By Sasha Milam, Gustavson Content Curator. Originally published in The Ring.
It’s unlikely that many of Vancouver Island’s craft beer brewers got into the business because of an abiding interest in machinery and production logistics. Fortunately for them, that’s exactly why Zac Roff, who graduates this month with an MBA from UVic’s Sardul S. Gill Graduate School, has set up shop. Roff recently purchased what he believes to be the only mobile canning equipment for hire on the island, and began offering his services to local brewers under the name Valkyrian Canning.
“I think that to be an actual brewer in the industry, you really need to have a passion and creativity for the chemistry side of things,” says Roff. “Whereas I am a mechanical engineer by background, so for me, operating and maintaining the machine is the more interesting side of things.”
Roff made note of the mobile canning market opportunity while studying at UVic. Factors such as the cost of acquiring canning equipment and renting facilities to store the cans can be prohibitive for many small breweries as they first start out.
“For someone to start a brewery, which is already very expensive, to have to then also buy a canning line is often too much for people to afford,” says Roff. “Breweries can’t really expand their reach if they’re only selling at the brewery with tap beers. At that stage, they need to bring in someone like myself to help can their beer and get it out to as many shops as they can. As more and more people recognize their brand, they can then justify buying their own canning line and ramping up production if that’s the way they want to go.”
For the vast majority of my clients, I’m actually hoping to put myself out of business. The idea is that they use me while they’re growing, but hopefully they get to the stage where they’re like, ‘we’ve built our business, we’re going to invest in our own canning line, and we won’t need Zac anymore.’ And at that time I’m hoping there’ssome other up-and-coming little brewery that’s reaching their growth stage and wants to hire me to start the cycle again.
—UVic MBA graduate and owner of Valkyrian Canning Zac Roff
Canning equipment, of course, is not exclusively applicable to the beer industry. Roff mentions kombucha as another emerging opportunity for his business, as well as possibly canning wine. In theory, the larger local breweries occasionally also have use for his equipment when canning a smaller run of a seasonal beer, or to augment the capacity of their own machines.
“For some of the really big breweries, it’s likely cheaper for them to occasionally bring me in and have me run a few thousand liters over in the corner than it is for them to swap over from their main product and then swap back after they’ve done their special batch.” He anticipates those instances will be uncommon, however. “It’s very much only in the case of an emergency when they experience equipment downtime, rather than a planned event.”
This customer-needs mindset is thoroughly integrated throughout Roff ’s business model, and it mirrors the perspective that drew him to UVic’s service management specialization instead of the seemingly more applicable choice of entrepreneurship. As he put it, “I already knew I was going to do this canning machine operation, so I thought to myself that what I really needed was to focus on the fact that every industry is a service industry. There was a huge emphasis on seeing things from the customer’s point of view in the coursework, which I found fascinating, and also very useful now.”
One small non-demand-focused indulgence that he has allowed himself: he collects the hard plastic tops designed to package six packs, in the hopes that customers will eventually start reusing them.
“No one’s gone for that yet,” he laughs, “but I’ve been going around to the different liquor stores and collecting them and storing them. It doesn’t cost me anything, and they are reusable, so I hope that businesses come around to taking me up on these.”
Province-wide, BC is closing in on 200 breweries, and Vancouver Island is keeping pace by fostering microbreweries of its own. Roff has no interest in being one of them—all he knows about beer is that it’s delicious, and how to get it into a can. But he is happy to be part of the industry, and may yet become an integral part of the island’s iconic and popular brewing scene, all without a degree in chemistry, experience brewing in his basement, or even strong opinions about taste.
“You should see brewers during the canning process,” he says. “They’re amazing at judging precise carbonation levels and flavour. They taste it and say ‘ah, I’m getting notes of cherry.’ And I’m like, ‘yeah, it’s delicious. That’s all I can tell you.’”