By Peter Love
founder & president, Cask Brewing Systems
The concept of micro-canning for small-batch beer was invented in 1999 by Cask Brewing Systems. The company’s first customers were brew-on-premise places in Australia, the United States and Canada. The excitement for cans among these homebrewers was a revelation and prompted them to consider that craft beer consumers would share that excitement for cans. In 2002 the invention was showcased to US craft brewers for the first time at the annual Craft Brewers Conference, and the micro-canning era of craft beer began.
Fifteen years later, canned craft beer is the hottest-selling craft beer package in America and has spread across the world. Cask Brewing Systems have placed over 825 of our micro-canning systems in almost 50 countries around the globe along with a number of additional companies that have also begun providing micro-canning systems for craft beer makers. Considering a move into metal for your liquid art? To help Australian brewers make a wise purchase, here’s a quick checklist of things to consider when shopping for a canning system.
One of the greatest benefits of a well-made and properly engineered micro-canning system is the extremely low level of oxygen pickup they deliver in packaged beer. Fill technology plays a crucial role in achieving those low dissolved oxygen levels. Find out what your potential machine’s features are for purging cans of ambient air prior to filling cans. A dose of under-lid CO2 prior to the lid being placed on the can is also crucial. Is under-lid gassing a feature on the machine you are considering? Foam creation when filling — to create a layer of protective foam prior to lid placement– is also a must for achieving a low level of oxygen pickup.
Include important questions in your research. Can the creation of foam be adjusted at each can? Can each fill valve and fill head be individually adjusted via the system’s touchscreen panel? To dial in foam levels, does the system use a valve actuation timer with milli-second accuracy, or a less precise pinch valve? Does the system have the ability to fine-tune and synchronize all of these measures to ensure dissolved oxygen pickup of less than 15 – 20 parts per billion? Without these features, brewers can end up with oxidized packaged beer with poor stability and limited shelf life. That beer negates the benefits of canning and reflects poorly on the brewery and the craft beer industry as a whole.
Seaming Technology & Monitoring
How a canning machine tackles seaming is vitally important. Improper seams result in leaking cans, loss of carbonation and product loss. Pneumatic seamers were some of the first micro-canning setups and have proven to be very effective. But today electric cam-driven seamers are considered a more reliable seaming method. Their marginal cost increase versus pneumatic seamers is more than offset by the benefits – they are easy to set up, simple to adjust, maintain their settings longer, and provide fast, reliable and efficient seaming. This electric cam-driven method applies a more consistent force during seam formation, increasing seam integrity without the risk of problems that can arise from an inconsistent air-pressure supply and pneumatic seamers.
Thorough monitoring of seams during the canning process is also essential. Make sure your machine supplier provides thorough training and tools for maintaining seam quality and monitoring. To supplement onsite training, Cask has published a can seam measurement training video for the micro-canning community. We recommend a complete seam tear down and evaluation before each production run, along with seam width and height checks each hour. For systems running 30-80 cans/minute, checking seam width and height with every layer of filled cans is recommended. These steps ensure proper seams and can avoid minor and sometimes significant product loss caused by out-of-spec seams.
Flexibility of can size
Over the past two years, the most frequent request we get from brewers is for a machine that fills a variety of can sizes. We invented our new Micro-Automatic Canning System (mACS) in response to those demands. It is the first micro-canning system on the market that can fill a variety of both can heights and body diameters, and it can be changed over to a different can in less than 30 minutes.
Why is it important? In more mature craft beer markets, the ability to provide a variety of can sizes helps craft brewers create points of differentiation and new sales opportunities. A machine that fills a variety of can sizes allows brewers to create new revenue streams via packaging choices for their beers. That flexibility also creates opportunities for brewers to launch new products other than beer, and carry out co-packing programs for makers of cider, kombucha, cold-brewed coffee and other craft drinks.
Used Versus New
Micro-canning brewers are enjoying hearty growth. As these small startups grow into larger operations, the secondary market for used micro-canning lines has also grown. Some brewers like the appeal of a slightly lower cost and a shorter delivery time that can come from buying a used canning system. But these benefits can be outweighed by the pluses of a new machine: the latest technology, a machine with no bad history or equipment abuse, and a warranty and the peace of mind that comes with it.
The lower price of a secondhand machine must also be weighed against the time and expense that comes with a recommissioning process, a step we highly recommend with used canning equipment. If you are considering a used machine, find out if the manufacturer provides a recommissioning service (so the machine is as close to new as possible) and thorough training. In our years of micro-canning, we’ve found that brewers overwhelmingly prefer new canning lines. They like the features and confidence they provide, and the higher resale price they deliver if the brewery needs a larger-scale canning system in the future.
Service & Support
Of all of these tips, efficient service and support may be the most important. Issues that interrupt canning runs or take a machine completely out of production can be very costly. To make sure you’re choosing the right canning system supplier, get details on the track record of service from your potential canning machine supplier. Get fresh references from current customers, in your region, that verify that record. Find out the average time it takes to get on-site and online technical help, and the average response time for technical help by phone.
Ask key questions, too. How many dedicated service technicians does your system supplier have? Do they have a centralized support department with a single point of contact, to make it easy for you to get the answers you need? What on-site setup and training does the supplier provided and who pays for it? How long does it take to get replacement parts? Good answers to these questions can save you a great deal of headaches, downtime, and product loss once your machine is up and running.
Following all of the tips provided here can ensure that your bold move to the mighty aluminum can is a metal-winning process, one that boosts your brewery’s sales, beer quality, bottom line and fun.
Article Sponsored by: Cask Global Canning Solutions