The craft beer world had a change of heart about beer in cans about seven or eight years ago. As craft consumers realized that canned beer can be just as enjoyable as bottled, aluminum packaging began taking over shelf space previously reserved for glass only.
After canned craft beer became mainstream, the wine world took notice. Just five years ago, decent wine in cans was hard to find. Now, quality wine in cans is flying off retail shelves. Between 2018 and 2019, canned wine sales grew 69 percent, according to Nielsen.
Cans are hip. They’re portable and lightweight, easily recyclable, take up less room in refrigerators and coolers, and have the environmental advantage of costing less to ship than glass. The pièce de résistance for younger drinkers is that cans are frequently colorful with modern designs—making them highly Instagrammable.
Many breweries and wineries that are now canning their products were originally outfitted with bottling lines, and the cost of adding a canning line can run into tens of thousands of dollars (sometimes even hundreds of thousands). The solution? Mobile canning lines.
The portable, affordable solution
Mobile canning lines (and their counterparts, mobile bottling lines) are the portable solution for beverage producers who want to switch up packaging without installing new equipment. They also work for small-scale producers who don’t have the room or money for any line at all.
“This year, we’ll can about 80 million cans. We operate about 47 canning lines,” says Roger Kissling, vice president of sales and customer management for Iron Heart Canning Co. based in Manchester, N.H. The company has upward of 140 employees working from satellite warehouses spread throughout the 21 states it services in the eastern United States.
“Our customers rely on us to package their product, so they can focus on producing the highest quality product,” he says. “We save our customers time, expense, and investment so they can continue to grow and do what they want to do. No one says, ‘I want to get into the beer industry because I love running a canning line.’”
One of Iron Heart’s customers is Franklin Hills Vineyards in Bangor, Pa. This past June, using Iron Heart’s services, it filled about 8,400 cans with 880 gallons of hard apple cider.
“I’m really pleased with them,” say Bonnie Pysher, Franklin Hills’ winemaker. “The guys that come know what they’re doing.”
Before those skilled guys get there, Pysher does plenty of preparation. The apple cider needs to be ready: filtered into tanks, chilled, and carbonated. She also needs to have the cans and boxes ready, but Iron Heart helps her with that. “They work with a label company that gets the cans and puts the sleeves on them,” says Pysher. “They ship the [empty but labeled] cans and boxes ahead of time, and we have them waiting at the winery.”
When the canning line arrives on a boxtruck, Pysher and four of her employees are waiting. Working with two Iron Heart employees, they load the cans onto the mobile line. When the filled cans come off the line, they’re weighed, dried, and put on a palate.
There are plenty of advantages to renting the mobile canning unit for the day instead of having one onsite.
“If I bought the canning equipment myself, I’d have to figure out how to store it and run it,” says Pysher. She’d also have to figure out how to fix it if it broke (as well as pay for the repairs). One time, the mobile unit had a problem with its lid dispenser, but Iron Heart’s employees were able to fix it onsite and operations were back to running quickly. “We’re such a small business,” she says, “it’s not cost-effective to have our own canning line.”
It costs a minimum of $1,250 for Iron Heart to come out to Franklin Hills. “I need at least 552 gallons to cover the $1,250, but that doesn’t count the cost of the cans, sleeves, and boxes,” says Pysher. “In the end, it works out to be 15 to 19 cents per can.”
And, at the end of the day, Iron Heart cleans up its operations and drives away, leaving no mess, just professionally canned cider.
“Each one of our canning lines is cleaned in place,” says Iron Heart’s Kissling. “It’s cleaned onsite before and after each canning run.” The company’s cleaning procedures have been “proven and vetted” and are always followed.
The stroke of genius
“When you see [the mobile line in action], you recognize what a stroke of genius it is,” says Scott Donnini, one of the winery’s owners. “It’s a ‘mother of invention’ thing: Someone saw a need. There are all these small wineries that don’t have a bottling line.”
Auburn Road bottled by hand its first few years, but quickly outgrew that tedious method. It had too much wine, and bottling by hand was costly.
“If I’m paying six or seven people to put wine in bottles—fill, cork, capsule, shrink wrap, label—and I’m bottling about 1,000 bottles per day, I’m paying staff to be there many, many days,” says Donnini.
The most recent time the bottling unit came to Auburn Road, it filled 25,000 bottles in a day and a half. “You quickly realize it works out in your favor,” Donnini says. “It saves us overhead expense and maintenance expense.”
Jules Donnini, winemaker at Auburn Road, appreciates that her wine is being well taken care of. “For me, I know my wine is going to be in a sterile, clean, and perfect environment from my production end into the bottle. I know the quality is ensured. [East Coast Mobile] stands by it,” she says. “It’s a top-of-the-line, $2 million truck. For my small production, I get a high-end bottling line.”
She also gets a relative bargain.
“It’s $2.75 for each case we bottle from start to finish,” says Donnini. “They even sterile filter for us before bottling. It would take two man-days for me to sterile filter.”
The cost goes up a bit if she changes products mid-bottling, which she usually does, switching between varieties. Each time there’s a product change, there’s also about a $75 charge for changing the bottles.
The mobile bottling unit Auburn Road uses needs to be reserved months—sometimes more than a year—in advance because of the high demand from East Coast wineries. Wineries in states where there’s less of a demand may have an easier time booking a bottling unit, such as CFI Mobile Bottling Line.
Bill Stiles, owner of CFI and Christianburg Farms Winery in Shelbyville, Ky., saw a hole that could be filled in his home state. And while he’s not continuously busy with his mobile bottling line, he saves money and time for the wineries he does service.
“If you were to invest [in your own line], you could be fully automated for $150,000 to $250,000,” says Stiles. “With support pieces, it can be as much as $300,000. If you’re only going to bottle 1,000—or even 10,000 cases per year—it doesn’t make economic sense to invest that kind of money.”
Stiles’ mobile bottling unit supports various bottle shapes as well as natural or synthetic corks and screw caps.
“When we got into this, we thought we had a fairly versatile unit,” he says. But “hindsight is 20/20,” and there are some things he’d do differently now. Stiles says he would add the ability to bottle sparkling wine as well as the ability to do explosion-proof bottling—keeping all electricity away from bottles that contain 80 proof or higher alcohol to make sure sparks don’t start a fire.
Still, his mobile bottling unit offers many of the same advantages as others that pull up to a winery, efficiently bottling its wine.
Are there any downsides to using a mobile bottling or canning unit?
Scheduling seems to be one challenge many customers have grappled with. That’s because making sure their product is ready to can or bottle—when the mobile unit is booked months in advance—can be difficult.
The weather doesn’t always cooperate, either. But the truck pulls up rain, snow, or shine.
“I joke with guests on tours,” says Scott Donnini. “‘Follow us on Facebook. We’ll let you know when the bottling line is coming in March so you can plan your ski vacation around it. It always snows.’”
Does that make Donnini want to put in his own line?
“No, no, no, no, no,” he insists. “We’re not planning on putting in our own bottling line.”
He remains, like many others, content to leave the packaging to someone else.