Quickie: Brain Dump From Craft Beer Conference 2012

If you checked out my Panic Brewing Facebook page over the weekend now the Alarmist Brewing Facebook page, you probably saw some updates from the Craft Beer Conference. I was at the trade show portion on Friday only. I had a great time and learned a lot. Here are a few quick tidbits: I already knew Premier Stainless made excellent equipment, but it was great to get an up close look. Amazing stuff made incredibly well, despite the fact that most of the manufacturing occurs in China (which I'm never a fan of).  Once the equipment arrives from China, Premiere brings it into their Escondido facility and ensures that all fabrication is absolute world class. They also fit the finished equipment with very high quality tri-clamp valves, pumps, and motors. And the heat exchanger is made in Washington state. Nice. We visited the Pizza Port brew pub in Ocean Beach later that night and sure enough, there was a gorgeous Premier brew house and fermenters front and center.

Only takes 3 hours to wash one keg!

Premier makes a dual semi-automatic keg washer, meaning you have to lift the kegs, but the cleaning cycle is automatic. It's beautiful and will be in my brewery at launch.

Rob Soltys of Premier Stainless recommended 16 ft minimum height ceilings.  When I asked him how high you need for 30 bbl fermenters (and you always need extra height for the rigging equipment, remember that!), he said if you go with 16 ft minimum, you'll be able to fit 60 bbl fermenters in the future easily.  Good tip.  They can customize fermenters just about any way you need them, so smaller clearances would require short and squat fermenters which affect fermentation flavors (brewing school). Not a big deal, but you'd probably have to adjust your fermentation temperatures to deal with less hydrostatic pressure due to shallower depths.

Wild Goose Engineering's canning line is awesome AND they're not tied to Ball Canning like Cask is. That's a good thing. Their two head filler can package cans faster than Cask's five head filler. The secret? The seamer, which is the device that seals the lid onto the can. Both canning lines have only one seamer, but Wild Goose's is so damn fast, their line cans faster with less than half the fill heads! The people are awesome as well. When the need arises, you can easily add two fill heads to the machine for a total of four. Awesomesauce.

I spoke to the U.S. Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), very nice people. Here's the gospel from the horse's mouth: If you fill out your TTB paperwork correctly AND submit it online, it currently requires about 51 days to get your Federal Brewer's Notice approved. If you submit your application via paper, it takes 90 days, but who would be that dumb anyway? I inquired what the biggest mistake people make that causes their application to be rejected. Answer: improper handling of the Brewer's Bond process. They have a phone number you can call to get all your questions answered and encouraged me to use that resource. I'll add that number to this post when I find it. I'll go into all the nitty gritty of dealing with the TTB and the State of Illinois once I begin that part of the process.

Great stuff, well worth the effort and money.

Equipment 101: Bottling Line

Classy and easy to fill! There are a gazillion components that a brewery must have to brew and sell beer. I think most non-professional brewers, myself included, usually think of boil kettles, mash tuns, and fermenters when they think of breweries. Those are the sexy parts of the brewery. There is one component, however, that is always lurking, hiding behind the fermenters or off to the side, just out of sight:  the packaging equipment.

Packaging craft beer comes in various forms: kegging, bottling, canning, growlers, etc. Kegging is a fairly inexpensive endeavor compared to bottling/canning. I'll do a separate post about kegging and all the considerations involved at a later time. Today, we'll discuss what I know so far about the packaging elephant in the room: bottling.

Here's what I know about bottling:  It's a pain in the ass. Many craft breweries, including Metropolitan Brewing and Half Acre (for their 22 oz bombers) here in Chicago, use a Meheen bottling machine. Meheen Manufacturing out of Washington state manufactures the de facto small bottling machines used in the craft beer industry. They're relatively inexpensive (and I do mean relatively) and they work pretty damn well. The one I've used at Metropolitan is a 13 year old 4 head filler which means it fills and caps 4 bottles at a time.

When shipping beer, you need to load the kegs/bottles/cans on a palette in order to load them onto a truck. One palette holds 72 cases of beer which is 1728 bottles. Metropolitan's Meheen can churn out 16-19 bottles/minute. 1728/16 = 108 minutes to fill enough bottles for a full palette. That doesn't include set up and clean up time, but you get the idea. The amount of beer requiring bottling depends on how much is left over after kegging and that depends on what the distributor needs. So any given bottling session can vary but if you had to bottle all 27 bbl of beer (30 bbl - losses), you're lookin' at around 5 palettes. That's a long god damn day. I'm not complaining, I'm just pointing out the realities of the labor involved in getting beer to market. You can buy a used Meheen, which comes in both a 4-head and 6-head configuration, for around $20,000 depending on age and condition. Check out Probrewer's classifieds to see what I mean. That's pretty damn cheap compared to just about any other piece of core equipment in a brewery.

When you buy a used Meheen, you have to be aware that they are set up to work with a specific bottle, meaning the fill heads and capper are set to work with a bottle of specific height and body diameter.  Usually they are set up to work with either the standard "long neck" bottles or "heritage" bottles (think Sierra Nevada Pale Ale bottles).  This means if you want to use your Meheen which is set up for 12 oz bottles to work with 22 oz bombers, well, you're out of luck, and vice-versa.  Please feel free to correct me in the comments if that statement is wrong, but I believe that is a true statement.

One final note, bottling lines like Meheen require compressed air from an industrial grade, continuous duty air compressor, so add that to your shopping list.

I'll be posting about canning and the cost comparisons vs. bottling in another upcoming post.  Spoiler: cans are cheaper, much cheaper, canning lines are expensive, much more expensive.