Craft beer brewers Southern Tier Brewing Company began operations in 2002 with a vision of reviving small batch brewing in a region that is rich in brewing tradition. Located in Lakewood, NY, southwest of Buffalo and just east of Erie, PA Southern Tier started with select varieties of small batch ales locally distributed.
As word of their tasty products spread beyond their initial fans in New York and Pennsylvania, they quickly expanded, outgrowing their original plant and building a brand new brewing facility.
When they found that the case packer in their 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, contribute to the product quality that its loyal fans have come to expect.
New brewing facility equipment can’t keep pace with fast growth
Originally specializing in hoppy, pale ales, Southern Tier launched a series of seasonal beers, and struck gold with their Pumking Imperial pumpkin beer. What started as a novelty, brewed on a lark, really took off, one of several beers that have fueled the company’s huge growth.
In 2009, Southern Tier Brewing Company’s growth had so outpaced its existing facility’s production capacity that they moved to a new 20,000 square foot building. The new facility was built to produce their innovative, high-quality beer and expand their distribution nationally and internationally, while still staying true to the loyal beer-loving local fans.
The new plant was bottling 17,000 barrels in 2009 and had leapfrogged to about 100,000 barrels in 2013. Well over 100,000 barrels are projected for next year. The company currently has two bottle sizes, a 12-ounce and a 22-ounce, and is about to go to a third size.
According to plant manager Brian Evens, the drop packer originally selected for their new bottle line just could not keep up with their pace of growth. The speed of the packer was an issue, and perhaps as importantly, 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,” said Evens.
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.”
Search for options to increase packaging speed
Almost immediately after they started operations at the new plant, Southern Tier knew they’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. 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 their growth. They eventually contacted Portland, CT-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,” said Lagana. “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 combines provides proven and reliable case packing technology in an affordable package.
Considered the “little brother” of Standard Knapp’s industry-standard 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’ experience, had scheduled a weeklong changeover, and was pleasantly surprised by the speed of the installation.
“The installation went much better than I had expected,” said Evens. “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 1800 cases of beer after lunch on Thursday. All the work was done by two mechanics and a contracted electrician. Boom! Amazing!”
Evens is 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 ten 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!”
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, from about 50 pallets of 12-oz beer per day with the old packer, they now do 70 pallets per day, a 37-38 percent increase.
Concludes 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.”
About Southern Tier Brewing Company
Southern Tier Brewing Company is committed to providing delicious, accessible and unique products. In doing so, we aim to change the way people drink beer. For more information please visit www.stbcbeer.com