Updated: Jul 14, 2021
With social distancing measures in place across the world, it is more important than ever for craft beverage producers to package their beverages for distribution. Less people are frequenting bars, restaurants, and taprooms but the craving for variety and desire to support local business is still strong. Now is the time for your business to adapt with a packaging solution.
There are a few different options for packaging your beverages for distribution. Cans offer versatility, sustainability, and portability and are a great option for beer, wine, cider, kombucha, seltzer, coffee, and spirits-based RTD’s. Enlisting a mobile canner, partnering with another producer to share a canning line, or purchasing your own system are all possibilities but it is important to take a few things into consideration before making your decision.
Quality is King
The features of a canning line can impact quality and yield. A quality canning line will make cleaning easy, minimize dissolved oxygen and product loss during filling, produce a quality seal, and be easily serviced when necessary. All the features must work together to produce a superior canned beverage. The absence of any element will prove to be detrimental and cost far more than you think beyond the equipment acquisition.
When considering a canning line, it is absolutely essential that it can standup to rigorous clean in place (CIP) procedures. CIP is a set of activities used to clean the piping and equipment in a process system without disassembling anything. There are 4 elements that are required to ensure a system is clean: Temperature, Action/Flow Rate, Chemicals, and Time. If any one of these is neglected, your canning line is not clean. The canner must be able to handle temperatures upwards of 60°C, be able to achieve higher flow rates, standup to caustic chemicals, and withstand harsh conditions for extended periods of time. Be sure the equipment you choose is CIP capable without proprietary chemicals and avoid aluminum components, otherwise you risk unexpected downtime due to premature equipment failure and contamination of the beverage you worked so hard to create.
There are two main types of fillers on the market for craft canners: Counter Pressure fillers and Open Atmosphere fillers.
Counter Pressure Fillers
-Creates a seal over the can and purges air before filling
-A pressure differential is used to force the liquid into the can
-Offers decreased DO levels because the liquid is not exposed to the air during filling
-Wider range of fill liquid temperature: -2.2°—10° C
-Wider range of fill carbonation: 0 — 4 volumes CO2
-Control fill rates and pressure release to reduce liquid loss
Open Atmosphere Fillers
-Can is open, exposing liquid to the atmosphere when filling
-Increased final DO levels because liquid is exposed to the air during filling
-Smaller range of fill liquid temperature: -2.2° — 0° C
-Smaller range of fill carbonation: 0 — 2.7 volumes CO2
-Product loss from over filling to attempt low DO pickup
The first thing to consider is what type of canner is best for your application. Are you concerned about DO levels adversely affecting flavors and shelf life? Are you canning a beverage with higher carbonation levels such as a seltzer or soda? Will you have trouble maintaining a near freezing fill temperature due to high ambient temperatures in your facility? Are you concerned about liquid loss? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you need a counter pressure filler. Counter pressure fillers are slightly more expensive but the return on investment is achieved faster with reduced liquid loss, longer shelf life, and a higher quality beverage as compared with open atmosphere fillers.
Buying a canning line is a large investment for a small brewery, so look at Total Cost when making your decision. Overfilling to achieve low DO is a huge hidden cost that can quickly change the ROI. Measuring overfill is a simple matter of weighing random samples of cans, converting the average overweight to volume, and then multiplying by the average $/ml based on your product price and the number of cans you’re producing. Overfilling can range anywhere from 1-5% of the advertised can volume in an open atmosphere filler. Even at modest volumes, the cost of overfilling can easily exceed $50,000 per year. Over 2-3 years, it can be almost as much as the can line itself. Below is an example for a small craft brewery producing just under 5,000 hL/year.
After the filler, cans enter the seamer where a lid is placed and the can is sealed. It is crucial that a good seam is achieved consistently to preserve the quality of your beverage. Seaming a can requires two operations. The first operation roll bends the lid over and under the lip of the can. The second operation roll pounds the metal into place. When considering a canning machine, look for an all mechanical seamer rather than a seamer powered by pneumatics. This ensures that critical seaming operations are the same every time leading to more consistent seals and lower air consumption. The speed of the seamer is also an important feature. The seamer must outpace the filler to minimize the amount of time the beverage is absorbing DO while exposed to the atmosphere. Finally, establishing a routine for checking the seams on cans every 45 minutes will help to catch any bad seams before distributing to the masses.
Last but not least, the machine you choose must be easily serviced. If you can’t get the support you need when your machine is down, it will cost you big money. Using a single supplier for all equipment will reduce both service and shipping costs. If the supplier is also the manufacturer that’s an added bonus. Check to see how many trained service techs the supplier has and whether they keep spare parts on hand for quick shipment. Many suppliers don’t manufacture their own parts which can turn a quick fix into a major headache if you have to wait for the part to be manufactured and then shipped.
If you are just starting out packaging and want to invest in a canning line, it would be wise to choose a system that can grow with your business. Talk to users of both counter-pressure fillers and open-atmosphere fillers to compare results. Many suppliers offer customizations that can improve efficiency, expand product offerings, and produce a cleaner end product. Be sure to ask the supplier what your options are for adding additional equipment down the road such as depalletizers, twist rinses, labelers, Pak Tech applicators, pasteurizers, warmers and additional conveying. A canning line is capable of significantly reducing labor costs, product loss, and can have a quick return on investment if you choose a well-made line that can grow with you.
Want to know more? Check out this article from ProBrewer.