Working a Day on the Beer Canning Line

A novice gets his feet wet (literally) on the canning line at New Jersey Beer Co. in North Bergen.

Illustration by Greg Clarke

Everyone knows how to get beer out of a can. But getting beer into a can? That’s a whole can of worms.

Curious about the process, I arranged a visit to canning day at New Jersey Beer Company in North Bergen, winner of New Jersey Monthly’s 2016 Craft Beer Bracket showdown. On this day, they are canning Pit Boss, a double IPA that packs a real punch at 8.5 percent alcohol by volume.

Like many small breweries, New Jersey Beer Co. doesn’t have its own canning machine. Instead, it contracts with Tripod Mobile Canning, a Mountainside-based company that cans for brewers in New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania. Robbie Kurz, who owns the company with son Jason, and his team of three had just finished setting up their equipment when I arrived.

Having hoped to actually work on the line, I’m told that, alas, all I can do is watch. The canning line starts up slowly, eventually building to a speed of 36 cans per minute. For bigger jobs, they can push it to 44.

The action starts on the shaker table, a raised platform crowded rim to rim with topless aluminum cans. The tilt of the platform feeds the cans one by one into an 8-foot-long “twist rinse” chute on their way to the filler machine. Halfway down, the twisting chute inverts the cans, sprays them with sanitizing water, flips them upright again, and sends them on to the filler.

At the filler, things get technical. The cans move on a narrow conveyor belt to the first station, where tubes fill the cans with CO2 to clear them of oxygen. Next, the cans pass under the filler heads, teflon tubes that descend into the cans five at a time, dispensing the fresh brew. A thin pillow of foam appears at the top of each loaded can.

As the cans trundle by, lead operator Sam Scharff checks a monitor and twists tiny dials to make sure the cans fill to the right level—a tad more than the required 16 ounces. “Who doesn’t want more beer?” he asks. Scharff grabs a can off the line and offers me a taste.

Can tops clatter down a tall pipe and are dispensed onto the top of each passing can. The next station grabs each can and spins it onto the seamer, which folds the top under the lip of the can. The sealed cans then move through a washer, where a spray of water removes any stickiness. Occasionally, a can is crushed in the seamer. Beer splashes to the floor. Pretty soon, my shoes are soaked with Pit Boss. “If you’re around here,” says Kurz, “you’re going to get wet.”

But wait—a can has toppled on the conveyor belt. I reach in to set it right, but another falls. And another. I try holding back the line, but this just jams the chute. More cans are tumbling.

Scharff hits the emergency button and everything stops. “This is why I have a job,” he says as he sets things right. A second operator, Sasha Damjanovic, straightens the cans in the chute. “When one thing goes wrong,” he observes, “it’s like a domino effect.” In a matter of moments, the cans are moving along again. I step aside, hands to myself.

Scharff used to work on a printing press at the Wall Street Journal. “Now,” he says, “I’m delivering good news: The market is down, have some beer.”

The rest of the process is pretty prosaic. Once the cans go through the washer, they roll down a makeshift ramp. Kurz places them on another conveyor belt on their way to the labeling machine. At the end of that line, the cans are manually loaded into boxes, 24 to a case.

In the end, 91 cases of Pit Boss are ready to go to market. I’m ready to change my socks and shoes.

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