Asheville company hits the road to can others’ beers

Many people drive to Charlotte just for NoDa Brewing’s Hop Drop ’n Roll, the India pale ale that won gold at this year’s World Beer Cup. But when Meg Whitt and Craig Smith leave their home in Asheville and drive to the brewery in the wee hours of the morning, they’re not looking to put the beer in their trunk – they’re looking to put it in cans.

As the owners of Land of the Sky Mobile Canning, the husband-and-wife team has done just that for a little more than a year. They work behind the scenes to package Hop Drop ’n Roll, Jam Session, CAVU and Coco Loco in the brewery’s brightly colored 16-ounce cans.

In its short history, Land of the Sky has grown to include eight employees and many clients across the Carolinas. A typical week might see two or three employees waking at 4 a.m. to drive a truck and trailer – already stocked with cans and the 8-foot-long canning line – from Asheville to Charlotte, where they will roll the line snugly in between NoDa Brewing’s tanks and proceed to can the beers straight off the tanks.

Once the day’s work is done, they might wheel the canning line back on the truck and drive to Raleigh, where they will get a hotel. Then they will do the same the next day, after which they’ll continue their journey to yet another city.

“I don’t know how we do it some days,” Whitt said. “Everything about this industry is super fun, but the traveling is difficult on our employees and ourselves.”

Whitt and Smith are no strangers to travel, having moved from Denver, Colo., to Asheville last year to start their business. Land of the Sky is an affiliate of Mobile Canning Systems in Longmont, Colo. It is one of 16 such affiliates, which altogether service 26 states.

Cans were once stigmatized in the beer industry, accused of imparting a metallic taste to the beer. Advances in can linings have dispelled that notion. Today, craft brewers have embraced the vessel due in part to its portability and ability to protect the beer from light and oxygen better than bottles.

The owners at NoDa Brewing have always had a love of aluminum, but didn’t know how drinkers would react to cans. By using Land of the Sky, they were able to test the market at a fraction of what it would have cost to can on their own.

“We weren’t 100 percent sure if Charlotte was ready for cans,” said Suzie Ford, president and co-owner of NoDa Brewing. “Instead of spending a million dollars on a canning line, we went the mobile canning route.”

When she says “a million dollars,” she’s not exaggerating. That’s the approximate cost of the canning line and associated equipment they will install at their new brewery, which they hope to open at 2921 N. Tryon St. by August 2015.

Until then, the brewery has signed a contract to have Land of the Sky can their beers four days a week. Land of the Sky will now buy a second canning line to serve the rest of its clients. Once NoDa Brewing is canning their own beers, they won’t need to use Land of the Sky – which is OK by Whitt.

“Our goal is not to can for someone forever,” she said. “But as long as there’s growth, there’s room for this business model.”

Land of the Sky currently cans The Unknown Brewing Company’s Over the Edge IPA. Fellow Charlotte breweries Triple C Brewing and Birdsong Brewing have their sights set on their own canning lines, but will use Land of the Sky first. Other North Carolina clients include Frog Level Brewing and BearWaters Brewing in Waynesville, Carolina Brewery in Pittsboro, Lonerider Brewery in Raleigh, Outer Banks Brewing Station in Kill Devil Hills and Burial Beer Co. in Asheville, which will start canning next year. In South Carolina, they can for Quest Brewing Company in Greenville as well as Holy City Brewing and COAST Brewing in Charleston.

More breweries, more cans, more miles. Though it takes a toll, Whitt says their passion for the industry makes it all worthwhile.

“Some of the best breweries are right here in North and South Carolina,” she said. “At this point, I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.”