Beverage companies turn to the latest technologies to reduce costs and respond to new mandates for their products.

Cans for Trout Slayer ale are conveyed to the new filler on Big Sky Brewing’s new canning line. Source: Big Sky Brewing Co.

Some juice, dairy and other drink processors have installed advanced filters on post-pasteurization tanks to minimize yeast and mold contamination risks. Source: Fischer Planning Ltd.

Bottled water is one of the brightest stars in the beverage industry’s 21st Century galaxy, and processors go to great lengths to deliver a safe product. As of December 1, purity requirements ratcheted even higher.

The first of the month was the effective date for a new FDA rule that requires bottlers not connected to a public water system to test source water entering their plants weekly for coliform. If cultures later reveal the presence of Escherichia coli, production must cease until five samples collected within 24 hours test negative for E. coli.

“Groundwater management is becoming more key to our industry,” observes Bob Hirst, vice president and chief scientist at the International Bottled Water Association (IBWA), Alexandria, VA. More reliable rapid tests for microbial contamination should help bottlers cope with the zero-tolerance rule, the latest challenge in a decade’s worth of continuous improvement in safety and security for the beverage category.

Taking its cue from 2002’s HACCP mandate for juice processors, IBWA began requiring HACCP by bottlers certified under its model code. The code also stipulates unannounced third-party inspections by NSF International auditors. “Pure water is a natural magnet to everything,” points out Chris Dunn, NSF’s general manager, beverage products.

UV light, chlorine dioxide and other alternative disinfectants are among the more stringent processing steps being used more frequently. Gone are the days when Giardia and Cryptosporidiosis were the only contaminants of concern. Filtration down to 1 micron was the norm a decade ago, says Hirst. Today, trace amounts of metals and pharmaceuticals are a public concern. “Many bottlers have moved to 0.5, 0.2, even 0.1 microns,” he says.

Hygienic standards for mineral water are higher than dairy, suggests Friedrich Fischer, president of Fischer Planning Ltd., a Netanya, Israel-based designer of fluid handling systems. But both beverage categories have room for improvement, he hastens to add: “The sanitary standard is very low. It’s more important how you clean your system.”

A mechanical engineer who has worked extensively with Tetra Pak, Fischer has designed piping systems for leading dairies and beverage processors throughout Europe and the Middle East. When existing facilities have contamination issues, the problem often is traced to storage tanks downstream from pasteurizers. Creating a clean room around those tanks is a costly and futile approach, says Fischer. The root cause often is the air being drawn into the holding tanks at the end of CIP cycles. By installing an active filter for in-process overpressure of sterile air, yeast and mold can be kept out of the tank.

Unless an aseptic tank is used, storage vessels must draw in air after a CIP cycle. A drop in internal pressure is likely when water is evacuated, and significant volumes of air must enter to equalize pressure. The consequences of inadequate air equalization are found in the boneyards of many beverage companies, according to Fischer’s colleague, Ramiz Aliev. Atmospheric pressure will crush a 3,000-gal. stainless steel tank like a paper cup.

“We saw a collapsed vessel at a major Toronto brewery last week,” relates Aliev. “A conventional filter gets wet and just doesn’t work.”

Water conservation has gone from an afterthought to a priority at many beverage companies. This reengineered pasteurizing system cuts water use by up to 80% and energy consumption by 30%. Source: Tetra Pak Inc.

Above and beyond microbes

Ultrafiltration and reverse osmosis now are widely used in beverage processing. “Most bottled water companies use R/O, and it’s more efficient technology than it was 20 years ago,” points out NSF’s Dunn.

“Even the Romans had filtration,” Koch Membrane Systems’ Carl Hoffman wryly observes. Still, beverage applications continue to grow at a 3-5% annual clip.

Raw material filtration of not-from-concentrate juices to adjust product sweetness by balancing sugar ratios has become common, thanks in part to geometrical advances in the membranes themselves, he continues. Four-inch elements with 50 sq. ft. of surface have given way to 20-inch elements with 1,000 sq. ft., at a more economical cost. “The next wave of technical advancement will be in the volumetric structure of the membrane.”

Ultrafiltration will remove microbes from a fluid, but drink makers are going well beyond microbiological safety to maintain consumer confidence. Deionization and double-pass R/O are playing a bigger role in purified water processing, notes IBWA’s Hirst, as bottlers strive to eliminate bromide and other innocuous elements.

Water is the majority ingredient in all beverages, of course. One consequence of corporate assessments of resource consumption and their true cost is a realization that wasteful water practices must end. “People are talking about their water footprint, much like the carbon footprint,” notes Marcelo Ferrer, a product manager in Tetra Pak Inc.’s beverage processing division. Audits are revealing consumption levels of 100-300 gallons for each gallon of finished product, an unsustainable level and an indicator of significant waste.

Beverage leaders are setting ambitious goals in attacking resource waste. Coca-Cola wants to improve water-use efficiency 20% by 2012, compared to a 2004 benchmark. Pepsico has a similar goal, with the additional goal of 20% less energy consumption by 2015. The initiatives are not public posturing; they are a concerted effort to rein in controllable costs that erode profitability and, in some cases, the viability of plants that generate too much waste.

When it began re-engineering its equipment line two years ago, Tetra Pak, “elevated energy recovery to the same level as food safety and product quality,” relates Ferrer. Low hanging fruit was plentiful: protective panels on tubular heat exchangers cut energy costs 5-15%. Other changes attack emerging issues, such as vacuum mixers designed to address foaming problems with new beverages such as diet teas. The most ambitious change to date is an overhaul of the company’s aseptic drink system.

A closed loop for deaerator cooling recirculates water instead of sending it to drain while also delivering even flow that minimizes the risk of pressure shocks or contamination. Used in combination with a vacuum pump, the refinement saves almost 1,000 gallons of water in a typical setup, the company estimates.

Double hot-water circuits linking the pasteurizer to the filler lowers energy costs 30%. The balance tank was revamped to allow fluid to enter from the bottom to minimize entrained air. The higher flow, lower delta temperature and improved heat coefficient result in less product waste. “It takes a little more engineering and components, but the payback is huge over the lifecycle of the equipment,” Ferrer points out.  

Scaled down order requirements and modified equipment enabled Big Sky Brewing to add a canning line for two of its ales. The weight savings compared to glass significantly reduce transportation costs. Source: Big Sky Brewing Co.

Catering to Mr. Small

Regional production began replacing mega-manufacturing more than a decade ago, and supply-chain optimization may be the final blow to centralized beverage production. Powerful market forces also are reshaping the manufacturing landscape, and suppliers are beginning to respond with modified equipment and order quantities that cater to smaller clients.

America’s unquenchable thirst for sugary beverages has been quenched: 15.6 million fewer adults drank carbonated soft drinks last year than in 2003, survey research by Mintel International concludes. The remaining 133 million regular soda sippers keep bottlers busy, though not as busy as before.

Over the same period, 11 million adults became regular drinkers of sports drinks, while the energy-drink population swelled to 34.5 million, almost double 2003’s base. Major beverage companies as well as start-up firms serve those alt-beverage drinkers, but they do so from regional plants. PepsiCo commissioned seven new Gatorade plants in the last 12 years.

Domestic breweries are a graphic example of how suppliers are reacting to a changing marketplace. The nation’s 40 major commercial breweries have little reason to invest in a down or flat market, but craft breweries and microbreweries continue to thrive. Sales for that segment increased 9% in 2009’s first half, the Brewers Association reports. Material and equipment suppliers see this segment as their future and are customizing their offerings accordingly.

Downscaled equipment that wasn’t available a few years ago is entering the market and automating jobs that necessarily were done manually until recently, says Bjorn Nabozney, a founder of Missoula, MT’s Big Sky Brewing Co. “We’re prototyping a lot of equipment now,” says Nabozney. A new low-speed ring-carrier application machine from ITW is an example: Big Sky’s unit places plastic necks on 15 six-packs a minute, Nabozney says, while comparable machines at large breweries package 500 a minute. 

Big Sky is one of the first craft brewers to add aluminum cans as a container option. To ease the transition, the brewery’s supplier dropped the truckload-minimum requirement for can orders. “We’re trying to build a rapport with the craft-brew segment,” explains Tom Hughes, marketing manager at Crown Beverage Packaging North America in Philadelphia. The logistics of inventorying 200,000 cans is a deal killer for small breweries. Even with two of its ales going into cans, Big Sky will only fill 600,000 cans this year. Without the truckload concession, an extra truckload would have to be stored.

Filling issues also had to be overcome. The fill rate with the brewery’s new Italian filler is slower than with the bottle filler, a concession that reduces dissolved oxygen in the beer. At an average of 20 ppm of oxygen, the cans still have more air than the glass containers, but flavor degradation is negligible until 103 days out, reports Nabozney.

Getting his customers to accept cans remains a challenge, Nabozney allows, though the portability of cans appeals to hikers and outdoorsmen. “The recyclability is great, as opposed to glass,” he says. But environmental benefits “get pushed to the back burner until we can justify the dollars and cents,” he adds. Reduced shipping costs made the financial case. Product is distributed in 22 states, most of them hundreds, even thousands of miles from Missoula. “Our big issues are in transport,” Nabozney points out, and 108 cases of cans weigh the same as 72 cases of glass bottles.

The economics of plastic bottles has spurred innovation in other beverage segments. One example is an air recovery kit that captures part of the pressurized air from a blowmolding machine and returns it to an air compressor. Reductions of about 16% in energy costs have been calculated, according to John Conover, Atlas Copco Compressors’ oil-free business line manager.

Recovered air plays to a peculiar strength of Atlas Copco’s compressors. The recovery solenoid valve delivers the air into a header at 125-150 psi, Conover says. “That gets punched up to 580 psi” before being returned to the blowmolding machine. About seven years ago, Atlas Copco decoupled the compression stages in its oil-free compressors. As a result, the machines can accept the recovered air without any additional engineering, saving time and money on set-up. 

More beverage companies are taking blowmolding in-house to reduce costs and eliminate storage requirements. A high-speed stretch-oriented blowmolder operating 40-bar pressure consumes $200,000 worth of electricity annually, assuming a cost of 6.5 cents per KwH. Instead of venting the pressurized air that stretches the preforms to their final shape, an inventor reengineered the mold’s distribution ring to include a recovery valve that helps recirculate almost half the pressurized air. The inventor licensed the system to Atlanta-based Sidel Group, which began offering it in kit form last year.

The beverage business has felt the sting of the Great Recession. Last year, US beverage consumption trended down 2%, the first decline since tracking began, according to Beverage Marketing Corp. Bottled water was a bright spot with a 1% decline, while sports drinks and carbonated beverages each fell 3.1%. Even alcohol, a growth category during the Great Depression, despite its precarious legal status, is suffering: the beer category suffered a 1.3% drop in the first half of 2009.

To reverse the trend, beverage companies have to shore up consumer confidence in their products while reining in costs and limiting waste. The focus on high-purity products and resource-stingy processes is one way to head off a prolonged funk.

For more information:
John Conover, Atlas Copco Compressors LLC, 847-981-8995,
Tom Hughes, Crown Holdings Inc., 215-698-5289,
Ramiz Aliev, Fischer Planning Ltd., 416-548-8625,
Carl Hoffman, Koch Membrane Systems, 978-694-7176,
Chris Dunn, NSF International, 404-355-6450,
Marcelo Ferrer, Tetra Pak Inc., 847-955-6320,