Canning: Past, Present and Future

How did we get here?

2021 has begun as a year of many changes here at Kyoto Brewing Co., and the most obvious to the outside world has been the shift from packaging our beer in bottles to cans. There were many factors behind this decision, the most urgent of which was necessity. We purchased our original bottling machine prior to opening the brewery under the assumption that its 500 bottle per hour capacity would suit our needs for the first 2-3 years. However, the initial demand for our kegged beer was much higher than expected, meaning that making the decision to start bottling beer would effectively mean that we were taking kegged beer away from existing customers.

Our production volume began to catch up with demand in late 2017/early 2018 and we felt we were finally able to begin bottling. Unfortunately, by this time our production volume had already increased to a point where our small bottling machine was undersized to process a meaningful number of bottles. Thus, for several years it only seemed feasible to bottle the portion we could sell at our taproom.

While debating what to do with our bottled beer moving forward, Covid-19 came and demanded that we expedite the decision as soon as possible. With bars closed across the country, were no longer had outlets to sell kegged beer and had no other choice but to push the limits of our little bottling machine. This was the final nail in the coffin of its useful life expectancy, and we knew we had to upgrade to something and fast. The question was, would it be a bottling line or canning line?

Internally, we were very much excited about the prospect of cans. We had seen firsthand how they took over the craft beer industry in the United States and saw great potential in their ability to make craft beer more approachable while at the same time more economical and eco-friendly. However, general consumer appreciation of cans is low in Japan, and canned beer is often seen as cheap and inferior compared to its bottled form. Moreover, the general beer industry is still very heavily focused on conglomerate breweries, meaning that lot sizes and storage requirements are often well beyond what small breweries can accommodate.

There was further hesitation due to the quality related pros and cons between cans and bottles. Cans are a much more effective container for beer due to the ability to completely shut out light as well as prevent the slow escape of gas pressure over time. Bottles are much more rigid, meaning that it is easier to remove air from the container prior to filling in order to reduce factors that lead to oxidation. After many hours of research, we felt confident enough in the filling technology used by Cask Global Canning Solutions that we could make the switch to cans without sacrificing the oxygen related benefits of bottles.

Getting started:

Once the decision was made, our main goal was getting the canning line installed and operating as quickly as possible. While the pandemic was a catalyst for this decision, it was also one of the most frustrating aspects of its implementation. Travel restrictions meant that engineers were unable to visit us on site, and instead we had to be their arms, eyes, and ears through remote installation sessions. This proved very frustrating, and we wound up using nearly two batches of beer for testing purposes.

Current Status:

While we struggled at the beginning as we got used to the equipment, the support we received from Cask Global Canning Solutions as well as other domestic breweries using a similar machine (thanks TDM1874 Brewery and Two Rabbits!) has meant that we have made huge improvements in overall quality. While we still have some adjustments to make to lower oxygen counts to the levels they were at with bottles, we are already very close and well under the industry standard for acceptable limits. In terms of efficiency, we couldn’t be happier with the change to our canning line. We can now load, can, fill, and label nearly 2400 cans per hour with the same number of operators as it took to monitor our small bottling line. Needless to say, this has lightened the load on the brew team significantly and the amount of extra time and effort being spent on packaging has reduced immensely.

Moving forward:

As we move forward, the first goal is continuing to improve our filling abilities to the point that the canned product is equally or more suited for storage than our bottles were. What this means for you is that whenever you pick up a can of KBC beer, you can be confident that you will be drinking it in the condition we intended as long as it is within the best before date stamped on the bottom. Other improvements will have less direct impact on consumers but will affect us here at the brewery as we strive to further increase efficiency while at the same time reducing beer loss during filling.

Needless to say, the switch to cans has been a rollercoaster of an adventure thus far. We hope that you are enjoying the changes as much as we are, and look forward to exploring what is to come together!