The year: 2002. The place: The Craft Brewers Conference in Cleveland, Ohio.
“One of the guys came by our booth and said that’s got to be the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard and walked on,” recalls Jamie Gordon, head of technical sales at canning equipment supplier Cask Brewing Systems. The idea to which Gordon is referring is putting craft beer in cans. It was unheard of just 10 years ago. But 2002 was also the year Oskar Blues Brewing decided to take Calgary, Canada-based Cask up on its offer and started what the brewery calls the “Canned Beer Apocalypse.”
Cask offers both manual and automated systems, the latter of which can fill and seam up to 30 or so cans per minute. “We started with a small manual system—manual to the extreme—filling two cans at a time and loading them on to a seamer,” Gordon says. “We still offer that now, but it’s a much improved system now than the one we were offering in 2002.”
Cask discontinued its original seamer when the company realized the demand for canning systems in the segment was going to be much greater than it had initially anticipated. “The volumes were going to be bigger so we needed something more robust,” he says. “So in 2004 we started to build some much better seamers. And that’s the basic package. Any brewer, no matter how small, can start by buying that.”
By the time Oskar Blues outgrew its initial canning system it was using its manual filler 24 hours a day on three separate shifts and it came time for Cask to offer something to suit brewers that were graduating from micro- to regional status. That’s when the company’s five-head filler came into play. “It’s been through a lot of iterations since then—improved reliability, lower maintenance and that sort of thing—but it’s still the same basic setup that we built for Dale,” says Gordon.
Oskar Blues has since grown well beyond that. It recently installed a 30-valve KHS filler that can fill 280 to 300 cans a minute.
i>Beverage World last month visited Washington, D.C. brewery DC Brau, which got up and running in spring 2011 and started canning about three months later with a five-head Cask filler that it bought used. CEO Brandon Skall and president Jeff Hancock pondered the choice between a two-head manual and a five-head automated system and decided that the two-head would create a bottleneck in their operation, on track to produce 5,000 barrels this year.
“[A manual, two-head filler] is kind of like canning on a home brew level,” says Hancock. “The best those can do by hand, if you’re really flying, is maybe a 12-pack a minute. Our unit does 30 cans a minute when it’s running optimally.”
DC Brau’s canning system runs most effectively with three people working on it: One operates the machine itself, restocking the lids and ensuring that the pneumatics are always working properly. The second person collects and weighs each can, as DC Brau does not have a low-fill sensor, and then puts them in a cardboard case. The third person manually puts six-pack rings on the cans.
Cask Systems may have gotten an early foothold in craft a decade ago but it’s far from being the only game in town. One of the busiest booths at the Brew Expo America component of May’s Craft Brewers Conference in San Diego was Boulder, Colo.-based Wild Goose Engineering, which turned its attention to small brewer can systems when it outfitted nearby Upslope Brewing Co. with its first line a couple of years ago. “For our system, we’ve got an extraordinarily small footprint and a number of price points that we can match,” says Alexis Foreman, VP of Wild Goose. “We can do anything from a small manual canning system, all the way up to dual lines, putting out 70 a minute.”
Foreman says he expects the craft canning movement to continue to gain steam as it moves into its second decade. “I see nothing but up with it,” predicts Foreman. “The perception that cans are a second-rate package, that they make beer taste bad and all the things we’ve heard about them, those myths are now gone.”