Photos by Aaron Davidson
Lagersmith founder Nate Smith is finally realizing everything his company can be.
In two years of mobile bottling, Smith never had enough business to reach full-time status. Since adding a canning line last December, however, his business is booming and he’s hiring additional employees to keep up with demand.
Each day, Smith loads a trailer with a bottling or canning machine and brings it to a brewery to package their beer, which allows breweries to forego purchasing the equipment for themselves.
Firing up a canning or bottling line is often only a weekly task for smaller breweries, many of which are looking to minimize costs and would rather spend the money it would take to purchase a line of their own on other things. Lagersmith also works with larger breweries looking to supplement their existing packaging with other options.
But is Smith’s newfound growth a reflection of an industry-wide move toward aluminum?
Previously Smith’s business focused primarily on 22-ounce bomber bottles, which were often more seasonal and concentrated in the fall and winter months. Today, an increasing number of breweries are adopting cans. Most recently, Minneapolis’ Fulton Brewing Company announced it would begin packaging its Lonely Blonde American Blonde Ale and Sweet Child of Vine IPA in 16-ounce cans. Like Fulton, Smith said many breweries are now canning their flagship beers, which creates more regular work for him and also gives his clients another way to get their product in stores. “It’s win-win,” he said. To date, Smith has filled bottles for roughly 25 breweries, and cans for about 12.
While cans are popular now, Smith has no preference between the more traditional bottles and the up-and-coming cans. “There’s always going to be a place for both,” he said. “My goal is that I’ll have the ability to package in whatever breweries don’t have. Wherever the market trends for a package, I should be in a position to get that package for them.”
Right now, cans are serving him well and Smith recently purchased a second canning line and a truck to better transport the equipment, which is helping spur job growth at Lagersmith. With two canning lines and additional employees, the company can service a single large brewery twice as fast, or hit two smaller breweries in the same day.
Smith is also adding warehouse space to store cans for his customers, opening another key service to help breweries with their daily operations.
“What we’re doing is manufacturing,” he plainly states. “People tend to romanticize it. The setting is fun, but we could be doing the same thing at tomato factories and bottling ketchup and it wouldn’t be that cool.”
The only beers Smith won’t package are wild or sour beers, due to the risk of yeast contamination. As long as a brewery can fit the machinery within 20 feet of a brite tank, Lagersmith can set up shop and help get beer out of the brewhouse and onto liquor store shelves.
While Smith brings the equipment and some additional manpower, the finished product will ultimately have one of his clients’ names on it. “Everything we package says ‘Bottled and Brewed by…’” he notes, and while a Lagersmith employee will work the machine, he insists that the final package verification and assembly be conducted by brewery staff.
There is extra maintenance with a mobile unit, as it takes an hour to set up the bottling or canning line at the beginning of the day and another hour to reload the trailer once all is said and done. Additionally, Lagersmith cleans the machinery at the beginning and end of each job. The following day at the next brewery, Smith adds, “We go through the same process. It really gets cleaned twice.”
Lagersmith currently works with breweries and cideries in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Illinois, but he focuses much of his attention on the Twin Cities. If demand warrants it, he would shift all of his attention locally, he says. Other states have similar businesses, with competition operating in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and elsewhere.