Day 260

At a small brewery, there’s always lots to do, so generally you have your tasks to perform, and everyone else has their tasks to do.

But not on bottling days. Bottling requires all hands on deck.

For an hour, we prep the heart of the bottling line, a snorting, hissing beast called a Meheen. Then, with all in readiness, and everyone at their stations, we’re off!

Empty bottles enter Meheen

Empty bottles enter Meheen

The person at one end uses a neat doohickey to pick up 24 empty bottles at a time and flip them upside down on the sanitizer station. Once sanitized and drained, the person picks them up again, flips them right side up and slides them into the loading chute of the Meheen. From there, the bottles advance six at a time into the mouth of the beast, and emerge from the other side filled, crowned, and washed.

They then enter the labeller, where they elegantly spin around as a label is glued on.

From the labeller, the bottles head to a turntable, where they go round and round until picked up by the glue monkey, who packs them into cartons and glues the cartons shut.

Sounds easy, right? Let’s go back and take a closer look at each operation.

With the Meheen devouring six bottles every ten seconds or so, the person feeding it bottles has only 30 seconds or so to retrieve 24 empty bottles from a nearby skid, assemble the bottles into a 4×6 grid, move the bottles on the sanitizer to the infeed, and move the new bottles to the sanitizer. But wait, there’s more! This person also has to keep an eye on the hopper holding bottle crowns and refill it from time to time, and watch the bottles as they get filled and crowned to make sure there are no problems.

Then there’s the true instrument of the Devil, the labeller. Yes, if anything can go wrong, it’s probably the labeller’s fault. Too much glue. Too little glue. Labels that refuse to enter the labeller. Labels that enter the labeller three at a time. A sticky bearing that requires disassembly and reassembly. An empty label magazine. Ninety percent of shutdowns are the result of the labeller.

Filled and crowned bottles emerge from the Meheen on their way to the labeller

Filled and crowned bottles emerge from the Meheen on their way to the labeller

And finally, the glue monkey. With six bottles heading his way every ten seconds, he barely has enough time to grab a couple of empty cartons, then pick up bottles four at a time (or even six at a time), stuff them into cartons, glue the cartons shut and move the cartons to a skid–but the glue monkey is also the last person to see the beer before it moves to the consumer, so has to watch for and sequester low-fills, unlabelled bottles, bottles with too many labels, and any other problems revealed by a visual inspection.

It takes about an hour and a quarter of continuous work at top speed to fill a skid with 2,016 bottles. Once you’ve finished a complete skid of bottles, grab a bottle of water, disappear into the walk-in cooler for a few minutes to take a breather–then it’s time to fill another skid.

Repeat until the brewmaster says whoa.

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