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The taste of the south

Craft beer in cans? Yes, it really does work.

Abita Brewery is one of the USA’s first craft breweries to serve the market with this packaging variant, produced on a completely new filling line able to handle both glass bottles and cans. Not only has this privately owned brewery thus paved the way into a highly propitious future for its hand-crafted beers, it has also upped its filling capacities many times over, significantly enhanced the level of its filling quality, but above all has upgraded its flexibility quite enormously. The Varioline packaging system, in particular, opens up for what is the biggest, and also the US south-east’s oldest craft brewery, undreamed-of options for the all-important situationally responsive marketing of its beers. Prospects for Abita are very auspicious, as they are indeed for the entire market segment of the American craft breweries.

David Blossman was 17 years old when the Abita Brewing Company was founded back in 1986. He was an enthusiastic fan of home brewing even when he was a youngster. “I just loved the idea of brewing beer yourself, if at all possible in your hometown environment.” So he invested all his savings (2,500 dollars) in Abita, thus acquiring a one-per-cent stake. David was the youngest of six brothers, the rest of whom were already going out to work. He persuaded them with his enthusiasm, and one year later the six of them acquired a majority holding in the Abita Brewery. However, it was to take another ten years before he became the Managing Director. In the meantime, he had obtained his CPA and spent several years working as a financial manager.

New Orleans used to be the brewing capital of the American South. Its first brewery was opened by the Swiss emigrant Louis Fasnacht back in 1852. As more and more German immigrants poured in, there was a downright tidal wave of brewery foundations, and by 1890 they numbered 30 in all. Due to the introduction of refrigeration, pasteurisation, to improved transport options and a change in consumer taste preferences, subsequent times then saw a number of closedowns and mergers. Up until 1949, the New Orleans Brewing Company, created by the merger of six relatively small breweries dominated the market, while in the 1950s and 1960s this role was taken over by the Fallstaff Brewery. Back in those years, the Fallstaff, Dixie, Jax and Regal Breweries accounted for 80 per cent of the total beer market. All of them had to close down as the years went by, with their buildings converted into hotels or shopping malls. The last of the old-established breweries to lose its premises in New Orleans was Dixie: in 2005, hurricane Katrina flooded the brewery, which was then destroyed by looters. Today, Dixie is being brewed in Wisconsin. But the brewing scene returned to Louisiana, with micro-breweries of a new generation, like those of Abita, Nola, Tin Roof Brewing Company, Gordon Biersch Brewery, Parrish, Covington Brewhouse, Crescent City or Heiner Brau.

Wheat beer with fresh raspberry purée

In all, Abita makes seven main brands, which are available all the year round: Abita Amber, Golden, Light, Turbodog, Purple Haze, Jockamo I.P.A. and Restoration Pale Ale. Purple Haze, for example, is a wheat beer to which fresh raspberry purée is added after filtration, for reinforcing the fruity taste. Jockamo I.P.A. boasts an impressive 6.5 per cent alcohol by volume (abv) and 52 bittering units. Restoration Pale Ale, with 5.1 abv and 20 bittering units, was created by Abita directly after the devastating hurricanes Katrina and Rita had hit the state. Thankfully, the brewery itself had been spared major destruction, which is why the owners decided to help the victims of this catastrophe. For two years, one dollar out of every Restoration six-pack sold was donated to hurricane relief efforts. In total 550,000 dollars was raised for charity.

And anyway: the brewery likes to live up to its corporate philosophy of “giving back to society”. When the Deep Water Horizons oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, Abita responded by brewing SOS (Save our Shore), and has since then been donating 75 cents per bottle, which up to the present day has amounted to more than 400,000 dollars, to a foundation set up for fishermen and their families affected by this disaster and for restoring the wetland habitats on the coast. What’s more, Abita Abbey honours the centuries-old monastic brewing tradition by donating 25 cents per bottle to a nearby monastery

Brewing the beers with Steinecker’s technology

When it comes to the actual brewing, Abita relies on technology from Steinecker. In 2000, the brewery was the first outside Europe to use the radically new Merlin wort boiling system, which reduces the boiling time from 90 to 35 minutes, thus downsizing energy consumption by 70 per cent. In addition, a vapour condenser recovers process steam into the bargain. The four-vessel brewhouse, designed for a brew size of 120 hectolitres, makes for an annual capacity of 150,000 hectolitres (130,000 barrels), given a brew duration of 4.5 hours. By shortening this to three hours, thanks to an additional heat exchanger and a product holding tank, plus faster removal of the spent grains, Abita is now able to run no fewer than eight brews a day. To ensure that its beers are properly fine-tuned in terms of both aroma and taste, Abita is keen to add hops three times over: bittering, flavouring and aroma hops. Some of the beers are additionally dry-hopped in the storage tank, like Jockamo I.P.A. and Restoration Ale, for example. Prior to filling, the beers are cold-filtered, first undergoing separation in a centrifuge and then final filtration in a sheet filter. Stabilisation is dispensed with.

Significant improvement in bottling quality

As demand kept on growing and growing, it was high time to think about installing a new bottling line. The existing one of Italian manufacture, dating back to 1999 and rated at 9,000 bottles an hour, had long since reached the limits of its capacity. “The more we asked of it, the lower its efficiency became”, explains David Blossman. “Fill level accuracy was no longer adequate, pasteurisation was not reliable enough, labelling and end-of-the-line packaging left a lot to be desired, with efficiency levels falling towards 80 per cent. We wanted the new line to give us more capacity, and enhanced levels of both efficiency and bottling quality, plus way more flexibility.” The new Krones line, which started operation in November 2011, enabled David to translate all his ideas into hands-on bottling reality: the line’s speed, at 24,000 bottles an hour, is more than double that of the old line, its design efficiency exceeds 90 per cent, the oxygen content in the glass bottles is a 0.1 or less milligrams a litre, fill level accuracy is spot-on, thanks to high-precision filling and immediate inspection in a Checkmat FM-X, which also checks the bottles for proper closure position. Abita is still using the traditional, short-necked 355-millilitre “Heritage” bottles, where the head space is significantly smaller than in the modern long-neck bottles, thus minimising the amount of air inside the bottle. “The Lina­Flex tunnel pasteuriser is doing an extremely reliable job”, emphasises David. “Since it’s been divided up into zones each with separate cooling and heat-up, you will get neither under- nor overpasteurisation. The 15 pasteurisation units we want are being accurately achieved. An intelligent machine indeed.”

How does craft beer square with cans?

Does the image of beer brewed in the finest of craft traditions really fit in with the idea of canning it? For a long time, Abita found it difficult to make up its mind. How would canned beer be received by consumers? How would Abita beer taste when drunk from a can? In the end, it was two considerations that tipped the scales in favour of cans: firstly, glass bottles have been banned from many public events due to the injury risk they pose, not least during the parades of Mardi Gras (which translates as “Fatty Tuesday”). Every year in spring, this carnival of New Orleans, famous the whole world over, enthrals hundreds of thousands of locals and visitors from all round the globe, who are, unsurprisingly, partial to celebrating with one or more local beers during the parades. However, beer in cans also comes in handy when you’re out fishing, golfing, enjoying yourself on the beach or at parties. All of these are consumption opportunities that Abita did not want to miss out on. “Louisiana is a sporting paradise, the centre of Mardi Gras, offering an abundance of leisure activities. Just think of the 3,000 miles of coastline, more than 400 festivals each year, almost 200 golf courses and 22 national parks”, muses David. “All of them very good reasons to fill our Abita beer in cans.”

Another important consideration was how the Abita beers would taste when drunk from cans. “For years on end, consumers had been associating craft beer exclusively with glass bottles. Beer from cans always conjured up an imagined taste of metal. But not only have acceptance levels changed, the technology for aluminium cans is quite different nowadays, too. We’re relying on present-day cans offering a quality solution for protecting the taste of our beers”, says a confident David Blossman. The insides of the new Abita cans are coated with a water-based layer reliably preventing the beer from coming into direct contact with the aluminium surface, thus preserving its unadulterated taste. In addition, the can protects the beer inside against UV irradiation, which is responsible for accelerating ageing of the fresh beer.

And last but not least, the deleterious effect that oxygen has on freshness is minimised by state-of-the-art canning technology from Krones. In parallel to the new bottling line, Abita installed a volumetric Volumetic VOC can filler with 36 filling valves, rated at 24,000 cans an hour. The cans are packed in six-packs and twelve-packs, and also into 24-can cartons, at an hourly output of 1,000 cartons. To coincide neatly with the start of this year’s Mardi Gras Festival Abita premiered three beers in cans: “Amber” and “Purple Haze” in 12-packs, plus “Jockamo” in six-packs.

“The two big craft breweries, New Belgium and Sierra Nevada, were the pioneers in this regard, and their image didn’t suffer any damage from it. We’ve only been filling cans since the beginning of this year, and so far the consumers’ response has been good. On the other hand, we’re not pushing the can onto the market.”

Abita also prioritises eco-friendly, energy-­economical operations. The latest installation to fall into that category was an anaerobic wastewater treatment system with biogas production. The system reduces the biological oxygen demand (BOD) of the wastewater from 5,000 milligrams a litre to 50 milligrams per litre. At the same time, the biogas obtained replaces 30 per cent of the overall gas consumption for the two steam boilers.

Discovering the authentic taste of beer

David Blossman is extremely confident as far as the future of his own brewery and that of the entire craft brewing scene is concerned: “We have been growing steadily since 2000, over the past seven years at an average of 15 per cent a year. In 2012, we project an increase of 20 per cent. Craft beer is gaining more and more adherents because Americans are busy discovering the authentic taste of full-flavoured beer. Once consumers have had their eye-opener, or to be more precise: taste-bud-opener, they will tend to stay with it. Thanks to the craft-brewing movement, we can currently observe a downright taste revolution in the field of beer, with a lot more choice. Sales keep on growing even when the economy falters, like in the past few years. Consumers can buy a six-pack of some of the finest beer in the world for about eight US-dollars, and when you compare this to a bottle of high-end wine or a whiskey that’s quite affordable. The people drinking our beer are relatively well educated, they like good food, they are open to experimentation, and they appreciate a really good beer. Quality by doing without adjuncts, and an abundant choice – that’s where the hand-crafted beers excel.”

And that is quite obviously reflected in the output figures, too: in 2012, Abita will presumptively sell 180,000 hectolitres (150,000 barrels) of beer and 12,000 hectolitres (10,000 barrels) of root beer. David is predicting a huge rise in market share for craft beer in the USA: “I expect craft beer’s market share to grow from its present five to six per cent to ten per cent of the American beer market over the next three, four years, and then further still to 15 per cent by 2020.” Simply magnificent prospects.

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