Technology and Beer: A Love Story

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Beer is the world's oldest alcoholic beverage, and the favourite tipple of Australians. Captain Cook brought it with him as a means to preserve water, and his idea seems to have caught on -- Australians globally are about the fourth or fifth most prolific beer-drinkers per capita, slugging back about 110 litres per person per year. And as it is to the art of winemaking, technology is integral to modern brewers.

Coopers is the third largest and only independent brewer from the 10 biggest in Australia. Its iconic naturally-conditioned ales are popular among the pool of pasteurised lagers, and it is thanks in part to a system of electronic monitors and regulators that the brewer can pump out 60 million litres of its complex beers a year.

Supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems play a significant role in quality control, supply and flavour consistency of beer. Brent Coutts, business systems analyst at Coopers, says the systems ensure precision brewing conditions, right down to the final two weeks of bottle fermentation. "After we decide on a recipe and set the ingredients, the SCADA system controls which brews go into which tank, and are put into the 'mixing stage' (where malt, water and hops are mixed)," Coutts said. The brewing of its lagers, ales and stouts runs from Sunday night to Friday morning, and as a rule the three-day-plus fermentation starts with Coopers Pale Ale and will usually finish with a stout, depending on packaging.

The company favours product variability, unlike other SCADA system production environments. In fact, Coopers prides itself on the subtle favour nuances that occur in each bottle thanks to secondary fermentation. The process adds live yeast back into the bottles to consume dissolved oxygen, which mitigates oxidisation -- the main reason pasteurised beer deteriorates.

"We store the bottles during secondary fermentation for at least two weeks. And having to maintain our stock levels means we have a similar ageing and stock-keeping process to wineries," Coutts said, who is also a former technology professional at an Australian wine maker.

"SCADA systems help determine levels such as the amount of alcohol before we can add the yeast into bottles."

Chemical and environmental data captured by the Siemens SCADA systems from the 150,000 litre brewing tanks is stored in an Oracle database and analysed by brewers and it JD Edwards Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) applications.

Most breweries, including Coopers, have three integrated SCADA systems which cover the brew house, lager cellar, and packaging.

A feasibility study of a Manufacturing Execution System (MES) is hoped to automate the need to conduct manual tests, which are required by the brewery house and lager cellar SCADA systems. The MES would feed data from the SCADA systems automatically into the Siemens ERP quality analysis platform.

"The ERP decides what we will make, the MES sets how you will make it, and the SCADA keeps the process controlled. It means the 35,000 cartons of Pale Ale that I have today will be shipped in two weeks," Coutts said, adding he is also further researching demand forecasting which allows Coopers to gradually ramp-up stock to peak periods in December and January.

"We're also looking at using genealogy to track specific strains of malt or raw materials to the finish product."

The Infor ERP prodcut planning system ensures supply meets demand, which follows an inverse bell curve as consumption slows during winter. It ensures a forward season order of hops, an ingredient that determines bitterness, which effectively sets production levels, and helps the lone Coopers brewery in South Adelaide to meet the national Christmas rush.

The ERP forecasting also helps Cooper to determine stock thresholds in its warehouse. Pale Ale, its most popular beer, is kept for a minimum of two weeks.

The systems also support Coopers' malt business though which it sells the product, made without yeast, to Australia's largest food manufactures.

This story, "Technology and Beer: A Love Story" was originally published by Computerworld Australia.

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