Artisan meets automation

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Automated processing helps deliver high-quality beverages quickly. By Sean Riley

Just as the flavour profile of a beer relies on the subtle nuances of fermentation, the essence and taste of a tea or coffee beverage depends on the steps taken during the production process. From leaf or bean to the final product, the treatment of raw ingredients at various stages can alter what the consumer ultimately tastes and experiences.

High-speed, industrial machines may not seem to fit the bill for “artisan,” but for age-old production processes that require expert timing and delicate handling, automated machinery actually adds tremendous value. Advancements in design allow the equipment to handle delicate ingredients with care and maintain critical processing conditions while increasing production volumes. The beverage industry is projected to grow from a valuation of USD $30.1 billion in 2018 to a valuation of $45.5 billion in 2028, according to the 2018 Beverage Trends in Packaging and Processing Operations report by PMMI, the Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies, based

in Reston, Virginia. For a market anticipating this level of growth, fast output will be critical to meet demand.

From Bush to Ready-to-Brew

Along with the quality of the tea bush and the leaves picked from it, the quality of the production process dictates the final quality of the tea. The procedures used to wither, roll, oxidize and dry the leaves impact whether the tea falls into the category of black, green or somewhere in between.

After the beginning stages of the harvest, when tea leaves are picked and prepared for processing, manufacturers use automated equipment for the rolling or “disruption” stage. In this process, tea leaves are curled, bruised, torn or crushed to promote the breakdown of enzymes. Previously done by hand, rolling machines now conduct the process that provides the consistent, measured movement needed to twist, turn and break up the leaves.

The rolling process kicks off oxidation, which leaves the tea to darken in climate-controlled conditions and reach the desired strength, colour and taste. Automated technologies can guarantee the moisture and temperature levels do not fluctuate during this period, keeping fungal growth and potential contamination at bay. During oxidation, new automated machinery can help agitate the leaves to facilitate oxidation.

From Harvest to Roast

In coffee production, speed is everything. From the moment picked from a coffee tree, a coffee cherry is at risk of spoilage and must be processed as quickly as possible to reach the consumer at the peak of freshness.

Following the harvest of coffee cherries, a pulping machine removes the skin and pulp from the fruit, revealing the raw green coffee beans inside. After being separated and moved to fermentation tanks, large tumbler machines dry the beans.

As the coffee beans undergo a refining process, automated equipment again comes into play. Hulling machinery prepares the beans for export by removing a layer of parchment from their exterior. The beans then face examination, with those unsatisfactory in shape, size, colour or condition removed by machine – at times supplemented by hand sorting. This process is critical for a market that demands a rich, fine product.

After export, roasting machines take the beans from green to brown, releasing the aromas consumers associate with a hot, fresh cup of coffee. Programmable logic controllers (PLCs) can maintain the temperature of the machine and eliminate the need for workers to monitor this process, making operations more efficient and leaving less room for error.

Driving Benefits Along the Production Line

Beyond ensuring a quality, timely product, automation can also bolster plant cleanliness and food safety. Automated clean-in-place (CIP) procedures that can provide controlled washdown and guarantee the facility meets proper sterilization requirements help to protect the product and consumer health, while also reducing downtime.

In some plants that have adopted the technology, product moves away from human hands within minutes of entering the facility and is run through automated equipment up until its packaged, reducing the risk of contamination and ensuring the product is safe for consumption. This setup also helps to improve worker safety. Advancements like human machine interface (HMI) software allows employees to monitor and control operations from afar and experience limited contact with the machines.

Using automated equipment can also allow tea and coffee processors to experience greater flexibility in production, offering quick changeover and minimizing downtime due to the technology offering high adaptability. This customization also allows manufacturers to tailor equipment to their unique plant needs.

Of course, the artisan nature of tea and coffee production demands a degree of human touch and depending on the source of the beans, and where processing takes place, a lack of resources may limit the ability to automate production. Still, where possible, implementing automated machinery at various points along the line helps to increase output while still delivering a choice product that meets consumer expectations.

Automated Technology in Action

As demand for tea and coffee continues to grow, manufacturers will have to utilize new advancements in technology to develop more efficient production methods. Tea and coffee professionals seeking the latest solutions in beverage processing can attend ProFood Tech (26-28 March, McCormick Place, Chicago, Illinois). ProFood Tech is the only processing trade show in North America that addresses all market sectors, welcoming 7,000 professionals from all food and beverage processing markets.

Produced by three of the world’s trade show leaders, Pack Expo, Koelnmesse (organizer of Anuga) and the International Dairy Food Association (IDFA), the three-day event highlights cutting-edge crossover technologies and innovative solutions from 400 exhibitors over 125,000 net square feet of exhibit space. Learn more about ProFood Tech by visiting profoodtech.com.

Sean Riley is the senior director, media and industry communications for PMMI, The Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies, based in Reston, Virginia, which represents more than 850 North American manufacturers and suppliers of equipment, components and materials as well as providers of related equipment and services to the packaging and procession industry. PMMI organizes the Pack Expo portfolio of trade shows including Pack Expo International, Pack Expo Las Vegas and Expo Pack Mexico. For more information, visit https://pmmi.org/.

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