Walk the expo floor during the Craft Brewers Conference, and you’ll pass by booth after booth filled with all kinds of things you never thought you would need for your brewery and now suddenly feel like you can’t live without.
There’s a lot of temptation to stock your brewery as best as possible—so long as you live within your budget—but sometimes there’s a piece of gear or a certain machine that you find makes your brew days so much better, and after only a short time, you realize life is better with it.
We asked folks about the “one piece of brewhouse equipment that you didn’t realize you couldn’t live without that’s become important to your success?”
They followed that up by asking “if there were any significant equipment purchases you’ve made that you regret or that didn’t produce the return on investment that you’d hoped?” The answers are sage advice for brewers of any size.
Head Brewer at Barley Brown’s Beer (Baker City, Oregon)
“A nontraditional piece of equipment we use is the “Lazy Tyler” (patent pending, pictured above left). It’s two hand trucks laid down wheel-to-wheel so a keg rests on the wheels. It’s used for cleaning kegs and applying keg stickers.”
Founder/Brewer of High Branch Brewing Co. (Concord, North Carolina)
“I think there are a lot of things here; we started on a tiny budget and really small. We repurposed stainless tanks and made do with what we had for a while. We stick to specific beers, so our process may differ from other breweries. I think a good kettle with whirlpool and dished bottom is imperative for IPAs.
It helps separate the hops and keep the heat exchanger from clogging. I think a two-stage heat exchanger is very helpful in the South since the water gets up to 80°F in the summer, making knock out tough. I think making sure you have the equipment to supply plenty of hot water is key, too. Also thinking about raw material moving: a dock, an easy way to get rid of spent grains.
I don’t recommend starting really small like we did. We started at 1.5 barrels and while it paid the bills, we could only be open two days a week. As everyone tells you, start as big as you can. We bought an electric kettle; at 5 barrels and with the design we have, it’s not great. It heats up well, but it is tough to keep the elements clean. The wires get in the way.”
Managing Director at The Dandy Brewing Company (Calgary, Alberta, Canada)
“The easy answer is anything that makes packaging run smoother. When we first started hand bottling/labeling, it was taking four people up to four hours to package a pallet of beer, and one person another four hours to label. As we put money into our packaging process, we were able to cut it down to a 1.5 hours/pallet to get the beer in the package and another hour to label/prep it for shipping.
The long answer is our plastic tanks. We were looked at like we were nuts when the cat got out of the bag that we were using plastic tanks to ferment. Thanks to an amazingly detailed blog by Hess Brewing outlining their use of plastic tanks and some phone calls and emails to Idle Hands in Boston about their experience, we were able to put them together and get them running very smoothly.
It allowed us to start with more tank space than expected and add tanks at a fraction of the cost, to grow at an organic rate. We didn’t have to settle for fewer tanks than we needed due to cost or end up with too many tanks just to make an order worth it. Four years later, we are still using our original four, and have added eleven more, all producing great beer.
I am not sure there is one [regret] that really stands out. We’ve grown over the past four years by really being careful and running lean. If we’re looking to add a piece of equipment, it’s usually after we have developed a new process manually first, jimmy-rigged a version of the piece, and then we invest in the actual piece once we know it is efficient.
That being said, used kegs are probably the one I would identify if I really had to think about. We got into draught just before keg leasing became popular in Canada (like just months before) and invested in a keg float of old kegs. With some of the great providers in both the United States and Canada, we have switched all new keg-float growth to leasing companies. We can grow our float much more organically, and the support is usually provided for keeping the kegs in great working order.”
Dirk D. Hillegass
Head brewer at Triple 7 Brewhouse (West Asheville, North Carolina)
“My hot liquor tank for my 5-barrel system is direct fire with natural gas and it’s ‘hot water on demand’—no waiting to heat water or planning around available ‘at temp’ water. Hot water on demand is so useful for hitting consistent strike temps, accurate sparging, activating chemicals for optimal cleaning, heat-sanitizing equipment, and so much more. My second prize purchase would be my on-board digital flowmeter/totalizer/digital thermometer!
A purchase and then a quick return was for a second flow meter in the cellar (cold side). I didn’t find it necessary for my size of equipment for tracking information and making adjustments from ‘grain to glass.’ An easier, cost-saving solution was to calibrate and mark all of my equipment prior to production (do not trust any pre-fabricated marks that come on any vessel, regarding volume).
I marked an exact measured amount of 5 gallons on a bucket and then made manual water additions to the HLT, kettle, FVs, and BTs, marking the increments until a repeatable pattern was observed just below the manway door on all the tanks. I properly marked the ‘tanks,’ not the sight tubes, as they can move slightly. Add increments of water, taking into consideration the tapering of and symmetry of each vessel and mark accordingly. You’ll be glad you did!
Brewer/Cofounder at Resident Culture (Charlotte, North Carolina)
“Having been in the industry before opening, I was pretty well aware of all the equipment I would need, so it’s tough to say there was anything I didn’t realize I couldn’t live without. In general, I’d say if you are going to make funky/wild beers, it’s super important to have separate equipment so that you don’t cross contaminate. I also find it super helpful to have a keg converted into a grant, which we use to dose chemicals into tanks and sanitize equipment.”
Cofounder and Brewer at Great Notion (Portland, Oregon)
“We purchased a DMA 35 Portable Density Meter from Anton Parr that we really love. We got it for our new production facility, but our pub brewery claimed it, and now we have to buy another one. It’s so much easier to take gravity readings now during the brew day and also during fermentation.
“The one thing I can think of that we purchased and do not use frequently is our yeast brink. It can be handy for fruit additions, but it’s much easier for us to just use a clean keg for harvesting yeast.”
Brewery Operations Manager at Bear Hill Brewing (Calgary, Alberta, Canada)
“A good coffee machine. With long days and early mornings, never underestimate the power of caffeine. We have a great local roaster that we work with, and we get great beans. We have a custom grinder and a good drip machine. A good cup of coffee makes all the difference. I wanted an espresso machine but was voted down. One day, I hope.”