Quality control practices and protocol
By: Jake Weesner - Codi Field Technician
When I hear the word quality, the first things that come to mind are a smattering of various manufactured goods: A Toyota pickup from the 90’s, a Snap-On socket set, a Nokia brick phone, a pair of Dickies work pants, or a man with a mullet giving dive bar suggestions. Quality stands the test of time, all the while retaining that same standard of integrity throughout its lifespan.
When we are canning beer, or wine, or seltzer, or THC soda, we are manufacturing a product that after leaving our facility has very little care given to it. Distributor delivery truck drivers that jump the curb in a box truck, pallets left out of the cold box for a few days in July, cases getting thrown around all over the place by liquor stores. Cans going hot-cold hot-cold hot-cold! Even the customer putting the 4 pack in their trunk and forgetting about it for a few days. Because of this, before that product leaves our building, we have no choice but to be 100% on point when it comes to quality control. Quality control isn’t ripping a 10 oz pour out of a bright tank at 7 am for a little “hair of the dog”, as necessary as that is sometimes. QC is a practice that has no choice but to be strict, adhered to, and for all accounts and purposes, downright monotonous. You want the process to be tedious, and when all is according to plan, will show the same result every time. When we see a different result, that’s when we assess and make the adjustments necessary to get back into spec or improve.
When standard QC practice is followed regularly, at the very least, we earn ourselves some good old peace of mind. This peace of mind is priceless in a market where the customer is growing increasingly more educated on off flavors, and overall craft canning practices. Even beyond that, we owe it to ourselves to do the best job we can. So, what does standard QC protocol look like? What processes should I institute into my packaging schedule?
Take for instance Dragoon Brewing, a solid brewery in Tucson Arizona running a 6 head Codi filler. Operations manager Carl Case is making the QC decisions and leading his packaging team toward the highest possible product they can offer. I met Carl in February of 2021 when I traveled out to do their week of startup training after they purchased their new line. What instantly struck me when I got there was how thorough their packaging hall ran. They were one of the most efficient teams I’ve had the pleasure of working with. I would watch as through the run, every hour the team would rotate from filler to QC table, QC table to pack out, and so on. Every hour they were taking multiple DO readings, as well as seam checks. Any small change to the finished cans was caught within minutes and their team was able to asses, make any necessary changes, and continue canning.
Carl and his team, have the right mindset when it comes to QC protocol. Every run, they are observant, in tune, and are able to trust the product leaving the building because they put the time into the process from start to finish. With the consistent checks in place, they are able to catch the smallest variable well ahead of time. The slightest change in seam integrity is noticed long before it will become a legitimate issue. Any rise in DO can instantaneously prompt the operator to make the run parameter changes to dial foam back in.
True quality control in place for the product leaving your facility ensures 2 main points: Seam integrity is within spec, and the product inside will uphold a stable shelf life.
Seam integrity is the first point to be made here. A general guideline when it comes to checking seams would be to test the full seam of a can once every pallet. If you’re running 12 oz cans, that would be around every 100 cases, and with 16 oz cans around every 80 cases. As I mentioned before, QC is supposed to be monotonous, it should be boring, even annoying at times. The goal of this process is that every single can measures the exact same. Variability is what we don’t want to see. There are times an operator will go months without checking a single seam, only to have a pallet turn up with leaking cans that wasn’t caught until well after the fact. Now we have all hands on deck going through every pallet of beer in the cold box, looking for signs of leaking cans which can take days on end to do, not to mention the worry that leakers already left the building. Spending the few minutes it takes to tear down a can during the run is crucial to the process and saves a significant amount heartache in the long run. Seam check machines like those made by CMC Kunke are worth their weight in gold and make the process significantly more efficient. That being said, you do not absolutely need one, the process can be done manually. If you are unsure how to tear down a can manually, take a look at this video below to see the process.
The easiest seam test in the world is the good old hot water test, sometimes referred to as the poor man's seam check, which doesn't make a ton of sense seeing as how the general poor man probably doesn't have an HLT, but whatever. The hot water test goes like this; 10 or 15 cycles into your run, once the temperature of the product has come down, take a couple finished cans right out of the seamer, shake the bejeebus out of them and toss them into a bucket full of HLT or on demand hot water. What we are trying to accomplish is once the product expands inside the can, is there anywhere for the gasses to escape. As a side note, do be careful, they have the possibility of popping, so don't stand over the top of it staring down. I've been standing near the bucket many times when a can decides to pop, scares the socks off you! What we want to see is the can itself fail, not the seam. If your seams are on point, most often the side of the can will split, or the tab will pop, but that seam holds strong! If we do have potentially bad seams, very soon after the can is in the bucket, we're gonna see a steady flow of bubbles rising to the surface from under the seam. A pasteurizer will accomplish the same thing, those are just a little more expensive than a bucket of hot water. At this point we need to stop and assess the root cause of the leak.
Shelf life testing is its own animal all together. Ensuring longevity of shelf life is done during the filling process; capping on foam, DO mitigation, etc. Not every facility has the components to be able to pierce a can during a run to check for dissolved oxygen. Not all facilities have a lab where they can incubate cans and do all sorts of science stuff. So how do we test the outcome of our cans? Temperature storage is where it’s at! All throughout a brewery or really any packaging facility, there are areas that we can use to our advantage for this process. At the end of a run, grab 6 cans and split the cans up into different storage areas to gauge your timeline:
-Take 2 cans and store them on a shelf next to the boiler in the brew house or somewhere equally as hot. This replicates a year shelf life in a short time.
-Place 2 cans in a dark area like a barrel room or a dusty old cabinet that doesn't vary all too far from room temp. This is a semi rushed shelf test, not perfect double time but close.
-Another 2 cans go on a QC shelf in the cold box. This is the stable test, more so our control group.
What this process is accomplishing is running the full gamete of all the various storage variables for your product. At the 1 month mark, taking a can from each of the 3 locations and blind taste test side by side. Once again at the 3 month mark tasting side by side the remaining 3 cans. When you are staying consistent with this type of shelf life testing, not only will your team become more aware of the product they run, but the effects of how they are treating the product itself. A great small test to do for your team is stash a can that had perfect foam on the way to the seamer, then stash a can that sat on the belt till the foam completely died down before seaming. If you taste them side by side after only a couple weeks, your staff will realize very quickly how crucial the process is when it comes to product integrity and quality control.
I've been to facilities before that have the mindset that "our cans don't sit on shelves long enough for that to matter", or "we tell our customers to drink it fresh, it even says it on the label". That may sound fine in the moment, especially from this side of the process, but customers could not care less about suggestions for the products they purchase. Case and point, I don't know what family is splitting the boxes of shells and cheese I can absolutely house in one sitting. Beer is purchased, placed in the fridge, and at times, completely forgotten. What better marketing than someone opening a can they forgot they had 6 months later and being pleasantly surprised by the fact that it still tastes just as good now as it did on release day! Shelf life stability is not a moving target, it is a defined protocol with strict adherence.
This is once again the point in the blog post when I make the statement "as long as you care, you'll be OK", and here we are, once again with that same sentiment. I understand that tearing down cans is boring, it eats up time we feel could be better suited elsewhere. My hope for everyone out there is that we shift that mindset to the fact that checking seams, or staying on top of our product shelf life is significantly important. The behind the scenes work you put into the canning process is what sets your product apart from the rest! It's not the 3 extra dry hops, or the new crazy flavor you released. It's not the sick label or the funny date code. It's the fact that when you have consistent quality assurance practices built into your packaging run, the product stays as consistent as possible.
Ask any old guy out there that's been drinking exclusively High Life bottles for the last 40 years, he will tell you, he doesn't even try anything else because the level of consistency is unmatched... or he's just a stubborn old bear but my point still remains! Every single bottle he opens is going to taste exactly the same, and has for as long as he can remember. The goal is perfection on the canning line, but the only way to get there is by setting quality control practices in stone, and staying consistent with them. If you would like to know more about QC practices and what steps you can take toward the highest possible outcome for your canning line, please reach out to the Codi Service team at Service@Codimfg.com and we will do everything in our power to help you get where you want to be! Packaging for life, forklift certified, that’s what’s up!