Packaging is as golden as MillerCoors' brews
There are certain things you’ll see in most beer commercials on TV: attractive women, endearingly lunkheaded guys, streams of golden brew.
And there’s one thing you’ll see in commercials for Miller Lite, Coors Light and other MillerCoors products: A reference to the packaging.
“In all of our commercials, you will see a package featured,” says Curtis Babb, MillerCoors’ director of packaging materials and development. “It’s not just talking about the brand esoterically. It talks about the brand with the package, specific to that particular communication.”
There’s a lot to talk about. Over the last few years, MillerCoors has consistently turned out one packaging innovation after another:
• The vortex bottle, developed in 2009, that features ridges on the inside of 12-ounce glass bottles of Miller Lite. The spiraling ridges make the product pour differently.
• Thermochromatic ink, rolled out first on bottles and then on cans of Coors Light and Coors Banquet, that changes color when the product reaches a target temperature.
• The Home Draft Box, which uses a proprietary dispensing closure with a PET barrier bottle to deliver a draft keg experience in a rectangular package that fits nicely inside a consumer’s refrigerator.
• The aluminum pint bottle for Miller Lite, which lent novelty and reclosability to an established brand.
Initiatives like these are why the company, the second biggest American brewer, is Food & Beverage Packaging’s Beverage Packager of the Year.
Unique venture, unique beerMillerCoors is a unique joint venture between beer giants Molson Coors and SABMiller (see “Joint venture means singular challenges” below. It’s an arrangement that presents both challenges and opportunities for synergy.
“The product is different by itself. The beer is uniquely different,” says Dave Klante, vice president, engineering and packaging. “There are different yeasts, different carbonation levels, and all those things need to be accounted for during packaging development.”
One of the most fundamental differences is pasteurization. There are exceptions on both sides, but most Miller products are heat-pasteurized, while most Coors beers are not. This is especially challenging in a manufacturing environment in which seven of the eight major MillerCoors breweries bottle both Miller and Coors products.
MillerCoors has developed various coping strategies to meet the challenge of making both pasteurized and nonpasteurized beer in the same facility, both with the same shelf life (about 17 weeks). These include using the same cleanroom to bottle both kinds of beer and developing plastic “shrouds” to envelop the top halves of bottles as they’re being filled-in essence, creating a mini-“cleanroom” for unpasteurized packaging.
Other packaging differences must be accounted for. One of the most fundamental is can size. Miller uses the industry standard 211 can for its 12-ounce cans, while Coors uses a taller, thinner 209 can. Klante would be delighted if Coors were to switch to standard cans, because it would make changeovers easier. But because the unique shape of the Coors can serves as a point of marketing distinction, MillerCoors will just have to keep filling both sizes in turn. (The cans, like all of MillerCoors’ aluminum packaging, come from Ball Corp.)
The dual-can situation illustrates how packaging innovations, tweaks or eccentricities are welcome at MillerCoors as long as they serve a larger purpose. Otherwise, they don’t see the light of day. “It’s all about innovating, making money and being relevant in the marketplace,” Klante says.
The innovation processProposed packaging innovations are judged by four criteria, Babb says: Would it support a brand’s positioning? Does it address a real or perceived problem? Would it help differentiate a MillerCoors product from the competition? Does it give the consumer a “reason to believe”?
Case in point: the Home Draft Box. The idea was to cater to consumers’ preference for draft beer.
“People prefer draft beer when available, because the perception is, it’s fresher and better beer-Klante says.”Taking a look at how many different ways we can make drinking experiences more fun, more engaging to the consumer at home, the evolution came that we should be looking at a home-dispense system that can fit in most refrigerators where people can have a draft experience at home.” The Home Draft Box, after testing well last year, debuted in the late summer of 2010.
To initiate and develop packaging innovations, the marketing teams at MillerCoors have an innovation group that work with what Klante calls “the fuzzy front-end technical guys.” They troll for ideas at trade shows and in consumer research reports. “They’ll find quantitative scores, whatever those concepts may be, and they’ll do further development on those, and the ones that score well are the ones they may bring in to pursue for further development,” he says.
Like many consumer packaged goods companies, MillerCoors works with suppliers to develop packaging innovations. O-I, which supplies all MillerCoors glass bottles, developed the process of internal embossing that led to the vortex bottle.
Innovation through customizingOf course, suppliers can always take innovations to competitors (in the absence of a licensing agreement like MillerCoors has with O-I). One example is the color-changing ink that MillerCoors uses for Coors bottles and cans. Anheuser-Busch InBev recently introduced the same technology for its Busch brand.
“We’re not real concerned that Busch has come out with this on their below-premium brand,” Babb says. One way to deal with a situation like this is to tweak the innovation, which is exactly what MillerCoors is doing. Coors Light recently debuted two thermochromatic inks both the same color: One ink for cold, another for colder.
Innovation is important to MillerCoors, but it has to be used judiciously, out of respect for both product requirements and consumer expectations.
“Beer needs to be cared for,” Klante says. “It’s a living product, and therefore it has a much reduced portfolio it can draw from to be packaged in than other drinks. New materials are being developed all the time. And when these materials are found to be acceptable for a superior experience by the beer consumer, we will be there looking at them.” F&BP
Joint venture means singular challengesFormed in the summer of 2008, MillerCoors is the result of a unique joint venture between Molson Coors and SABMiller: The two brewing giants are collaborators in the United States, competitors everywhere else.
This setup can lead to some delicate situations when it comes to sharing ideas. MillerCoors personnel find themselves setting up firewalls to keep certain ideas from giving Molson Coors an advantage over SABMiller, or vice versa.
The key is not to breach confidentiality while allowing the kind of idea sharing that will maximize the synergy between the two parent companies. Every year and a half to two years, MillerCoors personnel hold a technical forum where they decide what to share and how, says Dave Klante, vice president, engineering and packaging.
“We try to figure out how best to leverage all the knowledge across 160 breweries,” Klante says. “Where there’s a lot of people working on something similar, how can we help each other solve the problems?”
FLEXIBILITY ON TAP AT MILWAUKEE BREWERYThe MillerCoors brewery in Wisconsin is located on a 90-acre campus in the heart of Milwaukee, in what used to be the corporate headquarters for Miller Brewing. (MillerCoors now has its headquarters in Chicago.) The brewery, which runs to 2.3 million square feet under roof, turns out more than 8 million barrels (248 million gallons) a year of Miller Lite, Miller Genuine Draft, Coors Light and other Miller and Coors products, in sizes ranging from 12 ounces to kegs.
North and South Brew Houses brew all the beers produced, which are subsequently filled on one of eight packaging lines. Turning out both Miller and Coors products is one of the facility’s major challenges. The differences between the two products extend to packaging as well as formulation. For one thing, most Miller products are heat-pasteurized after filling, while almost no Coors products are. This means that Coors products must undergo extra-fine filtration in an extra-clean environment to reduce the level of microorganisms enough to confer a shelf life comparable to pasteurized products (about 17 weeks).
Currently, the brewery uses three cleanroom systems, two for bottles and one for cans, to help meet that requirement. They house one 165-valve filler for cans and two 100-valve KHS filler that run up to 700 bottles per minute each. The cleanrooms maintain positive pressure to stay filled with air that’s HEPA-filtered to less than 100 ppm.
The cleanrooms are relatively old technology: They’ve been in place for 25 years. Their disadvantages include difficulty in conducting major parts changes or renovations. If the filling system or another major component of the filler needs to be replaced, as happens every five to ten years, it’s a maintenance project: A window or even wall of the cleanroom has to be removed and replaced. MillerCoors plans to phase out the cleanrooms and substitute newer technology for unpasteurized products. Some of these are already in use; conventional filler cleanrooms are now replaced with aseptically controlled “shrouds” that maintain sterile conditions as the containers are filled.
Beer gets pasteurized at the Milwaukee brewery in one of two ways. The conventional way is for the filled, sealed bottles or cans to go through a pasteurizing hot-water bath, which heats them to about 140° F. and then cools them down. Other beers are “flash-pasteurized” in a manner similar to milk: they’re heated, then immediately cooled just before filling. These products still must be filled in one of the cleanrooms to minimize microbiological contamination and confer adequate shelf life. The bottles also pass through a warming tunnel, to be warmed only to room temperature so they don’t “sweat” and create problems for the secondary packaging.
Balancing actOne of the biggest balancing acts the Milwaukee brewery must deal with is the use of bulk glass vs. reshippers. The reshipper system is favored by the majority of American brewers, and is used by MillerCoors for its six-pack paperboard baskets of glass bottles-the most popular secondary packaging for bottles, by far. Empty bottles arrive in baskets, preformed and nestled into corrugated cases, and are plucked from there to be filled and returned to the baskets.
Some bottles arrive in bulk, on pallets secured by stretchwrap and separated by slipsheets. A depalletizer from Busse Corp. removes the slipsheets with vacuum cups; they get reused several times, until they show signs of wear. The bottles are removed, transported to an overhead level, filled and packaged in configurations ranging from standard basket six-packs to 12- and 18-pack paperboard cases.
For the former, a case packer from Graphic Packaging Int’l unfolds the baskets (also supplied by GPI) from blanks. They are raised over the two-wide line of bottles and then lowered, with their bottoms hanging open at the side, over six of the bottles. The bottoms are then locked into place without glue, thanks to a hole-and-tab setup. An Innopack Kisters WP case-packer from KHS USA then wraps a corrugated case around four of the six-pack baskets.
“You can’t hear a bottle move in this pack,” says Dave Klante, vice president, engineering and packaging, seizing and shaking one of the cases to prove his point. “It’s very tight.”
Bulk glass saves space, since more empty bottles can be shipped on a bulk pallet, and the basket and case blanks take up much less room than erected ones. Over the long term, MillerCoors plans to convert as much of its glass bottling to bulk operations as possible. This fits in especially well with the need for flexibility, which demands a lot of variation on the standard four six-packs to a case.
At the Milwaukee brewery as well as its other facilities, MillerCoors is making commitments to sustainability that won’t be obvious to consumers. One is as simple as the kind of waterless lube used on the conveyors. The brewer is investing in conveyor lubrications which will save on water, improve equipment life, and improve plant sanitation for conveyors and floor cleaning. This “dry lube” will save a millions of gallons of water annually.
Another sustainability-motivated transition involves pallets. MillerCoors has transitioned from standard wooden to plastic pallets for both incoming supplies and outgoing product. The pallets, from Greystone Logistics, not only are more durable, they are less liable to break down and jam automatic palletizers.
Quality control is an ongoing challenge, especially for a high-volume operation like this. Quality control encompasses both in-line and sampling systems. The former include X-ray inspection systems by ID Technology and Heuft, which check inside bottles and cans for proper fill levels, and inside cases for missing bottles. The latter encompasses an ongoing sampling program that draws a set number of cans from the seamers. (Each seaming head leaves a dimple in a different place on the can as an identifying feature.) Quality-control personnel look at sidewall thickness, curl integrity, seal integrity and other parameters.
“At 2,000 cans a minute, we can make a big problem quickly,” Klante says. “We always have to stay ahead of it, so we’re making good beer, one six-pack at a time.” F&BP
For more information
Graphic Packaging Int’l
Heuft Systemtechnik GmbH
HK Systems Inc. (div. of Dematic Group)
ID Technology (div. of Pro Mach)