Equipment 101: Bottling Line

Classy and easy to fill! There are a gazillion components that a brewery must have to brew and sell beer. I think most non-professional brewers, myself included, usually think of boil kettles, mash tuns, and fermenters when they think of breweries. Those are the sexy parts of the brewery. There is one component, however, that is always lurking, hiding behind the fermenters or off to the side, just out of sight:  the packaging equipment.

Packaging craft beer comes in various forms: kegging, bottling, canning, growlers, etc. Kegging is a fairly inexpensive endeavor compared to bottling/canning. I'll do a separate post about kegging and all the considerations involved at a later time. Today, we'll discuss what I know so far about the packaging elephant in the room: bottling.

Here's what I know about bottling:  It's a pain in the ass. Many craft breweries, including Metropolitan Brewing and Half Acre (for their 22 oz bombers) here in Chicago, use a Meheen bottling machine. Meheen Manufacturing out of Washington state manufactures the de facto small bottling machines used in the craft beer industry. They're relatively inexpensive (and I do mean relatively) and they work pretty damn well. The one I've used at Metropolitan is a 13 year old 4 head filler which means it fills and caps 4 bottles at a time.

When shipping beer, you need to load the kegs/bottles/cans on a palette in order to load them onto a truck. One palette holds 72 cases of beer which is 1728 bottles. Metropolitan's Meheen can churn out 16-19 bottles/minute. 1728/16 = 108 minutes to fill enough bottles for a full palette. That doesn't include set up and clean up time, but you get the idea. The amount of beer requiring bottling depends on how much is left over after kegging and that depends on what the distributor needs. So any given bottling session can vary but if you had to bottle all 27 bbl of beer (30 bbl - losses), you're lookin' at around 5 palettes. That's a long god damn day. I'm not complaining, I'm just pointing out the realities of the labor involved in getting beer to market. You can buy a used Meheen, which comes in both a 4-head and 6-head configuration, for around $20,000 depending on age and condition. Check out Probrewer's classifieds to see what I mean. That's pretty damn cheap compared to just about any other piece of core equipment in a brewery.

When you buy a used Meheen, you have to be aware that they are set up to work with a specific bottle, meaning the fill heads and capper are set to work with a bottle of specific height and body diameter.  Usually they are set up to work with either the standard "long neck" bottles or "heritage" bottles (think Sierra Nevada Pale Ale bottles).  This means if you want to use your Meheen which is set up for 12 oz bottles to work with 22 oz bombers, well, you're out of luck, and vice-versa.  Please feel free to correct me in the comments if that statement is wrong, but I believe that is a true statement.

One final note, bottling lines like Meheen require compressed air from an industrial grade, continuous duty air compressor, so add that to your shopping list.

I'll be posting about canning and the cost comparisons vs. bottling in another upcoming post.  Spoiler: cans are cheaper, much cheaper, canning lines are expensive, much more expensive.