After 25 years in the IT industry, Michael Horn is tackling a career that’s all about aluminum and beer.
Horn is launching Old Dominion Mobile Canning, a portable canning operation that’s aimed at the growing ranks of craft breweries from Raleigh to Washington.
He’ll debut his eight-foot canning machine at the annual Craft Brewers Conference in late March and plans to start filling cans with craft beer by April 1.
Nelson County-based Devils Backbone has already signed on with Horn, and he said he’s in talks with five other craft breweries across the state.
“No one east of the Mississippi is doing anything like this,” said Horn, a 49-year-old Saginaw Valley State University graduate. “It’s an open playing field.”
The $125,000 machine, which Horn will haul from brewery to brewery on a truck, fills up to 40 blank aluminum cans per minute. Once they’re full, the machine slips on a custom plastic sleeve with the brewery’s logo.
At that rate, Horn said he should be able meet the needs of one brewery per day. Eventually, he’d like to have contracts with up to two dozen brewers.
Cans have become more popular among craft brewers, but many that are still in their early stages can’t bear the expense to get a full-on canning operation up and running. Bottling is similarly cost prohibitive for young breweries.
“It’s just not cost effective for most small breweries to do something like this themselves,” Horn said. “You have to buy cans a quarter million at a time. Even if you can afford that many, a lot of smaller breweries don’t have the space to store them.”
Horn invested about $160,000 in Old Dominion. He financed the startup with the help of an investor and a loan from Union First Market Bank, but about a third of it came from his personal savings.
For now he’s still employed as an IT professional, but plans on going full time into mobile canning in a couple of months.
“Brewing is really part science, part art,” Horn said. “That’s something that really drew me in. And who doesn’t like beer?”
Only two Virginia breweries – Blue Mountain in
Northern Virginia Nelson County and Starr Hill outside of Charlottesville – can their products, according to Jacob Brunow, the craft and import department head at Brown Distributing-Virginia.
Old Dominion’s canning efforts could help local brewers get their beers in grocery stores, Brunow said.
“If you just do draft, you don’t have access to that larger market,” Brunow said. “This is a good way to get to a lot more customers without having to go through the expense of setting up your own line.”
Brunow said canning could also help preserve the quality of craft beers.
“A lot of people still have a bad feeling toward cans,” Brunow said. “They sort of have this reputation for crappy light lager. But one of the biggest enemies for beer is light, and cans protect from that exposure.”
Starr Hill founder Mark Thompson said his brewery offers two canned varieties and has plans to increase that number this year.
“If you look at the global market, more beer is sold in cans compared to bottles,” Thompson said. “But consumers are still catching on to the idea that crafts are available in cans. I think that’ll change eventually, whether it’s a year or five years down the line.”
Horn discovered mobile canning last August. He had plans to launch his own brewery but decided to switch gears when he realized how many beer operations were popping up in the area.
He found Mobile Canning Systems, a year-old operation in Denver, and approached the owners about opening a mid-Atlantic branch. They helped Horn find the equipment and will provide ongoing support after he opens. Mobile Canning also has affiliates in Ohio and Michigan.
Although he’s set on canning other brewers’ beer for now, Horn said he’s not ruling out his own brewery.
“There might still be a brewery in my future,” he said. “Right now, I’m in a great place.”
More reading: Richmond’s Year of the Beer