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January 17, 2018

Cleanroom Beer – How High-Tech is Ensuring the Safety of the World’s Oldest Tipple

Four glasses with different beers.

As a species, we sure like to make simple things complicated. We live at warp speed and chase inherited dreams, and then we wonder why the stress we’ve created have us reaching for pharmaceuticals, therapists, gurus, and other self-comforting tools and vices to carry us from day to day. In our fast-paced, multi-tasking, always-on 21st century lifestyles, few things are easy, straight forward, or immune from over-complication. In short: nothing is simple.

But it hasn’t always been this way.

Let’s take a few minutes to fall back into the comforting embrace of history, to recall that there was indeed a period when simple was the rule and ease was the way. That era, for the purposes of this article, was 1516.

Fire up the time machine of your imagination and let’s step back together in time and place to Germany of the 16th century. In the Duchy of Bavaria a proclamation was issued that set into provincial law the exact composition of that signature German beverage, beer. Commonly regarded as the first successful attempt to codify into law a process for promoting food safety, the Reinheitsgebot, translated here as the German Beer Purity Law, mandated that beer should contain only three basic ingredients. Banished were the commonly used additives such as gruit – a combination of herbs such as the now uncommon horehound, mugwort, and sweet gale along with more well known caraway, cinnamon and juniper – and preservatives such as stinging nettle and soot, replaced by the simple trinity of barley, hops, and water.

Interestingly, however, the Reinheitsgebot was not initially intended to be about food safety. At first drafting, the purpose of the edict (which was adopted nationally in the 1871 unification of Germany) was the prevention of market domination and price competition. As wheat and rye were the staple ingredients for bakers, the restriction to barley of grains used in crafting beer was a means of safeguarding the supply of ingredients vital to the production of bread. Bread, after all despite what some folks would have us believe, has always been nutritionally more significant to the human diet than beer…

Since that early edict, the Reinheitsgebot has undergone many revisions. Subsequent iterations came to include yeast as a vital ingredient – added only when science progressed to the point that its properties were understood in terms of playing a role in the fermentation process. Wheat was also a later addition, as was malted barley and some sugars. The Vorläufiges Biergesetz (Provisional Beer Law) of 1993 was the final iteration of the rule and, while making a distinction between top-fermented and bottom-fermented beer, did allow a relaxation on restriction as long as the product was not labeled and marketed as ‘beer.’

So, historically, ‘purity’ has been about the ingredients that went into creating the final beverage. But today, throughout the food and beverage industries, the concept has expanded to include hygiene and food safety into the mix. And it goes way beyond the simple maintenance of clean facilities. Let’s take a closer look at the state of modern victuals manufacture…

Food from a cleanroom? OK, so we’ve already talked about salad greens grown in vertical cleanrooms in Japan and the role played by the Internet of Things (IoT) in 21st century agribusiness and it seems that there is a growing interest in leveraging cleanroom technologies in the manufacture of food and beverage products on the global level. According to an intriguing piece in Cleanroom Technology, the demand for natural foods devoid of artificially-introduced preservatives or other additives combined with a need to improve shelf stability and longevity are driving a renewed interest in customizing cleanroom technology for food production. From dairy products to fruit juices, clean (plant-based) meat to baked goods, food manufacturers are starting to embrace laminar flow housing and HEPA filtration, air locks and aseptic filling – the kinds of equipment and processes previously confined to pharmaceutical, aeronautical, and defense industries, both here and abroad.

Aseptic processing is the key to avoiding this particular contaminant and basic rules of excellent workplace hygiene may be sufficient to avoid the problem altogether.

But beer? Can there really be a contamination potential with one of the world’s oldest crafted drinks? According to Bill Simpson of Cara-Online, webface of Cara Technology – a British enterprise serving the food and drinks industry, there definitely can. And it has a name: Pectinatus. An anaerobic Gram-negative bacterium, Pectinatus were first reported in 1978 and have troubled brewers ever since. Its presence ruins beer by turning it cloudy and malodorous. Beers tainted with pectinatus, writes Simpson,  ‘contain supra-threshold levels of H2S (300 μg/l) methanthiol (20 μg/l), dimethyl disulphide (0.4 μg/l), dimethyl trisulphide (0.2 μg/l), acetic acid (200 mg/l), acetoin (concentration not reported) and propionic acid (900 mg/l). And, he continues, outbreaks are always reported ‘at just the worst possible moment (like when you’re about to go on vacation).’(1) Aseptic processing is the key to avoiding this particular contaminant and basic rules of excellent workplace hygiene may be sufficient to avoid the problem altogether. These include proper sterilization of equipment such as conveyors, filling tubes, cappers and seamers, the use of biocidal cleaners, the installation of high efficiency air filtration systems, and – increasingly – leveraging the sort of cleanroom technologies not generally associated with craft brewing. Cleanroom beer – intrigued? Read on!

Schilling’s solutions include CleanFlowCell laminar flow housings, cleanroom tents, and CleanSteriCell rooms in which environmental factors such as temperature, humidity, and pressure can be controlled alongside bacterial, fungal, and particulate contamination control.

Let’s go back to Europe for a moment. Based in Baden-Württemberg, a state in south-west Germany, Schilling Engineering GmbH, a company specializing in bespoke cleanroom construction and installation, has hygienic production as its watch-word. Schilling recognizes that ‘[cleanroom] technology offers great advantages in food production, because the open product is protected from germs during processing.’(2) And the company has seen a recent spike in orders from food and beverage manufacturers, whose investment in clean facilities is quickly paid back in lower maintenance costs, fewer customer complaints, and the perception of enhanced brand safety. Schilling’s solutions include CleanFlowCell laminar flow housings, cleanroom tents, and CleanSteriCell rooms in which environmental factors such as temperature, humidity, and pressure can be controlled alongside bacterial, fungal, and particulate contamination control.(3)

The Krones Group, also headquartered in Germany, provides expert solutions in filling and packaging technology for customers in the food industry looking to incorporate aseptic filling into their HACCP protocols. Aseptic filling can be a pre-requisite for processing certain beverages that can be reactive to preservatives or thermal shock. In the case of beer, a decrease in thermal shock improves the organoleptic characteristics – the aromatics and freshness – of the brew while also enhancing shelf life and product stability. In effect, it aligns the need for purity and taste with the requirement for consumer safety.

Krones’ product line includes ‘all-in-one’ smart design filler units for mixing and carbonation and the integrated units use less water, decrease the need for chemical cleaners, and reduce operator costs. They also feature a ‘cleaning in place’ (CiP) functionality that, according to the company, results in heating energy savings, lower environmental impact of use, and a more consistent performance even with a single operator.(4) And how do these resource savings stack up? We’re glad you asked. Some of the filler machines – the Contiform AseptBloc for instance – are dry units that do not necessitate the use of paracetic acid or water, relying solely on vaporized hydrogen peroxide (VHP) and filtered hot air to sterilize preforms instead of finished bottles. So there’s a reduction in water and chemical use and, with an output of 32,000 bottles per hour (managed by one human operator), the machine’s speed and efficiency stacks up to even more cost savings for a beverage purveyor.(5)

And with a diverse product line ranging from desktop-sized units to room-in-room facilities, this is lucrative for Krones too. According to recent investor relations breakdowns, corporate revenue for the first three fiscal quarters of 2017 increased – as a year-on-year –  by 5.4%. This equates to a jump from approximately $2900 million to $3078 million – a significant increase in a still evolving market.(6)

But what is the next step? How much further up the ladder of hygienic processing can a manufacturer climb? Well, if one Florida brewery is anything to go by, perhaps ‘up’ is not the place to start. In terms of contamination control, the floor – not the sky – may be the limit. Literally.

Stepping into the facilities at Florida Beer Company based near Cape Canaveral, a visitor might well notice something a little different from the run-of-the-mill facilities of other breweries. And it’s not just the mesmerizing range of 28 different craft brews that have been concocted there since 1997. Nor is it the knowledgeable bartenders or the varied food trucks waiting to help visitors fully enjoy their tour.

It’s the floor.

Or rather, it’s the all-new, state-of-the-art anti-microbial flooring system that mixes style – a custom red color – with function, the resin material containing quartz particulates that create a non-slip footing with a ‘positively textured profile.’(7)

Conjured from the imaginations – and one assumes R&D departments – of PPI Epoxy Coatings in partnership with Flowcrete Americas, the flooring in the main production area – FreshFlow SRQ – is a urethane concrete system that is phthalate-free and contains an additive Polygiene. Silver ion-based, Polygiene is a tough material that is inherently anti-microbial and anti-pathogenic and is designed to withstand the rigors of temperature fluctuation and chemical spillage. Moving into the packaging area and stores, the flooring transitions to FlowCoat SF41 HCS, an epoxy-based material more widely preferred within the beverage industry.

And this flooring stands up to serious wear and tear. In a 60,000 square feet facility, the company brews 90,000 barrels of ale, porters, pilsners, ciders, and stouts that it takes from raw ingredients through to bottled and packaged finished product. And even given the rigors of the kinds of heavy equipment used in production the surfaces are guaranteed for up to 15 years – even allowing for the unique challenges posed by the facility’s former use as an R&D facility for ballistic and space activities for the Chrysler Corporation. Advanced materials technology in a re-purposed space center-cum-brewery that rubs elbows with the pioneers at Cape Canaveral – could it even be more appropriate?

Beer has come a long way in its evolution. Mentioned in the ancient Code of Hammurabi, the Babylonian law around 1754 B.C. and feted with its very own Mesopotamian goddess Ninkasi, this humble concoction of barley, hops, and water is now the world’s third most popular drink, after water and tea. And in contemporary terms, some of its enduring charm may well be its purity and lack of complication, which must be protected and preserved. In a world of dazzlingly-illuminated, neon-flashing alco-pop designer beverages, an honest pint of a time-crafted ale can offer the singularly most effective stress relief, conveying the drinker to a past of simplicity and ease. Or is that just our experience?

We’d love to know your thoughts!

References:

  1. http://www.cara-online.com/blog/total-recall-%E2%80%93-how-to-aseptically-package-beer-without-losing-your-shirt-or-sanity/
  2. https://www.cleanroomtechnology.com/news/article_page/Food_producers_look_to_increase_product_shelf_life_via_cleanrooms/122906
  3. ibid
  4. http://www.kosme.com/ipu/ipu-en.html
  5. https://www.beveragedaily.com/Article/2013/09/20/Krones-shakes-up-sterilization-technology-with-new-aseptic-filler
  6. The exact figures are €2,380.1 million to €2,508.9 which, assuming an exchange rate of 1.23 Euros to the US Dollar, equates to the figures cited. https://www.krones.com/en/company/investor-relations/corporate-news-release-krones-confirms-group-targets-for-2017.php
  7. https://www.cleanroomtechnology.com/news/article_page/Florida_Beer_Company_installs_antimicrobial_urethane_flooring/103293
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