It’s not every day that you’re invited to a brewery at 9 in the morning, so when that opportunity presented itself to us last week, of course we had to take advantage.
Perhaps surprisingly, we weren’t there to drink this time – and by there, we mean Concord Craft Brewing Co. No, we stopped by the Storrs Street brewery because we wanted to check out the mobile canning operation run by Iron Heart Canning live and in person.
Iron Heart has carved out a nice little niche for itself – the company goes from one microbrewery to the next all along the East Coast (and beyond), schlepping their state-of-the-art professional canning equipment and their expertise with them and leaving the brewery with thousands of professionally canned brews.
It’s not a bad way to make a living, and it’s a business that’s become essential over the last several years, as more and more small breweries pop up all over the place (including many right here in the Granite State, chiefly the two here in Concord).
“We didn’t have mobile canning in New Hampshire until these guys,” said Dennis Molnar, co-owner of Concord Craft Brewing.
Iron Heart started in Connecticut just a few years ago and recently relocated to Manchester. Since they’re used to traveling to the North Country, the Seacoast and even well beyond New Hampshire, the trip to Concord last Tuesday morning was an easy one.
They show up in a box truck bright and early, and all the equipment comes on three pallets. It takes the team of about three to four (last week there were four) somewhere around an hour and a half to get everything off the truck, into the brewery and set up.
Once that’s done, it’s time for the magic. Here’s how it works in a nutshell:
On one end of the line is a big machine containing all the empty, unlabeled cans. The cans go down a little ramp, where they get tipped upside down and sprayed clean with jets of water. Then they keep going downhill until they get to the section that fills them with beer. From there, a machine seals the tops of the cans, then another set of sprayers rinses off the excess beer/foam them dries them. Once the cans are dry, they enter the labeling machine, which automatically applies the chosen label to the can. Once labeled, the cans are essentially done, and the Iron Heart Canning crew turns duties over to the folks at Concord Craft Brewing.
The Concord Craft crew takes the filled, labeled beers and manually snaps them into 4-pack holders – the strong, hard plastic kind, not those flimsy things that seagulls get caught in. Then the completed 4-packs are placed in shallow boxes and stacked before they’re ultimately shipped out the door to places like Local Baskit, Riverhill Market, South Main Quick Stop and about two dozen other retail locations throughout New Hampshire.
Pretty simple, huh?
Just kidding. Of course, there’s quite a bit more to it than what we just described.
Like anything else in life, there are always variables, and failures, and mistakes, and unforeseen circumstances around every corner, always threatening to upset progress.
The mobile beer-canning industry is not immune to these unfortunate facts of life, though the trouble we witnessed last week was very minimal.
After about 40 minutes of smooth sailing, we observed a brief moment of alarm during the operation – a label had become snagged in the labeling machine, pausing the whole production line. Luckily, though, Anthony Caruso, New Hampshire regional leader for Iron Heart, was all over it and had the jam fixed in about a minute.
There are other issues that can arise, such as less-than-ideal ratios of dissolved oxygen (which can make the beer taste like cardboard) or imperfect weights (there’s a mathematical formula to determine a full can of beer’s ideal weight), but the crew didn’t run into anything like that at Concord Craft.
Instead, the combo crew – Iron Heart and Concord Craft – worked together like a well-oiled, beer-making machine, which was a sight to behold. Everybody knew their role and excelled at it, and each person was always eager to help someone else. There were even some celebratory sips taking place, at 9 a.m. and all.
Molnar, for one, has always been impressed with the work Iron Heart does.
“These guys are kind of like a SWAT team,” he said. “They come in and make sure it’s done right.”
All in all, Iron Heart and Concord Craft produced 6,083 16-ounce cans covering three different beers, and the whole operation took from about 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., Molnar said. Using our English major math skills, that comes out to about 1,000 cans an hour, which we say is pretty impressive.
And while canning beer for small breweries is Iron Heart’s entire business, Molnar said they measure their success by how many breweries graduate out of their services and move on to a larger-scale operation.
Until then, though, Molnar is happy to keep using the unique services offered by Iron Heart .
For more information on Iron Heart Canning, including how to get them to come to your brewery, go to ironheartcanning.com. For more info on Concord Craft Brewing Co., go to concordcraftbrewing.com.