My brewery and I have been together for over a year now. It’s been an intense 16 months. We’ve had a few fights full of cursing and recrimination, but all in all it’s been a great partnership and one that I believe will remain strong into the future. Together, we’ve made a lot of delicious beer and I decided that it was time to recognize all this with some serious bling.
What kind of bling would be appropriate? Well, I figured it has to be either shiny stainless or copper, and copper is just too fancy for our tastes. After some serious searching, I found the perfect thing: a new canning line! Well, it’s just been delivered and we couldn’t be happier.
Upgrading our Canning at Silver Branch
We knew we wanted to open Silver Branch with a canning line. In fact, we considered it an essential element. While we love having people enjoy our beer in our taproom, we knew that we wanted people to be able to take our beer home and to have it in stores. So, despite numerous rounds of “value engineering” (contractor speak for cutting things out to same money) during construction we made sure we kept enough money to purchase a canning line. In the end, it wasn’t the fancy canning line we had dreamed of, but to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, you don’t go into opening a brewery with the canning line you wish you had, but rather the one you can afford.
That canning line we have had for the first 14 months, was a pretty basic affair. We loaded three cans at a time by hand, manually pushed them forward when the three previous cans were done, and then applied the six-pack carriers, also by hand, at the end. Ostensibly, our machine could fill 15 cans per minute, but we found that is was more like 10-12 per minute when various “challenges” were taken into account. When we started canning all that didn’t matter to us one bit. We were thrilled to have our beer in cans and to have been able to afford the machine that made this possible.
Over the months, however, as the volume of beer that we needed to can went up, our level of satisfaction began to wane. And then COVID hit. Suddenly almost every single drop of beer we could produce was going into cans. We were even canning beer out of kegs to keep up with demand. We were spending 14 hour days placing and pushing three cans at a time.
A New Business Model for Silver Branch
In addition to being mind-numbing, and inefficient, other factors pointed to the fact that it was time to upgrade to a new canning line. Silver Branch beer was being picked up by more beer stores. This, of course, is exactly what we want to happen, but it also presents a risk for our brand. As our beer sits on shelves in more stores further away, the probability that someone might pick up a six-pack that isn’t in its prime any longer goes up. Warmth and oxygen are the primary enemies of canned beer, and the two in combination is worse than either by itself. Some stores don’t have an option to store beer cold, so it is incumbent upon us to do everything we can to limit oxygen. We felt uncomfortable continuing to expand our distribution while relying on our rudimentary canning line. The levels of dissolved oxygen simply weren’t low enough.
All of this indicated that we would need to upgrade at some point, but it was COVID that actually made the decision to upgrade now. As noted above, we opened Silver Branch with a business model that was essentially a brewery taproom with limited distribution. We were comfortable expanding that distribution over time. Suddenly, though, our sales were almost exclusively dependent upon our ability to sell canned beer. Overnight, we had gone from being a retail-focused company to being a wholesale-focused company.
CODI to the Rescue
Prior to opening, we had researched numerous canning lines and talked to their manufacturers. One particular company stood out to us as our favorite: CODI manufacturing, which is in Golden Colorado. Our friends at Manor Hill had a CODI line, and seeing it in action convinced it us that it was for us. Beyond the overall quality of the machine, we loved that is uses counter-pressure filling technology. Simply explained, the fill heads “grab” onto the can and inject carbon dioxide into the can to evacuate all the oxygen-containing air. The beer is then pushed into the can while the pressure in the can is reduced. Filling under pressure makes it possible to keep more carbonation in suspension, which allows for canning with higher carbonation levels, which is perfect for many Belgian styles like Saison.
When we realized that we needed a new line, we called up CODI and got on the list. After numerous phone calls and design sessions to figure out how we could shoehorn a canning line into our already-crowded brewery, we finalized the design and then the waiting game started.
Christmas in July!
On July 20, a semi-trailer truck pulled up and we got to work. We were looking forward to spending two weeks with CODI teams—one for installation and one for commissioning—to get us up and running on our new canning line. It took the better part of a day to get all the pieces out of the truck and into Silver Branch. Over the next five days we erected and placed the pieces, hung conveyance from the ceiling, and then connected all the parts together. The level of complexity and sophistication of our new machine became apparent with each day that went by. The sheer amount of time and effort to simply get everything uncrated, situated and married to its partner pieces on the line was astounding.
After a couple of weeks of canning with our new line under our belt, it feels like the holidays came early this year. It hasn’t been unusual to be running at 50 cans per minute with much, much less downtime and we have ever had before. Best of all, we know we are putting better beer out there for our fans, old and new, to enjoy!