More than a decade after its debut, East End Brewing Co. began distributing Big Hop IPA in cans for the first time this year.
The Larimer-based brewery sent out two pallets of Big Hop to distributors and beer retailers, according to owner Scott Smith. That’s 7,780 cans of beer.
It was gone in two weeks.
On an unusually balmy Wednesday this February, East End prepared to can more Big Hop for distribution — 400 cases or just shy of 10,000 cans — as well as 600 cans of its limited Bigger Hop Double IPA in 16-ounce pounders.
East End Brewing doesn’t have its own canning line. Until recent years, it was limited to distributing its beer to bars and restaurants in kegs and to filling growlers to-go.
So like breweries across the country, including several in Western Pa., East End now calls in a mobile canning company when it needs to package its beers.
A mobile canning company is exactly what it sounds like: An outside operation brings its own equipment and employees to a brewery, where its staff then takes the brewery’s beer and gets it into ready-to-go cans.
East End first worked with a mobile canning company (that’s since gone out of business) in 2015. The brewery now works with Iron Heart Canning, which acquired B.J. Solomon’s Ohio-based Buckeye Canning last summer.
“Western Pa. breweries have been great,” Solomon told The Incline last year. “They have all been top notch … really professional.”
In addition to East End, Solomon has canned Penn Brewing’s Pilsner and Fire on the Hill IPA from Millvale’s Grist House, which he actually cold-called.
“All take extreme pride in the product they’re putting out,” he said.
Solomon thought he was going to start a brewery himself, but when he learned about mobile canning — “It was like, ‘This is a great idea.’” — he found an investor and started the company with two other people.
They picked up Buckeye’s first canning line on the day Solomon’s daughter was born. The company started canning in 2013.
Buckeye started as an affiliate of Colorado-based Mobile Canning Systems, which trained Buckeye in the craft and served as a troubleshooting resource. The company was acquired last summer by Iron Heart Canning, a move that has helped “add a lot of different quality control methods,” Solomon said.
That was on display at East End. The thorough sanitization process involved the use of an adenosine triphosphate meter, which will indicate if there are any future spoilers in the lines.
“Our quality control checks really take care of the brewery’s beer,” Solomon said.
Canning Big Hop is a big investment for East End, Smith said. The brewery has to buy cans by the truckload, “a big commitment both financially and space-wise,” he said.
Solomon said manufacturers can require a brewery purchase at least 150,000 cans at a time.
Some breweries have their cans manufactured with the design. Others use a shrink sleeve, while some just stick stickers on the cans.
“The brewery decides what’s best for them,” Solomon said.
East End does both. Around the brewery, there are hundreds and hundreds of delicate, lidless Big Hop cans shrink-wrapped on pallets. “If you look at this pallet wrong, they dent,” Smith said. The Bigger Hop cans came together on the day of the canning, as volunteers in the Larimer brewpub stuck round stickers on 16-ounce cans.
Smith said he’s considered buying his own canning line. Figuring out how much Big Hop to can is an art. Too much, and some beer will be sitting around past the best date “and your investment is quickly gone.” Too little, and distributors are calling Smith to ask when they can get their hands on more.
Using a mobile canning company is “not cheap.” But, Smith said, you’re also buying the expertise.
Solomon agreed that mobile canning is a “really good option” for breweries without the space for a line or ones that don’t have the capacity to hire or train staff.
He called the process “extremely efficient.” The crew pulls up in a 20-foot trailer, unloads all of the equipment into the brewery, hooks it up, cleans the lines with chemicals, connects a hose through which beer flows from tanks and fills dozens of cans a minute.
Solomon said his group has completed millions of cans.
“We make it look easy,” Solomon said. It’s not.