When considering capital investment in major equipment purchases, many brewers look at the budget first and decide what to spec based on that. But in doing so, they miss the bigger picture and hidden costs associated with what they think is saving money.
In my role as a founder of three breweries, and now a consultant to breweries on brewhouse design and installation, the fun part for me is to look at a client’s goal and ask, “What is your perfect scenario?” It’s up to me to build the roadmap to get there.
Here are a few cases where decisions to save money may be more costly down the road, with some real-world examples to explain those purchasing decisions.
The Pros and Cons of Combi-Tank Systems
Combi-tank systems are cheaper and more space-efficient than brew systems with dedicated vessels for each function, and brewers like combi-tank systems for those reasons. But the system’s affordability doesn’t mean it’s the right system for your brewery. Take a look at probrewer.com right now, and you’ll see a list of people who bought systems that didn’t fit into their processes and business plans. But you don’t need to make the same mistakes—I’m a firm believer in designing the landscape appropriately so that you’re not always putting out fires. So let’s walk through the considerations point by point.
First, the Pros.
In a restaurant or brewpub environment, the scale of combi-tank systems is perfect for constantly creating and exploring new beers. They’re space-efficient and fit into tight spaces, making them great for pub environments where square footage is at a premium. At the core, they’re designed for one person to come in, get a brew done, and clean, all in a standard shift. They’re meant for single-batch brewing into single tanks—or possibly double-batch brewing over successive days. If your business plan works with that volume of brewing, then a combi-tank system can be very cost effective.
Next, the Concerns.
Most combi-tank systems aren’t steam jacketed, and the ones that are require a significant investment in a separate boiler and steam piping. If you’re going to go that route, you might as well go full-production if you can.
Brew days on combi-tank systems can be rather long because they typically incorporate the kettle as their wort grant, so the vorlauf operation ties up the kettle. Another downside to that is that you typically don’t have any way to measure the volume in the kettle. With recent technology, you see more pressure transducers on the bottom of kettles to calculate the volume of wort in a kettle, but those are fundamentally flawed if you’re not doing any kind of gravity correction. Degrees Plato, Balling, or specific gravity is the measure of the relative density to water. A pressure transducer calibrated simply to the hydrostatic pressure of water is not including any of the gravity you have in that wort, so it’s not accurately measuring your volume. That’s why I’m a fan of magnetic flow meters because you have much more accuracy when tracking your system.
While all these factors aren’t as important in a restaurant or brewpub, if you’re running a production facility, you’re typically not doing just one brew per day. And pub systems, with their electric heating elements, can make batch-to-batch brewing extremely difficult. If you’re a production brewery trying to brew on a combi-tank system, you’re going to be killing your brewer(s) by attempting multiple-batch brew days, given the size of the system.
Another significant consideration often overlooked is the impact of these typically direct-fire systems on your recipes. If your goal is to eventually do production-style brewing and you start on a direct-fire system, you’ll have to change your recipes when you eventually upgrade to a steam-fired system because the mechanics of wort boiling are not the same. If you’re building your brand on an amazing beer you brew on a combi-tank system, it is inevitably going to change when you brew that on your new high-efficiency steam system. A famous example of that is Green Flash Brewing (San Diego) when they moved from their direct-fire old beat-up brewhouse in Vista to a beautiful calandria 50-barrel system in Miramar. People were livid about the change in the flavors, and Green Flash was aware of it. It took them a long time to get the flavors back that they were used to on their old system.
There’s also added labor that goes into pub systems at the end of the day because you typically can’t start cleaning the mash tun until the kettle is done with the knockout (because all of the piping needs to be cleaned, and you typically have only one pump that needs to be used for your knockout). You can rinse out and drain your mash tun, but you’re still probably going to run a CIP on the runoff line into the kettle, adding time to the brew day.
As a brewer, you should be thinking five to ten years in the future, and if you’re going to cut off your nose to spite your face now because it’s all you can afford, understand that you’re creating more issues that you’re going to have to solve in the future.
When planning out a brewhouse, don’t focus on what you can afford. Focus instead on what your business plan requires you to do with it. Then consider what you can afford and find the happy space in between. You may have to get creative in order to get there, but you save significant headaches down the road.
The Hidden Value of Mash Rakes
At my age, I’m not mashing in by hand any more. Those days are long gone. My back can’t handle that. But beyond the simple question of making the physical brew day easier, is it possible to calculate an ROI for one of the most commonly sacrificed mechanical aids in a brewhouse?
Of course it is. Having a rake and plow to mix the mash is crucial, but it’s one of those line items that always gets cast aside. You can purchase a system for anywhere from $7,000 to $15,000, depending on complexity. I did one install in Seattle where they omitted the rakes because they couldn’t afford them, and I said to the owner, “I guarantee that, after the first brew, you’re going to order those rakes.” After the very first dough-in (the batch wasn’t even finished yet), the email was off to get those rakes—on Day One.
In California, and any state for that matter, you have to factor in labor costs and the cost of worker retention. In the brewing industry, the margins are thin, and the industry is growing even more competitive, so you have to eke out an edge wherever you can. Very few brewers enjoy manually mixing a mash or manually shoveling out spent grain. As a brewery owner, you have to ask yourself what the value may be of building systems that decrease turnover and aid production-employee retention. Every time you lose a skilled employee and have to train a new one in his/her place, the business loses institutional knowledge, experience, and productivity. As the labor market grows more and more competitive, shift brewers naturally gravitate to better work environments. In the long run, the cost of a rake and plow is nothing compared to losing talented staff.
Steam vs. Direct Fire
I’ve mentioned above the recipe changes involved in moving from a direct-fire system to a steam system. One other thing few consider when looking at the cost of steam versus direct-fire vessels is the amount of time those direct-fire systems take before the burner can even kick on. They typically have a probe that needs to be submerged before the burner’s electronics will allow it to fire, so that takes up a certain amount of time. Then you’re trying to heat your kettle with the least efficient method we know of—direct-fire. You have all this wort that’s making contact with heat only down in the firebox, so you’re not getting efficient heat transfer. Your runoff times and your time to boil will be 3 to 4 hours. Add to that the fact that if there are any problems with the gas installation, and you don’t clock the BTUs on the burner, you may not achieve an adequate evaporation rate.
Clocking the meter is something relevant to all direct-fire systems that not many people do when they commission their system. If you do commission a direct-fire system, have your HVAC guy with a meter clock how much gas is going through that meter at that time while measuring the gasses in the flue, in order to come up with a calculation for how many BTUs are produced based on the inputs. Having that person there can help you tweak it, so you get the most efficiency out of that burner. You don’t want it too high because that will scorch sugars. You don’t want it too low because then you’ll have DMS and other volatiles not volatizing out of the kettle.
Auger vs. Chain Disk
I worked on the installation for one of the Figueroa Mountain locations in Grover Beach, California, and they had a really convenient, nicely laid out three- or five-barrel system. But we had some issues with where the contractor had built the auger, and it went two different ways. He put it up in the false tiles above the ceiling, so we couldn’t see it, and when we tried to dough in for the first batch, I couldn’t get the auger to move. I crawled up into the ceiling and found the problem because with these augers, you can’t go one way then make an about-face the other way. It goes one continuous sweep or not at all.
That’s why I try to get every client I work with onto a chain-disk system now. They’ve come down in price to where they’re double to three times what augers cost, but chain-disk systems are much gentler on your malt, and they speed up the dough-in process, which saves brewer time while also allowing you greater control over your mash.
With a chain-disk system, you can dough in twice as fast as with an auger, so why pay your brewer to sit there and stare at an auger for an hour? Beyond that, the faster dough-in gives you greater control over the enzymatic activity in your mash. If you’ve got to wait for an auger to dough in over 45 minutes, all that enzymatic activity in the first grain to hit the mash isn’t going to be the same as in the last grain that hits.
The price of the chain disk-system doesn’t seem so problematic when each of these factors is considered, and the $10,000 price tag for a system feeding a seven- to ten-barrel system is easy to justify. Plus they’re pretty easy to install, so it’s possible to do some work yourself to keep the overall cost down.
Another consideration is the space that an auger takes up. They don’t handle extreme angles, so while less expensive, they require you to position your grist case where it’s not going to impede anything else, and that can mean more square footage for your brewhouse, which also carries a cost.
Because most new brewers are looking at urban areas to locate their breweries, the chain disks are extremely efficient when considering how much space you need to dedicate. You do need to create a loop, but it can be done in such a way as to get around obstacles. You can go around your piping or around your glycol systems, so the added benefit of being able to use otherwise unusable space makes it an even more attractive solution.
Finally, there’s the issue of quality. An auger spins a metal coil inside a tube, and the spinning action of that coil creates significant friction against the tube. When the coil is twisting, that area between the PVC and the coil is where a lot of grain will continue to get pulverized. So on a long auger run where you’ve calibrated your mill, your sieve is set, you’ve measured it all out, and you’ve got the perfect crush, you then send it through an auger and it’s not the same crush by the time it hits the mash. You then need to back off your rollers to account for the additional pulverizing that occurs naturally in any auger system. The speed that you’re running the motor can impact how much friction you’re creating, as can the length of the run.
The grain put through a chain-disk system is going to be much, much closer to the sieve test. There’s nothing other than the few kernels in contact with the disk as it’s moving through to your grist case. Once the grain is in the tube, you can run those systems as fast as they will go. On the 30-barrel system at Cervecería Wendlandt (Ensenada, Mexico), I could dough in my IPA in 17 minutes.
The long-term effect of the happiness of your workers—by enabling them to challenge themselves to work more efficiently and develop more efficient processes—benefits the brewery owner in that the money you’re paying them is going to good use. Saving 30 minutes a day on dough-in or post-brew cleaning equates to 2.5 hours per week or 130 hours per year per employee—that’s three weeks of work over the course of the year.
It adds up quickly, and increasing productivity with incremental improvements is cheaper than making major capital investments in things such as larger brewhouses.