Venerable Canadian brewing giant hooks up with long-time turnkey equipment supplier to bring state-of-the-art packaging technology to its new British Columbia production facility
Whereas breweries were once a fixed feature of inner cities all over the world, today more and more companies are abandoning their confined urban premises in favor of the surrounding countryside.
Founded by British settler John Molson in 1786 in Montreal, Molson Coors—as it’s been called since its merger with American big player Coors in 2005—is the oldest brewery in North America and was for a long time the largest in Canada.
Rebuilt and extended following the Great Fire of Montreal in 1852, for 237 years it occupied 28 hectares in the neighborhood of Centre-Sud on the banks of the St. Lawrence River.
This year the new brewery moved to Longueuil on the opposite side of the river, where it has over 140 hectares of space for future possible expansions. The new site also provides easy access to various amenities and infrastructure, including top-quality water, highways, natural-gas pipelines and ports.
The Molson Coors facility in British Columbia, the westernmost province of Canada, did exactly the same two years ago. Originally operating in the big-city metropolis of Vancouver, home to the brewery since 1953, the production site was moved to Chilliwack in Fraser Valley, about 100 kilometers to the east.
At this location, there are practically no limits to its future growth with 36 hectares of land at its disposal—five times the area the brewery had in the middle of the province’s largest city. Opened in September 2019, the site is just a stone’s throw from the northern border of the U.S.
With a direct link to the Trans-Canada Highway, it is perfectly positioned to fulfill its task of supplying the western Canada and the U.S. with beer products.
Moreover, being located in the largely agricultural region where many of the hops are grown, just 15 minutes from the brewery provides the locally produced beers with their distinctive taste profiles.
Tucked in between Fraser River and the Cascades, a mountain range that stretches right down to California, the local water here is of excellent purity and quality, which is essential for any brewery.
For any beverage bottler who wants to create totally new production capacities out in the country, having access to a reliable partner to depended on during installation, commissioning and day-to-day operations in critical to success.
As it has done so often in the past, Molson Coors decided to continue its long-enduring business relationship with venerable German beverage processing and packaging systems manufacturer KHS GmbH, whom it has trusted for many, many years.
“Molson Coors and KHS have had close ties for more than 100 years,” says David Hamel, general operations manager at the new production plant in Chilliwack.
While Hamel himself has ‘only’ been with the company for 18 years, at his earlier place of work in Montreal worked in part with systems built by KHS’ predecessor companies during the 1970s.
“I’ve been able to see with my own eyes how these machines from way back in the past have technically developed into the highly modern filling and packaging lines of the present day,” says Hamel, adding the fact that his employer and a high-tech supplier can look back on such a long history is “a strong statement.”
Hence Hamel says he was not surprised to Molson Coors procure not just one but three lines from the Dortmund-based systems supplier for its greenfield project.
One of these is a new glass line that fills up to 36,000 341-ml bottles per hour.
With strong focus on the future viability of its labeling and packaging options, the line incorporates a modular Innoket SE labeler was that processes different types of labels, and can also be supplemented by other modules as and when required.
Another special feature of this particular line is the KHS Innopack TLM case-packer, which had been implemented in close cooperation with leading German packaging specialists Schubert Packaging Systems of from Crailsheim, Germany.
The blocked system, comprising a packer and erecting and closing modules, provides optimal flexibility by not only processing trays, but also the RSC (regular slotted carton) boxes, baskets and craft cartons, and solid cardboard.
Being able to folded, glued and filled so many cartons makes machine is a real “Jack of all trades,” according to Hamel.
“The variety of products that already distinguishes Molson Coors is by no means exhausted,” Hamel states.
“If there’s one thing that doesn’t change, it’s the fact that we constantly have to change,” he asserts. “That’s why we need technology that can adapt.”
As Hamel relates, Molson Coors already produces a vast product portfolio in Chilliwack, comprising 42 different brands and more than 250 SKUs (stock-keeping units). Besides classic products and global brands such as Coors Original, Coors Light and Molson Canadian, the company also bottles and markets specialties like the local Granville Island craft beer, a popular West Coast IPA product.
That said, the company has recently realigned its group strategy to begin adding more and more beverages other than beer to its production repertoire.
To reflect the switch, the Chilliwack operations has added the production of new alcohol-free or low-alcohol products that are manufactured in a fashion similar to beer.
This includes so-called “hard seltzer” products that originated in the U.S. and are currently enjoying increasing popularity in Canada.
“The market significance of this product is not to be underestimated, stresses Hamel, noting the company’s recent decision to invest $100 million into the segment in North America alone.
Similarly, a new joint venture with licensed Canadian cannabis producer Hexo to market the Truss brand of CBD-infused (non-psychoactive) beverages—also seems like a very promising endeavour.
The multitude of new beverage categories also include ciders, wine spritzer, pre-mixed beverages, and hop-flavored Vyne brand bottled water.
For now, however, the Chilliwack brewery’s main focus remains producing beer for western Canada and U.S., as well as the Asia Pacific region.
With output already exceeding over one million liters per week, Hamel says that maximum flexibility isn’t only expected regarding labeling and secondary packaging, but also with respect to the containers themselves.
“We already process a broad spectrum of bottles, cans and kegs,” Hamel explains, but in the future we want to continue to exploit all the opportunities the market presents us with and that consumers demand.”
To that end, the brewery has invested into a state-of-the-art KHS canning line featuring the Innofill Can DVD can filler capable of filling up to 72,000 cans per hour.
The flexible filler can process different container sizes ranging from 246 ml to 473 ml in slim, sleek and standard shapes, as per customer requirements.
As on the glass line the Innopas PISC pasteurizer is also part of the canning line’s set-up, along with the Innopack Kisters TP machine that packs the beverage cans onto trays.
These trays are then sent for palletizing, where the packs are grouped with the help of Fanuc robots and stacked on shipping pallets—currently in 14 different formats.
For its part new KHS kegging line also offers optimal flexibility, being able to process up to 240 standard, slim or one-way kegs an hour —including palletizing—made of either aluminum or PET (polyethylene terephtalate) plastic and filled with 15, 20, 30, 50 or 58 litres of product.
Because of the sheer size of the investment, all those involved in the project had to be able to fully rely on one another during installation and commissioning in the spring and summer of 2019.
The time between the creation of the structural prerequisites and the start of commercial production, during which all systems had to be connected with one another, was extremely short and there were hardly any buffers or time to spare.
“Our long-standing relations with KHS stood us in good stead here; we can depend on them managing a big project like this together with us,” emphasizes Hamel.
Many lessons were learned during this time that can be referred to when needed in ongoing operation. To this end, a structured process was developed to make the expertise of KHS’ engineers accessible to the company’s own workforce in the long term.
This includes the establishment of standards for a good number of performance indicators, for example, that enables Molson Coors’ mechanics to ensure ideal conditions at all times and quickly detect and remedy any deviations.
“When you start a project like this, you of course want to ensure that it’s equipped with the best, most advanced technology there is,” Hamel states.
“One key aspect closely related to the future viability of the plant engineering is the issue of sustainability in the form of energy and resource efficiency and the company’s carbon footprint,” Hamel points out. “Molson Coors itself takes on a pioneering role in this field by recovering the CO2 released during fermentation in the brewing process and using it to fill carbonated beverages, to name but one example.
“We found it incredibly important that the new lines adhere to certain sustainability criteria defined by us,” Hamel concludes.“We wanted to reduce our previous energy and water consumption and at the same time considerably boost our efficiency.
“The KHS lines have satisfied our stringent requirements right from the start and—even more importantly—we’ve since been able to further improve on our consumption values and availability.”