GRAND RAPIDS — In its first five years, The Mitten Brewing Co. mostly brewed beer to serve in its Grand Rapids pub and a satellite taproom in Northport on the Leelanau Peninsula.
While it sold a limited number of kegs for distribution, the company — founded by Chris Andrus and Max Trierweiler — focused on keeping up with production volume for higher-margin in-house sales over its bars, as well as on improving the quality of its beers.
Locking down that quality aspect came first before considering packaging beer for retail sales.
“I think a lot of people rush that step,” Andrus said of the push to get into retail sales. “They rush to get it in stores, put their beer in bottles, and it’s to the detriment of the product and, ultimately, the brand. The worst thing we could do is throw out some shitty cans that go bad on the shelf.”
The Mitten continually reinvested in the production process over its first five years in business to improve the quality of the beer to where it was “standing up with all the breweries we looked up to,” he said.
As the quality improved, so did the pull from customers in demanding packaged beers for retail sales. But for a brewery the size of Mitten — which sold 1,363 barrels of beer in 2017, according to data from the Michigan Liquor Control Commission — retail sales are more about branding than a profit center, given that the highest margins come from pub sales, Andrus said.
“The wholesale retail space, I look at it as marketing, honestly,” he said. “But ultimately, it’s the only way to grow beyond your doors.”
With the brewery matured to a point where packaged distribution sales made sense, and the company looking for additional brand awareness as it moved to enter new markets — including in Saugatuck, where it plans to open a brewpub next month — the partners decided the timing was right last year to buy a canning line.
They didn’t have to look far for a solution that fit their needs.
Cedar Springs-based Microcanner LLC, a company Todd Vriesenga started in a barn at his home in Belmont two years ago, builds a line of can-filling and seaming automation equipment that also can be paired with applicators that affix labels and/ or package handles.
While Mitten looked at machines from all over the globe at an industry trade show last year, the brewery ultimately chose Microcanner because the company offered the best customer support.
Rather than calling someone in Belgium to help work out an issue, Microcanner could be at the brewery in a matter of minutes to solve the problem.
“The Microcanner guys were there for the first three times we canned. It gave us the confidence we needed, and they helped us with troubleshooting things,” Andrus said. “The cans are turning out from a quality perspective as good as anything on the market in terms of stability.”
That same customer service focus helped sell East Lansing-based Ellison Brewery and Spirits LLC on buying a Microcanner in late 2016.
“Not only is his product a very superior product, it’s made 45 minutes from our facility,” said brewery co-founder Eric Elliott. “If we have any questions or issues or whatever, I’ve seen Todd drop whatever he was doing and drive straight over to the brewery.”
KEEP IT SIMPLE
For Vriesenga, an automotive engineer by training, developing an automation line for non-engineers formed the basis for his idea with Microcanner.
“I’ve been in engineering assembly lines so long and it basically taught me that anyone can design something, the trick is to design it to be simple,” he said.
Late last year, the company nearly quadrupled its space to 8,900 square feet at a building Vriesenga purchased at 70 N. Main Street in downtown Cedar Springs. The expansion and the addition of CNC equipment frees up more space for the company to build out canning lines and speed up product development cycles.
“I saw an opportunity in that there wasn’t an existing machine and there was definitely an emerging market. I know automation — that’s all I’ve done,” Vriesenga said. “It’s blown up a lot bigger than I ever would have anticipated.”
Microcanner employs 15 people and currently builds about 12 machines a month amid steady demand from breweries across North America, Vriesenga said. The company also has sold its canning lines to breweries in Asia and Australia.
Vriesenga said he expects that demand to increase after the company exhibited as part of the 2018 BrewExpo America, the trade show that coincided with the annual Craft Brewers Conference in Nashville this month and drew more than 14,000 people. The expo featured 726 exhibitors spread over 353,000 square feet of floor space.
According to Elliott, Microcanner has found a key niche as a part of the craft beverage supply chain.
“He’s really honed in on what the breweries need and has listened,” Elliott said of Vriesenga. “That just speaks volumes to what he’s trying to do, and he’s coming to market at a price point that the big guys are not even close to.”
As the first wave of West Michigan craft breweries matures, they’ve expanded to the point where they’re increasingly turning to automation to help with brewhouse efficiency, as well as worker safety.
At Grand Rapids-based Founders Brewing Co., investing in automation became a necessity as the company scaled up its brewing operations toward a targeted 1 million-barrel capacity.
Like almost all breweries, Founders started its brewing and packaging operations with mostly manual systems, said Brad Stevenson, the company’s chief production officer. As the company grew, it needed to perform those operations more efficiently, hence the ongoing investment in automation systems throughout its processes.
“Automation was a fact of life to get to the new volume levels,” he said. “It’s been something that we desired because we’ve been able to take a job that was very physically hard and turn it into a job that’s technically hard.”
Founders first focused on automating repetitive processes and operations that could result in worker injury, including loading bottling lines and picking up cases of beer from the line after they’ve been filled.
“That lift-twist-and-stack motion, number one, someone’s going to get hurt. It’s not an if, it’s a when,” Stevenson said. “And number two, you’re going to go crazy on the way to getting hurt.”
In addition to the investments in automation equipment, Founders also invested in training its workers to make the transition from manual work to operating high-tech equipment. That in turn allows employees to contribute more to the company and become more valuable, Stevenson said.
Along the way, automation has helped the brewery focus on growing its output and quality without having to add exponentially to its production team. For example, the bottling line Founders first installed in 2010 and recently moved to its offsite brewery on Hynes Avenue in Grand Rapids needed nine operators. It replaced the equipment with a new line at its main Grandville Avenue brewery that runs two and a half times faster with only four operators.
“If we hadn’t invested so much in automation, we would have had to have found many more (workers),” Stevenson said. “It’s enabled us not to have to hire as many people and therefore we’ve been able to look for people with a better fit. … And we’ve been able to take people in that have a desire to be passionate about what they do, to work hard along with an existing passionate and hard-working team, and be focused on beer greatness.”
Not every brewery that wants to package its beer for retail is in a position to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in automation equipment. To serve that niche, a handful of outsourced automation operators have cropped up across the state that will bring machines to a brewery and can or bottle the beer for them.
The service providers give breweries an option to get into packaged retail sales without the upfront investment and without having to learn the technical processes it takes to operate the complex automation equipment.
“Brewers are brewers, and we’re mechanical people. We run machinery — that’s what we’re good at,” said Nelson Tansey, founder of JBT Bottling LLC, a Kalamazoo-based company that offers mobile bottling services for craft brewers.
The mobile bottlers and canners allow brewers to package their beers and market their brands without the upfront capital outlay. Think of the mobile services as an interim step to test the market and decide whether they need to buy their own equipment, Tansey said.
“As they get bigger, then it makes a little more sense when they’re going to be using equipment on a more regular basis,” he said.
According to Elliott at Ellison Brewery, breweries need to think carefully about pricing when using outsourced services. If their end goal is to get into distribution, making the upfront investment could make more sense.
“If your overall business model is distribution, then you’re already in the mindset to know that’s your end result,” he said. “Making the investment regardless if you do it now or you do it in five years, you’re still going to have to do it. … (Using a mobile service was a) business decision … that didn’t make sense for our business.”