Photos by Aaron Davidson
Boom Island Brewing Company follows as many traditional European techniques as possible to maintain the authenticity of its Belgian-style beers, including allowing their beer to carbonate naturally through bottle conditioning. While bottling has been done by hand for the three years Boom Island has been in operation, the brewery is now the first in the U.S. to install a bottling machine that’s ubiquitous in farmhouse breweries across Belgium and will allow them to continue bottle conditioning their beers.
It was in Belgium where Boom Island Founder and Head Brewer Kevin Welch noticed the machine. “On our last trip to Belgium we spent the end of August and then the front part of September travelling and seeing friends and making new friends, seeing different breweries,” he recalls. “The vast majority were roughly our size, little family farmhouse breweries, and one after another after another all had this same machine. I finally asked [about it] at Brouwerij Sint Canarus,” which led to his taking it for a test run the following day. The Belgian breweries all touted its durability and Welch was sold.
This spring, Boom Island installed a KTM-Troxler bottling unit, a 14-head filler capable of filling 2,600 bottles an hour. Based in the city of Ettenheim in Germany’s wine region, Troxler manufactures units for both wineries and breweries, with custom pieces available to fill different bottle sizes. A family-owned brewery, Boom Island’s unit was installed by Yannic Troxler himself, who says that their European clientele is a 50/50 split, serving Germany’s wine country and Belgium’s farmhouse breweries equally.
“This is a simple machine,” says Welch, and is designed for their style of bottle conditioning. The reviews were so glowing that he wasn’t concerned about the risk involved with international customer service. There’s a control board attached to a router, he explains, which can send direct signals to Troxler. “At any moment of the day,” Welch explains of the troubleshooting process, “Troxler can check in and see how efficiently the machine is running.” While many breweries choose equipment used by their local peers so they can share knowledge and emergency parts, Welch is happy with his purchase—Boom Island’s bottle conditioning process is a distinctive part of their brand and the flavor profile of their beers.
The new equipment allows Boom Island to move into 12 oz. bottles and six-packs, which is a format that fits more sessionable beers like their saison (the first beer to be bottled using the new machine), wit, Belgian pale ale, and Belgian IPA.
The Troxler unit also fills and corks 750ml bottles, which Boom Island has done by hand since opening, meaning they can continue packaging their more robust beers in the larger bottles. The only thing it doesn’t do, says Welch, is twist the cage and cork wires. “This is like a dream. It was taking five people all day long to do about one pallet [of bottles],” Welch says of the manual process. “Now it takes two people about two-and-a-half hours to do the same.”
The automation allows reallocation of resources at the small brewery, meaning more beer production. Welch is especially excited about the uniformity of the filler, which ensures that each bottle has the same pour and, consequently, CO2 ratio. It makes the process more efficient and ensures higher quality, meaning he can turn future attention toward expanding the brewery, both in terms of barrelage and distribution. Twelve ounce bottles are easier to sell, he notes, and the new containers also help get their beers onto more shelves and coolers, which will contribute to the growth the brewery has been experiencing since it opened.
Boom Island moved into a new, larger location in February 2014. “This is a space we can look around and be proud of what we’ve built from scratch,” Welch says. While the taproom has a more social feel than the small tasting room at their first location, the facility overall is still low key and focused primarily on production. Customers can get a pint in the 4,000 square foot space and see the brewery in action, including intermingling with pallets of freshly bottled packaged product with labels marking the beers’ ages (“Not Ready” or “Do Not Pull”). After the requisite conditioning and carbonation period, Welch moves the beers into the cooler and then ships them out.
The new bottling machine has set off a chain reaction of growth. Boom Island will introduce a new fall seasonal (Welch is still tight-lipped about what the beer will be), with the smaller bottle size driving the style decision, and new labels are on the way to better fit with the new containers.
Just as it was a trek across Europe that inspired Welch to start the brewery in the first place, Belgian breweries continue to influence the brand’s growth here in Minnesota.