Westfield River Brewing becomes Valley’s beer canning pioneer

Date: 8/1/2013

By Chris Maza


WESTFIELD – For years the conventional wisdom regarding beer was simple – good beer came in bottles while generic, mass-produced ones were in cans.

But in the words of Bob Dylan, “the times, they are a-changin’” and with those changes come new demands and challenges for brewers going to cans.

Several Western Massachusetts breweries have explored the option of switching from bottling their products to canning, but Master Brewer Sergio Bonavita and the rest of the Westfield River Brewing Company will be the first craft beer company in the area to do so and they’re doing it with the help of a concept that is brand new to the Northeast – mobile canning.

“[Berkshire Brewing Company] was supposed to beat us to the punch, but I haven’t seen it on the market,” he said. “We’re the first Northeastern mobile canning unit customer and we’ll be the first with cans in Hampden, Hampshire and Franklin counties.”

This month, Westfield River Brewing will be rolling out six-packs and 12-packs of cans filled with Charlie in the Rye and a new product called Pop’s Old Fashioned Lager.

“Charlie in the Rye is one of our customers’ favorites. It’s lighter on the IBU [International Bitterness Units], but it makes up for it with that nice citrusy hop flavor,” Bonavita said. “[The lager] is going to be designed to be a craft beer drinker’s lager with a lot of malt flavor – we’re using a Vienna malt base in it to give it that real old-fashioned lager taste, similar to a pre-prohibition style lager.”

Westfield River will be teaming up with Iron Heart Canning, a brand new company headquartered in Norwalk, Conn., that will provide breweries in New England as well as other northeastern states, including Pennsylvania and New Jersey with on-demand, pay-as-you-go canning services.

The formula is simple – when beer needs to be packaged, Iron Heart will bring its equipment, complete the canning, then take the equipment away.

It’s a brave new world for Bonavita and Iron Heart founder and co-owner Tyler Wille, as Westfield River will be the company’s first client.

“It was just perfect timing,” Bonavita said. “We were in a place where we were saying, ‘We want to do this,’ and he was saying, ‘I can do this.’”

Wille explained that from a business standpoint, his company provides a service that can help brewers more easily and affordably package their beers. The sheer expense of packaging beer is what inspired him to start Iron Heart.

“I was actually a couple years ago working on a business plan to launch a brewery on my own and when I went out and started looking at what my packaging options were, I found that if I wanted to get into cans or bottles, from the start, it’s going to be an extra $200,000 to $500,000 right off the bat,” he said. “When you’re already investing a tremendous amount of money in equipment to brew beer, that’s a huge hurdle.”

Wille heard about MobileCanningSystems in Colorado, the innovators of the mobile canning industry who helped Oskar Blues become the first canned craft beer in America and began to research his options in the Northeast.

“There was nothing out here on the east coast,” he said. “One thing led to another and I figured it would be a great service to bring to the region.”

Wille ended up partnering with MobileCanningSystems to get his operation off the ground and even recently allowed him to travel west and utilize his equipment to can some of their customers’ beers.

Bonavita said the payment structure was perfect for his operation and also allows for flexibility during slower months in the winter when most brewers are not producing as much.

“We’re paying him per case. If we were to purchase a canning line, we’d be financing it and paying for it regardless of how much we were producing,” he said. “This way, we’re paying for what we’re using, which just makes more sense.”

Bonavita said one of the biggest challenges now will be convincing consumers that beer in cans is a better product.

“From a customer standpoint, I think we’re going through the education phase right now,” he said. “We’re trying to educate people as to why we’re doing what we’re doing.“

Which begs the question, “Why the switch?”

“If they said, ‘Hey, you can do all of these things, but the beer wouldn’t be as good, we wouldn’t even discuss it.’ But the beer is better and it’s got all of these extra benefits,” Bonavita said.

From a quality standpoint, he explained, there are several reasons why cans are more beneficial. For example, he said, canned beer prevents contamination better because it is better sealed and also blocks UV rays, which can affect a beer’s quality.

“You’ve got a completely sealed environment that is the same material the whole way throughout. It’s hard to truly seal the aluminum [bottle caps] onto the glass, but with cans, you’re sealing aluminum to aluminum,” he said. “Light can’t penetrate aluminum, so you’re not going to get any corruption as far as that’s concerned.”

Concerns about the tinny taste associated with cans are also misguided, he said. These aren’t your grandfather’s cans.

“Our biggest reason for not wanting to do it was the aluminum taste, but the can has a microliner that prohibits the beer from touching the aluminum. It’s a ceramic-based liner and it’s going to preserve the product 100 percent,” he said.

Rich Caudill, owner of The Beer Shop in East Longmeadow, who collaborated with Westfield River Brewing on the Springtime Saison, called cans “the craze in the craft beer industry” and called it the “superior transport mechanism for beer.”

“I explain it like this: Everyone says beer tastes better on tap; Keg – big metal container; can – small metal container. The only difference is perception,” he said.

He went on to say he’s seen an increase in the sale of canned beers during the summer.

“Summer seems to be when craft cans spike, as they are more mobile, and are permitted into more venues than their glass counterpart. As a result they have been a favorite with those who partake in outdoor hobbies such as biking, camping, and the like,” he said.

In addition to the quality and ease in transportation, cans are a better option for consumers when it comes to storing beer, Bonavita said.

“I think the one thing people don’t talk about enough is the refrigerator. I think if you look at Coke and Pepsi, their No. 1 type of packaging right now is that long sleeve of cans,” he said. I think those companies realized a long time ago that fridge space is huge. One thing we’re going to try to do when marketing this is emphasize that.”

Cans are also cheaper, which will help the company keep good beer affordable.

“Our initial up front cost is big because we’re buying a ton of cans because you have to, but per case, we’re about a third of the price we are in bottles and that price is going to be reflected to the consumer. Our margins are going to stay where they are; the beer’s just going to be cheaper,” he said.

Cans are also 100 percent recyclable, while only 20 percent of the bottles used by Westfield River can be recycled.

“The can can be recycled over and over and over again, so there’s long-term sustainability,” he said. “I’m not saying we’re environmentalists by any stretch of the imagination, but we’re conscious of what we’re doing and what we use.”

Caudill also pointed out that cans could allow for your favorite beer to find its way into a larger distribution area.

“Cans will also allow your favorite beer or brewery to expand their distribution range because they are lighter, easier to ship, and less vulnerable,” he said.

So how is the public reacting to the thought of cans thus far? According to Bonavita, people from all over are excited about the prospect.

“It’s been cool. We had a guy from Newcastle, England, call us the other day and he’s flying over to watch the operation because he’s looking to bring it to England,” he said.

While Westfield River is Iron Heart’s first client, Wille said he expected to expand his business throughout Southern New England in the near future, but who they are remains a mystery.

“I have a couple other people who are coming on immediately and a couple more who are trickling in over the next few months,” he said. “Until the breweries are ready to make that announcement and market that aspect, I don’t think I want to say who they are, but you’ll definitely be seeing us.”

For more information on Westfield River Brewing Company, visit http://westfieldriverbrewing.com. To learn more about Iron Heart Canning, visit www.ironheartcanning.com.