EAST WINDSOR — Where does the story of Iron Heart Canning begin?
Is it St. Patrick's Day 2006, when Ann Stratton and Tyler Wille met through a friend, when they were both at a bar in New York City? Tyler was high on whiskey, not beer, so maybe not.
Was it in 2010, the year they married, when they bought a fixer upper in Norwalk? Buying a house made getting a small business loan more feasible, since now they had collateral.
The couple were still commuting into the city — she was a reporter at This Old House Magazine, and he was a financial controller for a hedge fund. But Wille, who has an economics degree from Lehigh University, wasn't feeling inspired at work. He loved beer — and was a dedicated home brewer — so he thought about opening a brewery.
As he looked into the business, he realized the only way to make it work was either to combine a brewery and a restaurant, or to sell beer on store shelves — not just in growlers, kegs, on draft at other bars and at a tap room.
Opening a brewery would cost close to a million dollars, Stratton said, without the machinery to do bottling or canning. "He was trying to find a mobile canner in the Northeast, and there wasn't one," Stratton said.
So Wille started a mobile canning company. Many micro breweries are too small to house a canning line — and may not sell enough volume to justify the capital investment — but also don't want to send their recipes to a larger contract brewer with its own line.
The couple invested a few hundred thousand dollars into getting Iron Heart Canning launched, borrowing about half of it.
Wille flew out to Colorado, where mobile canning began, and was trained on the equipment as he went out on runs.
"Canning is different than bottling, it is really finicky," Stratton said.
That's because when you fill cans with beer, the beer is squirted into an open can, just like pouring a beer into a glass quickly. If the beer isn't really, really cold, it's too foamy, Wille said. When you bottle, the bottles are pressurized, so it's more controlled.
For the first few months, Wille was able to taper down from his hedge fund job, but once he started driving the 26-foot box truck around to breweries last July, he dedicated himself full time to Iron Heart.
"Building that reputation that first couple months was really stressful," Stratton said. "It feels so fragile in the beginning. And it is fragile."
Now, the company has served 20 clients, and only one didn't return, as the volumes were too low for it to make sense. If Iron Heart Canning is only at the brewery for an hour, it can't cover its expenses, as it charges no set-up fee. The company charges by the can, with some volume discounts.
At first, they expected to serve breweries from New Jersey to Massachusetts, but they quickly realized that the brewing scene in Vermont and Maine couldn't be ignored. Vermont, Maine and Massachusetts are home to their biggest customers.
They started with a warehouse in Monroe, but then rented an apartment and another warehouse in Manchester, N.H., "to make those northern territories a little kinder on us physically," Stratton said.
Wille is on the road constantly, in different states several times a week, and is canning beer six to seven days a week.
As recently as February, he did 10 canning days, and in just the first half of June, he had 20 canning days.
"We're in such an expansion phase," Wille said as he kept an eye over a canning run at Broad Brook Brewery in East Windsor, one of the company's three Connecticut clients.
He suspects the whole year won't be as busy as this summer — even breweries that primarily sell in bottles, like Long Trail, like to offer cans for boaters, hikers and beachgoers — but the business is so new, it's hard to say.