Today’s prospective nano brewer has more options than ever before when it comes to equipment. Whether the increase in the number of companies making nano-sized equipment has grown as a result of the nano boom, or whether the availability of equipment has fueled the growth spurt is a chicken-and-egg question. Regardless, you will have plenty of choices no matter what size system you choose.
Budget will likely be the primary deciding factor in the system you choose. Those with limited resources may choose a used brewery. With many nano breweries scaling up to larger systems, the used market is more robust these days.
When buying a used system, you want to make sure it will fit your particular needs – or be easily adapted. The savings from a used system can be eaten up rapidly by retrofitting costs. Whenever possible, it is a good idea to see the used system you are considering buying while it is still in operation so you can make sure you are not investing in another brewer’s headache.
When buying a new system from a manufacturer or supplier, ask for references of brewers already using a similar system. Ask the brewers using the equipment about the company’s performance in terms of lead times, quality of the brewing tanks, ease of operation and – perhaps most important – how the company resolves quality issues. If there is a brewer nearby using one of the systems you are considering, see if you can come by on a brew day and see the system in action.
You will want to pay close attention to how well the system will work for your particular brewing needs. For instance, if you make a lot of big beers, is the mash tun sized appropriately to handle larger grain bills?
New or used, one of the first questions to answer when choosing a system is how you will fire the brewhouse. The three options for brewhouse heating are direct fire, electric and steam.
For nano-sized systems, steam is rarely a viable option, unless you already have a steam boiler in place. The cost of adding a steam-generating boiler, piping, etc., can prove prohibitive. That leaves direct fire – either natural gas or propane – or electric.
Direct fire systems are often less expensive and simpler to set up, but, they are not very efficient. In a direct fire system, much of the heat you are creating is not going into the water or wort, but escaping into the air. And, there is the issue of venting the fumes from burning gas or propane. Temperature control is often less precise and slower with a direct fire system as well. Scorching of the wort is also an issue.
Electric brew systems have become more sophisticated and more popular in recent years. The primary advantage to electrically heated brew systems is they are nearly 100 percent efficient – all of the energy you are providing to the electric elements is transferred to the liquid you are heating. The use of ultra low density elements has eliminated the problem of scorching wort. Temperature control is very precise and speedy. And, there are no toxic gases to vent.
The downside is the upfront cost of the electrical control system can be much higher than a simple burner system. In some areas, the cost of electricity is higher than that of gas – although much of that cost is offset by the increased efficiency. However, you have to make sure you have sufficient power available to run your brew system on top of the other electrical needs – lights, pumps, chillers, etc.
It is always advisable to contact your local licensing and regulatory agencies and learn about the codes that will apply to your use of either open flame or electric brewing systems before choosing either.
A third option, besides a new or used brew system, is to cobble together a “Frankenbrew” system from retrofitted dairy, commercial cooking and soda-making equipment. This approach often takes a substantial time commitment, not only to find the tanks, but also to convert them into brewing vessels. You will need advanced sanitary welding skills – or have a trustworthy welder available.
Local scrapyards, dairies and restaurant supply houses are good places to hunt for tanks that can be turned into brewing vessels. Even the boneyards of larger breweries may turn up an old yeast brink that can be converted into a fermenter.
Once you have the brewery hot-side sorted out, you face the next major decision – temperature control for fermentation. Jacketed fermenters and brite tanks with a glycol system is the best and most precise way to control fermentation temperature. But that option may not fit your budget. There are ways of retrofitting beer line glycol chillers or even building a DIY glycol chiller out of an air conditioner. You can use internal chiller plates or chiller coils, which will save money over jacketed tanks. Your budget will be your guide here.
If you cannot afford jacketed tanks or internal chilling with a glycol system, you can control fermentation temperature by building a fermentation room that is temperature controlled. In this scenario, you will likely need to build two rooms – one for fermentation and one for cold crashing the beer for conditioning and carbonation. An insulated room with an air conditioner – for warm months – and heater – for cold months – will work for ale fermentation. To achieve colder temperatures – for crashing and lager fermentation and conditioning, you may need either a walk-in cooler or a separate insulated room with an air conditioner and a cooling unit called a Coolbot, that overrides the low temperature setting in an air conditioner to allow for chilling down to the low 30s.
Ingenuity is the nano brewer’s best friend when it comes to outfitting the brewery. You can achieve savings by using food-grade plastic conical tanks as fermenters, which are readily available from several suppliers. Likewise, you can save money on your heat exchanger, by buying a braised plate heat exchanger that is food grade, but not necessarily designed for the brewing industry. The point is to save money on your start-up expenses and upgrade with profits from selling your beer.
Several factors will determine what size system best fits your needs, the most important being your budget, your time commitment to the project and, of course, the amount of beer you plan to produce.
When buying a new system, a good rule of thumb is you can expect to spend about $10,000 per barrel on tanks alone – depending on the number of fermenters and brite tanks. Then you need to factor in pumps, hoses, kegs, temperature control and the rest. Build your budget with room for cost overruns, the old adage you have heard has a ring of truth: breweries often cost twice as much and take twice as long to launch as we first expect.
Take a realistic look at the amount of time you will have for brewing. If you are “keeping your day job,” does this mean you can only brew on weekends? How many brews can you fit into each week? Remember that each brew will take two weeks for ales, longer for lagers, from brew day until it is ready to package.
When you know how many batches you will be able to brew and package in a given month, multiply that batch number by the size, in barrels, of your proposed system. Will that be enough beer to make your plan work? If not, you may have to find a way to build a bigger system or scale back your expectations.