Stubby brown bottles clatter down a conveyor at Smog City Brewing Co. in Torrance, California. They’re labeled, date-coded, rinsed, and purged before some of L.A.’s favorite brews are injected by a new Italian-built GAI 3031 FE BIER bottling line. After Smog City’s seven years in business, these bottles are the first 6-packs of Smog City beer, and they represent a new chapter in the brand’s story.
“Each next step is making a huge leap,” says Cofounder Laurie Porter. Smog City has grown steadily but organically in the Golden State, establishing a large following in its Torrance taproom, expanding to Long Beach with a satellite tasting room, and feeding a steady stream of kegs to Stone Distribution for draft accounts across Los Angeles. Production increased slowly year-over-year, reaching 5,000 barrels in 2017, and the facility neared capacity. To reach their goal of brewing 12,000 barrels per year by 2023, the wife and husband team behind the brewery embarked on a marathon’s worth of next steps.
“The goal is to get our beer into more people’s hands,” says Cofounder and Brewmaster Jonathan Porter. “I don’t want our beer to be precious,” Laurie Porter adds; she wants it to be “fridge beer”—everyday bottles to enjoy on any day. While Smog City has packaged most of their core brands and many specialty releases in 500 ml bottles since 2014, they’ve never bottled their flagship IPA or their most popular beer: the crisp Little Bo Pils.
Jonathan Porter, and the whole Smog City team, is obsessed with quality and with the details that dictate it. While their existing 4-head Maheen bottling line did the job and the workflow was dialed in, it was not only too labor-intensive for 12-ounce bottles, it led to too much oxygen pickup during packaging. Levels of dissolved oxygen (DO) in bottles packaged on the Maheen were about 300 parts per billion (ppb).
“That’s why we never put the Pils in bottles,” Jonathan Porter says.
The GAI system—comprising a vacuum-assisted labeler, a laser date-coding module, and a complex array of machines that rinse, purge, fill, and cap each bottle—offers granular control of each electro-pneumatic fill head and very low DO pickup (by the end of the first week of bottling, DO in bottles was around 60ppb). It means more bottles filled in less time with less beer lost in the process. While quality is the driving force in Smog City’s brewing philosophy, efficiency is sitting shotgun.
“We can’t be flabby,” Laurie Porter says. “Any business that matters must run intelligently and efficiently.” The new bottling line allows Smog City to ship more beer and establish retail placements that will go deeper into the Los Angeles beer market, but it’s only one cog in the complex Smog City machine.
With a manufacturing lead time of at least ten months once the papers were signed and a check cut for the deposit on the GAI hardware, the Porters had time to prepare the brewery for its next phase. Construction projects and facility improvements were planned, including a brewhouse expansion, additional fermentation vessels, and more new hardware that would improve the brewery’s efficiency.
A centrifuge was added to boost yields and a grain silo installed to reduce raw-material costs. “The silo is key to profit,” Jonathan Porter says; the economies of scale on base malt mean the most expensive part of the new cases of bottles is the bottles and the case packaging itself.
“Cardboard, glass, caps, 6-pack cartons—it adds up quickly,” he says.
The line was commissioned and tested over a week with support from GAI, and in early May 2018, fourteen months after beginning the project, the first 6-packs of Smog City beer rolled off the line and onto pallets destined for Stone Distribution’s refrigerated warehouses. The Smog City packaging team didn’t ease into running the line—55,000 bottles were filled in the first four days at the rate of 100 cases an hour, draining one 30-barrel and three 60-barrel brite tanks.
From Empty to Filled and Packed
It takes three workers to package the beer—one on each end of the line feeding empties and building cases respectively, while the third monitors the controls, does QC checks, and assists where needed. The first packaging tech takes case boxes—delivered from the supplier already filled with 6-pack carriers and empty 12-ounce bottles—and adds the empties to the first conveyer.
The bottles get corralled into a single line, then labeled before the laser-coding module blasts them with born-on dates and perhaps even some in-joke or quip. (The first run of Coffee Porter bottles was inscribed with “Laurie <3s Porter”—a reference both to Laurie Porter’s enjoyment of the beer style that shares her married name and the love for her husband.)
The bottles then trundle around a U-shaped conveyor before they’re gripped around the neck by a rotary machine that inverts the bottle, rinses it, and purges it with CO2 before flipping the bottles again and sending them to the next machine where the beer meets the glass. The filling stage uses twelve upgraded electro-pneumatic heads that offer fine-grained control for perfect fills and less product loss. The full bottles get hit with a jet of high-pressure water to induce foaming before the crowns are crimped down to further minimize oxygen pickup. The finished product then gets a rinse before exiting the line where a waiting tech packs them into the case boxes. Full cases are then stacked on a pallet destined for the brewery’s cold storage to await a Stone Distribution truck.
Alongside the long-anticipated 6-packs of Little Bo Pils and Smog City IPA, the brand’s signature Coffee Porter and hoppy amber ale, Sabre-Toothed Squirrel, round out the initial lineup. All the efficiency improvements in the brewhouse and materials pipeline mean the brewery can price the beer very competitively with suggested retail pricing between $10.99 (the Pils) and $12.99 (upcoming seasonal brews). A 6-pack of the superlative Coffee Porter will be $11.99, an undeniable value compared to its old pricing of $9.99 in 500 ml bottles.
Bottles Instead of Cans?
As the craft-beer industry makes a hard turn toward canned products, with everyone from giants such as Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. and Firestone Walker Brewing Co. to small local operations embracing aluminum, why did Smog City invest more than a half million dollars into bottling more beer?
It all comes down to quality, they say. Bottling beer with consistently low dissolved-oxygen levels is faster and less expensive with a high-tech bottling line such as the GAI unit. Bottles are rigid and can be vacuum purged, an easy way to lower DO levels unavailable to crushable cans, and to achieve speeds and reliability comparable to the GAI system would take a much larger and more expensive canning line. The glut of cans in the market also gives the Porters pause.
“Cans are becoming white noise,” Laurie Porter says. “Good product has a hard time standing out among all the canned beer.” Jonathan Porter goes further: “I think [cans] can be tacky and look cheap.” He doesn’t believe that the trend of $20 4-packs of canned IPAs common in the SoCal scene is sustainable, and he worries that the market for canned beer is both too crowded and too unstable to enter. With wide variations in the quality of canned packaging (printed vs. shrink-wrapped labels vs. stickers) and the quality of the liquid inside, he thinks drinkers—especially the less craft-savvy people buying from grocery stores, Costco, and other big-box retailers—will begin to distrust cans.
“I don’t want to be associated with that,” he says.
“There’s still a perception of quality and premium associated with bottled beer,” Laurie Porter says. Smog City is interested in two different kinds of customers: the craft-beer lovers who’ve helped the brand grow into one of L.A.’s powerhouse breweries and the average beer buyer who may not know the difference between a Pilsner and a Kolsch but can still appreciate flavorful, high-quality beers.
“We’re seven years old. We’re not the new hot brewery. We aren’t as shiny anymore,” she says. “This give us the opportunity to reestablish what defines us as a brand and what our goals are.”
Smog City Brewing has partnered with One Percent for the Planet—a nonprofit organization dedicated to fighting climate change by connecting businesses with causes and activists—and will donate $1 from every 6-pack sold to environmental causes.
Jonathan and Laurie Porter are both strong personalities who are determined to do things their own way and tell the Smog City story in their own words. They are sure that they make the best beer in L.A., and they’re so excited to prove it to more drinkers. In a culture that rewards specialization and finding a comfortable niche, Smog City aims to offer everything on the spectrum of craft beer, from easy-drinking lagers to bourbon barrel–aged confections to blended wild ales and oak-aged sour brews.
They hope that readily available 6-packs of accessible “Dad beer” will help bring more new fans into the Smog City fold.