How the Right Packaging Can Protect, Promote & Preserve Your Craft Beer
By: Cheryl Gray
Putting a distinctive face on a craft beer product means giving it a good chance to shine in the marketplace spotlight. However, that’s only part of the role of packaging. It should also protect craft beer from outside contamination while preserving its flavor integrity.
Enter the expertise of companies that shape the multiple roles of packaging for breweries. Among them is SKA Fabricating of Durango, Colorado. Founded in 2012, SKA Fabricating is the result of a demand for a can depalletizer designed by Matt Vincent, one of three partners in Durango’s award-winning SKA Brewery. SKA Fabricating now employs more than 70 people and manufactures and sells depalletizers, conveyors and packaging line equipment to businesses worldwide.
Ska Fabricating has more than 1,000 clients in 23 countries, providing them with depalletizers and other custom packaging line equipment. Beyond the craft beer industry, the company also provides packaging line equipment to producers of food and beverages such as coffee, tea, water, kombucha, soda and orange juice. Non-beverage industries include aerosol, paint cans and spice jars.
The size and capacity of systems built by SKA Fabricating fit virtually any brewery packaging line need. They range from a 20’ x 20’ square at 20 containers a minute to a 60’ x 60’ square running 250 CPM and above. The company is big on automated packaging line systems, touting them as more economical since automation requires less manpower. However, SKA Fabricating provides manual systems for clients who prefer them, such as start-up breweries on a tight budget. Those manual systems are available for half-height use and do require more personnel. As breweries grow and want to advance to automatic packaging systems, SKA Fabricating can help with the transition.
Another part of packaging is filling the cans and bottles that craft brewers use as containers for their products. XpressFill offers multiple fillers for the craft brewing industries. Rod Silver spearheads marketing and sales for the company.
“XpressFill’s filling equipment is suitable for breweries that are not ready to invest in a full-blown production line. Our artisan brewers can realize significant savings in their efforts to grow their markets before making such a significant investment.”
Since XpressFill offers fillers specifically with start-ups and smaller craft brewers in mind, the company promotes its products as the gateway to an opportunity for artisan brewers to run efficient, cost-saving packaging production lines. The company cites its products as top industry choices when it comes to being affordable, compact, user friendly and easy to maintain.
Silver added that customer support is an important key to client satisfaction and that XpressFill has products for production brewing lines, large and small. He described how brewery clients are already benefitting from the range of products that his company has on the market, all designed to optimize productivity.
“We offer counter-pressure fillers for both bottles and cans. We also offer an open filler that will fill both bottles and cans,” Silver said. “The XF4500C is a counter pressure system for cans capable of filling 200 12 ounce cans per hour. The XF2200 (two-spout) and XF4400 (four-spout) are open fill systems for cans capable of filling 300 to 600 cans per hour. The XF2200 and XF4400 can also be adapted to open fill bottles. The XF2500 (two-spout) and XF4500 (four-spout) are counter pressure systems for bottles capable of filling 200 to 400 12 ounce bottles per hour.”
Silver laid out the pros and cons of manual versus automated production lines. “The most obvious distinction is production capacity and cost. The XpressFill systems are affordable for start-up breweries, ranging from $2,500 to $6,500. Automated systems are, at a minimum order of magnitudes, more expensive. Often, brewpubs will provide cans or bottles to be sold at the pub in limited quantities. Brewers getting started in retailing their brews will want to start in a deliberate manner to test the market. Larger breweries will also use our fillers for small batch or specialized runs that do not require start-up of larger production facilities or mobile operators.”
Silver described how XpressFill works to protect the integrity of the beer inside any container. “All of our fillers have a pre-fill CO2 purge cycle to minimize the oxygen in the container prior to the fill cycle. Our can-fillers also have a post-fill top-off function to ensure an adequate layer of foam on which to place the lid. The counter pressure systems require a minimal air compressor to operate the pneumatic actuators. Our fillers operate at 110 volts, although they can be provided at 220 volts for our international customers.”
Ease of use is also important. Silver said that his company prides itself on the simple operation of its products.“XpressFill can-fillers can easily be operated by a single user. Weighing under 40 pounds, they are intended to be used on a tabletop for portability. A few test runs are required to dial in the settings and bring the equipment to temperature for best results. Our fillers will purge and fill the cans, and a separate seamer is required. To maximize the production and efficiency, many of our customers use a second operator for the seaming function.”
Silver said that XpressFill products have state-of-the-art safety features, compliant with industry-standard safety measures, including all applicable electrical and mechanical requirements. All materials in the flow path are food grade and meet the standards set by the National Sanitation Foundation.
Fillmore Packaging Solutions is another company focused on small craft brewers. Its history highlights how owner Tony Saballa, a craft brewer in his own right, founded the company because he couldn’t find products on the market catering to the needs of small breweries like his.
Based in St. Louis, Missouri, Fillmore Packaging Solutions provides its clients with options for automated can filling machines that utilize an automatic shutoff feature. This prevents cans from overfilling, a costly and time-consuming production line mishap. The product’s four-head can-filler is designed to fit into small spaces and accommodate small budgets. The product features double pre-evacuation counter-pressure filling, designed as an effective method of reducing dissolved oxygen during beer packaging. It can fill 12 to 16 cans per minute. Standard features on the product include under lid gassing, automatic lid placement and seaming. Additional features such as tank and CO2 pressure sensing and temperature monitoring with onscreen readout help to enhance the product’s ease of use.
The firm has also created two- and four-head filler machines for bottles. The machines operate on 110v/220v and compressed air. Fill rates for the two-head machine range from six to eight bottles per minute. The four-head machine fills at a rate of 12 to 16 bottles per minute. Features for both include automatic filling and self-leveling to correct fill height. The four-head model has a feature that pushes bottles onto the production line’s packing table. The models are operator-controlled from start to stop, loading and unloading bottles and loading crowns onto crown heads for capping. Fillmore also created a keg washing machine featuring a 25-gallon detergent reservoir with heater and a 25-gallon sanitizer reservoir.
When it comes to the aesthetics of packaging craft beer, labeling is the star. Colorado-based Lightning Labels has provided clients with custom-designed labeling for nearly twenty years. The company uses HP Indigo digital printing technology, which combines the best features of traditional offset printing with digital techniques. This hybrid delivers top-notch quality whether the client’s order is large or small.
Lightning Labels prides itself on the vibrancy of its color palettes, produced in high-resolution and designed to be water-resistant. Labels can be affixed to bottles, cans, growlers and kegs in a wide range of finishes, using high gloss, matte or textured paper. There are separate front and back label options, or clients may opt for one large wrap-around. Lightning Labels touts that its print quality allows listing custom beer ingredients in a crisp, readable font. Bottle labels are available in paper, vinyl and eco-friendly options as well as more durable alternatives. As the name implies, Lightning Labels touts a quick turnaround on product orders.
Blue Label Packaging Company specializes in labels for beer cans. Headquartered in Lancaster, Ohio, the company also uses HP Indigo printing, offering its customers an array of materials and substrates, such as foil, film and paper cut and stack labels. Product finishes and decorative techniques aimed at creating high impact include hot foil stamping, die-cutting and embossing.
Cost, creativity, and careful planning matter when it comes to packaging for craft breweries. The combination results in products that distinguish themselves on store shelves and meet the benchmarks of industry standards and food safety requirements.