Founded in 2013 by brothers Ivan and Dan, MacKinnon Brothers Brewing Company is a farm-based operation, sourcing its fresh ingredients from its own farm and other local farms to produce unique beers. The facility is ideally located on a beautiful bicentennial family farm surrounded by fields of hops, barley, wheat, and corn in rural Ontario, Canada, just outside of the city of Kingston. Two of the company’s canned products are made entirely from ingredients grown on its farm.
MacKinnon Brothers is a true local brewery in the sense that it sells 80 to 85% of its products within a 50-km (30-mile) radius of its facility. Product is also sold directly from the farm when it hosts concerts, music festivals, weddings, and other events. A QR code on the cans of its Harvest Ale variety educates consumers on the growing season, the malt from that season, and how those factors affect the flavor of the beer. But before guests even get to a taste what they’re learning about, the beautifully decorated cans make a farm-fresh impression.
Stand-out can designs inspired by the farm
The brewery began in a keg format, but as MacKinnon’s business grew, it expanded into cans. A 473-mL (16-oz) can format gave the brewery the chance to make a visual impression on customers, and it did so in spades.
At the outset of its pivot into cans, the MacKinnons enlisted design and branding agency RedRhino, Inc. in nearby London, Ontario. At that point, the company was only making two beers—8 Man English Pale Ale and Crosscut Traditional Canadian Ale.
“We didn’t want a can that was really busy, with 500 awards and logos stamped on it,” Dan MacKinnon, co-owner and head brewer says. “We wanted something a bit simpler and something we could keep consistent across all of our offerings.”
With that opening salvo of direction, RedRhino sat down with the brothers to find out what each beer made them think about. Even though the two young men were worldly and educated—Ivan is a mechanical engineer, and Dan had both brewed beer and played rugby in England—their roots, like the roots of the beers, are firmly planted on the Ontario farm. And the ideation session bore that out.
“We know what beers people want to drink around here, and what kind of beers we wanted to drink,” MacKinnon says. “The folks at RedRhino asked us, ‘Well, when would you drink a beer like Crosscut?’ And we answered, “If you’re out cutting wood someday, you might drink that beer.’ And 8 Man was the kind of beer I used to drink when I played rugby in England. We would drink that after the games. It’s a style of beer that wasn’t very well-represented in Canada, so we wanted to help introduce it.”
The pencil sketch-drawing design pattern that resulted is indeed simple but sophisticated. A single, centrally located signifier or totem—a cross-section of a tree, or a vintage take on a rugby player, respectively—communicates how the brothers felt about each of the beers and locates them in the MacKinnon’s life experiences.
Since then, the brewery has expanded to six mainstay or higher volume varieties, and those offerings’ respective can designs follow the same initial design template that was forged with Crosscut and 8 Man. Philomena, for instance, depicts the brothers’ grandmother who they remember used pilsner beer in her bread baking. Naturally, the eponymous Philomena variety is a pilsner. Even more recently—and like a lot of brewery-related duties on the farm, we’ll find out—design has been taken in-house, and a team-member is now using the original template to create a can design for each new beer.
Today, the company buys printed cans from Crown for its primary six beers, but there are a few lower volume or seasonal exceptions that might not meet an MOQ for a printed can order. One example is the seasonal Wild Peppermint Stout.
“We use a company called Hart Print out of Quebec, they digitally print right on the can so they can do small runs. It’s more expensive per can, but it’s worth it.” MacKinnon says. “There are restrictions on shrink sleeves related to the recycling system. And I much prefer the printed can. I think it has a more premium feel. The shrink sleeves have come a long way, but from an environmental point of view and a quality-feel point of view, I still prefer the printed can.
“They are able to do low volumes, too, way less than we’re ordering,” he adds. “If we only want only one or two pallets of cans or even half a pallet—say for a batch from a 40-hL fermenter—then it makes sense to get them from the digital printing.”
Counter-pressure integrated canning line provides precise filling
When turning to cans to augment what started as a largely keg-based operations, filling and seaming equipment was needed. To facilitate this, MacKinnon Brothers began bringing in mobile canning in 2015, however, as sales grew, this proved to be cost prohibitive. A few years down the road, the company opened a new production facility with an eye on purchasing its own reliable canning line to increase production, and save costs and time wasted on manual canning. After exploring its options, the company decided on a counter-pressure unit with low dissolved oxygen from Pneumatic Scale Angelus (PSA), a BW Packaging Systems Co.
PSA’s CB50C counter-pressure integrated canning line uses isobarometric counter-pressure technology—for equal pressure between can and product, maintaining carbonation solubility throughout the filling process—coupled with proprietary magnetic flowmeters, to deliver a system capable of 1-mL filling precision. It employs six individual filling heads and a single-head seamer, and with the fill tank positioned above the fill heads, the product is gravity-fed to decrease the likelihood of agitation causing unwanted reductions in carbonation levels. The line is rated for continuous operation at speeds up to 50 cans/min.
The purchase was solidified just before the start of the pandemic, and installation was not hindered by the shutdown.
“There weren’t any huge issues from COVID in regards to the installation and procurement of the machine,” says MacKinnon. “It was a little trickier to get the folks from PSA up from the States. There was a bit more paperwork than there normally would be.”
MacKinnon further explained that the timing was perfect; due to the pandemic-related lockdowns and the resulting distribution challenges, the company was transitioning a large amount of products from kegs to cans, which would have been greatly hindered had installation been slowed.
The machine was installed at the MacKinnon Brothers facility within three months. MacKinnon explained that as the line ran into small mechanical hiccups, PSA has provided excellent customer service. He says PSA could FaceTime technicians to show them what the operators were doing and how the machine was reacting, and the technicians could then provide walk-through directions. “PSA was right there all along the way to work with us,” MacKinnon says. “If there’s any issues with the machine or we thought this part wore out a little bit faster, or we think this could be changed, they were really willing to work with us and send us up replacement parts or improve parts or work with us on improving the machine. If we had an idea, we could discuss with them about how we could implement an improvement.”
Referring to a specific issue the company encountered shortly after installation, MacKinnon says that the infeed was causing the cans to slide into the machine too quickly and not perfectly straight. PSA suggested an improved star wheel infeed of a different size that solved these issues; its programmers connected to MacKinnon Brothers’ internet to program the changes into the line once the new star wheel infeed arrived.
Technicians train and work with operators to speed up production
PSA offered MacKinnon Brothers three days of training, but soon after MacKinnon Brothers experienced some company turnover which resulted in new employees working with the CB50C. PSA trained the new employees and continued to remind them about the steps for proper machine operation through FaceTime and emailed instructional documents. “We’re learning and they are understanding about that,” says MacKinnon. “They’re helping us get the machine running just right.”
MacKinnon says the operators took well to the machine. “We were all thrilled to have our own canning line, to see the product moving. You’re really stacking up product and draining those tanks fast with less downtime,” he says. “It’s a better quality of work, better quality of life. [The operators] get to go home earlier. No one wants to sit there packing cans by hand. You want to start up a good machine, can a whole bunch of beer, clean everything up, put the beer away, and still have time for a nice enjoyable time at the end of the day. And I think we’ve finally reached that.”
Gabrielle Charette Le Meur, production operator providing quality control, quality management, and production management, adds, “With the machine, we eliminate a lot of jobs that were redundant and I’m thrilled about getting to know more how the machine works as I do problem solving.”
MacKinnon is pleased with the canning line’s benefits such as the electromagnetic flowmeters for precise filling that avoid product waste, which had been a significant issue with mobile canning. The brewing company has seen a reduction in damaged product coming off the line—another issue that was common with mobile canning. In addition, mobile canning had to be scheduled weeks to a month in advance and took time for setup. With this increase in flexibility, MacKinnon Brothers hopes to pursue its goal of continuing to increase the amount of ingredients grown on its own farm or sourced from local farms to produce a wider range of keg and canned products for its local community.
Farm-style approach to packaging line
As mentioned earlier, the farm mentality at MacKinnon Brothers means that a lot of the packaging line design is a result of in-house modifications, customization, and just getting things to work by their own elbow-grease. Still, the brewery has a well-oiled machine of a can filling operation, anchored by the PSA filler and seamer.
The line begins with a Ska Can-I-Bus depalletizer, and cans are single-filed into the line via a Ska twist shoot. Before filling and while inverted, cans are air-rinsed and date coded.
“We went away from rinsing with water and instead put in a small air ionizer and filter ourselves that also UV light,” MacKinnon says. “The manufacturer is Takk Industries. That decision was based off a bit of research and a really good talk we heard on different options for air rinsing given by MBAA, the Master Brewers Association of the Americas.”
The brothers also opted for a simpler design for a date coder, going with a local company called RN Mark. The unit codes the bottoms of the inverted cans as they pass through the twist shoot.
“Pricing-wise, it was so much more affordable and it’s pretty simple,” MacKinnon says. “The cost-per-print is super low as well. Knock on wood, we haven’t had any issues with it once we got it set up.”
Filling and seaming operations well-described already. Upon exiting those operations, cans go through a quick rinse, then a sharp 90-deg right turn toward an enclosed air dryer. But before entering the dryer, a simple, home-engineered (remember, this is a farm) reject station uses sensors to catch and reject cans that escaped filling without a seamed-on lid. MacKinnon says these are rare, but better to have a system in place to catch these un-lidded, but full cans of beer before they enter the can dryer with its dual blowers. Not catching them would make for a mess within the enclosed dryer space, and likely downtime.
“We got the dryer from China on Alibaba because the price was right, and it’s works amazing. The conveyor goes right through it,” MacKinnon says. “We knew the height of the conveyor that we had, so they custom-made the air dryer. We went with this rather than just using two air knives with one big blower and no shroud, that we would’ve just attached to the side of the conveyor, I found when I went to visit other breweries, that format was super noisy.”
Dried cans then undergo a QC check on an Anritsu checkweigher, a retread from another customized local manufacturing plant and purchased from Abbey Equipment in Canada. With can weights checked, they then enter an accumulation table that acts as an upstream buffer from an automated tray former and tray packer. Oddly enough, the tray former was originally built for bottles, and had served another brewery well in its first life. That other brewery switched from bottles to cans and decided to sell the bottle tray packer. MacKinnon, who also runs cans, purchased the equipment, and retrofitted it for use as a can tray packer.
“It’s actually a really great unit and a really good value for the money,” MacKinnon says. “Repurposing it actually wasn’t that much work. We changed some stuff in the programming, took some stuff out we added a suction head from Millibar to pick up the cans. The cans are a little bit different size than the bottles, so we needed to resize the lanes, but it was mostly stuff that, with a piece of stainless steel and a zip disc, and a little bit of welding and some programming here, we can make.”
This farm-oriented re-use and re-purpose attitude might make some massive, ultra-fast line operators cringe, but it works well for MacKinnon Brothers Brewing. Palletizing is done by hand, another hallmark of the hard work ethic at the brewery.
“For 50 cans a minute I mean, if I can’t keep up and stack those up, that’s on me,” MacKinnon says. -PW