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  • Writer's pictureShane Novacek

Saugatuck Brewing Company Raises a Glass to PC-based Automation

New carbonation system for craft beer enhances product quality while reducing controls cost by 50%

Saugatuck beers going down a bottling line

As most beer drinkers will tell you, the United States has experienced a craft brewing renaissance in recent years. According to the Boulder, Colorado-based Brewers Association, roughly 9,250 American breweries were in operation in 2021, the highest total of breweries in the country since the 1880s. This association has also stated that over 400,000 jobs have been created by craft brewers in the U.S. This incredible growth mostly comes from craft micro brewers that typically serve an area of a few states, a single state or even a metropolitan area.

Saugatuck Brewing Company, for example, is a small, but fast-growing micro-brewery based in Douglas, Michigan and is helping fuel this craft beer boom in North America. Available throughout Michigan and branching into other states soon, Saugatuck beers are created using classic recipes from around the world mixed with modern inspiration. Saugatuck Brewing sources top quality hops and grains from across the upper Midwest. New product development is helped with The Lucky Stone Pub, a pub built into the brewery where feedback on new test batches can be gathered from local beer aficionados before the brewery decides to put them into full production on the bottling and/or keg line.

Saugatuck brewer tests beer
Saugatuck beers are created using classic recipes from around the world mixed with modern inspiration.

“Saugatuck Brewing makes several beer options in the classic styles such as pilsner, ales, hefeweizen, porter, stout and IPA (India Pale Ale) with some balanced, modern refinement,” says Ron Conklin, Brewmaster at Saugatuck Brewing. “Now Saugatuck is increasingly trying new recipes, including those for higher gravity beers and brews using natural flavor-enhancing ingredients.”

Saugatuck caters to every taste from extra hoppy beers that are extremely popular in the U.S. right now such as the brewery’s Singapore IPA to a raspberry-hinted brew, the Delilah DeWylde-Berry Wheat beer. The latter was developed in collaboration with a popular local musician who is a mainstay in the Western Michigan music scene.

Saugatuck has added some advanced equipment to help brew bigger batches continuously over the course of the week. Major elements of this expansion and modernization include advanced EtherCAT and PC-based automation equipment.

Brewery automation ensures that production doesn’t go flat

When Saugatuck beer finishes its fermenting process, it is then “crashed,” which means the temperature is turned down to 34 °F. At this stage the proteins and yeast in the mix collect at the bottom of the fermentation tank, then the beer is “racked off” on the top. From there the beer is transferred into the bright tank, where it’s carbonated prior to bottling and kegging. The beer spends almost 2 weeks in the fermenter and 2 to 3 days in the bright tank.

Saugatuck brewer in front of fermenters
As Saugatuck continued to grow production, greater automation capabilities were required.

The previous automation system used for the fermenters and bright tanks involved single loop controllers. The carbonation tank phase at the brewery was previously a manual process where brewery personnel had to connect CO² lines to the carbonation tank and run them through a manual regulator and via some educated guesswork, carbonate the beer with the right volumes of CO².

“Managing these CO² levels of course required a good deal of finesse and it certainly wasn’t easy,” explains Ron Conklin. “Saugatuck Brewing also experienced occasional issues with under-carbonated beer. This decreased efficiency, but fortunately didn’t harm batch quality in the end because the beer could just be left in the tank a little longer to increase the carbonation to the proper level. However, possible over-carbonation was still a concern because of the potential for costly waste of CO² and the need to scrub out wanted proteins for beer head retention, when de-carbonating.

PC- based automation and EtherCAT – key brewing ingredients

The reality for U.S. microbreweries is that expansion can come at a rapid pace, but it is also realized in several increments. This calls for a modular automation system that can flexibly expand in multiple phases that occur in rapid succession. For Saugatuck, the solution for maintaining ideal carbonation levels and accommodating further brewery expansions came in the form of PC-based control and the EtherCAT Industrial Ethernet communication system.

Today Saugatuck Brewing utilizes a compact Beckhoff CP6607 Ethernet Control Panel with 5.7-inch touch screen as the interface to the updated carbonation system. The Ethernet Control Panel also runs the Saugatuck Brewing HMI so brewery staff can adjust carbonation parameters and change other settings. Saugatuck Brewing programmed their HMI using TwinCAT PLC software instead of relying on a stand-alone HMI software package.

Saugatuck Brewery staff uses Beckhoff Automation control panel
Today Saugatuck Brewing utilizes a compact Beckhoff CP6607 Ethernet Control Panel with 5.7-inch touch screen as the interface to the updated carbonation system.

“We chose the CP6607 because it was a compact PC and display integrated into the one cost-effective unit,” Ron Conklin says. “The easy-to-mount Ethernet Control Panel can easily handle the automation tasks in our carbonation process and it leaves ample room for equipment additions. We can run many more brewing tanks on this platform, yet it keeps our electrical cabinet size small.”

This new system also controls glycol valves for temperature control in every bright tank. Each tank can be individually set with different temperatures, CO² volumes and pressures. Via the Beckhoff HMI, cellaring of lagers and carbonation modes can be changed in the tank, so the system operation changes, for example, when pumping beer into the brite tanks, adjusting glycol levels, carbonating or bottling. The pressure control is completely automated now; before Saugatuck utilized manual regulators and manual switching of pressure lines.

“The system is more efficient and throughput is greater than ever partly because Saugatuck can intelligently pulse CO² for better carbonation. Bottling used to require a lot of running around, trying to keep the brite tank at the right pressure, now it is set and it stays within 1/10 psi. Also, our beer consistently has been vastly improved,” Ron Conklin says.

The enhanced carbonation system is networked via EtherCAT with a variety of IP20-rated terminals connected to an EK1100 EtherCAT Coupler. Outside of the controls cabinet, Saugatuck also utilizes resilient EtherCAT Box modules for connection to valves and sensors in the field. EtherCAT Box I/O features IP67 protection and is ideal for harsh environments with excessive moisture and airborne particles such as breweries.

Beckhoff EK1000 EtherCAT Coupler
The enhanced carbonation system at Saugatuck Brewing is networked via EtherCAT with a variety of IP 20-rated terminals connected to an EK1100 EtherCAT Coupler.

“TwinCAT and the EtherCAT Fieldbus were particularly helpful when adding new tanks to the system,” Jason Conklin, Applications Engineer, Beckhoff Automation, says. “When implementing major equipment upgrades at Saugatuck Brewery, we’re increasing an already large plant footprint, so the ability to simply run standard Ethernet cables from the controller provides considerable cost benefits. In addition to EtherCAT topology flexibility, it’s also quite easy to reconfigure the overall system versus other fieldbus technologies previously used at Saugatuck Brewing.”

“Best of all, the guesswork has been driven out of our processes,” adds Ron Conklin. “Our previous challenges with over- or under-carbonating the beer is no longer an issue with the new Beckhoff control system. These days, I don’t have to babysit the carbonation like I used to.” With Saugatuck’s newly implemented automation equipment, brewery personnel can very precisely set and maintain the CO² volume per keg unit for maximum product quality. In addition to improved quality and consistency, Saugatuck beer also carbonates faster because of the new automated method, improving throughput and time to market.

“It only took three months to install the new PC-based carbonation system and integrate five bright tanks,” Jason Conklin recalls. “Further additions to the system will be implemented just as quickly. As Saugatuck Brewing grows and adds tanks, the main job is to simply add I/O to the system. Through TwinCAT software, it’s simple to link the I/O and expand the system to quickly incorporate more tanks. Minor additional effort will involve wiring the new I/O, plus connecting valves, temperature sensors and other peripheral equipment which is also convenient using the EtherCAT Box modules.”

Cracking open new markets

Saugatuck Brewing team
Saugatuck Brewing personnel (from left to right): Kerry O’Donohue, Vice President of Marketing, Ron Conklin, Brewmaster and Ric Gillette, President and CEO

Using PC- and EtherCAT-based technology, Saugatuck Brewing also experienced a drastic reduction in production equipment cost. “The Beckhoff control system is 50% less expensive per tank compared to an alternative controller architecture Saugatuck Brewing considered,” Ron Conklin says. “The other system was ruled out as soon as we determined we would have to purchase a new hardware controller every time we expanded. If we went down that path, we would have had inefficient controllers all over the place. Standardizing on one PC-based system that controls all brewing tanks makes plant operation, maintenance and further upgrades much easier.”

Moving beyond the fermenting and carbonation tanks, future plans for Saugatuck Brewing include possible Beckhoff control of expanded bottling lines and of automated keg washers. “When I give tours of the brewery I explain to our guests that small breweries like Saugatuck Brewing typically don’t have systems as sophisticated as the one we have from Beckhoff Automation,” Gillette explains. “Implementing a high degree of automation helps give a microbrewery like us a competitive advantage because most breweries on our scale don’t have anything like this.”

Ready to upgrade the automation technology at your brewery or other food and beverage operation? Contact your local Beckhoff sales engineer today.


Shane Novacek is the Marketing Communications Manager for Beckhoff Automation LLC.

A version of this article previously appeared in Control Engineering.


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