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The (beer) taste of the south

Released: 19/09/2012 14:46:09
Read 908 times

Craft beer in cans? Yes, it really does work. Abita Brewery is one of the USA’s first craft breweries to serve the market with this packaging variant, produced on a completely new filling line able to handle both glass bottles and cans.

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Not only has this privately owned brewery thus paved the way into a highly propitious future for its hand-crafted beers, it has also upped its filling capacities many times over, significantly enhanced the level of its filling quality, but above all has upgraded its flexibility quite enormously. The Varioline packaging system, in particular, opens up for what is the biggest and oldest craft brewery in the USA’s south-east undreamed-of options for the all-important situationally responsive marketing of its beers. Prospects for Abita are very auspicious, as they are indeed throughout the entire US craft-beer industry.

David Blossman was 17 years old when the Abita Brewing Company was founded back in 1986. He was an enthusiastic fan of home brewing even when he was a youngster. “I just loved the idea of brewing beer yourself, if at all possible in your hometown environment.” So he invested all his savings (2,500 dollars) in Abita, thus acquiring a one-per-cent stake. David was the second-youngest of six brothers, the rest of whom were already going out to work. He persuaded them with his enthusiasm, and one year later the six of them acquired a majority holding in the Abita Brewery. However, it was to take another ten years before he became the Managing Director. In the meantime, he had passed his CPA (certified public accountant) examination and spent several years working as a financial manager.

Steinecker’s first Merlin brewhouse outside Europe
1996 to 2002 were difficult years for the USA’s entire craft brewing scene, and Abita did not escape unscathed. In 1996, the brewery was already selling 36,000 hectolitres with four types of beer and five seasonal beers. 1989 saw the start of bottling and of putting distribution, which had previously been handled in-house, in the hands of outside professionals. It was now up to David Blossman to cut costs and improve quality levels, both in the brewing and the bottling processes.

The brewhouse, being too small as it was, was in operation six days a week round the clock. Every brewer had his own personal style, the beers weren’t reproducible and their quality was inconsistent. In 2000, David installed Steinecker’s first Merlin brewhouse outside Europe, where to this day all of Abita’s beers are made. He also introduced new beers: a lite version, a number of special beers, and the “Select” series of draught beer. “When we started brewing beer back in 1986, we didn’t have a clue about what we were triggering here. In our first year, we made a mere 1,800 hectolitres of beer while today it’s almost 100 times this figure”, explains David. In 2011, Abita sold 146,000 hectolitres of beer and 10,000 hectolitres of root beer. The six Blossman brothers still own a majority holding of 70 per cent in this successful brewery to this very day. At present, Abita is ranked 25th among all of the USA’s commercial breweries, and is this nation’s 17th-largest craft brewery, with its products sold in 44 states. In order to preserve its beers’ freshness and quality, the brewery distributes them with a fleet of refrigerated trucks. The privately managed brewery, backed up by loyal investors, is the biggest and one of the oldest craft breweries in the south-east of the USA – in Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, Alabama, Tennessee, Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. Abita is open to visitors, too: in 2011 alone, 22,000 guests toured the brewery.

An intriguing range of beers
In all, Abita makes seven main brands, which are available all the year round: Abita Amber, Golden, Light, Turbodog, Purple Haze, Jockamo I.P.A. and Restoration Pale Ale. Purple Haze, for example, is a wheat beer to which fresh raspberry purée is added after filtration, for a fruity taste and aroma. Jockamo I.P.A. boasts an impressive 6.5 per cent alcohol by volume (abv) and 52 bittering units. Restoration Pale Ale, with 5.1 abv and 20 bittering units, was created by Abita directly after the devastating hurricanes Katrina and Rita had hit the state. Thankfully, the brewery itself had been spared major destruction, which is why the owners decided to help the victims of this catastrophe. For a period of two years, one dollar out of every Restoration six-pack sold went to the Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation, a proud sum totalling 550,000 dollars.

And anyway: the brewery likes to live up to its corporate philosophy of “giving something back to society”. When the Deep Water Horizons oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, Abita responded by brewing SOS (Save our Shore), and has been donating 75 cents per bottle. So far, this has added up to more than 400,000 dollars, which went to a foundation set up for fishermen and their families hit by this disaster, and for restoring the affected areas along the coast. What’s more, Abita Abbey honours the centuries-old monastic brewing tradition by donating 25 cents per bottle to a nearby monastery.

In addition to its seven main brands, Abita also brews five seasonal beers, like bock, Red Ale, wheat beer, Autumn Feast, Christmas Ale, plus three harvest beers with freshly harvested ingredients from Louisiana state, like strawberries, satsumas or pecan nuts. The brewery likewise makes root beer, a non-alcoholic drink based on yucca palm sap, vanilla and herbs with sugar from Louisiana sugar cane – an evocative reminder of the soft drinks from the 1940s and 1950s, that is to say of a time before soft-drinks producers started using corn sugar and fructose. But this is still not all they’re doing.

In its “Abita Select” series, every few months Abita premieres a new beer flavour that’s available only on draught in selected restaurants and pubs, plus of course in its own brewpub, which is a popular meeting point in Abita Springs. The range of Select beers includes Bohemian beers, for example, English bitters, Kölsch, Alt, barley beer, honey-rye beer or smoky beer. To celebrate its 25th anniversary in 2011, Abita brewed the Vanilla Double Dog – with caramel and chocolate malt, plus natural vanilla pods. And Imperial Louisiana Oyster Stout was without a doubt yet another out-of-the-ordinary Select beer, which Abita created last year to pay tribute to the seafood culture of Louisiana. This beer is brewed with a variety of intensive malts and oat flakes while also being lightly hopped with Williamette hops. To give the beer quite a special flavour, fresh Louisiana oysters are added to the wort while it is boiling; their saltiness lends the beer a highly intensive aroma and mouth-feel.

Brewing the beers with Steinecker’s technology

When it comes to the actual brewing, Abita relies on technology from Steinecker. In 2000, the brewery was the first outside Europe to use the radically new Merlin wort boiling system, which reduces the boiling time from 90 to 35 minutes, thus downsizing energy consumption by 70 per cent. In addition, a vapour condenser recovers process steam into the bargain. The four-vessel brewhouse, designed for a brew size of 120 hectolitres, makes for an annual capacity of 150,000 hectolitres, given a brew duration of 4.5 hours. By shortening this first to 3.5 and then to a mere three hours, thanks to an additional heat exchanger and a product holding tank, plus faster removal of the spent grains, Abita is now able to run no fewer than eight brews a day. To ensure that its beers are properly fine-tuned in terms of both aroma and taste, Abita is keen to add hops three times over: bittering, flavouring and aroma hops. Some of the beers are additionally dry-hopped in the storage tank, like Jockamo I.P.A. and Restoration Ale, for example. Prior to filling, the beers are cold-filtered, first undergoing separation in a centrifuge and then final filtration in a sheet filter. Stabilisation is dispensed with.

Significant improvement in bottling quality

As demand kept on growing and growing, it was high time to think about installing a new bottling line. The existing one of Italian manufacture, dating back to 1999 and rated at 9,000 bottles an hour, had long since reached the limits of its capacity. “The more we asked of it, the lower its efficiency became”, explains David Blossman. “We wanted the new line to give us more capacity, and enhanced levels of both efficiency and bottling quality, plus way more flexibility. Fill level accuracy was no longer adequate, pasteurisation was not reliable enough, labelling and end-of-the-line packaging left a lot to be desired, with efficiency levels falling towards 80 per cent.” The new Krones line, which started operation in November 2011, enabled David to translate his ideas into hands-on bottling reality: the line’s speed, at 24,000 bottles an hour, is more than double that of the old line, the efficiency targeted is over 90 per cent, the oxygen content in the glass bottles is a minuscule 0.1 milligrams a litre (or even less), and fill level accuracy is spot-on, thanks to high-precision filling and immediate inspection in a Checkmat FM-X, which also checks the bottles for proper closure position. Abita is still using the traditional, short-necked 355-millilitre “Heritage” bottles, where the headspace is significantly smaller than in the modern long-neck bottles, thus minimising the amount of air inside the bottle. “The LinaFlex tunnel pasteuriser is doing an extremely reliable job”, emphasises David. “Since it’s been divided up into zones with their own separate cooling and heat-up functions, you won’t get any under- or overpasteurisation. The 15 pasteurisation units we want are being accurately achieved. An intelligent machine indeed.”

High flexibility, thanks to bottle and can fillers installed in parallel

Abita achieves the high levels of flexibility it had been aiming for in two different ways: firstly through a parallel layout configuration for the bottle and can fillers, and secondly through the Varioline packaging system. For filling its bottles, the brewery had a modularised Modulfill HRS (VPKV) installed, monobloc-synchronised with a Variojet rinser. “I was really taken with the Modulfill’s no-front-table concept, which is much, much more hygienic. And anyway, I’d prefer servomotors to gearwheels any time. They make for faster change-overs, which in turn boosts flexibility. The same applies to the Solomodule labeller – fewer mechanical parts, more electronics mean more flexibility.” Alternatively to bottling, Abita, with its Volumetic VOC can filler, for the first time has an option for canning its beers, likewise at a speed of 24,000 330-millilitre cans an hour. “We didn’t want to be the first craft brewery to fill beer in cans. For quite a long time, consumers were definitely a bit sceptical about beer in cans, thinking it was somehow inferior. That has now changed.”

Craft beer in cans?

Does the image of beer brewed in the finest of craft traditions really fit in with the idea of canning it? For a long time, Abita found it difficult to make up its mind. How would canned beer be received by its glass-loyal consumers? How would Abita beer taste when drunk from a can? In the end, it was two considerations that tipped the scales in favour of cans: firstly, glass bottles have been banned from many public events due to the injury risk they pose, not least during the parades of Mardi Gras. Every year in spring, this carnival of New Orleans, famous the whole world over, enthrals hundreds of thousands of locals and visitors from all round the globe, who are, unsurprisingly, partial to celebrating with one or more local beers during the parades. However, beer in cans also comes in handy when you’re out fishing, golfing, enjoying yourself on the beach or at parties. All of these are consumption opportunities that Abita did not want to miss out on. “Louisiana is a sporting paradise, offering an abundance of leisure activities. Just think of the 3,000 miles of coastline, more than 400 festivals each year, the almost 200 golf courses and 22 national parks”, muses David. “All of them very good reasons to fill our Abita beer in cans.”

Another important consideration was how the Abita beers would taste when drunk from cans. “For years on end, consumers had been associating craft beer exclusively with glass bottles. Beer from cans always conjured up an imagined taste of metal. But not only have acceptance levels changed, the technology for aluminium cans is quite different nowadays, too. We’re relying on present-day cans offering a quality-compliant solution for protecting the taste of our beers”, says a confident David Blossman. The insides of the new Abita cans are coated with a water-based layer reliably preventing the beer from coming into direct contact with the aluminium surface, thus preserving its unadulterated taste. In addition, the can protects the beer inside against UV irradiation, which is responsible for accelerating ageing of the fresh beer.

And last but not least, the deleterious effect that oxygen has on freshness is minimised by state-of-the-art canning technology from Krones. In parallel to the new bottling line, Abita installed a volumetric Volumetic VOC can filler with 36 filling valves, rated at 24,000 cans an hour. The cans are packed in six-packs and twelve-packs, and also into 24-can cartons, at an hourly output of 1,000 cartons. To coincide neatly with the start of this year’s Mardi Gras Festival, on 6 February 2012 Abita premiered three beers in cans: “Amber” and “Purple Haze” in 12-packs, plus “Jockamo” in six-packs.

“The two big craft breweries, New Belgium and Sierra Nevada, were the pioneers in this regard, and their image didn’t suffer any damage from it. We’ve only been filling cans since the beginning of this year, and so far the consumers’ response has been good. On the other hand, we’re not pushing the can onto the market.”

One of the first Varioline packaging systems

But the biggest flexibility-booster is without a doubt the Varioline, one of the very first to be installed by Krones worldwide. “It’s amazing – the amount of flexibility this machine offers us on a minimised footprint. This is like four machines in one, we need at least 40 per cent less space, and that’s important because, you see, when adding up a machine’s overall costs you also have to factor in the building space it takes up”, is how David Blossman explains the maths involved. Currently, Abita uses the Varioline to pack a wide array of end-of-the-line packages:

four six-bottle packs on full-depth trays
two twelve-bottle packs on half-depth trays
two twelve-bottle variety packs on half-depth trays
four six-can packs on full-depth trays
two twelve-can packs on half-depth trays
four six-pack-rings in wrap-around cartons
24 355-millilitre bottles in wrap-around cartons
twelve 750-millilitre bottles in wrap-around cartons.

“And this is just the beginning”, says David. “If we want new packaging variants, we will just get a new program for the Varioline, plus the appropriate robot handling parts,” Previously, all Abita was able to offer the market was six-bottle packs as neck-through and 12-bottle packs in corrugated boxes, plus assorted packs containing two bottles each of the six main brands. And these variety packs, too, are now of course being handled by the Varioline.

At Abita, the Varioline comprises five modules. If, for example, four six-packs and a full-depth tray are packed, the work sequence looks like this: the first module folds the wrap-around cartons, the second packs six bottles at a time into one of these, in the third the full-depth tray is folded, and the six-packs are closed simultaneously. The fourth module packs the four six-packs on a full-depth tray, with the fifth module finally pushing the tray onto a conveyor belt.

The entire line is controlled by an LDS (Line Documentation System). “This is system management at its user-friendliest”, is David’s verdict. “It is self-explanatory, people can access it from just anywhere, even from home, or – in the case of Krones’ technicians – from Germany.” For purposes of maintenance, Abita uses a KAM (Krones Asset Management) package. “We’re currently thinking about linking up the Botec F1 control system, which we’re very satisfied with in the brewhouse, to KAM.” Abita also succeeded in cutting labour costs with the new line: whereas the old line was run in two extended shifts by six operators each, for the new line one extended shift with just four operators is sufficient.

Magnificent prospects

David Blossman is extremely confident as far as the future of his own brewery and that of the entire craft brewing industry is concerned: “We have been growing steadily since 2000, over the past seven years at an average of 15 per cent a year. Our target for 2012 is an increase of 20 per cent. Craft beer is gaining more and more adherents because Americans are busy discovering the taste of full-bodied beers. Once consumers have had their eye-opener, or to be more precise: taste-bud-opener, they tend to stay with it. Thanks to the craft-brewing movement, we can currently observe a downright taste revolution in the field of beer, with a cornucopia of variants to choose from. Sales keep on growing even when the economy falters, like in the past few years. Consumers can buy a six-pack of one of the finest beers in the world for about eight US-dollars, and when you compare this to a bottle of top-class wine or a whiskey that’s very affordable indeed. The people drinking our beer are relatively well educated, they like good food, they are open to experimentation, and they appreciate a really good beer. Quality by doing without additives, and an abundant choice of variants – that’s where the craft-brewery sector excels.”

And that is quite obviously reflected in the output figures, too: in 2012, Abita will presumptively sell 180,000 hectolitres of beer and 12,000 hectolitres of root beer. David is predicting a huge rise in market share for craft beer in the USA: “I expect craft beer’s market share to grow from its present five to six per cent to ten per cent of the American beer market over the next three, four years, and then further still to 15 per cent by 2020.” Simply magnificent prospects.

More info:
www.krones.co.uk

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