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Cans of Fiddlehead Second Fiddle Double IPA are filled by Iron Heart‚??s mobile cannery at the Fiddlehead Brewing Company in Shelburne, last week. / GLENN RUSSELL/FREE PRESS

SHELBURNE, Vt. ‚?? It sounded like a rock n' roll show. It smelled like one. It felt like a rock concert, too, from the ankles down.

For the main players, the event has that rock n' roll rhythm: Get up and do it again, in another town. But this is a beer-canning show on wheels, a weekly event someplace in Vermont.

The star of this show is Iron Heart, a company that rolled through Chittenden County recently with a day-long stop at Fiddlehead Brewery in Shelburne. Based in Connecticut, Iron Heart is a mobile business that travels more than 1,000 miles a week, stopping at breweries to put beer in cans.

Phish played loud as the Iron Heart crew worked. The smell of beer filled the air, floating out the brewery and onto U.S. 7. Dripping IPA made puddles on the floor, getting feet wet and sticky, stadium show-style.

Running the show was Tyler Wille, 32, of Norwalk, Connecticut. He started Iron Heart with his wife, Ann Stratton, a year ago. Wille had a plan to open his own craft brewery, and he started to think about the industry's needs. Noting the growth in the popularity of canned craft beers, he decided instead to start a mobile canning company for brewers.

This enables craft beer producers who might be lacking certain resources ‚?? such as space for equipment, or capital for investment ‚?? to package and sell beer in cans.

"Rather than compete with guys like Matt, who brews awesome beer, I'll work with him," Wille said, referring to Fiddlehead brewer Matt Cohen.

"We're busy," he said. "It's pretty cool. It's our first year of business and we're trying to find our operational sweet spot."

Iron Heart cans beer for about 20 breweries from Brooklyn to Maine, including three in Vermont (Fiddlehead, Long Trail, Otter Creek).

Their operation runs at a fast and mostly constant pace, typically with a crew of three from Iron Heart working with employees of the brewery. At Fiddlehead, Wille arrived with 12,000 empty 16-ounce cans, 500 cases worth, each wrapped in a label bearing the name of the double IPA: Second Fiddle.

The cans shoot down a line and turn upside down to get shot with a sanitizer (which drips out) a second or two before the cans are righted, filled with carbon dioxide (which purges the can of oxygen), and filled with beer from 930-gallon tanks. A top is placed on the beer, floating on the liquid for a split second before it's sealed in place.

"The seam is so good," Wille said, pulling a can off the line, "if the can explodes the beer will come out someplace else."

Black tops that hold the four packs together, called pak-techs, are snapped into place by hand, cans wiped dry, and loaded onto palettes.

The 60 barrels of Second Fiddle canned were brewed three weeks before Iron Heart pulled into the parking lot with its equipment. Some of the beer was sold at the brewery's store as it came off the line, about half left Fiddlehead for statewide distribution.

"Iron Heart allows us to can and produce a package without the the investment of a canning line and space and staff to do it," Cohen said. "It's a long day. ... Then this guy just gets in his truck and drives to the next show."

Cans come back

The proliferation of craft beers across the nation has come with a corresponding increase in packaging beer in cans. A 2011 survey by the Brewers Association, a national trade group based in Boulder, Colo., determined that 2.1 percent of craft beer volume was going into cans, according to the group. While those are the most recent survey numbers, the beer volume in cans has increased to four or five percent, said Bart Watson, chief economist for the Brewers Association.

"Mobile canners play a part in that," Watson said. "It has provided an intermediate point to enter canning without spending the capital to put in a canning line. Bottles are still king in craft, but we've seen cans really take off."

Several nationally-known breweries have added cans to their products, including Boston Beer and Sierra Nevada, which has helped push the market, Watson said. Boston Beer, makers of Sam Adams, developed its own can - called the Sam Can - whose special features are designed to enhance and optimize the experience, according to the company. Heady Topper, brewed in Waterbury, Vermont by the Alchemist, comes in 16-ounce cans with the instruction: "DRINK FROM THE CAN!"

"Heady Topper is definitely part of the perception, too," Watson said. "It's a good anecdote about how the beer-lover perception of cans has changed. When one of the best beers in the world is put in cans, people take notice."

Experts cite several reasons for the comeback of cans:

--Liners that eliminate/diminish a metallic taste or sensation

--Convenient for packing and storing

--Allowed at parks, concerts, ball fields and other places that ban glass

--Convenience and ease for camping, backpacking, boating and other outdoor recreation

Lines don't stop

Otter Creek Brewing in Middlebury, Vermont produces Otter Creek, Wolaver's and the Shed beers. The company's production has more than doubled in the past five years, from fewer than 20,000 barrels a year to 50,000 barrels, according to brewmaster Mike Gerhart.

It started occasional canning runs on Easter weekend, using Iron Heart to package a seasonal summer IPA called Fresh Slice.

"We're working with Tyler because we're expanding our facilities as fast as we can," Gerhart said, "and we do not have space for a canning line."

On the weekends when Iron Heart cans at Otter Creek, the brewery clears out its bottling line and packaging material to make room for the mobile canning equipment. Iron Heart sets up two canning lines at Otter Creek, and the local crew and the roadies work together to can 4,000 cases of beer, Gerhart said.

"Cans are a great package to have craft beer in," Gerhart, 36, said. "It's taken a long time for cans to shed the stigma that cans are only meant for yellow fizzy juice, which is what we collectively refer to the mass produced light-colored lagers of this country."

Like other Vermont brewers, Gerhart sees plenty of room for growth in the craft beer movement, which goes hand in hand with the demand for local food.

"People really geek out on this stuff," Gerhart said. "They want to meet the chef. They want to go to the farm. They want new flavors and tastes. As long as people are interested in that, craft beer has a firm seat at the table going forward."



Copyright 2014USAToday

Read the original story: Mobile cannery crafts beer on the go

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