In launching a monthly beer series for 2016, Big Rapids-based Cranker’s Restaurant and Brewery wanted to package its specialty beverages in 22-ounce bottles for distribution throughout Michigan.
The problem: Its in-house bottling equipment only worked with the traditional 12-ounce bottles, and the company wanted to avoid the labor-intensive experience of hand-bottling and capping hundreds of beers. Buying another bottling machine — a six-figure investment — also was not in the cards, said owner James Crank.
“We don’t have the money to buy a separate bottler and we do not have the space to hold another bottler,” Crank said.
Instead, Cranker’s contracted with Kalamazoo-based JBT Bottling LLC, which operates a mobile bottling line for the 22-ounce “bomber” bottle format. JBT Bottling sanitizes and operates the bottling equipment that hooks up directly to a brewery’s brite tank and supplies the bottles, caps and cases. Cranker’s just provides the labels and then packs and palletizes the finished products as they come off the bottling machine.
“We want to get our specialty brews out to consumers who might not be able to make it up to Big Rapids,” said Crank, who also operates Cranker’s Restaurant and Brewery locations in Grand Rapids and Mt. Pleasant. “We’re just a small brewery in a small town, so it’s hard for people to get out there and try our taproom-only beers.”
Using the mobile bottling service “makes sense,” he added. “There’s a lot of labor that’s saved even though we’re going through a third party. After the first run, we said this is the way to go given the price per bottle and that he brings all the equipment. It makes it competitive enough that we’re going to do a beer every month with him.”
JBT Bottling founder Nelson Tansey, an avid homebrewer, launched the company in November 2014. While friends liked his beers and encouraged him to start a brewery, the veteran pneumatics and industrial engineering salesman knew the craft brewery market in Southwest Michigan was getting crowded with people already making good beers.
“Starting a support business makes more sense,” Tansey said of his thought process at the time.
But Tansey didn’t get the idea for JBT Bottling until he attended a seminar during the American Homebrewers Association’s 2013 National Homebrewers Conference in Philadelphia.
As a member of a competitive homebrewers club in Kalamazoo, he and some buddies attended the conference in preparation to enter some of their beers in the AHA’s homebrewing competition that would take place in Grand Rapids the following year.
“I went to a bunch of seminars, but it was one sentence in a seminar that stuck out about the need for mobile bottling,” Tansey said. “I spent a year and a half researching what equipment I would need, why I should do it, and talked to brewers about the idea.”
The due diligence included Tansey and his son traveling to Portland, Ore. to work for a week with a company that operated a mobile bottling service.
After weighing the risks, Tansey decided to invest “well into the six figures” to purchase the purpose-built Meheen bottling system. He completed the first bottling run in November 2014 and continued to operate the business on weekends and vacation days until moving to part-time at his day job last October. He stepped away from that three-decade-long career in sales to focus on JBT Bottling full time at the start of this year.
OFFERING AN ALTERNATIVE
JBT Bottling typically services small breweries and cideries within a two- to four-hour radius of Kalamazoo. While the business is still in its infancy, Tansey hopes one day to add another one or two bottlers and trucks to serve other geographies.
The company is launching at a time of great growth for the craft beer industry. According to the Boulder, Colo.-based Brewers Association, there were 4,144 breweries in the U.S. at the end of November 2015, the most since before Prohibition. Michigan alone has upwards of 250 craft breweries, and there are two-dozen breweries or cideries currently in the planning stages across West Michigan, according to an MiBiz analysis.
“The small brewery that’s just getting going — that’s the concept I’m looking at,” Tansey said. “If you’re a brewery, why would you spend a lot of money for some equipment to have it sit in a corner most of the month? And when you pull it out of the corner and run it once or twice a month, will you remember how it works, remember how to handle the glitches all machinery has?”
The bottling machine fits in the back of a box truck and can fill up to 1,200 bottles per hour with the help of two or three other people. Tansey also has added a second bottling line for 12-ounce bottles.
“I’ve operated, run and helped design equipment for a long time,” he said. “I’m here to help expand this craft beer industry for the smaller breweries that are not in a position to buy their own equipment.”
That was the case for Hudsonville-based White Flame Brewing Co., which worked with JBT Bottling in January to package Black Flame, a specialty imperial stout infused with maple syrup and barrel-aged for four months.
“For us, we don’t have the bottling equipment ourselves,” said owner Bill White. “We’ve done limited releases where we hand-bottled it, but that’s labor-intensive and takes a long time. To do 500 bottles, it took five guys about eight hours. We hired Nelson and he was done in about a half-hour and we have over 700 bottles this time. It’s much more time-efficient and done on a machine designed to do this.”
Instead of using paper labels for the bottles, White Flame worked with Grand Rapids-based Beer City Glass LLC to screen print the label directly onto the 22-ounce glass bottles.
EMBRACING A DUAL STRATEGY
While White Flame works with Michigan Mobile Canning LLC to can some mainstay beers like its Super G IPA, the bigger glass bottle format works better with the high-gravity barrel-aged beers, White said.
“From our experience and where the marketplace is at, that package (a bomber bottle) fits a higher-margin beer more and you can store it and share it with friends,” he said. Working with JBT Bottling again is “a no-brainer for us at this point. I’m going to stick with cans as well, but I like the diversity. We’re not picking and choosing at this point.”
Joe Rudnick, co-founder of Tapistry Brewing Company Inc. in Bridgman, Mich., echoed White’s sentiments. While Tapistry works with Michigan Mobile Canning, the brewery has used JBT Bottling for about 10 different beers, including a German beer series and for specialty releases.
“I don’t know if we’ll do bombers forever, but we did it to get in the market, grow our brand and not have the giant expense,” Rudnick said. “We’re going to have a dual strategy. We’ll eventually get into our own canning line, but for bombers, we have no intention of buying a Meheen that costs in excess of $75,000 or $100,000 because we use it intermittently. Going forward, Nelson would have a solid stay with us. He’s got a good business.”
For his part, Tansey remains focused on growing JBT Bottling. Now that he’s in the business full-time and can focus more on sales and getting in front of breweries, he’s hopeful “it’s going to grow a lot.”
“I do think that I will have to continue to sell,” Tansey said. “I know that I’ll grow myself out of a job at some places as they get their own equipment, but I’m having fun, so we’ll see.”