Was it in 2010, the year they married, when they bought a fixer upper in
The couple were still commuting into the city -- she was a reporter at
As he looked into the business, he realized the only way to make it work was either to combine a brewery and a restaurant, or to sell beer on store shelves -- not just in growlers, kegs, on draft at other bars and at a tap room.
Opening a brewery would cost close to a million dollars, Stratton said, without the machinery to do bottling or canning. "He was trying to find a mobile canner in the Northeast, and there wasn't one," Stratton said.
The couple invested a few hundred thousand dollars into getting Iron Heart Canning launched, borrowing about half of it.
Wille flew out to
"Canning is different than bottling, it is really finicky," Stratton said.
That's because when you fill cans with beer, the beer is squirted into an open can, just like pouring a beer into a glass quickly. If the beer isn't really, really cold, it's too foamy, Wille said. When you bottle, the bottles are pressurized, so it's more controlled.
For the first few months, Wille was able to taper down from his hedge fund job, but once he started driving the 26-foot box truck around to breweries last July, he dedicated himself full time to Iron Heart.
"Building that reputation that first couple months was really stressful," Stratton said. "It feels so fragile in the beginning. And it is fragile."
Now, the company has served 20 clients, and only one didn't return, as the volumes were too low for it to make sense. If Iron Heart Canning is only at the brewery for an hour, it can't cover its expenses, as it charges no set-up fee. The company charges by the can, with some volume discounts.
At first, they expected to serve breweries from
They started with a warehouse in
Wille is on the road constantly, in different states several times a week, and is canning beer six to seven days a week.
As recently as February, he did 10 canning days, and in just the first half of June, he had 20 canning days.
"We're in such an expansion phase," Wille said as he kept an eye over a canning run at
He suspects the whole year won't be as busy as this summer -- even breweries that primarily sell in bottles, like
For years, beer snobs believed that draft is best, then bottles, and cans were bottom of the barrel in taste.
Stratton said cans save on breakage, are cheaper to ship, because they are lighter, and help distributors because they take up less shelf space.
She said while there's still some prejudice against beer in cans, she said there's no way for beer in cans to have a metal aftertaste, since there's a polymer liner inside the metal.
"And really, at the end of the day, the can is better for the beer," she said. "Oxygen and light don't do beers any favors. A bottle cap is not as airtight as a can, and even with dark glass, you're still getting some light."
With expansion comes the need for more staff. Wille's sister came on full time in January, and Wille and Stratton are looking for someone who could be a lead canner, as they're ordering a second canning line and truck.
"My business plan was originally to have three trucks," Wille said. "We're getting there faster than I anticipated."
It's not only that they continue to recruit more breweries to the service, it's also that their client base is canning more often than they originally expected to. Breweries that only were getting a canning run once a month are now requesting a visit two or three times a month.
Wille has not taken any salary since he began working at the firm, and until mid-April, they were managing on Stratton's salary.
Even before that, she was working at the business, too, scheduling clients, marketing, managing the books. "I'd come home from the city and come to the warehouse and work a couple of hours. It eventually got to be too much," she said.
Stratton said she expects they will start taking some money for their living expenses in mid June, for the first time.
It's aggressive to make another major capital investment before the company generates enough cash to pay the co-owners. Wille said he decided the time was right "because it's an available market, and I want to capture it."
"Even though we're both feet in, it seems like it will work," Stratton said. "I really have 100 percent faith in Tyler. He's just very smart, he's very disciplined. When he sets his mind to something, he makes it work."
To cover costs and pay themselves, Iron Heart will need to do about
Wille gets satisfaction from helping microbreweries expand their market -- fewer than five of their clients were already selling in bottles.
Mance said that while the brewery, which only opened eight months ago, was already in more than 120 bars and restaurants on tap, having beer for sale in stores does more than just add incremental sales. He said, "In the market, they'll see it, and ask, 'Hey, where's the brewery?'"
(c)2014 The Hartford Courant (Hartford, Conn.)
Visit The Hartford Courant (Hartford, Conn.) at www.courant.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services