Choosing a Filling Machine for Your Brewery
By: Alyssa L. Ochs
Largely due to pandemic-related brewery closures and limits for on-site consumption, the popularity of to-go packaging is at an all-time high. Cans offer a portable and recyclable way to consume craft beer when draft pours aren’t an option. Meanwhile, bottles remain a classic choice preferred by some brewers and consumers because of their ability to protect against light for optimal flavor and freshness. Also, there’s just something refreshingly classic about sipping a cold brew from a frosty bottle.
Since to-go package sales aren’t expected to decline anytime soon, it’s a good idea to keep up with the latest filling machine technology in case a new installation or upgrade is necessary.
Types of Bottle Filling Machines
There are several types of bottling machines used by breweries today with both manual and automatic functions. Modern machines serve multiple purposes within the brewery to save space and offer both continuity and efficiency. For example, specialized machines handle rinsing, filling and capping all within one system.
Tandem fillers usually fill one to eight bottles of beer at a time and are small machines that use long filling tubes. Rotary fillers are high-speed machines that utilize a rotary system and offer greater capacity. Semi-automatic rinser/filler/corker/cager machines are often used for bottle-conditioned beers. Also, isobaric manual beer bottling machines come in different configurations for rinsing bottles and sorting them.
Popular Can Filling Machines
From Pneumatic Scale Angelus, a Barry-Wehmiller Packaging Company, Mike Davis, Global Product Line Leader of can filling, and Mark Pirog, Director of Seamer Sales, told Beverage Master Magazine about several can filling machines commonly used by craft breweries. Pneumatic Scale Angelus is one of nine operating companies within the Barry-Wehmiller family, a form/fill/seal technologies and services leader that has served various industries for over 100 years.
The CB50F is an open-air – known as atmospheric – integrated filler/seamer for production speeds up to 50 cans per minute.
Davis and Pirog said that this canning line is ideal for craft brewers entering into packaging cans or who have been mobile canning and are ready to invest in a canning line that offers the autonomy of canning on its own schedule. They also said additional upstream and downstream equipment, such as an accumulating table or palletizer, can be purchased and phased in later as desired
The company’s CB100F model (shown above) is an open-air integrated filler/seamer canning line for production speeds up to 100 CPM.
“This machine is designed for the craft brewer looking to expand production from the entry-level, or who has been mobile canning on a regular basis and wants to see a greater ROI on canning expense,” said Davis and Pirog. “This canning line is best coupled with automated upstream and downstream equipment to accommodate the faster speeds. This line comes standard with a buffer tank to help manage product feed from bright tanks.”
The newest member of PSA’s portfolio, the CB50C (shown above), is a counter-pressure integrated filler/seamer canning line for production speeds up to 50 CPM. With this model, true counter-pressure filling allows craft beverage producers to run a variety of products ranging from still to highly-carbonated and even including nitrogenated beverages in widget cans.
“Flexibility of the fill sequence also provides a means to control or mitigate dissolved oxygen for oxidation-sensitive products, like beer,” said Davis and Pirog. “An optional product supply pump is available for maintaining product pressure at filler without compromising limits at the bright tank.”
All three PSA canning lines incorporate sanitary design standards throughout the product path. Each delivers standard features that include CO2 flood purging before filling, a gassing tunnel, and undercover gassing to reduce oxygen pick up. Davis and Pirog said that flow meters are standard and will withstand clean-in-place temperatures up to 180 degrees Fahrenheit. All the machines will accommodate the various standard can sizes, including sleek and slim varieties.
How Bottle Filling Works and Comparing Machines
The process of filling beer bottles generally works by moving the bottles along a conveyor belt. Part of the process involves keeping the vessel safe with a separating device and situating it on a lifting platform underneath the filling component.
A brewery employee begins the process by removing the bottles from the pallet, rinsing them and controlling the amount of oxygen that gets into them before filling. The bottles are then automatically filled by the machine. Once filled, they run through a capping machine to seal them. The final step involves applying labels manually or through a labeler before transferring bottles to cartons or crates for sale in the brewery or for transport to a distributor.
Small to mid-size breweries generally look for bottle filling machines that fill between 700 and 4,000 bottles per hour. For breweries that are mid-size to large, choosing a machine with a 4,000 to 12,000 bottle per hour capacity is recommended.
There are some important differences between bottle filling machines. Some bottling systems come with “dummy bottles” and spray balls for cleaning. Some machines fill kegs in addition to bottles. Others have canning add-on kits available if the brewery currently serves beer in both bottles and cans or plans to in the future.
Brewers should choose filling machines made with high-grade stainless steel and that perhaps come on lockable wheels for easy maneuverability if necessary. Other features to look for when comparing models include ease of cleaning, a user-friendly control panel, filling cycle speed, remote operation capabilities and easy changeover from bottles to cans.
Modern Can Filling Technologies and Differences
Davis and Pirog said there are two basic filling technologies within the craft beverage canning market – open-air and counter pressure – and there are variances among suppliers for each technology.
Open-air filling is the primary technology for linear fillers in which product carbonation is not that high, typically less than 2.7 vols. The main differences between open-air fillers lie in how the particular equipment purges the can of oxygen, controls foaming and measures the amount of product dispensed.
“In beer filling, oxygen content must be minimized, so full and complete purging prior to filling is key,” said Davis and Pirog. “Product foaming or breakout can lead to inaccurate fill volumes and carbonation loss. Open-air fillers usually incorporate some kind of restriction to create a gentle fill but are susceptible to product temperature.”
If the product is not cold enough or maintained, breakout can easily occur with open-air filling. To measure the fill, brewers can use level sensing, time-pressure or a flow meter.
Counter-pressure filling is typically used on rotary-style fillers, but some linear fillers also use this technology. Davis and Pirog said the main difference between these machines’ suppliers is how the product feeds into the pressurized can and the method for measuring the amount dispensed. For example, some counter-pressure fillers use the same product feed process used in open-air filling: either using the bright tank pressure or a buffer tank to push the product up through the filler and into the container.
“Counter-pressure filling is typically used for products that are highly carbonated, so gentle filling is just as important as pressurizing the container,” said Davis and Pirog. “PSA incorporates true counter-pressure filling like that used on the highest production beverage packaging lines. The can is pressurized to the equivalent pressure of the filler bowl, and the product is allowed to fill the can by gravity. By doing so, carbonation levels are controlled, and temperature is less of a factor. Similar to open-air filling, fill measurement can be by level, time-pressure or flow meter, and PSA has standardized on flow meter filling.”
Brewers looking for a new or upgraded canning line should consider how containers will be sealed. Quality seams are critical for package integrity and product freshness in canning, and there are many seaming machines on the market. Bending and folding metal to create a seal may sound simple enough, but repeatedly creating a high-quality hermetic seal is more complex than it seems.
“Some suppliers use pneumatics or servo actuators to perform the seaming operations,” said Davis and Pirog. “At PSA, our machines are designed for the slower-speed needs of the craft market and use the same mechanical cam technology used on our high-speed seaming machines. In other words, the same technology that the largest beverage manufacturers use to seam thousands of cans per minute has been tailored for the production needs of the craft market.”
Expert Advice About Bottle and Can Filling Machines
Bottle filling machines are a vital part of the packaging process for many breweries today, so it’s essential to look at the big picture of beer filling, conveying, bottling, cleaning and labeling. When choosing a new machine, consider long tube fillers over short tubes for their affordability and purging oxygen.
Sanitation is always a concern for keeping bottles clean and bacteria-free. Brewers must understand what output speed means and how that correlates to the brewery’s needs, so they don’t invest in a higher output machine than necessary. Meanwhile, used equipment may be available and provide significant cost savings, as long as it has been well-maintained and is in good working condition.
Whether bottles or cans, Davis and Pirog recommend looking for quality and flexibility. A filling line is a major investment and will require many years of reliable service. They suggest considering the beverages being packaged today and what may be coming in the future to make sure the filling line can accommodate a growing portfolio.
“And finally, breweries should invest in quality equipment that not only fills accurately and seams precisely but also allows them to utilize every can and lid, so they don’t waste materials,” said Davis and Pirog. “If the pandemic has offered any lessons, it’s that having the means to get your product into the hands of your customers is critical and investing in a canning line is a great way to do that!”