We are a Craft Brewer.I decided fairly recently, after some years of trying unsuccessfully to bridge the craft beer/real ale divide, that we should just firmly pin our colours to the mast. Some breweries act a little bit like they want to be considered as craft brewers, but don't want to come right out and say it. Some brewers still stick quite firmly in the traditional quarter, and are proud of the fact. Some breweries, like us, are very happy to claim their craft status.
Now, in a recent turn of fate, securing several routes to market, and having already bottled twice as much beer this year compered to the whole of last year, we thought it a good time to play hardball with the glass bottle suppliers. One sales guy was phoning me up offering us bottles at a reduced price, while another wanted to come and see me.
Along came this nice chap called Chris, and we had a pleasant chat about stuff. Just as I was ready to barter hard, he pulled out a sample bottle that spoke craft beer to me. I became verbally excited. I might have uttered some sort of thing like "I WANT THEM!!"
I then quickly realised I had put myself into a poor negotiating position. It is a little difficult to say you'll go elsewhere to get it cheeper, if actually the thing you really want you can't get elsewhere.
I wanted to be able to say on our packaging that we are different. It's important to ensure everyone knows we are a craft brewery. These bottles say exactly that. Other breweries could also buy this bottle, so eventually we'll get our own branding done. We are still below the sensible level for having our own Hardknott branded design1 so we thought it sensible to go with these new bottles.
I'm working towards a few fun videos of various supplies to the brewery. There'll be one on malt soon. I've already done a little bit on water2, although really that one is half finished. Once the hop yards are in full bloom ready to harvest, I'll hopefully get some of that too.
These bottles were being made for the first time last week, so I invited myself over to the Beatson Clark factory in Rotherham to see the very first batch being made. The fact that it was probably the hottest day of the year, and temperatures were over 50 degrees centigrade on the factory floor didn't put me off. It was a great day and I'm really glad we did it.
1Beatson Clark would happily make branded glass bottles for us. However, the costs of the moulds, which we would have to pay for, would take several years to pay-back. It's an aim to get to the point where we can put a Hardknott logo on the bottles, so, help us out and buy more Hardknott!!
2See the water video below. I haven't given it the honour of it's own blog post as it's still work in progress. However, in it's current state I've not given it a voice-over or any sort of commentary. You can't hear my voice anywhere in it at all. The finished version is bound to end up with me wanting to put my pennies-worth in, so watch it now, before I mess it up.
Where would you like to go? from Hardknott Brewery on Vimeo.
To make the video quicker and more watchable I've avoided making it into a mini documentary. I expect some of you would have preferred a techie type info-film. I'd just wanted it to be fun and entertaining. Hopefully I did at least achieve that in part. So, for those of you that are interested, here are a few facts and mitigation for artistic licence used.
1. The part where the "gob" falls into the mould is actually several, I think 5, videos overlaid to give a better, more interesting view. It makes the machine look like it runs a lot faster. In real life it is quite fascinating to watch, but when I got the footage back home I felt it was boring, hence the false edit.
2. In real life the machine can make around 90 of these bottles a minute. Our filler can fill about 12 per minute. In 48 hours continuous production Beatson Clark made enough to keep us going for a whole year. They would actually like other people to buy these bottles too, or perhaps just more of you to buy more Hardknott.
3. The "batch" running up the conveyor is actually for clear glass, which of course we don't use. That was just what the conveyor happened to be running at the time. Batch is the name given to the mix of recycled glass, sand, and various other materials to give the glass the colour and other characteristics needed. Amber glass, which is what we use, has a higher proportion of recycled glass in it, presumably because it is more forgiving, or easier to correct for colour.
4. Beatson Clark have 2 furnesses. You will no doubt guess one is for clear glass, which we are not interested in, and if you care about beer, neither should you. The other is for amber glass, which is what beer goes into, unless you are the type of brewery that is more interested in making a profit and maximising sales rather than making great beer that doesn't get skunked. Beatson Clark recently rebuilt and upgraded their amber furness at a cost of several million quid.
5. It takes around 30 hours for the batch that travels up the conveyor to end up at the other end of the process. It is a continuous process, so why the feck it is called batch I have no idea. The recycled glass is called cullet.
6. The bottles that come off the forming machine don't just cool of their own accord. They have to go through a lehr, which is a sort of temperature gradient oven. It helps to anneal that glass to stop it being too brittle. They also get coated, which I believe also helps make them more robust, protect the bottles, and from what I have read elsewhere, helps make them have the right lubricity to run smoothly through our machine. This lehr also takes them down to a nicely handleable temperature for the cold side.
7. The cold side follows the lehr, and as most of the glass containers are for food or pharmaceuticals, we had to follow hygiene procedures before we could enter this area. Obviously the hot process kills everything. It would be daft to contaminate. It means that the bottles arrive at our brewery food ready only needing a cursory rinse to ensure no foreign objects and to get rid of tiny particles that are left by the glass process.
8. There is a series of fascinating, at least to me, automatic inspection and rejection machines in the cold end. However, I didn't feel much of this equipment made interesting video. Seeing them did increase my confidence, which was already good, in the quality and reliability of the glass bottles. There is also a QA lab, where they test samples for weight, glass thickness, pressure rating, slip angle, fill volume and various other useful parameters just to check everything is tickety boo.
9. To get to the conveyor in a place that was easy to film I had to climb two ladders to get to the top of the process. It was very hot up there. The metal ladder rungs were probably at the limit of what my hands could stand without wearing gloves. I expect the temperature, which obviously reflects the air temperature, must have been above 50 degrees centigrade. The guys working on the line, in full boiler suits and PPE, must have been melting. Hope they all went to the pub for a pint when they knocked off.
10. There has to be a 10, just to make the list tidy. This one is more of a discussion point. Where should we go, I mean the industry, in terms of packaging? Cans are becoming the rage, and there are some advantages for sure. Micro-canning is still in it's infancy and I'm not sure of the ability to get oxygen uptake as low as we can with bottles. We have had some issues and have noticed shelf life problems occurring. We have solved a particular issue relating to the double pre-evac process and we check batches through a shelf life testing program Scott is running.
The double pre-evac basically sucks out the air down to about 0.1 atmospheres absolute. It then pressurises to 1 atmosphere gauge, i.e. 2 atmospheres absolute. It then repeats. The gas in the bottle now contains very little oxygen. Using oxygen scavenging caps, or ensuring a tiny amount of live yeasts in the bottle mops up that small amount.
I think getting can right to the same standard is going to be more difficult. Bottles have a narrower neck and the process is hermetically sealed on the same head right through double pre-evac to filling and it is held under fill gas pressure right through to filling. After filling we ensure that as much as possible the foam sits nicely at the rim of the neck until the cap is put on.
With cans the empty can is purged with CO2. It is not evacuated. The theory is that the air is pushed out as the CO2 is pushed in through a nozzle that goes to the bottom of the can. In practice here will be some mixing with the air surrounding the process. The can then travels to the filling port and is filled via a nozzle the again goes to the bottom of the can. The CO2 is pushed our by the beer, but again this is at atmospheric pressure the whole time. The beer is exposed to a much greater area of air before the can lid is placed and then sealed onto the can.
Now, because a can has less, or perhaps even no head space the theory is that the total package oxygen take is less. I expect this is true on a machine that is running very well. However, I consider myself to be fairly well informed when it comes to automated machinery. I have a degree, part of which was on various topics relating to such things. I've also got 30 odd years of engineering experience. Besides, our bottling machine has not been trouble free and it is a very good job I am an engineer.
I think that some breweries may well find canning machines significantly less forgiving due to the nature of the process. Due to the lack of the hermetically sealed pre-evac and filling system I think the theory might be harder to get right in practice. Indeed, it is failure of the seal that has caused us the majority of our problems in the past.
Having said all of that, I'll admit that if I was starting over right now I'd have to seriously consider whether to go for bottles or cans. We've made our choice, so for now this is where we are. If we get the bottling machine running full tilt, then we may well consider cans, if they are still as popular. The craft beer market moves fast.
But I think bottles are more classy. As Beaston Clark say "Premium beer deserves premium packaging"