The Italian Stallion
Packaging Manager Mark Graves is downright giddy.
He’s not a man to whom you’d often apply such an adjective — packaging beer is serious business (said no one ever) — but when he has the biggest, shiniest new toy in the place, his giddiness is infectious.
If you had a big, shiny, new canning line, you’d be giddy, too.
“As soon as I got into the position as Packaging Manager, it seemed that we were pretty inefficient,” Mark explains. “It was taking us way too long to package the amount of beer that we wanted.”
So, we started shopping around for a new canning line. Ryan and Mark flew to Vermont back in December: Lawson’s Finest Liquids in Waitsfield has the line we were looking at, and we wanted to check it out and get their opinion on it.
Needless to say, we were impressed.
“Lawson’s said that they had their normal checks,” Mark says, “and they say the thing’s just consistent. It just runs. They’ve gotten to the point to where they can trust that a can filled at the beginning of the run is exactly the same as a can at the end.”
So… we went all in.
Right off the boat from Italy, the CFT Microbrew — or the “Italian Stallion”, as we’re calling it (no worries, Sly Stallone gave us his blessing) — is, to say the least, a bit faster than our current setup. Our old line maxed out at about 40 cans-per-minute, whereas the new CFT line can pop out up to 100 cans-per-minute.
Much of its quickness is due to the rotary-style filler. Our old line had four fill heads in a row: the CFT has a gigantic wheel with ten fill heads.
“The ten fill heads constantly spin around,” Mark says. “The cans come in, they go onto a cylinder that picks it up, evacuates it of oxygen, and fills it with beer from the bottom up. Then it gives it a little shot of CO2 before it drops it into the double seamer. It has two seamers that just keep spinning, and then it shoots out the can. Then it’s rinsed, dried, and date-coded.”
By nature, less oxygen is allowed into the can, which will create a longer shelf life for our beers. That’s not to say that we were getting bad numbers before. Through education and practice, Mark and his team have worked really hard to get the oxygen levels as low as possible, but there was still room for improvement.
“We got the old line down to the promised levels of the new one, but one of the big downfalls of the old machine was that it was inconsistent,” he tells us.
Generally speaking, you want all of the fill heads to be doing the same thing throughout the canning run — always adding the proper amount of liquid, always allowing the same minimal amount of oxygen into the can, always doing the same thing every time.
However, like any mechanical thing, wear and tear rears its ugly head over time, slowly needling away at consistency.
“You could pull a can off fill head 4 one time, see that it’s fine, and then thirty seconds later, pull off the same one and get a slightly different reading,” he explains. “It was hard to track, hard to pinpoint, hard to improve upon, because it was like throwing a dart at a dartboard while spinning around on one leg and wearing a blindfold.”
While that sounds like a lot of fun — though dangerous for spectators — it’s not exactly what you want when you’re trying to package beer.
Another big improvement over our previous line is that, with the new system, all of the components are actually in line. Think about our Tasting Room exclusive beers like Maybe She’s Brewed with It: they’re essentially 16-ounce cans wrapped with a label.
“Normally, we have two to three guys running the old line,” Mark explains. “When we have a labeling day, we need four to five because the labeler’s not in line.”
To do a run like that, there’s one person at the beginning of the line whose job it is to move a labeled can from its exit from the labeler and place it in line to be filled. Dude sits there all day, moving his hand three inches, over and over and over and over and….
Then, once it’s gone through the labeler, it goes through the filler and seamer. When it’s done, it’s up to another person to pick up those finished cans and move them over to the person putting on the PakTechs — the colorful plastic holders keeping our 4- and 6-packs together.
“Now, everything’s in line,” Mark tells us. “So, the cans come off the pallet, they go right into the rinser, then to the filler, it seams them up, labels the can, puts it in an auto PakTeching machine, so these guys are just gonna be there with a catcher’s mitt.”
The system also has numerous safety features — failsafe upon failsafe upon failsafe.
“It has a lockout-tagout,” Mark explains. “The door has to be shut and you have to hit like three buttons before you can turn it on again. And it has a sensor in there so that if a broken can comes through the filler, it’ll detect it, shut off the filler, and you’ll hear an audible beeeep.”
In addition, it has a fancy-schmancy level detector to determine if it’s filled the correct amount.
“If it’s under twelve ounces or whatever, it has a little actuator and — psscht — punches the can off the line,” Mark says with increasing giddiness. “Which is funny! Until after about the first week, because then I’m just going to be pissed off.”
It’ll take some time to fine tune the line, and, as we do, there will likely be quite a few of those moments. Ideally, we’ll have everything up and running in the first week of June.
“But, knowing how projects like this can go,” Mark says, “maybe the second or third week of June.”
In the meantime, we’ll have dueling canning lines — the old line is still going to be canning off the majority of our beer while we fine-tune the Italian Stallion. It’s not as if we were flush with space to begin with, and once we get it installed, it’s going to be taking up a lot of room.
“It’s a project,” Mark says. “We’re getting a 10-ton forklift in to move the thing.”
Once we get the Italian Stallion installed, this will mean more beer with a greater consistency in quality.
“Growing up as we are as a company, we wanted to take a step up in our quality. I think this is a huge, huge step in that direction.”
And, really, that’s part of the reason we wanted to get something more efficient. With the amount of beer we’re churning out of this place on any given day, our Packaging team has been working their fingers to the bone. Now, their load is lightened a bit.
“It’ll improve their quality-of-life,” Mark says. “They’re running around like crazy, and it’s like… why? Why are we taking sixteen hours to do X number of cases, when we can make an investment in quality and they can go home at a reasonable hour.”
And have more time to enjoy the beer they work so hard to get to you.