The most important beer company on the east coast doesn’t brew any beer.
In fact, they sell empty cans.
And they found their current president through a classified ad.
“I got lucky, I literally looked online,” Joe Marston tells me, claiming he stumbled upon a job description he thought was written specifically for him. Only 31 today, back then he was a recent business school grad who’d already logged a few good years in operations at G.E. “I applied to one single job. A year and a half later it’s crazy, but it’s a good crazy.”
Marston tells me this over the phone as he’s driving back to his home in New Hampshire. As president of Iron Heart Canning, he had just overseen the first ever canning run at Flagship Brewing Co. Because of Iron Heart, Flagship is now offering the first canned beers on Staten Island since Piels in the 1950s.
The story of Iron Heart Canning, though, begins with founder Tyler Wille. A homebrewer in Connecticut, back in 2013 he was considering leaving his hedge fund job to open his own brewery. While devising a business plan, he began noticing how many small breweries were unsatisfied with packaging possibilities. The Alchemist’s Heady Topper had exploded into awareness in late 2011 and suddenly, uber-fresh “pounder” cans of IPA had become quite desirable to drinkers. Unfortunately, most breweries couldn’t afford their own canning unit, nor did they have the space to maintain one.
“It was like an epiphany,” Wille told Yankee Brew News’ Niko Krommydas in 2014. “I had the chance to launch the first mobile cannery in New England. It was a business opportunity too good to pass up.”
One “long and bulky,” 900-pound, MC-250 mobile canning machine cost Wille an initial purchase of $200,000 from the Boulder, Colorado-based Wild Goose Canning. Way too much for most young and broke breweries. Iron Heart now owns seventeen of these units, and over twenty by the summer, having recently acquired three smaller mobile canning companies in Elyria, Ohio, Richmond, Virginia, and Asheville, North Carolina. The growing company’s fifty-some employees drive the units around the east coast via twenty-six-foot, cab-over Isuzu box trucks (“Great city trucks,” says Marston).
We have a way of doing things that no one else does.”
There are dozens of other mobile canning companies in America today, but Iron Heart has become such a force, such a brand-name, that most new breweries come directly to them, contacting Marston or sales manager Brian Casse through referrals, or even cold by using the info@Ironheartcanning.com email address listed on their website. The reason everyone wants to use Iron Heart, claims Marston, is because of his company’s exacting attention to detail, not to mention, their remarkable customer service.
“What we do isn’t proprietary, but I would bet others don’t approach it the same way,” Marston tells me.
Marston and his teams’ first visit to a brewery is to make sure everything is setup correctly. This assures the first canning day will go as smoothly as possibly. They need to nail down even the most minute and mundane details. Has the brewery packaged in the past? Do they have bulk CO2? Can their regulator handle a higher flow of CO2 than they’re used to for kegging? How are their connections; what kinds do they have? What about dissolved oxygen? Water access, power, drainage, it’s the same lyrics but different music at each and every brewery.
“We over-communicate with our breweries. Honestly, I’m sure it can be annoying. We have a way of doing things that no one else does,” Marston tells me. “We want to make sure that when we go to can on that first day...that it’s like it’s our 50th day there. And we’re gonna’ knock it out of the park.”
So what’s a typical canning day look like?
An Iron Heart crew – usually two men and one truck – will show up an hour and a half early to set up. (“After we’ve grown used to each other, setup could take under an hour,” notes Marston.) That means, often, a 6 AM call time in a place like Brooklyn, which is inundated with early-morning traffic. The Iron Heart workers will dial in their machines and the tanks, get the pressure and restrictions right, and then fire up the line. On a low day, for a smaller client, Iron Heart can do 30 barrels in about four hours, from setup time to out the door. They can at a rate of about nine barrels an hour – thirty-five 16-ounce cans per minute, forty 12-ouncers in sixty seconds.
“We need to be in the door and out with no trace left behind,” explains Marston. “Gone at 5 PM like we were never there.”
KelSo, Carton, and Manayunk Brewing were the first three breweries to sign on with Iron Heart; today the company has over 200 brewery partners across the country. But you wouldn’t know an Iron Heart can if you saw it – there’s no identifying details and Marston rarely touts what clients the company has. Many of the sexiest names in the industry use Iron Heart, though, like Fiddlehead, Interboro, Threes Brewing, Other Half, Trillium, and even Citizen Cider. This is one reason why I say Iron Heart might just be the most important company in the industry today.
To completely rely on us? That’s a compliment!”
The pounder can of hours-fresh, hazy and juicy New England-style IPA has become the most potent currency in the beer business today. Go to any east coast city on a Saturday morning and you’ll find geeks lined up out the door at some small warehouse, handing over hundreds, and walking out with cases of Iron Heart cans. By my back-of-the-coaster math, a brewery like Other Half can reel in some $100,000 in a couple hours – just by selling cans that Iron Hearts filled sixteen hours earlier. They wouldn’t have been able to do such a thing just five years ago.
Still, Marston doesn’t think helping perpetuate #canwhale line culture is Iron Heart’s biggest contribution to craft beer. Instead, for him, it’s all about helping improve quality industry-wide, while giving the little guys a chance to release top-notch product just like the big boys.
“A lot of new breweries we meet with, their experience level in some cases is like, ‘We just hired a really experienced guy – he’s homebrewed for three months!’” jokes Marston. “So every day I have someone asking me, ‘Well, you guys, tell us! What do we need to do? What do we carb our tank at? How do we package this?’” He’s not making fun of them. “To completely rely on us? That’s a compliment!”
The whole time I was talking to Marston, I couldn’t help wondering if he was passionate about beer or just an empty suit with an MBA and big ideas about scaling up. Firstly, he makes it clear he primarily has a blue collar background which he believes allows him to talk to anyone he might encounter on the job. Likewise, he notes Iron Heart isn’t “chasing numbers on a page every day” – they want all their breweries to succeed big-time. He readily admits, though, that he only knew a “small minority of these breweries” when he first applied to that online ad. Back then he mainly drank the bigger, more ubiquitous New England brands like Shipyard, Smuttynose, and Long Trail. He sheepishly admits he never used to drink beer out of a can.
“That’s the funny part. I’d go to a store a year ago, and they had nothing I’d want in a can,” Marston tells me.
“But now? That same store has all these great beers in cans. That we made happen.”
Thanks to Remo Remoquillo for the header illustration.