By Eric Peterson | Oct 27, 2021
Equipment for Breweries
Van Riper outfitted a small Cask canning system with some automation he designed after starting Odyssey Beerwerks, a craft brewery in Arvada, Colorado, in 2013.
He recognized an opportunity to provide the booming craft brewing industry with canning equipment, sold Odyssey, and teamed with Brian LeFevre, owner of Colorado Automation & Design, to start Twin Monkeys Beverage Systems, and the company has maintained a heady growth clip ever since.
For the first five years, the company shared space with Colorado Automation & Design in Aurora, but things started getting pretty cramped as the staff more than quadrupled to more than 20 people.
In March 2021, Twin Monkeys moved into its own 14,000-square-foot facility. "We probably gained about 3,000 to 4,000 square feet on paper but a little bit more than that in reality, because there was a giant path that went through our production space so that Colorado Automation & Design could get to two neighboring spaces through our space," says Van Riper. "We've got room to grow here."
LeFevre "has got one foot in each door," he adds. "He actually spends partial days at each site."
Twin Monkeys' steady growth rate of about 40 percent a year has driven the head count from five employees in 2016 to 30 in late 2021. Taproom shutdowns related to COVID-19 were a big factor in the 70 percent growth Twin Monkeys experienced in 2020.
Sales to repeat customers were roughly matched by sales to new buyers. Many were out of necessity. "They don't want to have to purchase a canning machine if their original business model was taproom-only, but they have to," says Van Riper. "It's a way to adapt."
Pandemic aside, the growth has largely been driven by market acceptance of Twin Monkeys' increasingly sophisticated canning lines. "First of all, we were able to find traction in a wider range of equipment speeds than we had several years ago," he explains. "We were sort of known as the company that specialized in really small footprint machines and slower speeds. Even though we have higher-speed systems, it wasn't what we were known for. For the last couple years, we've been getting larger and larger orders for bigger machines, and that's expanded the kind of customer we can attract."
That broadening of the market involved not only bigger craft breweries: As demand for larger, faster lines surged during the pandemic, Twin Monkeys also increasingly diversified into other craft beverage markets, including coffee, wine, kombucha, and cannabis-infused drinks. "Those are still in their infancy, but growing quite quickly," says Van Riper.
Van Riper highlights three selling points on Twin Monkeys' systems: small physical footprints (the company calls the 250-pound Mancos system "the world's first automated nano-canner"); leading-edge innovation and "user-intuitive" products; and "a great reputation for support."
He notes, "It makes it very valuable for people who are about to buy the most complicated thing they're going to own in a brewery, and they want to know that somebody's got their back."
A step up in both size and speed from the Mancos, the Gunnison system is the Twin Monkeys' top seller, but the bigger and faster Cimarron is "catching up," says Van Riper. "We've always had a dual-lane, expandable system, where you could start with one lane and eventually put on a second lane. As our competitors started catching up on that front -- we try to keep ahead of them on differentiating ourselves -- one of the things we did is create the Cimarron, which has new feature sets for a dual-lane, expandable system. For example, we can weigh cans and automatically adjust the fill levels, but we can also reject them. It's expandable from one fill head to 10 fill heads, so it's the most expandable one out there."
Released for the 2021 edition of the Craft Brewers Conference in Denver, the newest systems -- the Mancos CP and the Kannah -- leverage counterpressure technology to keep carbon dioxide out of the cans. "It's a different kind of fill technology that allows us to get higher-carbonation or higher-temperature drinks into a can without foaming problems," says Van Riper. "This allows us to [fill] while a can is still under pressure and keep it under pressure until the fill cycle's done, then slowly release the pressure."
The facility features two mechanical bays, three wiring bays, and three verification bays for testing. Lead times range from eight to 12 weeks.
"It's a very short assembly line," says Van Riper of production logistics. "We have these specialized workstations where we'll build up subassemblies, like a lidding station or a seaming station or a filling station."
Twin Monkeys recently brought CNC machining in-house and plans to invest in a laser or waterjet to further vertically integrate manufacturing. As of late 2021, the company was making about 5 percent of its parts, but Van Riper is aiming for a big jump in 2022. "Our goal is to get to making about 40 percent of our parts by this time next year," he says.
Challenges: "I think our challenges are less production than they are engineering at this point," says Van Riper. "Because we like to be innovative, we're still trying to find out how to push the envelope on the products we develop and potentially new products we haven't come up with yet."
Supply chain issues in the aluminum market have been an obstacle, but not a huge hindrance, he adds. "Not very many people are actually failing to find cans and lids -- they're just having to search harder than they used to."
Opportunities: Van Riper sees potential for growth beyond brewing, which currently accounts for about 80 percent of the company's sales. "Coffee has been our biggest alternative beverage to beer, with cannabis quickly overtaking it," he says. Wine is a dark horse, as most sales pitches for aluminum cans are met with "quite a bit of skepticism," says Van Riper. "I feel they might be out of touch with their market, to be honest."
Exports now account for 15 to 20 percent of sales. A new office in Denmark is handling sales and support in Europe. "That's enabled us to gain a better foothold in that new market," says Van Riper. "They're still still behind the U.S. in all craft beverages, but they're coming along at a pretty good clip."
Van Riper also points to upcoming product releases as possible sales drivers. "We have some engineering opportunities we want to explore," he says.
Needs: "Developing our own fabrication facility in-house, so that we can be a little more independent of the schedules at other fabrication houses we work with right now," says Van Riper, noting that lead times have gone up by about two weeks across the board. "As we become more vertically integrated, we can avoid those sorts of problems."
He also anticipates hiring five employees -- with a pair of engineers among them -- in 2022.
"I like the path we're on," he adds. "I feel like our stumbles have been minor, which is awesome. You can't always say that about a company. I feel like we've missed some opportunities, and that's maybe a bigger heartache for me down the road when I look back. It's not that we swung and missed, it's just not swinging at times."