Part of the VBC philosophy is sourcing ingredients and supplies from people and companies that we know and trust. Owens-Illinois, Inc. (or O-I), a company that produces glass containers of all imaginable shapes and sizes, is one such supplier. They currently operate 19 plants across North America (and 77 worldwide in 21 countries!), including one just down the road in Toano, Virginia. We aren't planning on full-scale bottling during our first year, but plans are in place to purchase a packaging line within 12-24 months. That means that at some point we will need...wait for it...glass bottles!
As the main supplier of glass to the craft beer industry, the O-I folks always put together a fantastic, informative booth for BrewExpo America (part of the Craft Brewers Conference). While visiting with the O-I representatives this past April we mentioned how close our brewery would be located to the Toano plant and that we were interested in a tour at some point in the future. When we returned to Virginia we were immediately put in contact with Chris Tonk, the Plant Manager in Toano. Within days we were scheduled for a tour in early May!
Chris met us when we arrived at the plant and gave us a quick overview of the history of the company and the plant, the glass production process, and the different containers that are made in Toano. Owens Bottle Company was founded in 1903 and merged with Illinois Glass Company in 1929 to become Owens-Illinois, Inc. The Toano plant was built in the mid-1970s in response to the opening of Williamsburg's Anheuser-Busch brewery in 1972 (the plant no longer produces glass bottles for the brewery following InBev's 2008 acquisition of Anheuser-Busch). The plant currently produces almost one million containers per day, including the standard 22 ounce and 12 ounce bottles used by most craft brewers. Following the overview we donned the required safety equipment and headed into the plant!
Glass is made by combining limestone, sand, recycled glass (cullet), and soda ash. These ingredients are delivered to the Toano plant by truck or rail and then held in large silos before they are mixed and sent to one of two furnaces. The furnaces melt the ingredients at a temperature slightly below 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit to form molten glass, which is then delivered to forming machines that contain the molds for the particular containers being fabricated. Chris was kind enough (crazy enough?) to open a small hatch on the side of a furnace to give us a sense of the blinding orange light and extreme heat. He also showed us the incredibly advanced technology and automation that are responsible for the continued safe operation of the plant - pretty amazing stuff!
Once the containers have been formed they need to be strengthened through the annealing process, which is a five to six hour period of reheating and cooling. The containers are then inspected with both high-tech gadgetry (lasers and such) and multiple sets of human eyeballs. Defective containers are returned to the cullet silo for reuse in future batches. One of the most interesting things we learned is that glass bottles are actually coated! Chris picked up two bottles that had just completed the annealing process and demonstrated how they both scratched when rubbed together. Two different coatings are applied to make the bottles smooth. First, a very thin coating of tin is applied just before the annealing process. The tin is required because it provides a base for the adhesion of the second coating, which is typically a polyethylene wax. After inspection, the bottles are date coded (look closely at the bottom of a bottle for the black ink that shows the 3-digit date of the year [001-365], the forming machine code, and the 4-digit time of day) and sent to the packaging area to be combined into pallets of about 2,000 bottles. Check out this O-I video for a visual look at how glass is produced:
Take a closer look at the bottle the next time you open a craft beer. Locate the markings around the base of the bottle; it's very likely that you will see a small O-I marking. If there is an imprinted "N26" next to the O-I marking, even better - you are holding a bottle that was produced in Toano, Virginia! We may not be producing beer yet, but we are pleased to say that we are fully engaged with companies like O-I and are looking forward to working with them in the future. Finally, thank you to Chris Tonk and all of the friendly employees at O-I Toano for the hospitality. We look forward to inviting the whole crew over to the brewery next year!