Craft beer brewery Southern Tier Brewing Co. began operations in 2002 with a vision of reviving small batch brewing in a region that is rich in brewing tradition. Located in Lakewood, N.Y., southwest of Buffalo and just east of Erie, Pa., Southern Tier started with select varieties of small batch ales locally distributed. As word of its tasty products spread beyond its initial fans in New York and Pennsylvania, Southern Tier quickly expanded, outgrowing its original plant and building a brand new brewing facility.
When the Southern Tier team found that the case packer in the new brewing facility couldn’t keep up with their growth, they looked for new equipment that could help them keep up with both existing demand and anticipated future expansion. They eventually selected the 939EZ Versatron Case Packer, supplied by Standard-Knapp, a new model specifically developed to combine proven and reliable case packing technology in a much more affordable package. After installing the new packer, Southern Tier has been able to increase its production by 30 percent, reduce changeover time between bottle sizes and, perhaps most importantly, maintain the product quality that its loyal fans have come to expect.
Originally specializing in hoppy, pale ales, Southern Tier launched a series of seasonal beers and struck gold with its Pumking Imperial pumpkin beer. What started as a novelty, brewed on a lark, really took off. It was one of several beers that have fueled the company’s huge growth. In 2009, Southern Tier Brewing’s growth had so outpaced its existing facility’s production capacity that it moved to a new 20,000-square-foot building. The new facility was built to produce Southern Tier’s innovative, high-quality beer and expand its distribution nationally and internationally, while still staying true to the loyal, beer-loving local fans.
The new plant was bottling 17,000 barrels (bbls) in 2009 and had leapfrogged to about 100,000 bbls in 2013. Well over 100,000 bbls are projected for next year. The company currently has two bottle sizes, a 12-ounce and a 22-ounce, and is about to add a third size. According to Plant Manager Brian Evens, the drop packer originally selected for Southern Tier’s new bottle line just could not keep up with the pace of growth. The speed of the packer was an issue, and it was extremely cumbersome to change between bottle sizes. The changeover was using time they could not afford to lose.
“We make two job changes during a day, and it seemed to take forever, and then we ended up spending the rest of the afternoon tweaking the settings and dialing it in to make it work properly. Then it was time to switch back to a different size by the end of the day,” Evens said.
Another issue with the packer was that it frequently didn’t line up correctly and bottles tended to fall and break. Someone was usually needed to stand over and babysit the drop packer to shake or push bottles to avoid crushed and broken glass that would require operators to stop the process. Evens explains that the biggest enemy in beer production is the introduction of oxygen. Southern Tier was anxious to avoid stopping the line because every stoppage provides an opportunity for oxygen to be added to the product. “We don’t pasteurize our beer, so it’s important to keep the oxygen level as low as possible.”
Increasing packaging speed
Almost immediately after Southern Tier started operations at the new plant, the company knew it’d outgrown the packer and began looking at other options. They had already recognized the need for additional infrastructure to keep up with their growth and had oversized other process components to accommodate growth, but were not able to keep up with packaging without additional automation. “It is not a question of eliminating labor — these guys are the reason we have gotten to where we are today,” Evens said. “We came to the conclusion that better packaging automation would allow us to retain our labor force but deploy them to other productive activities.”
With that goal in mind, Evens began looking at upgrading the drop packer to one that could keep pace with the growth. They eventually contacted Portland, Conn.-based Standard-Knapp, knowing they produced higher-end packaging equipment and had a great track record with larger customers. As luck would have it, Standard-Knapp’s Account Manager Richard Lagana was working at a facility nearby and came over to meet at the facility and talk about what they were hoping to achieve.
“I was excited to be able to meet with Southern Tier to discuss a new product line Standard-Knapp was breaking into, a smaller packer that was excellent for this type of niche market,” Lagana said. “I think it was also helpful that I could give them the names of a few other craft beer manufacturers that had already purchased the new product.”
Called the 939EZ Versatron Case Packer, the new equipment provides proven and reliable case packing technology in an affordable package. Considered the “little brother” of Standard Knapp’s Versatron family of case packers, the 939EZ is equipped with an air-over-oil lift table, which controls the descent of product into the case, and a simple indexing case feed which maintains design simplicity without sacrificing control and speed. The 939EZ operates at speeds of up to 30 cases per minute, which was perfect for Southern Tier’s needs.
In addition to speed, the 939EZ Versatron has a variety of rugged and durable case packer change parts, all designed for safe, easy and consistent changeover. The patented Snap-in Grid technology makes changeover an easy, one-man operation. Product riding strips are made of extremely durable material and are fitted with unique slide-in design for automatic alignment. Lightweight and strong lane guide spacers ensure the perfect width for each product. The Standard-Knapp changeover cart provides sturdy, mobile storage for easy to identify, color-coded changeover parts. The cart holds two complete sets of change parts and offers quick and easy access for fast changeover.
After discussing the project and agreeing on the price, Standard-Knapp delivered the equipment in early June 2013. Evens, an industry veteran with more than 25 years of experience, had scheduled a week-long changeover and was pleasantly surprised by the speed of the installation.
“The installation went much better than I had expected,” Evens said. “I scheduled the line to be down all week, but the whole thing literally took two days, start to finish. Our old packer was out Tuesday morning, the new Standard-Knapp packer was installed in its place Tuesday afternoon, the conveyor modifications were done Wednesday morning, and the new packer was wired Wednesday afternoon. Final adjustments to box feeds were done on Thursday morning, and we ran 1,800 cases of beer after lunch on Thursday. All the work was done by two mechanics and a contracted electrician. Boom! Amazing.”
Evens was also pleased with the improvement in changeover with the modular parts, which reduced the time needed to change between bottle sizes from 45 minutes (plus tweaking time) to 10 minutes or less. “When we need to make a change, we simply pull out the 12 ounce parts, put in the 22-ounce parts and let it rip,” Evens said.
The speed and accuracy of the packer also helps them decrease the amount of oxygen in the beer, increasing shelf life and ensuring a better product. The employee who used to have to babysit the old drop packer has now been moved down the line where he can be more productive.
The introduction of the new packer has increased production speed by 30 percent overall in the course of a day over the old packer. For example, the old packer did about 50 pallets of 12-ounce beer per day; Southern Tier now does 70 pallets per day, a 37 to 38 percent increase.
Concluded Evens: “Since we installed the new packer, we have been running at full speed. We are very happy with the product and impressed with the way Standard-Knapp worked with us and supported us during the process.”