So, you’re a smaller brewery that’s starting to grow. You’ve got a brewhouse and cellar with some space (at least enough to brew the volume of product that you need) as well as a small team that runs the business, makes the beer, develops the brand, and manages production, and squeegees the floor – a skeleton crew of maybe three or four people.
Chances are you are selling in the taproom with some sort of limited distribution. You may be doing some small-scale bottling, using a manual/inexpensive filler or crowler machine, and starting to get beer on tap at some local restaurants and bars. You brew great beer, get it into kegs or serving tanks, and people are drinking it. Up until this point, these accomplishments and investments have been your priority. You’re starting to see the value in what you’ve done, but what’s the next step to continue your growth?
We’ll tell you. Packaging. If you want a more specific answer, it’s canning. Cans are king in today’s market – and for good reason. They’re the best vessel for the job. They’re affordable, shareable, tradeable, and a simple way to increase the range of your beer and your brand.
But it isn’t as easy as just saying you want a canning line. There are obstacles – like the availability of appropriately sized (and priced) machinery, the anxiety surrounding capital expenditures (CapEx) purchases and upfront costs, and our new uncertain reality with the pervasive COVID-19 pandemic. Luckily, canning lines are more available to smaller breweries than ever before, and leaning into packaging can actually be the solution to those exact concerns.
Hard to find machines
Historically, packaging machinery hasn’t been available for smaller brewery spaces. The benefits of automation in packaging have typically been reserved for breweries producing many more beer barrels (BBLs) than your average microbrewery. In fact, that very issue is at the heart of Ska Fabricating’s origin story. Ska Brewing’s founder, Matt Vincent, went looking for an automated solution for depalletizing in his small-scale brewery and wasn’t able to find anything. As a result, he found himself having to build his own machine because there was nothing available for breweries of that size.
That was the reality back in 2012 – but things are different today. It’s a new era, with small businesses taking flight all over the world. New innovations in packaging technology have made it possible for most businesses with some capital and some extra space to get their beer in cans. Many of these solutions are manual in nature, but automation is becoming more and more affordable and commonplace in these smaller brewhouses.
Being short on space or budget no longer disqualifies you from the automation pool. We’ve spoken with plenty of businesses that have been shocked at both what they can afford and what they’re able to fit in their spaces. When key canning line pieces like depalletizers take up less space than a pallet of cans and cost a small fraction of what traditional machines cost, there’s no reason not to make packaging (and some level of automation) a priority.
Of course, there is always the option of mobile canning. It’s a viable option for those looking to get into the packaging world and dip their toes into a distribution model beyond their taproom. But even the best mobile canners have limitations on availability, and their services come at a cost. It can be used as a valuable time to pay close attention to the mobile operators and learn everything you can about the process, machines, and best practices, but having a canning line and building your brewery’s in-house knowledge and experience can be much more valuable, consistent, and cheaper in the long run.
Budgeting and planning ROI
While the price of canning lines has dropped substantially over the years, sticker shock for businesses that aren’t accustomed to spending tens of thousands of dollars is common. When you have $15,000 to invest in your packaging line, every decision feels risky. There isn’t necessarily a silver bullet item to throw that budget at, so even if your brewery does have the ability to make a purchase, it’s hard to know whether you’re making the correct choice.
Especially in start-up breweries, making relatively large purchases may not be something that you’re familiar or comfortable with. Thankfully, those choices don’t have to be made in a vacuum. There are tools that can help you calculate things like ROI, and there are common sense valuations you can make using the things you already know.
For example, if you want to purchase an automated piece of equipment but are concerned about the price, you can imagine the alternative. If a rinser is around $4000 and a depalletizer is around $15,000, that’s a $19,000 expenditure. Without even taking ROI into consideration, you can easily assume that making this investment would still come in under the cost of hiring someone to do this manually. This isn’t to say you should shy away from hiring talent – but we’re willing to bet that those you hire would be happier and more fulfilled in a position that doesn’t involve them handwashing and loading bottles or cans into a filler. In the smaller breweries we’ve talked to recently, they believe that something as simple as a small-scale depalletizer would be worth one to two people on the line.
If you’re more concerned about the nitty-gritty financial details, using an ROI Calculator (click that link, click file > make a copy, punch in your data) can be a huge help in forecasting the numbers that aren’t clear to you yet.
Plus, investing in packaging means investing in your distribution, branding, and market penetration. The sooner you’re getting your beer into cans (or bottles), the faster you can get it into fridges, onto shelves, into coolers and backpacks, and into the hands of your customers. The exposure and sales (though at a smaller margin compared to sales through a taproom) that you gain through scaling up your distribution in this way are extremely valuable and will lead to exponential growth.
If you are struggling with your financials as a brewery of any size, there are a lot of tried-and-true equipment financing options available to you as well.
Staffing and the reality of COVID-19
We’re just as tired of hearing (and talking) about the ramifications of COVID-19 as you are. The reality is, COVID times are still here, and we have no idea when they will end. Times are weird and tough–and staffing is already a huge struggle for businesses of all kinds without the concern of a worldwide pandemic trying its hardest to take out your crew. In a team of any size, but especially in smaller ones, your people are going to provide you with the best ROI of any investment you make.
As long as the virus is making its rounds, even if you’re taking every precaution, your people are at risk. Small breweries are already working with a skeleton crew, so losing one member of your team when that person may be ¼ of your workforce is extremely impactful. If (or more realistically in today’s climate – when) an employee is forced to take a week or two off of work, automation is your hero. Production doesn’t have to come to a grinding halt – someone can just check-in, press a button, or rotate a hand crank and then get back to whatever more meaningful work they have waiting.
Another reality of COVID is that packaging your beer has never been more important. If your taproom shuts down, you have beer you need to move – and fast. Those without a means for packaging have had to lean on fellow breweries, co-packers, and mobile canners to get their beer out the door before its quality, and their wallets, take a huge hit. Developing an in-house canning line and production system is the only sure-fire way to ensure that your brewery is protected against situations of that nature.
Take advantage of new technology
We hear it all the time – “This would be great, but we’re too small.”
“We just aren’t big enough to accommodate a machine like this yet.”
“Maybe in a couple of years when we’re in a larger space.”
Canning lines don’t have to be big, expensive machines that loom over your production facility and take up all available space. With so many advances in brewing machinery and technology, there are options that aren’t only portable with impressively small footprints, they’re convenient, efficient, and downright cheap. The benefits of automation are available to everyone with a dream of distributing their beer, regardless of their budget or space restrictions – and smaller breweries would be wise to take advantage of these opportunities.