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The Can Van Is on a Mission to Save Small Breweries

September 11, 2020

By Christina Mueller, September 11, 2020

"The Chocolate Factory" remains one of the most iconic antics of Lucy and Ethel. The duo’s attempt to “can” the ever-faster moving line of chocolates remains a comedic staple, despite the 68 years that have passed since it first aired. During COVID times, the metaphor of the accelerating conveyor belt is a reality for many breweries that have seen their taprooms closed since March and relied on canning to get beer into the hands of their customers. 

That’s where The Can Van comes in. 

When COVID shelter-in-place orders landed in California, many small breweries suddenly found themselves with nowhere to sell their beer. “All of our tanks were full,” says Emily Thomas, co-owner of Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing. “That is 90 barrels or six weeks of production equaling $100,000 in sales.” It soon became clear that restaurants and bars were not going to reopen within the few weeks that fresh beer typically lasts, so Thomas and her team shifted gears. The kegs marked for on-site sales in its taproom were dumped, but the brewery’s full tanks could be saved with a call to Lindsey Herrema and Jenn Coyle, co-owners of Sacramento’s The Can Van

Herrema and Coyle launched The Can Van, a mobile beverage canning business, in 2011. The two friends met while working towards their MBAs in sustainability at San Francisco’s Presidio Graduate School. A shared interest in camping, biking, and other outdoor activities led them to recognize a gap in the marketplace. “We wanted to support local beverage companies but we did not want to buy glass,” Herrema says. At the time, the Bay Area craft beer boom was well underway and aluminum cans were already understood by consumers to be a more sustainable alternative to glass. But there was an image problem. “Big breweries put their beer in cans,” Thomas says. Craft brewers, not so much. “Oskar Blues Brewery and 21st Amendment Brewery took a leap of faith and put craft beer in cans. No one else was doing it.”

Herrema and Coyle started with a single canning line. “We bootstrapped,” Coyle recalls. All of the equipment needed for on-site canning was stored in trailers and pickup trucks (their first vehicle was indeed a van), so it was as close to the tank as possible to optimize quality and minimize the beer’s exposure to oxygen. By 2015, consumer perception around craft beer and canned beer shifted and the duo purchased a second canning line. “Our growth has really mirrored what happened in craft beer,” Herrema says.

Brian Ford, Brewmaster and Owner of Auburn Alehouse began working with The Can Van at about this time. “We wanted to get into the canned market without spending a lot of capital on our line to see if it was viable,” Ford says. “Cans were starting to become popular and the stigma attached to a can started to lift. That was where the market was going.”

Ford’s business includes a full-service restaurant in the brewery. When COVID hit, brewery traffic was gone. “We lost about 50 percent of our overall sales—all of draft was gone,” Ford says. He had to rely on off-premise sales and self-distribution. He was able to do so and boost his can program with help from The Can Van. “The Can Van kept us going,” Ford says.

Stephanie and Trevor Martens of Pond Farm Brewing in San Rafael, just north of San Francisco, opened their brewery in the summer of 2019, relying on draft sales to build their business, then COVID shut their doors. They reopened a few months later with a crowler and growler program to sell beer from the tap as well as a new food program and expanded outdoor seating, but a labor-intensive and time-consuming can program was above their means. “We are not a production brewery,” Stephanie says. “But The Can Van came by and has saved our business with their mobile canning line.” Working with The Can Van enabled Pond Farm to quickly develop a robust can program. “They come, set everything up, and can thousands of cases of beer in a few hours. To-go is such an important part of our business now.”

Today, The Can Van operates eight canning lines and a separate line for wine, but the ongoing coronavirus pandemic demanded Herrema and Coyle to also rethink their business operations. “Being able to turn a profit on every job has dropped lower in our minds,” Herrema says. Efforts to keep customers in business were prioritized. “How could we help keep the industry afloat as long as possible?” A minimum run size of 100 to 200 cases was abandoned in order to help as many small craft brewers as possible. Though they lost some accounts due to permanent or long-term temporary business closures, the Can Van added over a dozen new customers.

“We want our them to pull through with minimal damage,” Herrema says. “Everyone is taking a loss.” Servicing all accounts safely on-site also meant rethinking how staff were allocated. Where team members once rotated regularly to different client sites, pods of two were set up. Each team is assigned to its own canning line to minimize interaction between members, clients, and materials. Teams already needed to sanitize their gear before each production run, but additional cleaning efforts at key touch points were added on top of the required masks usage and hand-washing that define recent months. Despite the big uptick in inquiries, the community spirit lives on at The Can Van.

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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