Comparatively fewer exhibitors were making a specifically craft-oriented push this year in Vegas than they did last year at Pack Expo International in Chicago. Rather than suggesting flagging interest, this change in tone may actually indicate how much the market has grown in just one year.
With 30,000 attendees from 40 countries, and four huge exhibition halls, is the largest packaging event in North America. Last year in Chicago, many manufacturers of bottling and canning lines, label makers and applicators, case erectors, case packers, depalletizers, etc. were eager to tell me about what they had to offer the craft brewer. Many of them had started picking up craft beer clients and were excited to grow that part of their business. They brought sample cans or bottles with craft labels and proudly displayed them on their lines or in cases in the front of their booths. They brought smaller applicators or fillers designed for the small craft brewery.
To be clear, this year there was still a lot of the same kind of craft display happening, but there was one key difference. Last year many original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) had brought machines they specifically wanted to sell to craft brewers. This year they brought craft paraphernalia in order to attract other people’s attention and to start conversations about . . . well, whatever business that person was in.
That is, instead of displaying machines to attract craft brewers, they’re displaying craft beer to attract other clients.
What the shift means
Based on conversations I had with many of these OEMs and equipment distributors, I think this shift actually shows positive growth in the craft beer market. Again, these companies were happy to show me equipment they had sold to craft brewers — and you can watch this site for those updates. They also enjoyed talking about craft beer they’ve tried or how much fun it is to work with craft brewers.
But rather than have a real pitch specifically to craft brewers, the conversation was more likely to turn to how they’d been to the Craft Brewers Conference (CBC) last spring and were looking forward to next year in Nashville. In-Line Packaging Solutions hinted that they’re already planning to release something new at CBC 2018. Jordan Hamrick, vice president of sales at Hamrick Mfg., was among a handful who mentioned they planned to go to a state brewers convention.
In other words, these companies are investing more in going to where craft brewers are rather than hoping the craft brewers will come to them. They learned last year in Chicago that not a ton of craft brewers attend Pack Expo, but craft has become an important enough part of their business that they’ve evolved from producing smaller, more economical machines and are actively looking for events where craft brewers can more easily find them.
Last year I reported that one big takeaway was that even the large equipment folks were often interested in working with your cash-strapped, space-strapped craft brewery. This shift to attending more craft events signals this willingness even more powerfully than before.
1. Ask for what you want
You can take advantage of this by asking for what you want when you’re looking to purchase a new machine. Most stories I’ve ever heard about selling these machines have a part that goes, “Well, the brewery wanted X, so we did A, B and C so we could give them that.” Granted, that may cost you a little more, and sometimes the modifications are minor and probably not a huge engineering feat, but it’s worth asking about in order to learn what your options really are so you can get the best solution for your brewery.
2. Trust warily
As I said above, these companies love working with craft brewers. They get big smiles on their faces when they describe how much more collegial and collaborative craft brewers are compared with many larger, more button-lipped food and beverage corporations.
Craft beer’s camaraderie and love of the work itself rubs off on these folks. It inspires them to appreciate what they love about their own work — or what they would like to love about their own work. Let’s face it: Craft beer people are pretty awesome, and other business professionals want to be like us. If you approach them with candor and transparency, they will respond in kind. They don’t want to spend their time with lawyers and negotiations. They want to come to your brewery and install their machines and components and hear from you a month later how much you love it.
But, look, it’s still a market transaction, so you need to keep your own business priorities and needs in view just as your OEM will. There is a lot of ground for building trust, but it should be the kind of trust appropriate to a business.
3. Expect partnership
Hopefully this isn’t news to you, but pretty much every company I spoke with had either a formal relationship with one or more relevant partners or had previously worked with industry partners to help a brewery get what they needed. You know how this industry is. Everyone specializes in something, but you can’t just buy your brewery à la carte and expect all the pieces to magically line up and talk to each other and work like you want them to. Your OEM partner knows this too, and they want to find ways to make sure their equipment suits your needs. You should therefore expect your label converter to work with your stock supplier and your printer — and even your applicator — to make sure your labels look awesome.
They’ve probably already done that for someone, but if they haven’t they should be willing to. Don’t be a jerk about it, or anything, but again, ask them if they will partner with your other suppliers and expect the answer to be yes.
So, even though I was surprised to see how little overt effort exhibitors were making to appeal to craft brewers compared with last year, I walked away from Pack Expo Las Vegas 2017 with the impression that it’s a good time to be a craft brewer. There are more companies working to provide you with more choices so that you can build what you need to brew the beer your customers love.
Brad Fruhauff is a good dude, a great beer writer and a contributor to Craft Brewing Business. Plus, he wants to write for your brewery. Check out his other work here.