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Monday, August 1, 2016

Victory's Parkesburg facility showcases state of the art brewery automation

by Ryan Gerstel

A Growing Industry

The craft of brewing beer has been a human activity for thousands of years. For the majority of that time, human interaction was necessary to ensure the beer's creation. It was a science. The brewers were the scientists and the brewery was their laboratory.

As the popularity of beer has grown, the industry has had to adapt, turning to machines to keep up with the demand. And the use of automation has played an integral role in propelling the industry to become one of the more lucrative industries, with the global beer market expecting to be worth up to $688.4 billion by the year 2020

Machine automation hasn't only helped corporate macro giants such as Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors. It's helped the growth of smaller micro breweries, too. In 2015 it was estimated that micro breweries account for 14.3 percent of the $100 billion United States beer market. Just last November, San Diego's Ballast Point, one of the more renowned names in the craft beer spectrum, sold to Constellation Brands (aka Corona and Modelo) for $1 billion.

An excellent example of automation's role in micro brewery growth is Victory Brewing Company's location in Parkesburg, PA which officially opened back in 2014. Victory's new state of the art facility is showcasing some of the industry's most advanced brewery automation.

The Tech

Since their conception in 1995, Victory has relied on automation to increase productivity and ensure consistency. Co-founder Bill Covaleski's wife created the brewery's first program that allowed brewers to control several parts of the brewing process through a computer. A program that helped them produce up t0 45,000 barrels a year before it was replaced in 2004.  For Victory, automation is an integral part of their quest to maintain a diverse line-up of beers that meets the quality and volume demanded by their consumers.  This quest has culminated into their Parkesburg facility.

On behalf of the KOP Beer Outlet, I had the pleasure of touring this remarkable establishment with maintenance software reviewer Julia Scavicchio from Better Buys. We were led by Brewing Manager James Gentile, who acted as our tour guide. 

The nerve center of the facility, the brew house, is an immense feat of modern technology that possesses the power to efficiently create their core brews with minimal human involvement. At the center of Parkesburg’s brew house is a software solution called Pro Leit, which keeps track a number of steps in real-time, such as measuring fluid flow, controlling steam, and monitoring parameters of the brew up until fermentation. 

Another solution, eMaint, which is a leader in the Computerized Maintenance Management Software (CMMS) industry, requires just two full-time technicians per shift to care for Victory’s various machines. This solution balances spare parts inventories and ongoing work orders all throughout the facility so that there’s minimal downtime. The maintenance staff is responsible for resolving program failures and adjusting pipes and valves to account for select brews.

The centrifuge, or the machine that filters out excess yeast and other solids from the beer by violently spinning the liquid, is also fully automated. The beer's humidity, timing and recipe parameters are all automatically taken into account. This process helps Victory meet their clarity standards for each and every brew.

But the most impressive aspect of Parkesburg's brewery automation is its kegging and bottling lines--both of which are pivotal in helping Victory meet the demand for more beer.

The kegging line, which uses technology provided by Lambrechts, begins with each used keg being thoroughly washed to remove all traces of the previous beer. An impressive single conveyor belt that moves the kegs along as they are washed with detergent, stronger detergent, acid and finally steam to ensure that the kegs are like new. The freshly washed kegs are then quickly filled with beer, while still on the conveyor belt, and fed to Victory's incredibly efficient "keg arm" that grabs each 165-pound keg, with ease, and places it on a pallet. A Victory employee operating a forklift then places each full pallet and lines them up for distribution. Amazingly, Victory's keg line is able to clean, fill and place a remarkable 140 kegs per hour.


James, who is clearly enamored with the keg arm, had this to say about the machine: "It’s learning every day. This is one of the most thorough keg washers in the world as it is constant and effective.”

Parkesburg's bottling line, provided by Krones Universella, is another prime example of the efficiency and necessity of brewery automation.

At the time of my tour, Victory's bottling line was hard at work filling, capping and boxing cases of their best-selling Belgian-style tripel, Golden Monkey. I watched in astonishment as hundreds upon hundreds of freshly filled bottles flew down the conveyor belt to be capped and labeled with the the beer's best buy date. The bottling line prepares 270 bottles per minute to be packaged for


While the bottling line worked to prepare bottles, two more separate machine worked diligently packaging the brews. One machine assembled six pack holders and cases while another filled the holders and cases with bottles. The line does require two Victory employees to monitor the line, move full pallets and watch for broken glass. According to James, over 22,000 cases of Golden Monkey, their best-selling product, will be packaged in one month alone. 

Their canning line, while still impressive, is not nearly as efficient as the bottling line requiring a three employees instead of two to over see the process. Provided by Siemens, Parkesburg's canning line cans approximately 140 cans per minute, which pales in comparison to the 270 bottle per minute pace of the bottling line. 

Lost Romance

There are drawbacks, however. While the machines have certainly streamlined the brewing process, there are many traditional brewers who feel that all of the automation has taken the human "craft" out of "craft beer." 

"You’ll find that there aren’t as many “lifers” in breweries anymore," Gentile said. "Brewers don’t feel as connected to the brands they make any more since the romance is lost with all the automation. What’s to stop them from moving out to California once they’ve got enough experience? "What you’ll find is that to get the consistency needed, breweries will either be very large with a ton of automation to reduce the risk of having so many hands touch the product, or you’ll find breweries that are so small there’s one guy in charge of the majority of it." 

Victory is just one example of brewery automation, of course. There are thousands of breweries across the globe that use similar technology to keep up with the ever-growing demand for more quality beer. But for micro-breweries such as Victory, machine automation is a necessity if you want to stay relevant in the ever-growing craft beer spectrum.  

2014 interview with Philly Beer Scene, Victory's Founder, Covaleski, admitted: "If we don't want to accept new craft consumers, we can ditch automation. If we don’t want to accept new craft beer consumers, we can ditch automation."

Although, Victory's success has been a direct result of machine automation. 

Covaleski also added the following: "With the automated system at Victory's new Parkesburg facility helping to keep the impressive four-by-four array of 1,000-barrel fermenters full, Victory is on track to produce a whopping 225,000 barrels next year, with the capacity to do half a million once everything is up an running." 
The days of breweries relying on human labor to craft their beers are numbered. Brewery automation has played a big hand in the rapid growth of micro brews across the nation, and as automation technology continues to improve, it will continue to do so for years to come. 

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