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Bubbling Markets

Message in the bottle - The soft drinks market is really bubbling - Bottling History

Can anyone imagine a world without soft drinks? Probably not. No lemonade with the picnic; no bottled water with a touch of citrus on a long hot car ride; no isotonic sports drinks to sustain the long-distance runner; and, worst of all perhaps, no ‘real thing’ to refresh after a punishing game of tennis. Unthinkable!

Soft drinks have been available for longer than one might think. The first bottled soft drinks appeared in the 17th century made from water and lemon juice sweetened with honey.

But it was nearly 100 years later that an English doctor, Joseph Priestley, made the first glass of carbonated water and not until 1832 that John Mathews, known as the ‘Father of American soda water’, invented an apparatus for charging water with carbon dioxide gas.

In 1883, James Tufts patented the ‘soda fountain’, a machine for dispensing carbonated soft drinks, usually from pharmacies, which became part of American culture. But it wasn’t long before people wanted to take their beverages home – and the commercial bottled soft drink market was born.

But those bubbles were a problem and in 1892 William Painter patented the ‘Crown Cork Bottle Seal’, the first successful method of keeping the bubbles in the bottle. The bottles themselves were made of glass, hand-blown in the early days. It was only when Michael Owens of the Libby Glass Company developed a bottle-blowing machine that production rocketed and the bottled soft drinks market took off, too.


Technology

The soft drinks market has come a long way since those days. Procomac, Italian specialist in bottling technology, became part of the GEA Group in April 2007. Since 1979 the company has supplied bottling equipment to a growing market and now provides complete bottling lines. It’s a specialist in aseptic bottling – bottling performed entirely under sterile conditions – the latest development in bottling and one that allows consumers to enjoy a much more extensive range of drinks than ever before.

Before aseptic bottling the accepted technology was the ‘hot fill’ technique. This required the beverage to be heated up to 90°C to kill bacteria; then it had to be cooled again, a process that consumed a great deal of energy. More importantly, perhaps, the heating affected the taste of the product.

However, according to Paolo Pagliarini, Deputy General Manager & Group Companies Co-ordinator for GEA Procomac, part of GEA Process Engineering, aseptic cold filling suffers from none of these problems. “We put an aseptic product in an aseptic bottle with an aseptic cap and perform the whole process under aseptic conditions,” he explained. “This way we use less power, have a better tasting product with a higher nutritional value and can use lightweight PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate) bottles that reduce material costs and power usage.” The latest equipment can achieve filling speeds of up to 60,000 bottles every hour.

Although aseptic production was initially more expensive than the hot fill technique, technical developments and economies of scale are continually reducing the investment and running costs of plants. Quality control is also vitally important. According to Carlo Ferrari, Media Manager for GEA Procomac, it’s electronics that provides the key. “I see electronic equipment becoming more and more the foundation of the aseptic process with extensive checks and higher process accuracy,” he explains.

Products

It’s no longer just carbonated drinks that are suitable for bottling. Today’s technology allows a wide range of beverages to be bottled safely and economically without compromising the taste or risking contamination. High acid products such as isotonic sports drinks and citrus fruit juices are the easiest because they are less susceptible to biological attack. Low acid products such as milk drinks or vegetable juices are more difficult and require more stringent measures to be taken as part of the company’s HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point) procedures.

Where will growth come from in the future?

Ferrari expects UHT (ultra heat treated) milk and fruit juices to be the most popular although a new market for beer would be very exciting if PET containers for beer gained market acceptance.

Eastern Europe is considered to be a big growth area and, of course, China and India, as prosperity rises, will be targets for the future. Surprisingly perhaps the US, birthplace of the bottled soft drink, may see the biggest opportunities. GEA Procomac has recently filed with the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) for high-speed, low-acid filling technology. When that is approved, access to the world’s biggest consumer market with these technically challenging products will be very exciting.

Environment

No industry today can or should escape the demands of environmental sustainability and the switch from hot to cold aseptic techniques is undoubtedly positive. However, aseptic production does require the use of chemicals to maintain the sterile environment. Ferrari explains that recycling is fundamental within the system to minimize the environmental effect. “We manage chemicals very carefully and approximately 85 per cent are recycled within a closed-loop system. We are constantly aware of the need to do all we can in this area.”

The beverage industry is embracing aseptic technology as a way of achieving natural flavor and long shelf life with the greatly expanded product range demanded by today’s consumers. It’s a multi-billion dollar industry that is still expanding rapidly as technology improves and the world becomes richer. What would Messrs Priestley, Mathews, Tufts, Painter and Owens have made of it all?