Craft beer connoisseurs have been passing around six-packs since Oskar Blues first sealed its Dale's Pale Ale in aluminum in 2002. Cans protect brews from sunlight and give brewers a chance to get creative. But their liquor store dominance also kept beers from the 2,000 or so U.S. microbreweries that aren't big enough to afford the six-figure cost of a canning line from finding a market. Coloradan entrepeneurs Pat Hartman and Ron Popma are now reversing that side effect by going on a massive brewery crawl with their portable canning lines in tow.

Hartman first stumbled on the idea for his company, Mobile Canning Colorado (MCC), while talking with microbrewers at a 2011 University of California, Davis Master Brewers Program. "These guys were doing maybe a couple hundred barrels a year. I wondered how they could afford their own bottling lines and they explained the concept of mobile bottling. I started thinking, what about mobile canning?"

By early 2012, the company was rolling a 20-foot canning line into the back of Colorado breweries like Renegade, Pateros Creek, Crystal Springs, and even the state's oldest, Boulder Beer Company. Roughly 36 cans per minute are sanitized, filled, and stamped, with a final drop into a tub of water to test buoyancy. Last year, MCC added an affiliate system stretching across 25 states, providing the sourcing, training, and bulk inventory to 16 national partners.

The move to metal is a no-brainer for fledgling breweries. "We'll reach a higher barrel rate faster because we're taking that $100,000 for a canning line and instead putting it into more tanks," says Brian O'Connell of Renegade Brewing. "Canning has been a huge boost to our business model." The Denver-based outfit cans four different labels, including its Elevation Triple IPA and Hammer & Sickle Russian Imperial Stout.

There's also the benefit of increased market exposure. "There's only so many tap handles around, but there's a liquor store on every corner," says Popma. Adds Andrea Miller, co-founder of two-year-old Big Choice Brewing in nearby Broomfield: "We get people who see our cans on the shelves and come in saying, 'Yeah, we saw you guys in the store.'" Miller's hoppy Disconnected Red and Hemlock Double IPA are now wrapped in shiny metal.

Mobile canning also allows big breweries to release small-batch beers. "For our Velvet Shank, a barrel-fermented Brett we recently did, we only canned a barrel and a half, says Tom Horst of Crystal Springs, based in Louisville, Colorado. "We play around a lot." 

The MCC duo just wants to do what's best for enthusiasts, says Hartman, "We're happy to be helping a lot of smaller guys that couldn't get out into the market as easily themselves."

More information: Find all you need to know about canned beer at CraftCans.com, which has a database of all 1,352 labels from 381 different breweries in the United States.