August 31, 2004
You have finally gotten a crop from your trees, the olives have been pressed and your oil is sitting in plastic 5 gallon head packs or drums, you have picked out a beautiful bottle; now how do you get the oil in the bottle? The answer might surprise you.
Many producers think they must buy an expensive bottling line or bring their oil to a bottler but there are a variety of inexpensive alternatives. The first decision is when to bottle. Oil keeps better in drums than bottles so bottling small quantities, only as much as you need for ongoing sales, is the wise decision. Better to let the oil settle in a conical tank or drum where it can be decanted than in your bottle. Drums topped with inert gas or stainless steel tanks with floating lids keep out light and minimize oxidation.
You may run into a situation where you find you are selling more of your 250ml size bottle than your 500ml. If you have already bottled the whole year's harvest it will be too late to shift bottle sizes.
Some producers decide to change their label or closure or have a demand for special event or promotional label. Bottling as you go gives you greater packaging flexibility.
Bottling 500 gallons of oil in one day would be best done on a mechanized line. If you bottle once a week throughout the year it would only be 10 gallons at a time. The simplest and cheapest way to bottle would be to fill a 50 liter fusti from a drum with a hand pump, then fill the bottles by hand using the fusti equipped with a quarter turn spigot. You could fill 150 quarter liter bottles in 2 hours this way, just eyeballing the fill level.
Simple fusti with spout for filling olive oil bottles
For those who need to go to a mechanized bottler, there are several small ones on the market. Be aware that machines designed for wine or other water based products may not work for oil, which can swell seals and gaskets.
Gravity fillers use an overhead tank and a siphon to fill bottles to a specified height. There are usually several spigots in a row as the bottles fill relatively slowly, stopping at a set fill level. The operator goes down the row replacing filled bottles with empty ones. When the fill spigot is raised, flow is cut off. A gravity filler costs about $300.
Vacuum fillers suck air out of the bottle, pulling oil in, which speeds the filling process. The operator of a small vacuum filler does one bottle at a time. Such fillers can be adjusted to different fill levels and bottle sizes. The speed at which the bottle fills is adjustable. At its highest setting an operator could fill hundreds of bottles an hour. Single bottle vacuum fillers designed for oil cost about $500.
Vacuum bottle filler
For those who need faster throughput, the next option is a pump filler. These usually have several filling spouts and the oil can be simultaneously filtered. Prices are around $1300 for a 4 spout filler. A four spout bottler can fill 180 bottles per hour @ 500 ml sized bottles, is constructed of stainless steel and anodized aluminum - all parts in contact with food are stainless steel or food grade silicon. Typically these have a volumetric precision time-base electronic control system. A small bottler will support any standard 100ml to 1.5 liter bottle up to 17" height, runs on 115v and has an internal self priming multiple diaphragm pump. A sparge option will top each bottle of oil with nitrogen before capping to prolong oil life and help prevent rancidity.
Pump Filler - 4 spout
All of the above solutions assume hand corking and finishing.
The next step would be a complete filling line. These can be put inline with a capper and labeler. Automated filling lines have a variety of options but one of the most useful is filling by weight or exact volume. Glass bottles are not all created equally and filling to a height on the neck does not put an equal amount of oil in each bottle. To make sure each bottle has the minimum quantity stated on the label, most of the bottles must be overfilled by a small amount. That adds up for large producers. Automated lines can deliver a precise quantity of oil to each bottle. The fill height will be slightly different for each bottle but this is usually hidden by the shrink wrap closure. Bottles with tall thin necks will show this discrepancy the most and may need to be filled to a certain height on the neck instead.
To deliver a set amount, some machines weight the empty bottle, then add a set weight of oil. Bottlers can also be ordered which fill by volume. In some a piston draws up a calibrated amount of oil, then injects it into the bottle. A less precise method uses a pump which delivers a set amount of oil per second and a timer. Both weight and volume must be adjusted for temperature as a given amount of oil will fill a greater volume at a higher temperature.
Automated lines are usually custom designed to your specifications. The size and type of bottle which can be filled are variables which need to be specified. Some fillers can accommodate very small bottles and odd shapes. Some blow air into the bottles first to clean them.
Capping can be done with a separate machine or with options added to your bottler. Plastic caps, bar top corks or crimp-on screw cap (ROPP) options can be specified. You can even order equipment to automate shrink wrapping for a complete finish. Prices for automated lines are very variable depending on these options. An automated line with all the bells and whistles which will clean the bottle, fill, cap, and label goes for around $150,000.
For bottling options see the Olive Oil Source catalog