Mountain State Brewing brings its beer home

Mountain State Brewing Company is no longer contracting for the production of its beer in Baltimore. All production has now been moved in-house to its Thomas, WV, brewery.

Seneca IPA Bottle
Out with bottles. In with cans.

Since 2013, Mountain State had contracted out the production of its 12 oz. bottles to Peabody Heights Brewery in Baltimore, MD.  Mountain State did this because it had no bottling equipment at its own brewery. Since its inception in 2005, the Thomas brewery had only brewed and packaged beer for kegs.

With its contract brewer producing 12-oz bottles of Mountain State’s four flagship beers, Mountain State was able to gain wide distribution for its six packs across WV, both in on- and off-premise accounts. The six-packs helped boost the brewery to a more dominant leadership position among breweries in the state. Mountain State is West Virginia’s largest brewery, selling approximately 3,500 barrels of beer in 2014.

But contract brewing also has its downside. While it allows a small brewery to produce and package a lot of beer under its brand name, it also leaves considerably lower margins after you pay the contractor for brewing and bottling your beer.

So this year, Mountain State ramped up its in-house brewery production, scrapped the contracted bottles, and introduced new 12-oz. aluminum cans in their place.

MSBC-empty-cans
Pre-labeled 12-oz. aluminum beer cans ready for filling and sealing.

The cans are here; long live the cans.

The advent of mobile canning line operators serving the region allowed Mountain State to bring its beer packaging in-house. Production of the new canned beer began in early April when the brewery brought in River City Cannery, a mobile canning line operator from Arlington, Virginia. This is the same mobile canning company used by Greenbrier Valley Brewing Company and many small breweries in Virginia.

MSBC-canning
A mobile canning line in operation. Photo Credit: Mountain State Brewing Facebook page

Mobile canning lines are self-contained systems hauled on a truck or trailer from brewery to brewery. This allows small breweries to can beer before they are large enough or wealthy enough to purchase their own canning line, which is a very expensive piece of equipment.

To work with a mobile canner, a brewery purchases, in advance, pre-labeled aluminum can stock and stores it at the brewery. When the mobile canning line arrives, it is set up, connected to the brewery’s beer storage tanks, then it fills and seals the cans using the pre-labeled can stock.

Mountain State favors aluminum cans over bottles for several beer-quality reasons, but especially because the active outdoor-recreation culture in WV prefers cans. Can are smaller, lighter, unbreakable, and more easily recyclable.

Seneca IPA cans
A stack of freshly canned Seneca Indian Pale Ale awaits shipment out to distributors.

Canned sixers quickly gain distribution

Mountain State’s new canned six packs quickly gained distribution at bars and grocery, liquor, and convenience stores across West Virginia. Mountain State’s distributors did a most impressive job with the introduction. The six packs are retailing for $9.99 to $10.99 most places. Mountain State is the second West Virginia craft brewery to can its beer.

A line up of bright beer tanks.
A line up of bright beer tanks. The one on the right is a 60-barrel capacity.

It is great to see Mountain State able to return all its production to West Virginia, but doing so isn’t easy. Because the brewery still has a relatively small, 7-barrel capacity brewhouse, the brewhouse is really getting a workout in order to fill the larger 30-barrel fermenters at a rate required to feed both a canning line and kegging operation. You also have to figure in brewing time for any seasonals or speciality beers the brewery might want to produce.

MSBC-old-tanks
Out with the old. A line up of small tanks are moved out to make way for larger tanks at Mountain State Brewing Company in Thomas, WV.

To keep up with the growing demand for its cans and kegs, Mountain State has reportedly ordered two 60-barrel fermenters and a 120-barrel bright tank. If demand continues to grow, a larger brewhouse may also be expected. Of course, running the current brewhouse more frequently is an efficient use of an asset that should help profitability.

MSBC-fermenters
A 10-barrel fermenter sits next to a 30-barrel fermenter at Mountain State Brewing.

While use of a mobile canner does have considerable costs, it is nowhere near the cost of hiring a contract brewery to brew and package your beer. Mountain State should reap substantially more profit from this arrangement compared to it previous glass-bottled beer contract.

Mountain State is canning its four full-time beers—Cold Trail Ale, Almost Heaven Amber Ale, Seneca Indian Pale Ale, and Miner’s Daughter Oatmeal Stout—the same ones previously offered in bottles.

We at Brilliant Stream are impressed with the business savvy of Mountain State Brewing Company co-owners Brian Arnett and Willie Lehmann. We hope to see the continued growth and expansion of West Virginia’s largest brewery.

Another cool thing Mountain State Brewing does

Brew Skies FestivalBrew Skies is a two-day music and beer festival organized by Mountain State Brewing Company. This year it takes place at Timberline Resort, August 21-22. More info here.

 

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