Selecting equipment for new pubs and micros

By Dave Miller
Republished from BrewingTechniques, November/December 1994

Q: I am on the verge of realizing a dream – my own pub brewery. I have found a good location, written a business plan, and raised the money. Now I need to decide on a brewing system. I have quotes from several suppliers, but it’s hard to compare them. The companies don’t even agree about what size tanks I need! How do I decide who to believe?

There are so many things to decide. One company will sell a steam or direct-fire system for the same price. Everybody else is pushing direct fire, because they say it’s cheaper. One company is telling me to use Grundy tanks for serving tanks. The salesman for another company says they’re ugly and don’t work. I need some impartial advice.

DM: If you’re looking for impartial advice, you’ve come to the wrong place. Anybody who has worked in a microbrewery or a brewpub has a particular set of experiences that color his or her viewpoint. In any case, I can’t possibly advise you on your specific needs without getting a lot more information about your project. But I can tell you what your options are.

First, you can go on a fact finding mission to pub breweries that have systems built by each of the fabricators you are talking to. I suggest at least three different breweries for each supplier. Don’t just call them on the phone. You need to actually go there, taste the beer, look at the equipment, then talk to the brewer(s). All these steps are necessary. Looking at the equipment will bring a lot of questions to mind, questions you would not have thought of otherwise. Tasting the beer will give you some idea of how well the brewer is doing with the equipment and how much you can trust his or her opinion about it. Ask them how they actually do things, and why. Their answers will give you a sense of whether they are just working by rote or whether they understand the process. They will also give you more of an understanding of how microbreweries work, which will help you make up your mind about how you want to do things. Probably the single most useful question to ask is, “What would you like to change?” I have never met a microbrewer who could resist that one. The fact is that no matter how much thought you put into it, there are bound to be things you overlook or just guess wrong on. But if you can benefit from the experience of a dozen or two other brewers’ mistakes and wrong guesses, your own are likely to be fewer and less significant.

Doing your own research is the best way to go. After you have listened to a couple of dozen brewers, you will have a much better perspective on the issues you have to decide. As I said, everybody has their own ideas to contribute, and their own axes to grind. Second, you can hire an independent designer/consultant. Some of these people have extensive experience and will be able to steer you away from many pitfalls. Selecting a good consultant is a time-consuming job, but not as time consuming as doing the kind of firsthand research needed to select a system and fabricator(s) yourself. How much time and money do you have? You say you have already raised the money for your project. That makes it sound like you want to get going. You may not want to spend a month or two travelling around to different pubs to gather information. In that case a consultant may be your best choice.

Be warned, however, that there is probably more variation in consultants than there is in equipment fabricators. Every American and Canadian company whose work I have seen – and that includes all the major ones – will build you a good set of equipment on which it is possible to make fine beer. That is not to say that all of them would suit me equally well; but I think that (possibly with a few modifications in some cases) I could brew good beer with any of them.

There are consultants out there who will do their very best for you. They will work hard to see that you get the best possible system for your building and your brewing plan. There are others, often very plausible, who will take your money and do next to nothing for you in return. That is why I said selecting a consultant is time consuming. You have to check out each candidate thoroughly. Remember that anybody can put a few ads in publications and call themselves a consultant. Also, remember that any individual’s expertise and reputation – however big, however well-earned – rests upon some specific aspect of the brewpub business. Consultants who are experts on breweries may have definite opinions about restaurant management or personnel issues, but those opinions aren’t necessarily worth more than those of anyone else who has had some peripheral involvement with a brewpub venture. Restaurant design and management is at least as complicated as brewery design and operation. One person cannot possibly be equally expert in both areas.

That leads to my last bit of specific advice. If you haven’t already done so, get a real restaurant expert on your team. If you have raised your money through the usual channels, of course, you already have such an expert. Nobody in their right mind would invest a nickel in such a venture unless you did. However, it’s always possible that you run in well-heeled circles and have raised your money from family and friends. (Note to the skeptical: Wealthy people are not necessarily any more wary or less naive than the rest of us.) For the rest, here are some observations on the specific points you raised.

System sizing: System sizing obviously depends on how big your brewpub is. The smaller the system, the more hours of labor are required to make each barrel of beer. On a 15-bbl system, you get twice as much beer out of a day’s work than you do from a 7-bbl system. Therefore, always go for the biggest brew length your anticipated sales permit.

On the other hand, there are limits. Because you always want your beer to be fresh, you have to brew each type of beer frequently – at least every four weeks – so the beer being served to the public is at its peak. And you certainly don’t want to have to dump old beer. So, first you have to decide how many styles of beer you are going to have on tap at any given time. Then you have to guess how much beer you will be selling and what the sales percentage of the slowest beer will be. With those numbers you can get a brew length by calculating how much you need to brew so that a batch of your slowest selling beer does not stay on tap longer than four weeks. I think you can see how this is going to work out. In general, places that keep a lot of different beers on tap are better served by a smaller brew length, along with a relatively large number of small fermentors and serving tanks. They need the flexibility that such a system gives them. On the other hand, places that sell only a few styles at a time are better off with a larger brew length and fewer, but larger, fermentors and serving vessels.

With those parameters in mind, I offer some advice based on my own observations not only of the brewpub where I used to work, but a number of others as well: Be prepared for success. In other words, if you aren’t sure whether you need a system sized at 10 or 15 bbl, go for 15. I have seen several brewpubs opt for small systems and then, when they started selling a lot of beer, wish they had more capacity. If this happens to you, you may be able to add double-size fermentors and start double batching (brewing two batches of wort, one right after the other). This solves the problem but plays havoc with your personal life and/or labor costs. If you don’t have the space for more tanks, you can just shorten your fermentation cycle and start putting out six- or eight-day beers. This is not a great solution either. Be prepared for success.

Steam vs. direct fire: No question, steam is best. It gives a more even heat, and it subjects the kettle to fewer stresses. These advantages stem from the fact that steam is not nearly as hot as a gas flame. All other things being equal, a steam heated kettle should last longer. Many equipment fabricators experienced difficulties of one sort or another with direct fire kettles early on, and brewers who worked with those kettles have some amusing stories to tell.

On the other hand, fabricators have learned from their early adventures, and the direct-fire kettles built today are much improved. So when you talk to a brewer about his or her experiences with a direct-fire kettle, be sure to find out when it was built. If you hear a horror story, go back to the fabricator and get their side. The good ones are quite open about the lessons they have learned and will not try to pretend that the first system they ever built was perfect.

Regarding price, there is less difference between the cost of comparable steam and direct-fire systems (kettle plus heat source) than you might think. Companies that believe in steam may be willing to “eat” the difference in order to get you to choose a system they’re convinced will make you happier over the long haul. On the other hand, before you make a choice, talk to a couple of local contractors about installation. The difference in installation costs alone can exceed $10,000. Also, this is not a place where you want to skimp. An incompetent contractor can make hash of your steam jackets. I think steam is far better from a brewing standpoint, but you have to decide whether your brewery budget can stretch to cover it.

Grundy tanks: One of the things that most attracted me to my new job was the prospect of never having to deal with a Grundy again. I can’t quite go along with your guy who says they don’t work, but he’s closer to the mark than the guy who’s recommending them. In fact, life would be a lot easier for many pub brewers if the things flat didn’t work. Then nobody would have to struggle with them. What drives you nuts is that they sort of work – that is, they’re stainless, they’ll hold beer, and they’ll hold pressure – sort of. The first few months that The Tap Room was open, our regular ritual before every filter run was to pressurize a couple of Grundys and then go over them with a spray bottle of soap solution. Then we would either have to tighten various pieces down, or remove and retape or regasket them, then tighten them down, in order to stop the bigger leaks. Eventually we gave this up. We managed to get most of them to hold pressure fairly well -that is to say, it would take at least a couple of days for the pressure to drop from 12 psi to 0 in an empty tank – but mostly we just got worn down. We also started noticing brown rings (rust) around some of the joints where the mild steel legs are welded to the bottom of the tanks. We would get in and polish those once in a while, but pulling the lid off a Grundy is only slightly more pleasant than your average root canal, and a lot more tedious.

I guess I’d better try to anticipate opposition and admit that the quality of the refurbishing job has a lot to do with how much trouble you’ll have with your Grundys. And certainly some refurbishers do better than others. Nonetheless, it would take a lot of testimony to convince me that Grundy tanks can be made to work satisfactorily. Fortunately, the supply is drying up, and 7-bbl brewing systems (Grundy tanks have a 7-bbl capacity) are losing favor as experience shows them to be too small for most pub breweries. If somebody is trying to sell you Grundys for a 15-bbl system (two Grundys per batch), which is how we used them at the Tap Room, I would urge you to do whatever is necessary to raise the extra money and buy 15-barrel serving tanks instead. They’ll be half as much work to clean, and a hundred times less maddening to deal with.