For the past couple of decades, most smaller craft brewers had a fairly simple choice to make when scaling up production—how large a new system to buy. While breweries in the 50,000+ bbl range had a multitude of automation and design options to choose from, such custom process designs were cost-prohibitive for smaller craft brewers who primarily ended up with two-vessel systems.
But over the past few years, we’ve watched innovation at the top of the industry filter down to smaller and smaller systems, leading to revolutionary new options for craft brewers who no longer have to think “new larger mash tun and kettle” every time they need to expand their production. In fact, with today’s craft-beer consumption patterns, having the flexibility to brew more distinct beers more quickly or brew more of a single beer depending on market circumstances is a considerable advantage.
Here, we outline some of the ways leading manufacturers are making it possible for small craft brewers to think outside kettle size and find production gains in modular brewhouse additions and other unexpected places.
Oversized Mash Tuns for Today’s Bigger Grain Bills
While it used to be standard for brewhouses to feature similar-volume mash/lauter tuns and kettles, with today’s brewers focusing on larger styles, such as imperial stouts and double IPAs, it’s growing more common to see brewhouses with more capacity in the mash tun than the kettle.
“We’re seeing a lot more customers request custom mash-tun sizes,” says Refuge Brewery (Temecula, California) Cofounder and Ss Brewtech Chief Technology Officer Curt Kucera. “It’s all about having the proper grain depth, lautering efficiency—all of that with the grain bills you’re doing.”
As Kucera says, the decision to oversize a brewery’s mash tun must be made with consideration of that brewery’s entire portfolio. While there are clear gains to be had in producing larger volumes of high-gravity beers, that comes at the potential expense of efficiency on smaller beers.
“It’s not a one-size-fits-all solution oftentimes,” said Kucera. “You can’t go from a 12 percent imperial stout down to a 4 percent blonde ale with the same recipe dynamics and efficiency expectations. Your portfolio has to be built around this special brewhouse build, but it can work really well.”
Planning for Modular Growth
One way that startup breweries (or those making the jump from nano systems to 10–20 bbl systems) can lower the cost of future growth with marginal upfront investment is by designing the brewhouse with future upgrades in mind. A two-vessel 10 bbl system may be all the business plan and budget currently allow, but designing a brew deck and valve locations around future planned vessels such as a separate whirlpool or lauter tun can make those additions much less costly in the future. Premier Stainless and others are seeing more demand from brewers for options like these and are happy to deliver a brew deck designed for future expansion.
“Three-vessel systems have grown a lot more popular this year,” says Kucera. “In the first three months of the year, we’ve already shipped three 3-vessel 10-barrel steam systems, which is three times our normal rate. You need to have a brewer who knows how to use it, but it’s all about keeping a wide variety in the tasting room and being able to adapt to new trends in the market. We’re hearing from guys who don’t want to have a 20-barrel system that they have to half-batch on. They’d rather have a 10-barrel 3-vessel system to do more single batches. Trends change, and they can still have larger tanks on hand for more popular beers, but they can adapt quickly to what’s going on out there.”
With currently hyped beer styles requiring shorter and shorter sale windows and consumers constantly on the hunt for new beers to try, brewers are investing in brewhouse designs that allow them the flexibility to either produce a great number of distinct beers or to more quickly brew double batches.
On the subject of future growth, having your architect and engineer plan for these vessel additions from the start will reduce costly downtime down the road without adding significantly to the brewhouse budget.
The financial benefits of planning for modular growth can be significant, as growing incrementally generally creates less debt than large-scale brewery upgrades. “We take a brewer’s growth strategy into account when evaluating their application for financing,” says Brewery Finance Founder Rick Wehner, “so measured and modular growth like that is appealing to us and boosts a brewery’s odds for landing financing with us. Growing capacity by adding tanks and running the brewhouse more often seems more pragmatic than adding a huge brewhouse and using it once or twice a week. And a brewery that keeps its debt down can more easily get funding down the road if they need it. “Of course, you add labor costs by adding brewing shifts instead of a bigger brewhouse. But the cost (both in time and capital) of adding vessels and fermentors is so much less than adding a new brewing system. It also comes without the logistical nightmare of decommissioning and selling the old system while waiting for the new one to be delivered and crossing your fingers that it shows up on time and causes a minimum of downtime.”
Custom-designed brewhouses at large-scale production breweries are often designed for their own specific brands and workflow, and there’s no limit to how complex they can get—John Mallett’s seven-vessel brewhouse design for Bell’s Brewery is a perfect example of that. But smaller craft breweries have typically been constrained to two or three vessels at the most, limiting just how productive they can be on the smaller system. Today, however, more brewers are choosing to add parallel mash and kettle functions in additional vessels, allowing for two brews to occur simultaneously or slightly offset, which gives brewers the flexibility of double-batching into a larger fermentor or brewing two separate beers at the same time, depending on their immediate needs.
“If you’re on a 2-vessel system,” says Kucera, “your only options are to brew more or less often. With additional vessels, you can do successive double-batching, or single-batching, in just an hour or two more than a single batch.”
Neshaminy Creek Brewing Company in Croyden, Pennsylvania, recently faced the same upgrade question—spend several million dollars on a new larger brewhouse to support the additional barrels they’ll continue to add this year or find new ways to extract more efficiency from the 15-barrel brewhouse they currently brew on.
After considering debt financing, taking on additional equity partners, and every other possible means of paying for a new brewhouse expansion, the partners looked at the competitive landscape and slowing growth rate of the craft-beer market and made the hard decision to forego a full-scale brewhouse upgrade.
Instead, they looked at internal systems, evaluating efficiency at every step of production.
“The bottleneck in our system was not the cellar; the bottleneck was the brewhouse,” says Cofounder and Head Brewer Jeremy Myers. “We have enough capacity on an 18-day tank turn to do thirty-six brews per week, so we were not coming close to our cellar capacity at our schedule of around twenty-four brews per week.”
Rather than buy a bigger brewhouse, they instead added an additional mash mixer and an additional kettle to their existing system. Myers devised a calculator for his brewers to use in timing mash-in to avoid backups at the single lauter tun.
“Now, the bottleneck is no longer the brewhouse. It’s about what we can do to speed up the production of the cellar without spending money on larger fermentors,” says Myers. One challenge they faced with upgrading the brewhouse (as opposed to installing a new one) was brewhouse downtime. They planned for the brewhouse to be offline for ten days and filled every bit of tank space they had with beer before shutting the brewhouse down, but unforseen issues stretched ten days into two weeks, and every day they don’t brew represents a significant loss in potential revenue for the production brewery that sold more than 17,000 barrels of beer last year.
Still, Myers is convinced they made the correct decision, as having the additional flexibility to double-batch or brew separate single batches allows them to remain dynamic and respond to market changes more quickly, without being stuck with large volumes of unsold beer.
“One of the strengths that we’ve been pushing to our wholesalers is our ability to be dynamic. We don’t walk into an annual budget meeting with a presentation on all the new releases we plan on making this year, saying this is how much we’re going to make, and this is how much we’re going to ship you. That’s just not realistic anymore. If you have a 200-barrel brewhouse, that makes it a very hard conversation with a wholesaler because you’re now looking at them having to sell 350 [half barrel kegs] of a beer that may not do well or people may not want. If you want to make a Kölsch, a dunkel lager, or a smoked beer—basically anything other than an IPA—you can’t be dynamic and fluid if you’re a 60–200 bbl brewhouse.”
Dry hopping can be one of the most time-intensive processes in the cellar, with beer languishing for anywhere from two days to a week as it extracts flavor from hops. Today’s rise in adjunct-laden stouts poses a similar challenge to brewers interested in accelerating their cellaring schedule. Enter the dosing tank, where recirculating beer from the tank makes more extensive contact with the hops or adjuncts contained in the tank, resulting in both increased utilization as well as shorter tank time.
Claims vary by unit and the particular beer styles involved, but many brewers say they’re seeing utilization improve by at least 10 percent (and sometimes as much as 30 percent).
“The benefit is not only utilization, but also time,” says Kucera. “I’ve seen traditional dry-hops schedules as short as two days and as long as four to five days, but with one of these recirculating systems you can usually get it done in 12–24 hours at the most, so it’s a time saver, and any time savings in a brewery have a monetary value as well.”
Angry Chair Brewing in Seminole Heights, Florida, depends on a dosing tank for adjunct additions in their highly regarded dessert-flavored stouts. And an increasing number of New England–style IPA makers are using them to ensure that the significant amount of hops material in their dry-hopping routines all makes contact with liquid.
The popularity of kettle-soured beers has grown in earnest over the past few years, and brewers’ interest in making them has increased a commensurate amount. While processes vary, generally speaking most brewers maintain wort in an anaerobic environment while inoculating with lactic-acid bacteria, in order to prevent potential off-flavors. This can be done in the kettle itself, but dedicating your kettle to a process that takes 24–48 hours to complete is more commitment than many brewers are willing to make. Additionally, it can be difficult to ensure that the kettle is indeed an anaerobic environment since kettles are designed to vent.
To reduce brewhouse impact and maintain that anaerobic environment, many brewers are turning to dedicated souring vessels for their kettle-sour beers. These can be anything from a standard jacketed fermentor to one of the new generation of vessels built specifically for quick souring with built-in electric elements. The benefit of the standard fermentor is obvious—when not kettle souring, it can be used for other beers (after a thorough CIP regimen, of course). But for breweries where kettle sours are routine and a consistent part of the lineup, a dedicated vessel can keep the brewhouse moving at optimal speed while the souring bacteria do their work.
Beyond the Brite Tank
“Another trend I’m seeing is that we’re selling fewer and fewer brite tanks,” says Kucera. “We’re seeing more installations that are almost exclusively unitanks, or there may be one lonely brite tank. Those brewers are either carbonating in kegs, which takes forever, or they’re using true unitanks.”
While some brewers use unitank and dosing systems to reduce the time beer needs to sit in a brite tank, allowing them to invest in other areas such as fermentation tanks that will increase productivity, some hazy IPA brewers are going the other direction and adding brite-tank capacity for three reasons—to allow their beers a longer time before packaging to clear VDKs produced in dry hopping, to allow the heavily dry-hopped beers to develop a smoother and more rounded character, and to hold several different brands concurrently to allow for more efficient mobile canning days.
WeldWerks Brewing in Greeley, Colorado, is one that has added a number of brite tanks recently. With dry-hops levels routinely over 6 pounds per barrel and sometimes as high as 14, the beers need time in the tank after dry hopping for the flavors to homogenize. They’ve begun canning three brands per week using a mobile canner and have found it fits their workflow to move beers off of dry hops and into brites for the conditioning and holding process.
Because so much volume for small brewers has shifted to draft in the taproom, more brewers are installing serving tanks into cold boxes in lieu of more expensive jacketed brite tanks to feed kegging systems. Keg leasing or purchasing (and a keg washer) can be very significant expenses for a brewery that doesn’t intend to sell much beer off-site, so many are skipping kegging altogether and going straight from unitank to serving tank. That reduces cleaning time, reduces staff time spent managing kicked kegs, and keeps beer—a brewery’s ultimate moneymaker—flowing through the taps more steadily.
Nine out of ten brewers will tell you they secretly want to be known for their lagers, as mastering delicate and balanced beer styles is the height of the craft. It’s not surprising, then, to see horizontal lager tanks popping up in the places you may least expect them—Alvarado Street Brewery (Salinas, California), known for their hazy IPAs and kettle sours, has a couple. Trillium Brewing (Boston, Massachusetts) has a few on the way. Burial Beer Co. (Asheville, North Carolina), which is best known for beers such as Donut Skillet Stout and Surfwax hazy IPA, have a couple en route to the brewhouse. All the “cool kids” are doing it, but there’s a reason (beyond brewing lagers) that supports such capital investments.
When not in use for Burial’s lager projects, the tanks will—according to Head Brewer Tim Gormley—serve as adjuncting tanks for some of their beers, the logic being that adjuncts in a conventional vertical tank eventually settle to the cone and become tightly compacted, reducing contact time and extraction efficiency. Horizontal tanks spread those ingredients out through the tank, allowing more contact as they settle.
Tankless Hot Water
Eighty percent of the professional systems that Ss Brewtech delivers are installed without a hot-liquor tun, as brewers instead have turned to tankless hot-water heaters to deliver on-demand brewing liquor at the proper strike temperature. In most small brewpubs and breweries, space is at an absolute premium, and an HLT is a space luxury that few can afford. Add to that the significant buildout costs of a direct-fire HLT or the high ongoing energy cost of an electric unit, and you have the perfect justification for on-demand water heating.
There are certain use cases where an HLT is necessary—environments where reverse-osmosis water treatment is required being the most obvious, since RO water cannot be run through a tankless heater—but smaller breweries in locations with good water where only charcoal filtering is necessary can take full advantage of the space savings that tankless water heaters afford.
The present is not only the best time in history to be a beer drinker; it’s also the best time to be a brewer. Now, more than ever, technical advancements from the top of the industry are filtering down to small brewhouses at a dizzying rate, giving brewers more options for quality and speed than they’ve ever had before. The flexibility of these small systems is paramount, allowing brewers to respond to quickly evolving market trends, not get stuck with unsold beer, and tailor their production processes to maximize their efficiency and productivity across a range of styles.