Is electric brewing right for you?

There are several factors to consider when deciding if electric brewing is the best option for your brewery.

Startup cost:
The cost for the tanks will be about the same whether they are configured for direct fire or electric. Steam-fired tanks will be, most often, more expensive because of the extra jacketing required. With a steam system, there is also the cost of a steam-generating boiler to factor in.

The electric heating elements themselves will be less expensive than most direct fire burners and definitely less expensive than a steam boiler. The major cost is the control panel. For brewers who don’t have the electrical savvy to build their own control panels, there are a number of options available from companies who specialize in brewery controls. The cost can vary widely from simple systems to programmable touch screen systems. The total cost for elements, control panel and venting should be compared to total cost for burner or boiler, plus venting and piping.

Electrical availability:
You must also consider the available electric service at your location. You will need sufficient electricity to not only power your brewhouse, but also your refrigeration system, lighting and other electric demands. Breweries up to 3.5 barrels can work on either single phase or three phase 208 or 240 and require between 60 and 100 amps. A 7 to 10-barrel system can require three phase 208 service and 200 amps of available power. In most cases, 10 barrels is the upper limit to consider electric brewing.

When determining the amount of energy necessary to fire your system, don’t forget that you not only have to bring your wort to a boil, but also produce a vigorous enough boil to achieve 8 percent evaporation per hour – regardless of your heat source.

Operating cost:
Electric rates vary widely, depending on your location, as do natural gas rates. But the cost per BTU is not the only factor to consider. Electric brewing is a much more efficient way to heat water and wort. That is because the elements are immersed in the liquid and nearly all of the energy applied to the elements is transferred to heating the liquid. With direct fire systems – depending on whether they use a burner below the kettle or a “flame-thrower” burner that heats a firebox – up to 40 percent of the heat produced is not transferred to the wort, but is “lost” into the surrounding air.

Steam, like electric, is more efficient because more of the heat supplied to the jackets is in direct contact with the wort.

Other information you should collect from your local utility providers is if there is a demand charge for peak-time electric usage, any additional taxes on natural gas and any other fees outside of the per-unit costs of energy. Also check to see how often, and at what cost, you will need your steam boiler inspected.

Local building and fire codes:
Many brewers begin to consider electric brewing after meeting with their local officials to start the permitting process. Direct fire brewing requires venting of the exhaust fumes from the burner as well as the steam produced in the brewing process. Some municipalities may also require a fire suppression system if there is an open, visible flame. There can be rigorous standards in place for the location and construction of boiler rooms for steam systems. An electric system only requires venting for the steam produced in the brewing process and, with no open flame; the Fire Marshall is less likely to be an issue.

Safety and comfort:
Because there is no open flame in electric brewing, there is less risk of fire. There is also less risk of inhaling noxious fumes if the ventilation system malfunctions. The risk of electric shock is very small if the system is constructed with ground fault circuit interrupters.

The excess heat from direct fire brewing that does not go into heating your wort, goes directly into your brewhouse. That can make for a very uncomfortable brew day in the middle of summer. Or it can lead to higher energy costs to mitigate that heat through additional fans or air conditioning. Another “comfort” factor in electric brewing is the relative quiet. Many burners produce a great deal of noise.

You will want to install ground fault circuit interrupts (GFCI) in all of your brewhouse circuits,

Location of Brewhouse:
In some situations – such as basement breweries or groundfloor breweries in multi-story buildings – venting may be impossible or cost prohibitive. With no poisonous gasses to vent, some electric brewers are using condensate stacks to capture the steam produced during the boil and condense it back into water.

Electric brewing may not be the right approach for every brewer, but with the advances that have been made in the available technology, it deserves to be part of the discussion.