Lagersmith is the sole mobile bottling company in Minnesota
by Josh Cook
Nate Smith, owner and sole employee of Lagersmith, wakes at 4 a.m. He backs his 7×14 trailer to the edge of his garage, loading the necessary equipment for mobile bottling. He heaves in the 22 oz. filler (capable of bottling up to 8 barrels an hour), the Inline labeler (capable of labeling up to 6,000 bottles per hour), a commercial air compressor, CO2 tanks, cleansers, sanitation detergent, and a cart full of rags, hoses, and extension cords. Nate might drive to, say, Madison, or to one of his other clients—like Pour Decisions in Roseville or Staple’s Mill Brewing Co. in Stillwater—where he’ll dolly the gear right onto the brew floor, unpacking and setting up next to the tanks over a floor drain. As the Red Wheat or German Pilsener syphons into the bottle, Nate might pause to consider how he was able to flip the mundane title of “manufacturer” on its head.
He’s in the beer industry, after all, trading jokes with like-minded people—cyclists, campers, outdoors-people, patient-waiters-for-quality. He’s also taking in the glory of being one of the only mobile bottling companies in the region.
“I don’t know of a lot of people in the Twin Cities, let alone the region, that are doing what I’m doing,” he says. Lagersmith’s story fits the scene like the missing piece from a jig-saw puzzle. Coming from a family in distribution, Nate easily fell into the industry.
According to MPR, Minnesota saw a 30 percent jump in its number of breweries last year, bumping the count to 43 licensed breweries and brew pubs. This number grows every month, practically every week. And Nate, eyes open, business aplomb brimming, noticed these exponential brewers grappling for retail options, so he decided to step in, learning the logistics of bottling in the Pacific Northwest before returning home and committing to Lagersmith.
Of course, the most potent question remains: who in the world wants to hire a mobile bottling company? The answer comes straight from Nate. “Brewers are like chefs; they want to experiment. Packaging is a necessary evil. With bottling services, they can focus on their craft.” Seems simple enough. With less pressure to bottle, retail, and distribute, brewers can carve out some time and save money, perhaps purchase a fancier fermentor or experiment with different hops and malts.
Take general contracting, for instance. The contractor is ostensibly responsible for outfitting your home with warmth and authenticity. When it comes time to accurately lay that reclaimed walnut in your 1920’s English Tudor, they’ll call the experts. This way, a trained crew can load in and drub away at your floor, tapping each gap together until it fits tight and feels like a sleek, easily finessed masterpiece. This is what makes the “craft” industry beautiful.
Any old businessperson can frame a recipe and hire an agency to develop a clever marketing scheme. But then you have folks like Dave’s Brew Farm or Boom Island Brewing, honing their craft, getting their recipes right, brewing beer over and over until they’re satisfied. And then the product, born out of an organic process, can trickle out into the world and speak for itself. All the bottling, the packaging, the seemingly tedious tasks of transferring brew from tank to bottle—which can set a start-up brew-hound back about $75,000—drifts into the background, and the product takes center-stage. Lagersmith, in this view, is less of just another business, and more of a support for young and small breweries.
But Nate’s not the first person to venture into mobile packaging. He surmises the idea’s been around for about 25 years, where large-scale operations would unload semi-trucks full of bottling and canning equipment. Among the more exciting companies aiding brewers are the bay area Can Van, started by two graduate school students. The majority of the mobile business seems to rely on the beer-heavy culture of the Pacific Northwest, but in recent months, we’ve seen the new Florida outfit, Craft Brew Crew come to fruition, as well as Craft Canning in, go figure, Portland, Oregon. But the mobile canners owe a nod to the Colorado pioneers, Mobile Canning, LLC.
All that said, in order for mobile canning to take off, demand needs to peak. Cans are trending right now, but what are the advantages? Nate says, “A lot of consumers still like to drink out of a bottle. Craft beer drinkers like to pour into a glass. Down the road, the breweries I work for will probably go 50-50… it’s all a big experiment for everybody.” In which case, mobile companies like Lagersmith might need to shift with the times, investing in appropriate equipment for both canning and bottling.
The market for mobile companies is a niche within a niche; it’s the survival, not only of the fittest, but of the smartest, of the quickest to respond, and of the most hospitable. Nate favors leaning on a simple philosophy: “Besides brewing, what do they need?” It’s a humble thing, this attitude, and so far, it’s one craft-brew fan helping another. By talking to Nate, you get a good sense that, above all things, that is what the craft beer community is all about.
Photos by Jamie Schumacher