The ultimate beer run

by Array


Molson Coors needed to move six massive beer tanks from the Port of Hamilton to Molson Coors’s Toronto facility. That meant travelling through six municipalities, affecting 250 stoplights and moving 1,614 service wires. Michael Power looks at the logistics and operations involved in the project.

When Mark Sandrock of Cambridge, Ontario-based Challenger Motor Freight met with Molson Coors representatives in July 2010, he was amazed by what the beer maker was proposing.

Molson Coors was importing six enormous beer vats—45 metres long, eight metres high and more than seven metres wide, each capable of holding 1.4 million bottles of beer—from the Ziemann Group in Germany to Molson Coors’s facility on Carlingview Drive in Toronto.

Fortunately, Sandrock already had a few big moves under his professional belt. He had once been involved in a project for another beer company in which a convoy of trucks moved eight beer tanks from Toronto to London, Ontario. But even with that experience, Sandrock was surprised at the scope of the project Molson Coors was proposing.

“It was beyond my belief of how much work it was,” he recalls. “It was that much more than the prior times that I’ve done this. It was more miles, more jurisdictions than I went through (previously).”

Sandrock showed the Molson Coors representatives pictures of the London move—roads closed with enormous tanks crossing traffic medians under hydroelectric lines—and told them to expect similar scenes.

To add to the complexity, the move was to take place within the Golden Horseshoe, the most densely populated part of Canada.

“They were asking if we could do it—if we could get this from A to B—and our reply was: anything is possible,” Sandrock says.

And it’s a good thing Challenger had a can-do attitude because by the time Molson Coors discussed the project with Challenger, the brewery was committed to importing the vats. In fact, the order for the beer vats had already been completed.


Once Challenger agreed to take on the project, the company had to secure a permit from the Ontario Ministry of Transport (MTO). More permits had to be sought from individual municipalities through which the vats would travel, says Frank DeVries of Challenger’s superload business development division, who oversaw operations for the move.

As well, the company needed permission from phone and internet service providers to move overhead wires so the vats would have room to pass underneath.

DeVries wrote a 50-page traffic plan for the MTO covering items like how Challenger would deal with issues during the move such as railroad and bridge crossings, crossing Ontario’s 400 series highways, how they would protect public safety, communications plans and plans for vehicle breakdowns and emergencies. The traffic plan also covered how many police officers would guide the convoy as it carried the vats (20 officers guided the vats while another 15 officers provided additional traffic control).

“The actual plan probably took about a week,” says DeVries. “But there’s a lot of work that goes into preparing it, investigating everything that you need. Once it’s submitted it has to be approved; minor changes need to be made.”

Along with the permit from the MTO, Challenger got permits from the municipalities of Hamilton, Mississauga, Halton, York, Peel and Brampton. Although the beer vats travelled on just a few roads overseen by the MTO, most municipalities wait for the ministry to grant approval before issuing permits of their own, DeVries says.

“Municipalities won’t issue their permits until they know that you have the Ontario approval,” he notes. “That’s sort of the benchmark. If you’ve got an Ontario approval, they all just assume that, OK, they can give you a permit because if you’ve got one from Ontario you’ve done your homework.”

The route

Sandrock spent much of August and September mapping the route the tanks would take from the Port of Hamilton to the Molson Coors facility in Toronto. But there were unexpected changes during the planning phase.

Once, after a version of the route had been mapped out, a utility company announced it wouldn’t work. The route required a power shut-down, and one of the company’s customers couldn’t afford to lose power. Since a four-hour shut-down would have cost $70,000, Challenger decided to change the route.

“We’d spent all of September figuring out this route,” says DeVries. “Now it’s the beginning of October and they come back and say no, you can’t go that way because we have a customer who can’t be interrupted. So now, we’d start over.”

When the route was finally set, Challenger drivers drove the route in pickup trucks several times to get comfortable with the trip, says David Einwechter, general manager, special commodities with Challenger. As one employee drove, another two employees would watch while another took notes, he says.

During those trips, the drivers gauged how tight the corners were, took note of crosswalk signs and intersections and watched for other obstacles they might encounter while moving the tanks. The drivers returned to Challenger’s offices in Cambridge and discussed what they had encountered.

“It’s not something you just put on Google maps and say, alright, I want to go from here to here,” says Einwechter. “We would send the drivers who were going to do it. These guys know what they’re doing; this is what they do for a living.”

The meeting

Both Sandrock and DeVries note that disbelief was the most common reaction from municipalities and service providers while trying to arrange the permits. To counter this, Challenger held a meeting November 16th with more than 80 utilities foremen, police officers and others from affected jurisdictions.

“We brought them all into our training room and said here’s what we’re doing and this is our plan,” says Sandrock. “We had to talk them into it—we had to convince them that it had to be done.”

Until then, many of those he had contacted about the move still didn’t believe the project would happen, says DeVries, who gave a presentation during the meeting outlining the project.

“That meeting opened everybody’s eyes to the fact that OK, this is for real,” he says. “‘They’ve been talking about it for the last two months, I don’t really believe them, but now I’m in this room with 79 other people and it’s happening.’”

All the while—during the route planning and discussions with utilities companies and governments—the vats were on their way to Canada.
“We’re getting regular updates from the manufacturer saying they’re getting insulated today, they’re on the barge, they’re coming up the main river, they’ve arrived in Antwerp, they’re being loaded on the ocean vessel,” DeVries says.

The vats arrived at the Port of Hamilton on November 24. The convoy set off with them January 7, and getting them onto the trucks was easy compared to what lay in store for the team, says Sandrock.

As soon as the trucks left the port, the tanks had to clear railroad signals above the road with 24ft between them. The tanks fit through the signals, he says, but only just.


The challenges didn’t stop once the beer vats were on the open road. One of the main hurdles the crew faced was dealing with service wires hanging above the roads. Many of the wires had to be moved so the vats could pass on the road. But each utility would move only its own wires, and wouldn’t touch wires belonging to other companies. At times, four or five different utilities would have wires attached to a single pole. As well, the utility companies changed as the caravan left one jurisdiction and moved into another.

“It’s not like there’s a list out there that says, OK, on this pole all those wires belong to so-and-so, and on that pole, some of those wires are so-and-so’s,” says DeVries. “I mean, you need to research all that yourself. There’s no form to it whatsoever.”

Wires hanging above the road were unhooked from the poles and placed on the ground, and then the trucks hauling the beer vats would drive over the wires. The wires had to be unhooked from three or four poles in each direction to create enough slack to reach the ground. The convoy used special pads that allowed the trucks to pass over without damaging the wires.

“If they drop down this big fibre optic cable and you crush that cable, you’re talking about thousands of people with no internet—and that’s business,” said Sandrock. Once the convoy passed over the wires, a crew would remain behind to re-attach the wires before police officers allowed traffic on the road again. At times, the process held up traffic for up to four hours.

Day and night, night and day

Since the convoy would hold up too much traffic during the day, the trucks travelled between 9pm and 6am. By day, Sandrock says he would take care of much of the preparation for the following leg of the trip, such as coordinating with utility companies in the next jurisdiction.

Before the trucks got rolling each evening, the convoy of 50 to 70 people would hold a safety meeting, which they called a “tailgate meeting.”
“I’d say, ‘you’ve got to go see Frank and tell him what your biggest concern is that night,’” says Sandrock. “So a guy would come up to Frank and say, ‘I’ve got something I want to talk to you about.’ They’d make sure we’re watching for this or that.”

DeVries began a Twitter account so those involved in the project could stay up-to-date. But it was sometimes challenging to predict how far the beer vats would travel by the following day.

Winds and extreme cold during the move also slowed the convoy’s progress. The vats were even sidelined for an entire night—unable to progress at all—because Peel Region was concerned about the snow. As well, utility workers needed extra time to warm up and staff was rotated more often due to the cold. At 6am on the final morning of the move, the temperature was -20C with a wind chill.

“It slowed everything down,” says DeVries of the extreme weather.

Signs, streetlights (hundreds of them) and poles also had to be moved from the path ahead of time. In their place, crews erected temporary lights and signs held in place with sandbags. The following day, the permanent lights once again replaced their temporary counterparts. Challenger had to seek permission to move the lights from the MTO or whichever municipality was in charge of the road.

One of the final hurdles loomed in Toronto, as the vats reached their journey’s final leg. Challenger discovered they could save time and money by taking the vats through Woodbine Racetrack. DeVries met with representatives from the racetrack, who agreed to let the vats travel through.

“In hindsight it saved us probably four more nights of driving,” says DeVries. “I explained to them what was happening and why I would like to use their facility. They gave us the approval.”

“Things happen like that as you’re going along,” says Sandrock. “You have your plan, your basic plan, this is what we’ve got right now—and then things change. You have to adapt to them really quick.”

Unloading the vats and putting them in place at Molson Coors’s brewery took only a day, says Sandrock. By the time the vats arrived on January 17, the convoy had travelled 108km through six municipalities. The move was originally scheduled to take four nights, but ended up taking 10 instead.

“It was a challenge even for Challenger,” says Sandrock.