Get our free newsletter
Atlas Brew Works co-founder Will Durgin brings a couple snifters of his Rowdy rye beer over to the bar of the Ivy City brewery. “Would you care to sample the beer that we’re about to package?” he asks. “Before we run it, I always take a sample just to make sure it’s good and the carbonation is right.” Sure, he has a device that checks the carbonation, but he likes to taste-test, too.
“It’s a good beer,” approves Matthew Sebastionelli, founder of Arlington-based River City Cannery. Atlas Brew Works wouldn’t be selling cans so soon after its launch if it weren’t for Sebastionelli and his mobile beer canning business. The year-and-half-old brewery initially wanted, and still plans, to buy its own canning line. But similar equipment costs at least $250,000 (not to mention the cost of maintenance and labor) and can take a long time to custom-manufacture. “Circumstances dictated that we wanted to get the cans out there and start to get people aware of them,” says Atlas co-owner Justin Cox.
And so River City Cannery has taken on the job since December. Every few weeks, Sebastionelli and his crew drive up with a truck carrying nearly 3,000 pounds of equipment on wheels and roll it right into the brewery. The team will work all day—from around 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.—running empty cans from nearly ceiling-high pallets through a conveyor belt of carbon dioxide injectors and lid sealers. Then they’ll pack it all up and head to a different brewery the next day, six days a week. River City Cannery now cans 56 different beer brands for 22 breweries, mostly in the mid-Atlantic, with seven more breweries looking to start soon.
Before launching the company with his wife Ashley Sebastionelli last March, Sebastionelli had little experience in beer or packaging. He’d been a firefighter since he was 18. But in April 2012, Sebastionelli got injured on the job, and he thought he might be forced to retire from the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department. Ashley, who previously worked at LivingSocial, told him he’d have to find something else to do and encouraged him to explore his passions. Like beer.
Now 30, Sebastionelli got into beer after a friend gave him a home-brewing kit for his 27th birthday. “I feel it’s like tattoos—you either love it or you hate it once you do it the first time,” he says. “And so I went crazy.” (He’s got tattoos, too.)
First, Sebastionelli wanted to open a brewery. But he quickly learned that wouldn’t be cheap. “It’s a multimillion dollar investment, and you need to know what the hell you’re doing,” he says. Next, he considered opening a brewpub, only to realize it’s nearly as expensive, if not more—and you have to know how to run a restaurant, too.
His third idea was to open a brew-on-premise operation where amateurs could come in and pay to use his equipment to brew small batches of beer. Among the features he wanted to include was a canning line. While nearly any homebrewer can get tools to bottle, it’s not as easy to can. Cans, brewers agree, are generally superior vessels for maintaining the quality of beer: They’re completely sealed, and no light seeps in.
Sebastionelli started researching and found a couple of companies that made small compact canning lines. Among them was Wild Goose Canning, which custom-built his current line. The company previously specialized in underwater camera and airplane parts. It stumbled into beer because its facility neighbored Boulder, Colo.’s Upslope Brewing Co., which asked Wild Goose for help upgrading its canning system.
The research into packaging got Sebastionelli thinking: What if he could have the equipment without the overhead of a brick-and-mortar retail establishment?
He wasn’t the only one with that idea: Sebastionelli learned of two or three other upstart mobile beer canneries in other parts of the country around the time he was looking to launch one. Over the past few years, at least 20 mobile canning operations have popped up nationwide. Many wineries use mobile bottling systems. Mobile canning for breweries just made sense.
At most, River City Cannery cans up to 100 barrels—33,100 12-ounce cans—a day. Sebastionelli plans to add two more canning lines in the near future that will allow him to do even more. His growing team includes seven full- and part-time employees. Among the breweries that he now works with are Rockville’s Baying Hound Aleworks, Baltimore’s Heavy Seas Beer, and Frederick’s Red Shedman Farm Brewery.
When Sebastionelli first launched the company, he thought he’d be working primarily with really small breweries. But that hasn’t necessarily been the case. “We’re going to be packaging this year for some very large regional breweries that said, ‘We want in on cans. We just bought a $3 million bottling line, it took all our extra space. For us to get a canning line that makes sense for us for long-term growth, we need to spend another $3 million, and we don’t have that money or that space.’”
For brewers looking to eventually get their own canning lines, working with Sebastionelli’s company for now allows them time to expand other parts of the business before investing.
It also gives them a chance to feel out the equipment and learn how it operates. That was another part of the appeal for Atlas Brew Works, the second D.C. brewery to offer cans after DC Brau (which owns its own canning line). Sebastionelli says it takes handling 200,000 to 300,000 cans of beer to become really proficient at operating the equipment. Brewers can end up wasting a lot of beer if they don’t know what they’re doing, so it helps to train with someone who’s experienced.
Like Atlas, Jailbreak Brewing Company (based in Laurel) was also looking to purchase its own canning line early on. But given that founders Kasey Turner and Justin Bonner put up all the money for their entire brewery, they wanted to be careful where they spent their cash. They also weren’t sure if the market would lean toward bottles or cans. “We figured we’ll just cut it down the middle and do a little canning, and if it didn’t work, we would invest in a bottling line,” Bonner says. River City Cannery currently cans Jailbreak’s double IPA, Big Punisher, and a jalapeño IPA called Welcome to Scoville, which are distributed exclusively in Maryland. The brewery is looking to start canning its amber ale, Infinite, in March.
Packaging is huge part of the beer market. Bonner estimates most breweries sell roughly 75 percent of their product in cans or bottles and the rest on draft. Jailbreak, which is coming up on its one-year anniversary, still puts out more beer in kegs than cans, but Bonner expects that to flip in the near future. “People go out to bars and restaurants and they try the beer, but at the end of the day, more people are buying beer in liquor stores and consuming it at home or with friends,” he says. “It connects the consumer to the product even more.”
Jailbreak plans to add its own canning line later this year, but they will likely continue working with River City for overflow production.
Meanwhile, Sebastionelli wants to allow homebrewers to use his equipment too, as he initially set out to do with the brew-on-premise idea. Once a quarter, River City Cannery partners with a local brewery for a “canning for a cause” event, where homebrewers can come in for a day to can their beers and the proceeds go to a local charity. The only difference: River City can’t use its fill system, because they’d waste all the beer just getting it in the lines. Instead, for such small batches, they fill the cans manually and seam them with the machinery. The company has done one so far with Jailbreak and was able to raise about $1,000 for D.C. Firefighters Burn Foundation.
Even with the expanding business, Sebastionelli didn’t completely give up on being a firefighter. Despite his fears of having to retire, the fire department has kept him on. He continues to be a member of Truck Company 17 near the Benning Road Metro and helps drive a ladder truck. The rotating shifts mean he works 24 hours on and has 72 hours off. Meanwhile, his wife helps manage the company full-time.
“It’s just part of who I am,” Sebastionelli says. “It’s what I’ve done for a very long time. I made that decision early, early on in life, and I didn’t start this because I wanted to leave the fire service. I started this because I thought I was going to have to.”
Still, Sebastionelli doesn’t see any reason why he can’t continue to do both. And even though it wasn’t what he initially set out to do, he prefers it to opening a brewery of his own.
“I get to walk into a brewery, get to try different beers—great beers—and enable them for growth. I like that a little bit more than if I were to do it on my own,” he says. “I kind of feel like just being a fireman, I still get to do something to help, and that’s the coolest part.”
Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos by Jessica Sidman