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It’s a well-known narrative: The state of American manufacturing is challenging in the 21st century amid cheaper exports, trade wars and an ever-evolving international marketplace.
But near vineyards in south Healdsburg, the Criveller Group is proving success can be had. It also helps that the product Criveller makes is in great demand on the North Coast: production equipment for wineries and breweries that range from large stainless steel tanks for fermentation to destemmers for crushing grapes. Its customers include local beer, wine and spirits businesses such as Ledson Wines, Siduri Wines, HenHouse Brewing Co. and Sonoma Distilling Co.
Criveller’s 40 years of design and engineering experience, along with a diverse group of products that include lower-cost items outsourced from China, has enabled the company to compete effectively in a global market.
While the Sonoma County location has been beneficial, staying abreast of the changing nature of the food-and-drink sector has provided a boon to Criveller. For example, the company has generated increasing growth by making machines for cideries and olive oil processors. And it is exploring possibilities for work with the makers of kombucha, cold-brew coffee and cannabis-infused drinks.
“We’re pretty stable because we do cover all these industries. If the wine industry cools down, which it hasn’t, we have all these other industries to maintain,” said Davide Criveller, who for the past 10 years has overseen the West Coast operations of his family-owned company. His sister, Jessica, is operations manager of the East Coast operations. Overall, Criveller Group employs about 60 people.
The company was founded in Niagara Falls, Ontario, 40 years ago by Bruno and Mario Criveller — Davide’s father and uncle — and its initial focus was making winery equipment for the “ice wine” region around the area. The brothers also owned a brewery for 20 years, which opened up another opportunity later to get into constructing brewhouses when the craft beer industry first took off in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
The pitch for up-and-coming breweries was easy those years ago, the 35-year-old Criveller said: “You can come brew at our system, and we will teach you how to brew. Once your system is built, you will have a good working knowledge of how that works. Nowadays people don’t do that anymore. They just come get equipment.”
Change through the years has been constant for the production company. The Crivellers ventured into Sonoma County to expand business with wineries, as well as capitalize on the steady growth of the West Coast craft beer sector of which this county plays a big part. The county is a hotbed of independent brewing with roughly 30 craft breweries operating here.
Nevertheless, sales to the wine industry represents at least 50% of the Criveller business most years, with the company bringing in about $25 million in annual revenue. Criveller has seen its beer customers increase in recent years as the industry went through a spurt of double-digit growth before recently cooling. There are those who still are bullish. The latest example is Criveller building a massive 50-barrel brewhouse for Fieldwork Brewing Co. in Berkeley to boost beer production for its expansion of six taprooms in the Bay Area and Sacramento.
Criveller’s decades of knowledge on how to construct a brewing system, he said, enables it to dial in certain flow and filtration rates to make sure beer is produced at the best quality. Company engineers can explain in detail to a brewmaster why a certain pipe has to go in a particular place in its beer production system.
“You are using a lot of math with your beer recipes. You want to make sure the brewhouse is capable of doing certain things,” Criveller said.
That expertise along with being a local manufacturer has made Criveller a popular option for regional breweries. HenHouse of Santa Rosa, Cooperage Brewing Co. of Santa Rosa, Sonoma Springs Brewing Co. of Sonoma and Barrel Brothers Brewing Co. of Windsor all use Criveller products to make beer. They are capitalizing on the strong “buy local” movement prevalent in Sonoma County, as well as the nearby customer service.
“It’s all about partnership … when we partner with Criveller. We know we’re going to get better service,” said Collin McDonnell, a co-owner of HenHouse. “Buying local is not just a moral decision. It’s nice to pay people locally who may come in and drink in your tasting room.”
Adam Spiegel, owner of Sonoma Distilling in Rohnert Park, also agreed with the benefits of going local with an equipment maker.
“We absolutely could have chosen a national or international vendor, but we want to grow with these folks and love that we started with them as an importer for my Spanish alembic stills, then they sold me a tank or two and this was great to grow the relationship,” Spiegel said in an email.
Criveller has gained recognition against rival brewery manufacturers from Germany, Italy and the Czech Republic — countries that have traditionally been noted as making the best brewing systems. Fifteen years ago, American-made equipment would not have been on the radar for breweries around the world. The company’s recent plaudits are important because Criveller does global projects in Asia, Europe, Central America and South America.
It has led to prospects in England, who never would have noticed Criveller, now calling the company, said Criveller, the West Coast operations leader.
Yet, globalization also poses problems and challenges. The Healdsburg company kept losing orders to Chinese manufacturers that could make products at a lower cost. Such news could be about any U.S. factory sector.
The company went to China and found a manufacturer that could produce fermenters and tanks for Criveller based on its own designs. For customers who wanted a lower-cost option, Criveller now had one, while the company continued to make its American-made systems.
“We will customize with our provider in China,” Criveller said. “People have the idea that custom means expensive … but with a custom brewhouse, the prices were the exact same for an off-the-shelf system.”
The beverage systems and equipment company represents a microcosm of the current state of the drinks business as large enterprises seek to leverage new segments poised for growth. This has happened locally as Revive Kombucha of Petaluma was sold to Peet’s Coffee and Lagunitas Brewing Co. of Petaluma forged a partnership with CannaCraft of Santa Rosa to produce a cannabis-infused tonic drink sold only at licensed dispensaries. Criveller intends to ride the wave along with them.
“Whenever there is something new and exciting coming up, there’s always competitors who can say I will do it better. Some people succeed and some people fail,” Criveller said.
Wineries have reached out to the company to inquire about cannabis- infusion equipment, he said, though the company has not made any specific systems for the sector.
“On cannabis, we are hearing it a lot more. Can you do this? Can you do that, can you do this? That’s why we have this feeling that’s coming about,” Criveller said.
Cold-brew coffee is another growing market and it requires large storage tanks and a specialized brewing process. Those firms that are ramping up their cold-brew projects are very secretive, he said.
Customers in the cold coffee market want Criveller to sign nondisclosure agreements in order to do business, he said.
Explaining the secrecy, “the way they are making the cold brew and the way they are extracting, it is all a little different,” he said.
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Still, given the company’s four decades of experience, the alcohol beverage sector appears stable, Criveller said.
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