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Pilot Breweries Are Flying Us into the Great Unknown

Some brew systems make beer for us to drink. Others just solve mysteries—providing an acceptable outlet for failure and serving as the lifeblood of craft beer.

John M. Verive Oct 21, 2021 - 14 min read

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You might assume that all beer is meant to be enjoyed and that commercial breweries are laser-focused on making beer that people want to drink. However, not every batch brewed is destined for taps or tankards.

“We’re not always brewing with the intention of making great beer,” says Kushal Hall, head brewer at Common Space Brewery in southwestern Los Angeles County. “Sometimes, we’re more interested in making beer that answers a question.”

Sometimes, Hall says, the questions are process related. (“What if we mashed in at a higher temperature for a pale ale?”) At other times, there are questions about ingredients. (“What character will rice syrup solids add to a beer?”) Or often, the question is more playful. (“How can we make a rhubarb beer?”)

Of course, the cost of those answers would be impossible to justify if each question required a 20-barrel batch just to ask it. The alternative for breweries of nearly every size is a smaller-scale batch. Enter the pilot brewing system.

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Defined more by intention than by any commonalities in scale or equipment, the pilot system is a scalable, accessible, and flexible tool that any brewer can use to improve their beer and grow their business. While pilot systems are primarily viewed as tools for recipe development—a place to brew up test batches and dial-in recipes before scaling up to a brewery’s full-sized system—they also provide solutions for many other problems that crop up in a brewery. Like a Swiss Army knife, a well-thought-out pilot brewery is useful in many ways that are not obvious at first.

Piloting Toward Variety

In 2016, while planning Common Space, Hall helped spec the 30-barrel brewhouse and its 4.2-barrel pilot system, both from Prospero Equipment. Since then, he says, “a lot has changed.” The brewery’s original business plan was built around a production and distribution model. As the industry and their understanding of it evolved, that shifted more to on-premise. “We started to focus more on the taproom business, and we learned the most important thing to the taproom customers is variety.”

They built the Common Space taproom with a 24-tap draft system, with a plan to pour 12 different beers on two taps each—but patrons wanted more variety than that. To fill the gap, Hall leveraged the pilot system. Instead of the pale ales, IPAs, and lagers that kept the production system turning, the smaller brewhouse could focus more on niche offerings without the risk of brewing “a thousand gallons of the crazy beers we wanted to try.”

Common Space isn’t using their pilot system as much for recipe development as they had anticipated. That’s partly because it’s difficult to directly scale up recipes to the big system—even with two closely matched systems from the same manufacturer. There are enough differences between them that using the pilot system to try to improve efficiencies or perfect mash schedules is a battle against diminishing returns, Hall says. He would rather use his resources on the bigger questions he can answer with the smaller system.

Amanda Podwinski, sales specialist at ABE Equipment, says that pilot systems are increasingly becoming a force multiplier for brewers. “The lower-volume, higher-margin taproom model is driving demand for one-off beers, and that’s increasing the demand for smaller systems.”

On the hot side, one of these systems can be as simple as a direct-fired kettle with combo mash-and-lauter tun, or they can be as complex as fully automated five-vessel setups. However, a crucial piece of the brewery-within-a-brewery concept is the cold side. Smaller-scale fermentation vessels give brewers options for making more unique brews, even without making smaller batches of wort.

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Common Space, for example, turns one brew into four beers by splitting batches from the big system into four conical fermentors, each able to hold five hectoliters (4.2 barrels). Then they can pitch different yeasts or try different dry-hop regimens, to name two possibilities. The results provide variety for the tap list as well as educational opportunities for both brewers and customers.

John Kalinowsky, sales manager at equipment manufacturer Brewmation, says that adding some smaller fermentors is an approachable and affordable way to get a pilot or R&D program started.

There are certain questions that even a 10-gallon homebrewing setup can answer as well as an automated, five-barrel system.

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Students at Oregon State University work with their pilot system. Photo: Courtesy Oregon State University

Intended for Innovation

In Corvallis, Oregon, there’s a brewery that dumps most of the beer it makes.

The research brewery at Oregon State University was built to answer questions, and it isn’t licensed to sell the beer it produces. The university modernized the brewery in 2015 after a million-dollar donation from Carlos Alvarez, founder of The Gambrinus Company (owner of the Shiner and Trumer brands). The research brewery is available to OSU students and faculty in the Food Science program, and breweries can also hire it for R&D, process and ingredient testing, or anything else for which a brewer might use a pilot brewery.

“An R&D brewery is all about innovation,” says Jeff Clawson, brewery manager. He’s proud of its flexibility and capabilities—a five-vessel setup built around a four-hectoliter kettle, with plenty of bells and whistles that include a miniature centrifuge and small-scale mash filter.

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Clawson says there are three main things that any pilot brewery needs: fine control over each step in the process, flexibility in design to handle a brewer’s questions and hypotheticals, and—last but not least—a brewer to run it. “It takes commitment to run a research brewery,” he says, and the more you use a pilot system, the more value you get out of it.

Clawson says he thinks that almost any brewery can benefit from a pilot system, but the time to really consider adding one is when the production system is so busy meeting demand that pilot brews can’t find time on the schedule. Without test batches, innovation suffers.

“Innovation” is more than an overused buzzword, Clawson says—it’s the lifeblood of craft brewing, and it’s much more about intention than investment. You know that homebrew stand with turkey burners and keggles, sitting under a tarp in the back storage area? Sorry, that doesn’t count as a pilot brewery—but dust it off and start asking questions, and suddenly you’ve got yourself a pilot brewing program.

The question of scale is more challenging. Too large, and not only will the pilot setup be expensive to build, but it will be more expensive to run (in both material and labor costs). Too small, and it may not be able to answer all the questions you want to ask it.

Brewing at Three Scales

At Ninkasi Brewing in Eugene, Oregon, pilot brewing is built into the company culture. Daniel Sharp, director of brewing operations there, describes the brewery’s first pilot brewery as the “nano system.” The half-barrel “elaborate homebrewing” setup is used frequently for “off the wall ideas.” It’s open for anyone trained on it to try out a recipe.

The system is a way to try new ideas with minimal resources, but it makes only one keg of beer at a time. That wasn’t enough to meet the demand for variety in the tasting room or the demands of brewers looking to innovate on the production system. “It’s really difficult to scale from 15 gallons to 90 barrels,” Sharp says.

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Three years ago, Sharp added a larger pilot system to the brewery, and it’s nearer in character to the production brewhouse. The three-vessel, five-barrel pilot kit from Bridgetown Brew Systems makes a new beer almost every week. “It’s an easy way to keep 40 taps in the taproom full of fresh and unique beer,” Sharp says. Members of the brewing team each do three-month rotations running the system. That time on the mini brewery provides opportunities for training, team building, and (inevitably) innovation.

The brewery-within-a-brewery also gives Sharp a way to try out new equipment and process improvements without risking costly downtime on the production system. He can find out whether it’s worth the cost to add a new piece to the production system or whether the new part would be “just another nook to clean” without adding value. (The newest addition is a tube-and-shell heat exchanger, plumbed between the kettle and whirlpool to drop wort temperatures at knockout by about 20°F/10°C to improve the character of whirlpool hop additions.)

At Ninkasi they can still use the nano system for wacky ideas, out-of-the-box ingredient tests, or just brewing up a keg of something special for a company event. The pilot system is more for trialing process improvements and developing new offerings for the tasting room. If a pilot batch gets a great response from customers, the team can then work to dial it in and perhaps, eventually, brew it on production system for packaging and distribution.

Ninkasi’s year-round juicy IPA, Prismatic, was first made by brewer Jesse Newhouse on the pilot system.

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Oregon State University’s pilot system is designed for research and problem solving. Photo: Courtesy Oregon State University

Fueling Creativity

Sharp at Ninkasi earned a doctorate from OSU’s Food Science program, and he maintains close ties to the research brewery there. The OSU brewery provides Ninkasi with additional resources to develop new products. Sharp says that brewers who are struggling to fit product development into their production schedules often overlook similar research breweries at universities. He also suggests that brewers can contact material suppliers or more traditional contract breweries for specific product-development projects.

Clawson says that many breweries are open to outsourcing their test brewing. Being busy and successful isn’t an excuse to fail to innovate, he says. If time and capacity are limiting factors, a brewery can always buy innovation. Hiring brewery consultants, engaging contract facilities, or even acquiring innovative brands outright are now common workarounds in the beer industry.

Meanwhile, both Podwinski at ABE and Kalinowsky at Brewmation point out that new, small breweries can get their brand off the ground with a smaller system and thus build expansion into their business plans. “A pilot system can be your only system,” Kalinowsky says, adding that these small systems are good “stepping stones from the home brewery to the pro brewery.”

Unlike breweries that launch with a mid-sized 10- or 15-barrel system—and then struggle to add capacity without big facility overhauls—starting on a two-barrel pilot system with a plan to add a second brewhouse in a few years can be more economical. After all, that pilot system can still have a place in the expanded brewery.

There are countless questions that a pilot brewery can answer, and countless uses for a second system beyond the obvious task of developing new recipes. Need to brew some sterile wort for yeast propagation? Want to test the latest hop product out on the market? Need to train some new staff or help engage customers in the process? A pilot brewing system offers many ways to get returns on the investment in time, capital, and floor space.

Most importantly, it provides a low-risk space where failure is acceptable. Innovation cannot occur without the lessons learned when things go wrong, and a bad batch on a pilot brewery is much easier to swallow than a production-scale batch.

“We try to celebrate dumping beer,” Hall says. “It’s not that we want to fail, but it has to be okay to try things that don’t work out. The pilot system gives us more freedom to be creative.”

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