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The build of our new brewery in Mills River, North Carolina, is continuing at a breakneck pace. Shipments of new equipment arrive every day, and last week we began the installation of our bottling line in the packaging hall.
With its shining copper kettles, wonderful aromas and spirit of invention, the brewhouse is usually the focus of most attention in a brewery. (Cruise by our Chico brewery at night and the glow of our kettles is something special.) However, the packaging hall is central to making good beer great.
The packaging facility is the most technologically advanced section of a brewery. Many incredibly complex machines have to work in perfect harmony to get beer into bottles or cans and, ultimately, to you. Thousands of moving parts, acres of glass, logistical witchcraft, and scrupulous monitoring and sanitation are all necessary to ensure the best quality product is packaged and shipped out the door to the right place at the right time with the right labels. No easy task.
Our North Carolina facility will feature state-of-the-art technology. At the heart: a Krones 132-head filler capable of getting beer into bottles at a rate of almost 1,000 bottles per minute. Additionally, labelers, rinsers, packers and hundreds of yards of conveyors will guide finished beer out into the world.
Packaging is the last step in the long process of making beer and, notably, it’s the final time our beer will be 100 percent under our control. Throughout the process, quality is of utmost importance. Bottles are inspected, cleaned, placed under a vacuum to ensure no oxygen remains inside before being crowned, labeled, and boxed. This intense focus on quality is especially important for a brewery like Sierra Nevada where we bottle most of our beers traditionally, without pasteurization, and favor bottle conditioning.
Bottle conditioning is an old technique of adding a dose of fresh yeast to every bottle. These beers undergo a secondary fermentation in the bottle, adding carbonation, building complexity and extending the stability of the finished beer. Bottle-conditioned beers are stored at a warm temperature for more than a week before leaving the warehouse; this warm storage is the perfect environment for things to go wrong without the proper quality control. We check, re-check, and (surprise) check again every shipment of beer that leaves the brewery to ensure the quality is up to our standards.
It may seem strange that the packaging hall—the end of the process—is the start of the equipment installation at our new brewery site. The fact is, the complexity of the facility and our obsessive bent on quality make the bottle shop the logical first step. With a misstep in packaging, great beer can be destroyed in a matter of days. All of the good intentions in the brewhouse can easily go to waste without the proper care. Making good beer is only part of the equation; getting that beer out to the world tasting the way it did in the tanks is what makes a great brewery. In North Carolina, we’re on our way to making the same great beer we have for three decades in Chico, bottle and all.