A digital approach to small-batch beer

For years, Sleeman brewmaster Stefan Tobler worked the controls of the company’s Vernon, British Columbia, brewery, tweaking pumps and motor speeds to ensure the confection of hops, barley and malt would yield a smooth drink. “As with grapes,” he says, “there are seasonal changes in the raw materials, and I have to change the recipe to ensure consistency.”

In practical terms, that meant frequently halting the line when the beer was coming out cloudy or the wrong colour. Tobler then needed a programmer to make the necessary adjustments on the computer that controlled the brewing equipment, and that technician wasn’t always on hand. It was a labour-intensive, inefficient system. In a plant operating 24-7, the stoppages could add several hours to the production process.

A few years ago, Sleeman teamed up with McRae Integration, a Toronto firm that helps factories automate, and Rockwell Automation, a Milwaukee provider of manufacturing technology, to streamline its production process. The need was compelling: Large brewers like Sleeman have been losing market share to craft brands. To compete, they need to boost productivity and increase yields while developing smaller-batch beers.

Today, Tobler can control the line through a digital console. The new system also automatically assesses which parts of the plant can continue operating while he has stopped one portion to alter the recipe. “All of these small intuitive processes can add up to a significant reduction of the brew-cycle time,” says McRae president Andrew Bentley, who estimates four to eight hours is saved per day.

In fact, prior to introducing the technology, the Vernon facility produced eight batches a day, ran constantly and leased additional production time in a nearby plant. Today, the brewery makes 12 batches daily, operates only five days a week and has consolidated in a single plant. McRae and Rockwell, meanwhile, are installing the system they developed for Sleeman in breweries in China, Brazil and the U.S. “We’ve had a huge number of breweries looking at this,” Bentley says.

Read the full article in The Globe and Mail.