Right-Sizing Your Brewhouse | Brewing Industry Guide

Right-Sizing Your Brewhouse

Evaluate your brewing style and production goals to find a system that will move you forward.

Tom Wilmes 3 years ago

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A brewhouse is more than just the heart of a brewery—it’s the engine that powers the business. Like all precision instruments with many moving parts, everything should be calibrated and matched to the type and size vehicle that you’re operating.

Are you after a small, do-it-all workhorse that, although it may get less mileage, is capable of taking you anywhere you’d like to go? A customized system geared toward brewing one style particularly well? A large, highly automated machine with the horsepower to drive a large operation?

Three industry leaders elaborate on how they chose systems tailor-made for their brewing goals and business ambitions.

The small-batch, do-it-all approach

Housed in a former boilermaker factory in Washington, D.C.’s Navy Yard neighborhood, Bluejacket restaurant, craft-beer bar, and brewery revolve around a small yet nimble 15-barrel brew system complemented by a wide array of fermentation vessels.

Although the brewery takes up a small portion of the massive 75,000-square-foot facility—the system and equipment are housed on a series of mezzanines that overlook the bar and restaurant—its prodigious and diverse output fuels the entire operation.

Bluejacket strives to offer fifteen to twenty of its own small-batch beers on draft at all times and hand bottles a wide selection of about twenty varieties for on-premise retail sale, as well. Bluejacket brewers rarely make the same beer twice, preferring instead to explore across a broad spectrum of flavors and styles.

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“We wanted to build something that’s completely unique—a brewery that operates without boundaries,” says Beer Director Greg Engert. “We outfitted it with a brewing kit and equipment that allow us to be able to brew anything we can dream of.”

Bluejacket’s annual production is currently about 2,400 barrels. Although Engert anticipates that, at full capacity and brewing seven days a week, Bluejacket is capable of producing between 4,500 to 5,000 barrels annually, the focus is far more on quality than it is on quantity. And that takes time.

“A lot of [other] brewers, once fermentation is complete, might dry hop the beer or not, then carb it up and serve it,” Engert says. “We like to have a maturation period of at least a few weeks, sometimes as long as a month, for even a simple saison so that the flavors can mellow into a more nuanced whole.”

Many beers—such as Bluejacket’s barrel-aged projects, lagers, and its mixed-fermentation farmhouse-style saisons—take much longer to mature. That is why Bluejacket’s diverse array of twenty fermentation vessels is the real workhorse in the brewhouse. In addition to open fermentors and coolships, along with both horizontal and conical fermentors, there are two separate barrel-aging cellars—one for inoculated beer and another for non-sour beers—eight brite tanks, and a host of specialized equipment.

All but two fermentors (at 30 barrels each) are matched to the brew system at 15 barrels. The relatively small batch sizes mean that, while Bluejacket turns a lot of beer, brewers must keep a close eye on production, brew schedules, and raw materials in order to keep up with demand.

“We don’t crank out a lot of fourteen-day beers here, so the struggle for us has been to make sure that we’re covering the brewery, restaurant, and bars while still having beer for retail,” Engert says. “We have beers when we have them and hope that people are interested in them when we can get [the beers] to them.”

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The experimental, exploratory nature of the operation might not be as efficient or repeatable as other brewing programs, but the ever-evolving lineup of unique beers across a broad flavor spectrum suits Bluejacket’s artisan business model perfectly.
Says Engert: “If you make the beers in a time-honored fashion that takes longer and costs more money and if you keep your brewery small while doing it, then you get the double bonus of great flavors and consistency plus a scarcity that makes your beers all the more compelling to guests.”

Staying nimble for freshness and flexibility

Columbus Brewing Co. in Columbus, Ohio, recently completed a growth phase that saw the brewery move from a 6,000-square-foot brewhouse into a 50,000-square-foot production facility. Owner and Brewmaster Eric Bean projects that the expansion will allow Columbus to brew about 25,000 barrels of beer this year, whereas he “fought to make almost 8,000 barrels of IPA last year,” he says.

Although Columbus Brewing makes a variety of beers, it’s known for its IPA, and especially its GABF-bronze-medal-winning Bodhi Double IPA. Bean was concerned about maintaining the quality, consistency, and nuances of his hops-forward beers as he grew the operation.

“At a brewpub, you can really sit and babysit your IPA and it’s a killer,” he says. “And then you start scaling it up and—not that you’re not paying attention—it becomes more difficult to continue to do everything that you’re doing and still babysit beers that you’re putting into larger tanks.

“That’s a battle all brewers face as they grow. How do you reproduce at a much greater scale?” he says. “Especially with repeatable hops character and aroma.”

For Bean, the answer lies in sticking with the same-size system as his old brewhouse—a 30-barrel system—but upgrading from a three-vessel system capable of just two brews a day to a more efficient four-vessel, 30-barrel BrauKon system capable of as many as eight brews a day.

The strategy allows him flexibility to fine-tune his production to closely control quality and quantity while minimizing the risk of producing more beer than his market can readily absorb.

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“We want to grow our business, but I didn’t want to have to brew and chase volume to keep the bank away or oversell into a market where we’re worried about how fresh the beer is,” Bean says. “If we’re doing our job right and at the right volume, we don’t have to worry about how fresh the beer’s going to be when it’s all gone.”

The approach also requires an ongoing balance of supply and demand, as well as accurate forecasting, to stay in the sweet spot.

“We also don’t want to short the market,” Bean says. “Our distributor thinks that we’ve erred on the wrong side, but it’s not unheard of to find day-old IPA in our distribution area, which is great for consumers and the way we like it, too.”

Consistency and efficiency through automation

When Surly Brewing Co. was planning its new destination brewery in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Head Brewer Todd Haug invested a lot of time planning a new brewhouse (pictured at top) that would provide maximum safety, consistency, and efficiency.

After extensive research and consultation, Surly chose German-based manufacturer ROLEC to outfit its new production facility, not only because ROLEC had several repeat customers among top American craft brewers—Stone Brewing Co., Victory Brewing Co., and Lagunitas Brewing Co. among them—but also because of ROLEC’s U.S.-based crews and engineers who would help direct installation and commissioning and its reputation for customizing its systems to better match the more aggressive, flavor-intensive style of many American craft brewers.

“Germans are a bit more traditional with their breweries, but U.S. brewers are a little more open minded and need more diversity in what their brewhouse can do,” Haug says. “ROLEC was the first company listening and actually making it happen.”

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Surly didn’t want to change too much about its process as it moved to a fully automated system—even the water is the same in the new facility—however, new features and efficiencies afforded by automation have gone a long way toward improving the beer and maximizing yield.

The system features a mash mixer in place of Surly’s old single-infusion mash/lauter tun, for example, as well as in-line turbidity meters that eliminate the need to manually evaluate wort turbidity with a flashlight and sight glass. Digital feedback devices also monitor pressure, temperature, and flow, and allow brewers to chart and graph each brew.

“That is really handy when you’re looking at something such as variances in malt and can look back at your lauter curve and see what’s different,” Haug says. “Some things that we never really thought would be that helpful have been amazingly helpful, all because the automation is there and saved in the computer.

“Automation also allows us to look at each step and make sure that everything is as consistent as possible and minimize human errors,” Haug says. “That is an even bigger deal when you’re making 600 barrels at a time and not blending batches anymore.”

Increased safety is an added benefit of automation, from lockout systems during cleaning and reducing the need to turn levers and dials by hand to automating hops additions and dry hopping. ROLEC’s proprietary DRY-HOPNIK system automates the process and allows for more uniform hops distribution as the system circulates wort through belchers loaded with hops and pushes it back into the kettle.

“At our small brewery, we’d just climb up an extension ladder, open a big port at the top, and carefully pour in [the hops],” Haug says. Not only were there safety concerns, but “each time you open that tank is another source of potential contamination.”

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Everything is also matched speed-wise, with greater efficiency and control throughout the process.

“What we’re seeing now is it’s not necessarily that raw materials are cheaper at the new plant; it’s more about efficiencies in labor, energy, the brewing process,” Haug says. “Stuff that’s harder to quantify, but it’s there.”

Haug and the project’s designers also worked to determine the most effective flooring, wall, and ceiling materials, as well as mechanical, milling and grain handling, waste and other systems to best support the new brewhouse.

“It’s not always just the fancy stainless stuff,” Haug says. “A lot of times the greatest brewhouses can be a real pain if you don’t have the right flooring or ventilation or steam boilers—all the other things you need to support it and that make the brewery go.”

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