*Originally written by Carson McDonald who quit
Have you ever visited Iron Horse Brewery’s production facility? Have you ever contemplated the intricacies of how exactly the beer you know and love is brewed, packaged, and distributed? Do you care? Well, you are reading this, so maybe you are at least interested. Production brewing is a combination of science and efficiency, consisting of a lot of people working very hard, doing some not so glamorous tasks on a regular basis to make sure your thirsty face is never left wanting. I am a member of the packaging team here at IHB. That means that myself, and a few others are responsible for getting Iron Horse beer into 22oz bottles, cans, and kegs. There are different machines for these three packages. The purpose of this blog is to enlighten you, the consumer, and for me, the grunt, to vent about what a pain in the ass these machines can be, and maybe, just maybe, give you a little appreciation for where your next beer comes from.
For the sake of your enjoyment and my sanity I am only going to dive into one machine today. There may be rambling, but I promise I will walk you through the entire process of putting beer into a can. So, without further ado, lets get started.
About four months ago we welcomed a new member to out humble little brewery. She didn’t have a name, so we gave her one. Stacy. Stacy was stunning. She had a stainless steel frame, shining, and beautiful. She had 10 sparkling fill heads, and she came equipped with a user-friendly 16oz can conversion. She was like something out of a dream. Her seamer motors had been painted Corvette red, and table legs an electric blue. When she arrived, we were awestruck. Everybody loved Stacy.
Fast-forward a couple months. The shiny canner we once knew and loved has turned into a packaging emotional roller coaster. Stacy and I have gotten intimately familiar through various breakdowns and deep cleanings; we know what makes each other tick, and how to tick each other off. Stacy requires A LOT of attention. If you give it to her she will make your packaging day a dream, but beware, anything less and she will send you the cold should faster than you can say hefewiezen.
By now you should have a mental picture of what we are working with, at least aesthetically, and if you don’t I guess just picture a big piece of metal with a lot of moving parts and beer flying everywhere. Anyway, lets dive in to how she works, and why she often doesn’t.
12oz cans, which you buy in 6-packs, we purchase by the pallet. There are exactly 8,123 cans per pallet, which end up stacking about 9 feet tall. Pallets of cans are delivered to us here at the brewery by the truckload. Seriously, like pallets on pallets on pallets. When we go to package beer in cans we have to load a pallet of cans into this thing called a depalitizer. This device pushes cans row by row into a chute, which leads them to a belt, which feeds them into the fill heads. I mentioned I was going to vent a little, right? Well, this “depal” as we call it, is almost as temperamental as the canner itself. You see, the stack of cans raises on a lift controlled by cables, so it can get unbalanced and cans will tip over and get stuck, or wedge themselves for no apparent reason. Picture too many people try to fit through a doorway at one time, but with beer cans. Because the depalitizer is so stinking tall and cans jam up top or in the top of the chute, we are constantly going up and down ladders, kind of like a fireman, but you know, not. Anyway, cans get fed into the chute and eventually make their way to the fill heads.
The fill heads and their pusher arm is the next area to troubleshoot when Stacy is on the fritz. Stacy has been a huge improvement with her 10 fill-heads compared to the last canner, which had five. According to the math we’ve doubled our canning capacity. Remember how I mentioned the depalatizer knocks cans over? Occasionally the wonky cans make there way down through the shoot and into the fill heads, if you don’t catch the downed or upside-down can fast enough the fill heads come down and crush cans making a huge mess. The pusher arm which feeds the next row of cans is on a sensor and can’t tell when cans are out of position right away so before you know it crushed cans are everywhere and everyone is upset.
Filled cans are pushed forward (pusher arm) and then go through a lid dispenser (which misses lids all the time), and then to the seamers.
Seamers have been the biggest headache to date. I suppose they are more like a migraine than a standard headache. The issues have been so persistent that just when you think you are in the clear, BAM. Migraine. There is not enough space in this blog, or patience in my body to detail how and why different pieces of the seamer motors fail. What you should know is that there are two pusher arms, two seamer motors, two lid tappers, two seamer tables, and four seamer arms, all within a three square foot space. A lot of these pieces are electronic, and others are pneumatic, beer can be pretty hard on both of these components. Cans come through full of beer, with a lid laid on top, and are then seamed and pushed out onto another belt. Sounds simple, but I have nightmares about the seamer motors.
Okay so the beer has been seamed and has almost completed its beautiful journey to drinkability. Next the beers are fed on a belt through a rinser, and then blasted with compressed air to remove any excess moisture. Want to know what my job description is? I wear earplugs for eight hours a day. The air knife, which dries the cans, operates at 40psi and sounds like a jet breaking the sound barrier. Oh another fun thing, should a beer somehow make it through the seamers unnoticed without a lid (which happens more often than you would expect) it gets the full air knife treatment. What do you get when you introduce a beer without a lid to a concentrated 40psi air blast? Self-explanatory.
Almost done. The last machine before your cute little 6-pack is ready to ship is our Pak-Tech. This machine rolls on a piece of plastic, or “pak-tech,” that keeps all of your beers together. This machine actually works great. Okay by great I mean better than the rest of the canner. This machine doesn’t really break down (knock on wood), but it is dumb in the sense that it will roll a pak-tech over whatever can comes though the feeder. Sometimes we don’t spot reject cans right away. Sometimes we are daydreaming, or really into the music that is playing. Sometimes cans get filled, then missed with a lid, make it through the seamer without a lid, go unseen spewing beer in the air knife, and then they get included in the 6-pack and rolled through the pak-tech. This is kind of the final slap in the face. When the 6-pack is done it is spit out and then it slides down to the packaging technician (me) who loads it into a case (four 6-packs per case) and then onto a pallet (100 cases per pallet). When that one lucky beer makes it through all of these processes without a lid on it, it slides toward me and you guessed it, spills everywhere, covering me, and my workstation in beer.
There you have it. 1,304 words complaining about spilling beer and machines jamming, about crushed cans and loud noises. I hope it was enlightening. The next time you crack open that chilled IHB adult beverage, give thanks to Stacy, and pour a little out for your guys and girls in packaging. Thank you, and [ you’re welcome ].