Mobile beer canning line includes a nitrogen doser added for Nitro Can brews.
Canning is done on a mobile packaging line from River City Cannery. “They bring the equipment right inside the restaurant,” says Cain. “We move the tables off to the side, slide the equipment in, hook up to a tank and then start canning.”
The nitrogen is added by a dosing machine from Chart Industries that was installed on the mobile packaging line. The doser is about the size of a microwave oven, according to Cain.
“This was a collaborative effort with both these companies,” he points out.
The doser’s addition required only minor modifications to the line, Cain reports: “We were very happy when we made that first can and poured it into a glass and it was fully nitrogenated.”
Each run of 8 ½ barrels yields roughly 2,500 12oz cans, which is a fraction of the 700 barrels Vault produces annually.
Hybrid experimental/production runs
The variables were determined on the fly in what Cain calls the four-part “Nitro Can Experiment Series.” For the first three runs they canned Coffee Stout so as to eliminate any variable in the beer itself.
In a solid dose of marketing ingenuity, they created experimental labels for the canning runs that were done on separate months. For them, these were a production-level experiment, according to Cain: “We’re perfecting the process as we go, but we’re also selling what we’re creating.”
Regarding the use of carbon dioxide during production, “I can only say that part of our proprietary process involves balancing both these gases,” Cain discloses.
Feeling they’d really dialed in the process, for the fourth and most recent Nitro Can run the brewpub switched to a Rye Pale Ale. “It has performed well,” he reports. “We can pretty much nitrogenate any beer we want without affecting the performance of the Nitro Can.”
A fifth Nitro Can run, for a seasonal sweet potato ale, is planned for release in September, he adds.
To this point they have used 12oz cans only, though they plan to experiment with 16oz cans, perhaps as soon as September’s run, Cain says.
The latest Nitro Can release of a Rye Pale Ale proved the technology for all beer formulations.
A growing base of interest
Cain says the results of the pouring are as good as or in some cases, better than from a tap. “It’s a beautiful effect, with a nice thick head,” he enthuses. “It’s fantastic. Nitrogen dissolves in beer over time, and once it’s in solution it stays in solution without agitation until it’s poured. Also, the swifter the pour, the better.”
The Nitro Can’s reception has been favorable. “The reception has been great,” he says. “Our customers love it. All of the Nitro Can series have been very well received. It’s very counterintuitive to take a can of beer and pour it vigorously into a glass, and the act of doing that intentionally is enjoyable for our customers. As is their finally being able to have a nitrogenated beer in a packaged to-go format that they have not had before.
“We’ve also been approached by several other breweries asking questions about how they can do it. “
When asked about shelf life, Cain reports that he believes the nitrogen helps with dissolved oxygen (DO) levels and takes up headspace in the can, both of which can maintain a beer’s freshness. Anecdotally, they’ve opened cans this summer that are as fresh as when they were canned in January.
Vault sells Nitro Cans on-site for $3 each.
It's not only for beer
In conjunction with Chart Industries and River City Cannery, Vault has a filed a patent for the nitrogenation method. “Our intention is not necessarily to save that technology for ourselves,” Cain says. “The Nitro Can is special. Patenting and protecting it gives us an opportunity to work with other breweries, to help them out and to control how the technology is spread. There are other beers out there that just would be better served in a Nitro Can.”
The nitrogenation technique is not only for beer. “We hope that this technology revolutionizes canning and overall packaging for the beer and beverage industry,” says Cain, “including iced tea, ciders and coffees. We’ve received calls from companies for all of those.”
He feels that their method to produce a nitrogen-canned beer is an addition by subtraction. “We’re not adding something into the canning process to make our vision work, it was a subtraction—and that’s always good. It reduces costs and it simplifies the process.”
Interestingly, Cain doesn’t view the Nitro Can as a competitive advantage. “We did this because we needed to provide nitrogenated packaging for our beers that were served that way at the pub, but our customers couldn’t bring home.”
The company is poised for expansion that includes the Nitro Can as part of that growth. “Our intention is to build another larger brewery with a higher-volume-scale brewing environment and bring canning in-house,” Cain says. He feels strongly that the Nitro Can should grow in importance as the brewer makes an ever-heavier emphasis to deliver a pub-like experience in canned beer.