Make no mistake about it; cans are the future of small pack. Lighter, more portable, less susceptible to light and oxygen inclusion, and more eco-friendly than their bottled counterparts, canned beer is fast becoming the default packaging option of choice among craft breweries.
It isn’t just brewers who are fans of the format, either. The latest statistics from consumer research firm Nielsen, published in November 2017, showed that cans now make up a quarter of craft beers sold in the UK in off licenses and multiple grocers, whilst recent data from the US (complied by The Brewers Association) showed that canned beer sales now make up 16.7% of total craft product sales in the country.
Unfortunately, however, not every brewery has the funds (or the space) available to invest in its own canning line. With prices starting at around £60,000 and rising to near the £1m mark for a state-of-the-art machine, getting beer into cans without bankrupting your business can feel like an impossible task.
This price barrier is probably the major reason for the rise of a number of so-called ‘mobile canning’ companies within the UK. These outfits, nearly all of whom have sprung up in the last 3-4 years, give breweries an on-site solution and access to small-pack that would otherwise have been impossible or unaffordable.
“Very often choosing to explore mobile canning is about route to market,” explains Jamie Kenyon, founder and managing director of mobile canning operation Them That Can. “Lots of breweries can't really afford their own canning equipment, or they may just want to dip their toes and try it out. Sometimes it is about not having enough space for their own line. There are lots of different factors.”
Kenyon decided to set up Them That Can in late 2014, after seeing the likes of Beavertown and Camden Town move into canned format, and spotting the potential for future growth. After starting out with one second-hand canning line, the company now has three lines and 16 members of staff, and provides its services to more than 70 breweries across the UK.
For Sean Ayling, co-founder of Kent brewery Pig & Porter, Them That Can has been a revelation. “We've not used anyone else and probably wouldn't want to,” he says. “I've been really reassured with the quality of the cans we've had from them. It really helps that they come to us, we feel in more control of the process.”
“Ideally I'd like my own line but we just don’t have the space at our place right now. Using a mobile canning service does at least give us access to small-pack that we wouldn’t otherwise have.”
One of the biggest concerns when outsourcing part of your brewing operation, and part of the reason why many breweries remain skeptical about both mobile and contract canning, is the risk of infection. With Them That Can’s minimum run set at 1,000 litres, the fear from the brewer’s perspective is always going to be ending up with unsellable beer, and a big fat cash-flow problem.
“Ultimately, beer spoiling is the responsibility of the brewery,” explains Kenyon. “We will send them a specification sheet, and they then have to check their process and decide if they are happy. On the canning day before we unload equipment we will check their beer for dissolved oxygen, Co2 levels and temperature, and if it is within the specifications and the brewery is happy then we will go ahead and can it.”
“That being said, we do have a number of safeguards in place to ensure that the risk is as minimal as possible,” he continues. “We test the product before canning and during the canning process with can piercing. Seam analysis tests are also carried out during the canning run using a micrometer, which measure the seam thickness and integrity of the cans. This is all recorded on quality assessment sheet which is then sent to our customers for their records.”
Despite these measures, however, some breweries remain unconvinced. James Heffron, one of the founders of Verdant Brewing Co, says that although mobile canning “worked really well” on the whole for the Cornish brewery, there were a number of major drawbacks that lead to the brewery investing in its own line in late 2017.
“The biggest annoyances we had with mobile canners were to do with flakey machinery that often ended up being fixed on our own time, and operators who weren’t able to grasp how much effort we had put into our beer,” he says. “We often had canning runs being cancelled the day before, or had to work with overworked operators who had travelled huge distances across the UK on minimal sleep.”
“We have been steadily adding more and more tanks and soon we will be at a brew a day and three packaging runs a week. This simply wouldn’t have been possible trying to rely on the eternally unreliable mobile canners. We simply had to buy a canning line and bring in more staff with real pride in their work and the beers.”
For breweries that are willing to make the investment in their own line, the benefits can be enormous. As well as providing greater convenience and control in the packaging process, breweries can also benefit from additional income through contract canning the beers of other brewers, helping to offset the cost of the initial investment.
“We were the first UK brewery to commit to canning our entire core range and in order to ensure maximum control over beer quality, we wanted to be able to do this in house,” explains Adrain Lugg, head of marketing at Fourpure Brewing Co. “Beyond ranging, the major benefits include the impact on quality and sustainability; the speed and control of the system gives us incredibly low dissolved oxygen readings, meaning our beer stays fresher, longer.”
“The equipment we have is sector leading, but arguably out of reach for a craft brewer our size,” he continues. “Using our current spare capacity to support local brewers with contract packaging makes the investment work and gives our brand an exceptional market leading packing quality.”
Fourpure’s machine is a CFT Master Cantronic canning line capable of packing up to 12,000 cans per hour, in either 330ml or 500ml format. It’s a seriously impressive piece of kit, but one likely to be out of the price range of all but the largest UK craft brewers. Hence, Kenyon’s view, and one that is likely to be shared by many in the industry, is that mobile canning is only likely to continue to grow in the future.
“There's always going to be breweries investing in new canning machines, but there's always going to be new breweries coming along as well,” he says. “It's definitely going to keep going and keep growing. As long as the craft beer market continues to grow, there will always be breweries looking for mobile canning solutions.
“We are also starting to look at other products like cider and soft drinks as well. Anything out there that needs canning, that is where we come along.”
This article originally appeared in Issue 25 of Ferment magazine, and has been reproduced here with their permission.