BW Packaging Systems: Brewing a legacy

Barry-Wehmiller builds on its history to serve the growing beer industry

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It’s been said that history repeats itself.

For now, that doesn’t seem to be the case in the U.S. brewing industry. The number of breweries keeps growing and markets continue to expand, as opposed to the industry post-prohibition and into the 1990's. However, for one American company, that old adage may be true as it has spent 130 years navigating the industry’s ups and downs, adapting itself to constant change and finding innovative ways to serve customers.

Though it is now an almost $2.5 billion enterprise with companies that serve a diverse platform of industries – packaging, paper converting, sheeting, corrugating, engineering and IT consulting – Barry-Wehmiller began in the brewing industry. And that tradition continues today as five of its operating companies—Pneumatic Scale AngelusAccraplyBW Container SystemsDesign Group and Thiele Technologies—are partnering with brewers of all sizes in providing custom solutions to their unique challenges.

Humble beginnings

Prior to 2015, the U.S. had its largest number of breweries in 1873 -- 4,131. By 1885, that number had been halved. Although there were fewer breweries, production was increasing. The number of barrels of beer produced in the U.S. tripled from 1870 to 1885. According to Martin H. Stack of Rockhurst University, industrialization began to drastically change the brewing landscape.

"Until the 1870s and 1880s, American breweries had been essentially small scale, local operations,” Stack wrote in A Concise History of America’s Brewing Industry. “By the late nineteenth century, several companies began to increase their scale of production and scope of distribution… Pabst, Anheuser-Busch and a handful of other enterprises came to be called “shipping” breweries. Though these firms became very powerful, they did not control the pre-Prohibition market for beer. Rather, an equilibrium emerged that pitted large and regional shipping breweries that incorporated the latest innovations in pasteurizing, bottling, and transporting beer against a great number of locally-oriented breweries that mainly supplied draught beer in wooden kegs to their immediate markets."

Against that backdrop of change, in 1885, Barry-Wehmiller was born.

St. Louis is well-known as a brewing hub as the home of Anheuser- Busch, but they were only one of many different breweries in the city. At the time, St. Louis was only behind New York and Chicago, respectively, in U.S. brewing production.

As Barry-Wehmiller CEO and Chairman Bob Chapman wrote in his 2015 book, Everybody Matters: The Extraordinary Power of Caring For Your People Like Family, the company began when Thomas Barry opened a machine shop in St. Louis to produce conveying and transportation equipment for malt houses. Chapman says Barry’s brother-in-law Alfred Wehmiller joined the company in 1899 and invented a “revolutionary new kind of pasteurization machine for Anheuser-Busch.”

“The Barry-Wehmiller Machinery Company expanded rapidly to meet the needs of the growing beer industry and soon began shipping equipment all over the world,” Chapman wrote.

New markets, new strategies

During the Prohibition era in the U.S., Barry-Wehmiller faced the same challenges as many companies tied to the brewing industry, but were able to survive on the strength of their international business.

As the number of breweries declined in the 1970s, Barry-Wehmiller continued to find ways to serve the industry. Solar-powered pasteurizers, bottle washers, electronic inspection for bottles and fillers were some of the key initiatives for the company.

But, with the number of breweries in the U.S. falling to double digits for the first half of the 1980’s, Barry-Wehmiller began a new strategy to diversify their business across the capital goods industry by acquiring struggling companies.

“We looked for companies where we could create value through our initiatives,” Chapman wrote. “We find it deeply fulfilling to take a company that likely would have died and build something vibrant, profitable and enduring out of it.”

An integral part Barry-Wehmiller’s success is their people-centric culture, which has been lauded and studied by institutions such as Harvard Business School, the Kellogg School of Management and authors Simon Sinek, Bob Burg and Amy Cuddy.

“(We measure) success by the way we touch the lives of people,” Chapman writes in his book. “All the people: our team members, our customers, our vendors, our bankers.”

As the number of breweries reached an historic high in the U.S. – 4,269 in 2015 – Barry-Wehmiller has an even more diverse portfolio of solutions for all shapes and sizes of beer production.

Many of the companies acquired by Barry-Wehmiller have their own unique legacies in the brewing industry, including Pneumatic Scale Angelus and BW Container Systems, which is comprised of the Ambec, CBI, Fleetwood and Goldco-Wyard brands. Others, such as Accraply and Thiele Technologies, bring new perspectives in labeling, conveying and palletizing.

Refining their craft

Yearly at the Brewers Association's Craft Brewers Conference, these Barry-Wehmiller companies will have many of their solutions on display, including solutions developed specifically for the growing craft brewing segment. Thiele Technologies, for instance, offers automatic cartoners, case packers, case erectors, loaders and wrappers that are perfect for packaging brewery products and beer in a variety of case sizes and types. Design Group is a premier supplier of design and integration services to the beverage industry.

Accraply will exhibit its craft beer labeling system which includes the Graham | Sleevit SLF Labeler, Shrink Tunnel and the all-new Stanford Sabre sleeve cutter.

“Shelf appeal and short-runs define the craft beer labeling race,” said Seamus Lafferty, president of Accraply. “Breweries know that new flavors, unique names and eye-catching graphics are what set their product apart from the competition. But, without funds nor space to stock pre-printed cans, the craft beer market is turning to shrink sleeve labeling for the solution to their inventory challenges.” 

Pneumatic Scale Angelus’ new CB50 can seamer, based off their well-established high speed seamer design for larger scale operations, will also be on display. Adam Brandt, vice-president of sales for Pneumatic Scale Angelus, said its efficient, compact design make the CB50 perfect for breweries just starting to enter the distribution marketplace with canned product.

“The CB50 will seam up to 50 cans per minute and can be paired with any carbonated beverage filler of the customer’s choice,” Brandt said. “We can also retrofit other filling and seaming systems with the CB50 seamer.”

Scott Smith, Director of Global Business Development and Strategic Marketing for BW Container Systems, said there’s a natural synergy between Barry-Wehmiller and the craft brewing industry, not only because of their history, but because of their shared values.

“The craft brewing industry is passionate about their products, their people and most of all, they’re passionate about their culture,” Smith said.

On the larger end of the scale of the craft brewing segment, Oscar Blues Brewery recently added BW Container Systems palletizers to their Colorado and North Carolina facilities, which also use Pneumatic Scale Angelus can seamers.

“What we’ve been able to do,” Smith said, “is take the technologies that we’ve provided for the brewing industry for 50 years and put them in a format that makes sense for craft brewers.”

Barry-Wehmiller will unveil a new initiative at Pack Expo 2016, BW Packaging Systems, which articulates the depth of services its companies offer to the packaging industry.