Aisling Tomei, Corporate Relations Manager, Big Rock Brewery
Photo: Wiktor Skupinski
Named after one of the world’s biggest boulders—a giant glacial erratic that landed 18 kilometers south of presentday Calgary, Alta., between 12,000 and 18,000 years ago—Big Rock Brewery may not carry the historical weight of this imposing, nine-meter-tall landmark that draws thousands of admiring tourists each year to gawk at one of Mother Nature’s more celebrated western Canadian creations.
But there is also nothing remotely lightweight about the considerable competitive and other challenges that the family-owned craft brewer had to overcome through the years to allow itself to celebrate its 25th year anniversary this year in truly grand style.
Founded in 1985 by company owner Ed McNally, the Calgary-based brewing upstart certainly had its work cut out for it early on—trying to shake up the existing local beer scene, mostly dominated by standard mass-produced national brands, with a big, round, rich and full-bodied brown ale brewcrafted in the finest old-school English tradition by Big Rock’s original brewmaster Bernd Pieper.
“They definitely shared some initial fears of creating a brew that no one might ever appreciate, but they knew what type of beer they wanted and they figured that, if worst came to worst, they would at least have a great beer in which to drown their sorrows,” Big Rock’s corporate relations manager Aisling Tomei told Canadian Packaging in a recent interview.
“Even after Bernd presented Ed with our very first Traditional Ale brand beer, which completely delighted him, Ed still feared that it would be a tough sell in our market.
“Happily, it seems that Ed may have originally underestimated the taste-buds of the general populace,” Tomei relates. “Having been in the beer business for a quarter-century now, it’s clear that Big Rock has really found itself a discerning customer base that appreciates the bold flavors of its beers.”
Today operating out of a 200,000-square-foot facility employing 120 people, Big Rock markets its beers across right across Canada—excluding Quebec —with its swelling product portfolio now comprising popular brands such as Grasshopper Wheat Ale, Traditional Ale, Warthog Ale, Honey Brown Lager, Jack Rabbit Light Lager, Gopher Lager, McNally’s Extra Ale, Big Rock Light Lime Lager, Black Amber Ale, Big Rock Pale Ale, XO Lager, Rock Creek Cider and McNally’s Reserve.
While brewing over 219,000 hectoliters of beer in 2009 (a hectoliter being a rough equivalent of just over a dozen 24-bottle cases of beer)—including some co-packing for other beermakers—ranks Big Rock as one of the more successful regional craft brewers in North America, the company is more than happy to concentrate on solidifying its established Canadian markets, according to Tomei.
Catering to all the different local beer-drinking trends and consumer preferences from one region of Canada to another, Big Rock retails its beer brands in a comprehensive array of packaging formats— including six-, 12- and 24-packs of 341-ml glass bottles and six-, 12-, 15- and 24-packs of 355-ml aluminum cans—as well as supplying pubs, bars and restaurants with 30- and 58.67-liter kegs.
Having such a fairly extensive offering of SKUs (stock-keeping units) on its hands naturally requires the company to have all its product marking and coding capabilities always in tip-top shape, according to Big Rock’s packaging manager Gordon Scott, who oversaw the purchase and installation of a pair of model 5200 case-coding systems from Markem-Imaje at the brewery this past spring.
According to Scott, the case printers used at the brewery before would often leave the cases marked with smudged codes—making the printed product data and information unreadable and, consequently, prompting their removal from the store-shelves.
“Because our older printers were using oil-based inks,” Scott recalls, “we began receiving complaints that the printed codes were often smudged, sometimes becoming completely unreadable.
“We needed to do something to fix that problem, and we needed to do it quickly,” says Scott, relating that he was attracted by the 5200 model printers—part of the Markem-Imaje 5000 Series of hot-melt inkjet case-coders—in large part by their ability to control two printheads simultaneously, meaning they could print on two sides of a box at the same time if required.
Moreover, Scott says he was duly impressed by the final print quality, integrity and legibility despite all different surface variations resulting from the use of different grades of corrugated or recycled-fiber content variations, while remaining fully immune to the fairly high moisture and condensation typical of a brewery production environment.
“These printers are perfect for our cartons, meeting all of our needs with very little maintenance,” states Scott, complimenting their adjustable inkjet printheads and the proprietary, quick-drying Touch Dry hot-melt ink technology used for generating high-resolution logos, symbols and other corporate branding graphics on the beer cartons and cases.
“And the fact the 5200 utilizes inexpensive perishable consumables helps benefit our bottom line,” he notes.
“Although we only use the 5200 for outside casecoding data, the ink technology does not allow for any ‘weeping’ of the ink into the corrugated substrate—which helps provide us with a nice, clean, readable code,” adds Scott, saying the new system has significantly improved the company’s compliance with the CFIA (Canadian Food Inspection Agency) regulations requiring fullylegible production codes for traceability purposes.
“Moreover, these state-of-the-art coders are made with an innovative modular design that—although we have yet to utilize it—makes any maintenance quick and easy,” Scott states.
According to Scott and Tomei, all the Big Rock beer is fermented in fully-enclosed, stainless-steel tanks to ensure a sterile environment, while also keeping it under pressure to retain the natural carbonation.
After fermentation, the beer is cold-filtered through a multi micro-filtration system into bright beer tanks for bottling, canning or kegging, with the brewer currently operating two keg lines, and one line each for bottles and cans.
Prior to the actual filling of product into glass containers, all the empty bottles pass through a Krones washer and on through a model Ominivision empty bottle inspection machine—to check for any chips, cracks, debris or foreign objects and contamination— from Industrial Dynamics/filtec, who incidentally invented the world’s first electronic bottle inspector in the late 1950s.
Both the canning and the bottling lines employ Krones filling systems: a 40-valve, double preevacuation VK2VCF filler for filling and capping bottles at rates of up to 16,200 bottles per hour; and a 50-valve VCC filler that fills aluminum cans at up to 36,000 cans per hour.
“Our multistage filtration equipment and our great Krones fillers have enabled us to create our beers without any additives, preservatives or pasteurization,” says Scott, “and provide distinctive f lavors for a significant segment of the beer market thirsty for a quality alternative to the products made by large commercial breweries.”
All the freshly-bottled product then passes by the Krones Prontomatic cold-glue bottle labeler that dresses each bottle with a body and shoulder label, with Hitachi printers then quickly applying all the required coding data onto the individual bottles.
All the finished cans and bottles are also subjected to a final, high-speed quality assurance check by a model FT-50 full-container inspector from Industrial Dynamics/filtec, which examines the cans and bottles for fill levels, closure, low or high foam, pressure or vacuum, volumetric pressure, label placement at speeds of up to 140,000 cans and up to 72,000 bottles per hour.
Sourcing its cases and cartons from the Toronto Norampac and Winnipeg Lithotech boxboard converting facilities, the brewery employs the high-performance ProBlue 4 hot-melt adhesive applicating systems—manufactured by Nordson Corporation—to seal the cartons together, just before they proceed making their way to the Markem-Imaje case-coding stations.
While Scott says that having high-quality production and packaging equipment in place plays an important role in the craft brewer’s continued success, he is also quick to lavish praise on the plant’s dedicated and highly-motivated staff.
“We are very much a teamwork-based company,” he states. “We are always updating our employees’ training requirements—from chemical handling to forklift certification—and we ensure that our production managers are attending all the important training seminars, while also continually investing in new training programs for our sales teams.
“While it’s obviously important for us to be able to brew a great line of beer,” Scott sums up, “it is also important that we take care of our employees too.”
According to Tomei, Big Rock intends to celebrate its 25th anniversary in some style this fall, planning various high-profile surprise parties and other commemorative events at numerous pubs and bars across the province of Alberta.
Says Tomei: “We really believe that is important for us to share our success with the people who helped make us a success—it’s just the right thing to do.”