Carton Brewing Co. loves to see both its seasonal and standard beers in cans. The Atlantic Highlands, N.J.-based brewery has released four specialty brews in cans over the past 10 months with mobile canner Iron Heart of Monroe, Conn. Two Carton flagships have also found their way into the consumer-favored packaging since Iron Heart was first hired to can the brewery’s popular, hops-writ-large session ale, Boat, a year and a half ago.
To date, Iron Heart has packaged six labels for Carton, with imperial IPA 077XX added beside Boat early last summer as a second, regularly canned flagship. All of the cans have been sold through the brewery taproom; five were also released to retailers. But it’s the tide of seasonals and specialty beers (done with shrink-wrap labels, incidentally) that stands out on Carton’s canning schedule: mulberry sour ale last June; imperial black ale in November; coffee cream ale in January; and now a smoked pineapple imperial IPA, canned in March.
Carton went to Louisville, Ky., to partner for that one, a brewing collaboration with Against The Grain Brewery & Smokehouse. More on that in a moment.
A canon of canning?
So what guides the canning strategy for Carton, a brewery that’s still primarily a draft producer, a brewery known for doing a lot of exploring, creating beers informed by food, creature comforts and provincial customs? Will the brewery, well, kick that can down the road to the milk stout and brown ale that round out its core brands or give favor to specialty brews and seasonals? It’s a matter of limits and access.
Carton’s tank space is tight, and steady demand across the brewery’s portfolio puts a big squeeze on production. Carton did 3,000 bbls in 2014. Opening up new frontiers can be next to impossible, and managing the brewery’s existing accounts takes some finesse.
Canning puts extra pressure on that supply-and-demand picture, but owner Augie Carton believes cans make an important connection to the consumer, especially beyond the brewery taproom and growler fill stations around town.
“We want our beers to be easy for [New] Jersey. Canning lets Jersey reach for it easier,” Carton said. “If we’ve done a beer that had big demand, and if we can figure a way to get it in cans next time around, we will.
“From a business standpoint, we shouldn’t have cans in stores. We can sell them all at home,” he said. “But from a New Jersey born and raised perspective, our beer needs to be available to Jersey without too much stress.”
The newest labels were “all things people wanted to be more accessible,” Carton said, but he notes the two canned flagships usually take a hit as a result. “Each time we do this, we frustratingly run out of our other cans.”
The answer to that is an ongoing, though still in the early-stages, expansion project that will double production capacity. Carton Brewing now has three each of 30- and 45-bbl fermenters and a brite tank in each size.
“As we get more tanks, more will be canned. Our current limitation is way more demand than supply,” Carton said. “More tanks will mean more supply for cans. We can’t let down the draft accounts that committed to a weird little super-hoppy session beer [Boat] before that was cool.”
Craft cans are still rabidly popular among the beer geeks and enthusiasts. Brewers love them, too. And like everywhere, they flood New Jersey store shelves; taverns make a point to highlight canned lineups on their tap lists.
Despite that, comparatively few of the cans on Jersey shelves come from Jersey-based producers. Just four out of more than two dozen have put cans on shelves (that number will grow this year, however). Carton was the first, pairing with Iron Heart in August 2013.
“Their flexibility is the nimbleness guys our size need,” Carton says of Iron Heart. “When I have a crazy idea for a beer, we can now decide if it’s canned or not by running the idea through Tyler and John. An extra quarter’s worth of planning can be a canned beer.”
Tyler Wille is the founder/owner of Iron Heart. John Glavasich is Carton’s label artist.
Art imitating life
Carton canned its latest specialty, the collaboration smoked malt/roasted pineapple IPA, named SS Kentucky, partly as a canvas to feature the efforts of Glavasich and Louisville artist Robby Davis.
Davis enjoys a cult following with his edgy Against The Grain labels, a bawdy world populated by pistol-packing skeletons and bearded, tattooed, hophead characters. Glavasich’s Carton labels are expressions of indulgences and the trappings of hometown, as informed by Carton’s beer-style ideas.
The SS Kentucky label features one of Davis’ hop characters sailing a creek in a fish-gnawed, Carton-labeled box.
“In the last year, Robby’s gained a lot of attention. In the beer world now, he’s really well known because our bottles go everywhere,” said Sam Cruz, one of ATG’s four partners; Against The Grain has distribution through Twelve Percent Imports.
The beer itself is an annual high-gravity (8.6 percent ABV) rewrite of Carton’s Boat session ale. Carton originally brewed the “Bigger Boat,” as its series is titled, three-plus years ago as a first anniversary beer, SS-2012.
The wintertime alliance with Against The Grain, an equally young brewery with a lot of collaboration miles logged already, was a chance to revisit the Bigger Boat recipe and its dank, fruity and floral hop bouquet, and layer it with house-smoked malt and fire-roasted pineapple. The two breweries met at last year’s Extreme Beer Fest in Boston and subsequently began talking about working together. SS Kentucky was served at this year’s Extreme Beer Fest.
Fifteen bbls of SS Kentucky were brewed in Louisville in early January for Against The Grain’s brewpub taps at Slugger Field, the city’s minor league ballpark; 45 bbl were brewed in mid-February at Carton in Atlantic Highlands, a Jersey town with commuter ferry reach to Manhattan. Two hundred fifty cases of SS Kentucky were canned mid-March exclusively for Carton taproom sales in four-pack pints. A typical canning run of Carton’s flagships is 300 to 400 cases.
With a bent for the irreverent and no shyness about making beers they prefer to drink, Cruz and his partners opened Against The Grain in October 2011, after leaving Bluegrass Brewing Co.’s restaurant-breweries. At BBC, Cruz said, “We started to notice a trend in the pub, that people were tearing through the specialty beers we would brew.”
Three and a half years later, ATG has a newly christened production facility (30-bbl WM Sprinkman brewhouse, a complement of 60-bbl tanks, plus canning line) to go with its ballpark brewpub, plus a bevy of collaborations under its belt: Mikkeller, Evil Twin, Brouwerij De Molen, Amager Bryghus, Chicago cocktail bar The Aviary, and Lexington, Ky., neighbor Country Boy Brewing, to name-check some pairings.
Cruz points to the business and pleasure in such fusions.
“When you get like-minded people together, you end up having a really good time,” he said. “And you learn things from other people, different methods and techniques in brewing, you learn about distribution in their area … Even though we’re experienced brewers, we’re all still very new at having the businesses we have.”
And of the collaboration with Carton?
“It’s the type of thing we like to do … The Bigger Boat beer –the combination of that Boat beer they produce, incredibly hoppy, very sessionable, it’s what they like to drink — but married to one of the things we do, unapologetically in Kentucky, and that is produce smoked beers, regardless of the projected market response. We brew it because we like it. The marriage of the two styles together is how SS Kentucky came to be.”
Carton sketches the contours of his brewery’s fit with Against The Grain.
“Both of us are actually doing different things in a market born of doing different things,” he said. “I think we all came to brewing for the point where fun and creativity intersect and seeing an artistic instinct fulfilled.”