the shelves.
Mobile Canning was first of many similar companies that have since opened. One of those companies is the Can Van. Hatched in grad school by five MBA students, the Can Van is run by Jenn Coyle and Lindsey Herrema. Taking their silver bullet of a trailer to Northern California craft brewers, they unload the mobile assembly line, and hook it up to the tanks. The canning, lidding, packaging, and sometimes labeling are done right then and there.
The “cannery-on-wheels phenomenon” is also rolling through Portland (Northwest Canning), Austin (Armadillo Mobile Canning), Chicago (Midwest Mobile Canning), San Diego (Mobile West Canning), and Chattanooga (Toucan Mobile Canning), to name a few. Many of these cannery companies are affiliates of Mobile Canning Systems, which is expected to add as many as 124 new breweries to its list of clients in 2014 and grow in volume by 400 percent.
"We didn’t even think we’d have this many affiliates [let alone breweries],” Hartman jokes. “There are 16 to-date, all doing great in their respective markets.”
At that first meeting, I don’t think he or Popma ever expected their business to explode as it did. And when I caught up with them this week, they assured me that despite unprecedented growth, they still make their way over to the Oskar Blues patio as often as they can.