Since East End Brewing Co. began operations in Homewood more than a decade ago, the brewery now based in Larimer has sold almost all draft beer — either in glass jugs known as growlers, in glasses or in kegs.
But on a recent afternoon, 20 barrels of BigHop India pale ale went into 6,600 brilliant green cans, thanks to a 6-foot-long, stainless steel contraption operated by two guys from We Can Mobile Canning of Danville, Pennsylvania.
"There are hot dog carts that are bigger than that," quipped East End owner Scott Smith as We Can owner Pete Rickert and colleague Jason Cichoskie finished setting up and sanitizing their machine.
For years, Smith has talked about canning, which has become increasingly popular with craft brewers interested in the containers' protection from sunlight and air, lighter shipping weight/cost, portability, and recyclability. He even considered buying a small manual canner.
Instead, he ended up renting this one for a long day — a course that many small- and medium-sized breweries are taking.
The topless cans — Smith ordered 94,000 separately and had them designed by local Commonwealth Press — floated in a stainless steel bin of sanitizer. Once the brewers had the pressure right in the beer tank, the We Can team hooked up the hose and turned the canner on.
It sounded like a train clacking down the track with coins clinking into a fare box as three cans at a time moved along the length of the canner. Tubes first displaced the air inside the cans with heavier carbon dioxide, then other tubes displaced the CO2 with 12 ounces of foam-topped beer.
Finally, with another puff of CO2, the machine plopped on a top — CLICK! — and sealed it with a spin that sent flecks of foam flying.
We Can is able to fill about a case worth of cans a minute, up to 55 cases an hour. Rickert, the "Head Six Packer," can pick up a case at a time, with two six-packs in each of his big hands.
The company's 11 other employees can 10,000 cases a month, working from Cincinnati to Ocean City, Maryland, to the New York-Canada border. They might hit the same brewery once a week.
He said they're one of about 20 such mobile operations in the country. This was We Can's first time in Pittsburgh, though their first client — back in 2013 — was Lavery Brewing Co. of Erie. They've canned for wineries, too, and soon will be canning coffee.
Smith started selling the polished new packaging Wednesday night for $12 per six-pack or $46 a case (plus tax) — only at the East End brewery and its Strip District satellite for now.
He's going to keep close watch on the beer and its shelf life, as well as customer demand before distributing canned brews more broadly, which is perhaps the cans' biggest advantage over growlers. "For a lot of people, this will be the first East End they have."
He opened one of the very first BigHops ever canned, the tab giving way with a telltale pop. "That's a good sound," he said with a grin, before exchanging "Cheers!" and clinking cans with fellow brewer Jim Hicks.
"I love it. I think it's the best package for beer," said Hicks, who came down from Hermitage for the occasion. Having can experience from his time at Slippery Rock's North Country Brewing Co., he even helped by hand-loading empties onto the little line.
They still were at it late Wednesday afternoon. When they finished, the itinerant canners were scheduled to head on to the next brewery — in this case, Lansdale, Pennsylvania, where they'll work tomorrow, before driving to Portland, New York, and then back to Lansdale.
"I'm waiting to be pulled over," Rickert says. "That would be an interesting story. 'You smell like a brewery.' 'Well, as a matter of fact .'"