May 7, 2010
by Andrew Joseph, Features Editor
Family secrets can come in many different forms, shapes and sizes, but for Sleeman Breweries Ltd., the company’s ‘little black book’ of closely-guarded beer-making recipes—often credited for enabling the Guelph, Ont.-based craft brewer to grow into Canada’s third-largest beer producer by volume in just over 20 years—offers living proof that sometimes, the best things really do come in small packages.
Tracing its origins back to the 1830s, the leather-bound recipe collection hand-written by John H. Sleeman turned out to be one very happy accident of birth for his great-great-grandson John Sleeman, who stumbled upon the priceless family heirloom, along with the original bottle of Sleeman Cream Ale, back in 1984.
“The rest, as they say, is history,” says Darlene Fidler, national purchasing manager with the well-established, well-respected Canadian beer industry stalwart that in recent years has become a key prized asset for the Japan-headquartered multinational brewing giant Sapporo Breweries Ltd., following a $400-million buyout back in 2006.
By any measure, history has been pretty kind for the ambitious beer upstart that took the Canadian marketplace by storm in 1988 with head-turning, distinctively-shaped, label-free glass containers of golden-hued Sleeman Cream Ale—made with five varieties of imported hops—and continued to go from strength to strength despite the best efforts of Canada’s long-enduring beer market duopoly of Molson and Labatt to marginalize its impact.
Today also operating regional sister breweries in Dartmouth, N.S., Vernon, B.C., and Chambly, Que., to complement the diverse product range of beers produced at Sleeman’s central, 475-employee Guelph brewery—home to a dozen varieties of Sleeman-branded products, as well as the popular ‘import’ brands including Stroh’s, Old Milwaukee, Pabst and Maclays and Sapporo—the company has long outlived its one-time status as a niche regional beer-maker to become a formidable national player in the Canadian beer business, aided by the significant capital resources and global reach of its corporate parent.
Having undergone three plant expansions in the last 12 years, the state-of-the-art Guelph brewery today boasts annual capacity of one million hectoliters (a hectoliter is a rough equivalent of just over a dozen 24-bottle cases)—produced on the plant’s three high-performance bottling, canning and kegging lines—with most of the output packaged either in 341-ml clear-glass bottles from glassmaker Owens-Illinois (O-I), primarily for the flagship Sleeman brands; aluminum 355-ml and 473-ml cans supplied by Ball Corporation; and 650-ml steel cans shipped in from Japan for production of the world-famous Sapporo brand of Japanese-style lager.
Not only does the company distribute its popular, upper-end products right across Canada today—along with regional favorites acquired over the years such as Upper Canada, Unibroue, Okanagan Springs and Shaftsberry—Sleeman has also expanded its international horizons in recent years by starting to sell into the U.S. and the U.K. markets.
But while expanded global reach may be a clear confirmation of the company’s coming of age as a serious market player, such growth inevitably carries with it the burden of a growing environmental footprint and ecological impact, which is something it is keenly addressing on a daily basis with a range of sustainability-centered programs and initiatives, according to Fidler.
“We have a wastewater treatment plant right here on our Guelph premises,” Fidler told Canadian Packaging on a recent visit to the Guelph brewery. “All of the water used during our production process is treated and cleaned before being put back into Guelph’s municipal wastewater system.”
“Sleeman Breweries has been working on lowering its impact on the environment for quite a few years now,” asserts Fidler, “by not only ensuring that our breweries are ‘green,’ but also by proactively trying to convert all of our vendors to sustainability as well, so that we can meet our own environmental objectives.”
For example, Fidler points out, the brewer recently invested in specialized new equipment used for chopping up PET (polyethylene terephthalate) strapping into smaller pieces that can now be shipped directly to the industrial recycling centers and facilities, rather than being hauled off to a landfill.
Fidler, who has personally initiated many of the company’s in-house sustainability programs, stresses that Sleeman’s commitment to environmental sustainability actually precedes the relatively recent emergence of carbon footprint reduction as a major hot topic in CPG (consumer packaged goods) industry circles.
As she points outs, for example, Sleeman has already enjoyed a healthy five-year relationship with the Toronto-based corrugated packaging supplier Atlantic Packaging Products Ltd.—operating five production facilities in Ontario and two Mitchell-Lincoln plants in Montreal and Drummondville—in part because Atlantic uses 100-percent recycled paper to manufacture its boxes and other corrugated packaging from its 100-percent recycled mills in Toronto.
“Atlantic Packaging has never cut down a tree,” states Atlantic Packaging’s vice-president of corrugated sales Peter Garvey. “Most of our products are made from recycled paper only, and that’s pretty amazing.”
Fidler says the 100-percent recycled, 100-percent recyclable corrugate board supplied by Atlantic Packaging provides a highly efficient packaging solution for the outer/master cartons used for the company’s 24-bottle beerpacks.
“We have also discovered over the years that we can trust Atlantic to consistently provide us with the on-time delivery, excellent customer service, and quality products and reliability that we are looking for from our suppliers,” says Fidler.
anced sustainability performance is an added bonus that, while maybe not being really known or appreciated by the public at large, is very important to us.
“It’s a real win-win situation,” stresses Fidler, adding that Sleeman Breweries takes a lot of pride in being awarded a Certificate of Environmental Sustainability from Atlantic Packaging last May in recognition of the brewer’s commitment to environmental protection and packaging sustainability.
Points out Garvey: “By choosing our sustainable corrugated products for its beer outer packaging and inserts, Sleeman has helped preserve over 36,408 mature trees in 2007.
“It’s a savings that represents the diversion of nearly 61 truckloads, or 1,517 tonnes of waste, that would otherwise be destined for landfill.”
“Being greener is not just a corporate-level thing for us either,” Fidler adds.
“The hard-working guys in the back of the plant are an excellent resource, as they often come to my office to offer ideas and suggestions regarding recycling,” says Fidler, adding the fact that Sleeman Breweries chooses not to trumpet its environmental contribution too loudly is simply a reflection of the brewer’s overall quietly-efficient, understated philosophical approach to doing business.
“At the end of the day, when all is said and done, it doesn’t matter if the whole world knows we were environmentally responsible, just as long as we are,” she states.
“By utilizing sustainable materials for our packaging, it’s just a case of Sleeman Breweries trying to be a responsible company that is truly committed to the environment and to our community, while producing great beer.”
And with an estimated seven-percent share of the Canadian domestic beer market, there is little doubt that there are many beer-lovers across the country with strong taste preference and brand loyalty for the fairly diverse range of beers products made at the Guelph brewery, which Fidler says continually invests into the latest production and quality control equipment to maintain its hard-earned reputation for high product quality and world-class packaging execution.
According to Fidler, some of the more recent noteworthy capital investments at the Guelph brewery include the installation of:
• The Innofil DRF long-tube filling system from KHS USA, Inc., equipped with computer-controlled filling level probes, installed on the glass bottle filling-and-capping line—with its 108 filling heads easily accommodating the line’s average output speeds of 550-bpm (bottles per minute) and offering the unique advantage of a filling process whereby the beer is filled from the bottom up, with no pre-evacuation or CO2 (carbon-dioxide) purging required;
• A Filtec electronic-eye detection system to inspect bottles for any packaging defects, as well as the bottle caps to ensure proper cap placement;
• A range of conveyors from Hytrol Conveyor Company, Inc.;
• A carton-erector from Pearson Packaging Systems for the 24-bottle cases;
• A case-packer from Hartness International, Inc. for the bottling line;
• The Mecafill VKP model can filler—supplied by Krones Machinery Co.—with throughput capacity of over 300 cans per minute;
• The Topmatic labeling system, also from Krones, equipped with Rockwell Automation’s Allen-Bradley brand PanelView Plus 700 electronic operator interface;
• A fully-automatic stretchwrapping machine from ITW Muller, outfitted with an Allen-Bradley PanelView 550 interface;
• Photoelectric sensing technology from SICK, Inc.