Dial­ing In Your Sys­tem

Up­dat­ing your brew­ery can be one of the health­i­est things you can do, says Josh Weik­ert, as he leads you on a walk­through of a prospec­tive sys­tem-re­boot process that will en­able you to get the most out of the time you spend brew­ing.

Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine - - Contents -

Josh Weik­ert leads you on a walk-through of a prospec­tive sys­tem-re­boot process that will en­able you to get the most out of the time you spend brew­ing.

“TO IM­PROVE IS TO CHANGE; to be per­fect is to change of­ten.” For a guy who drank whiskey al­most all day, Win­ston Churchill re­ally knew what he was talk­ing about, or at least could sound like he did. There’s a lot of virtue in change, which is why it’s so un­pro­duc­tive that hu­mans are in­trin­si­cally re­sis­tant to it. It’s even less at­trac­tive to brew­ers be­cause brew­ing is about consistency. Do it the same way ev­ery time, and your re­sults tend to im­prove. Make the same ex­act beer twice to show you have con­trol over your process and sys­tem. Make changes one at a time to ap­pro­pri­ately mea­sure the ef­fects with­out in­tro­duc­ing lots of other vari­ables. Same, same, same…

Ex­cept that some­times it’s ex­tremely use­ful to flip the en­tire ta­ble over and re­con­sider your whole ap­proach to brew­ing and the de­sign of your brew­ery. First, it al­lows you to break out of any ruts you might have got­ten into. There’s no doubt that consistency in brew­ing is a ben­e­fit, but the down­side of it is that you can end up be­com­ing sat­is­fied with a prod­uct that could be a lot bet­ter.

Sec­ond, we live in a time of ex­cit­ing tech­no­log­i­cal evo­lu­tion in brew­ing equip­ment and in­gre­di­ents, to say noth­ing of the ease with which home­brew­ers can get ac­cess to pro-qual­ity stuff.

Third, rewrit­ing your recipes and start­ing fresh can be in­vig­o­rat­ing, and you get to ex­pe­ri­ence anew the ex­cite­ment of tast­ing the first at­tempt at a new beer.

Last, swap­ping out equip­ment and tools can have the added ben­e­fit of elim­i­nat­ing threats to good brew­ing from un­ob­served wear and tear, ac­cu­mu­lated gunk or de­cay, and low-level con­tam­i­na­tion (it’s one rea­son I tend to throw away all of my plas­tics ev­ery once in a while and just buy new— it’s a cheap way to re­set any pos­si­ble screw-ups I’ve made with them!).

And be­fore any­one asks, I swap out equip­ment and tools ev­ery three years or so.

De­spite the anx­i­ety and sense of un­moored, un­com­fort­able un­cer­tainty it can cause, up­dat­ing your brew­ery can be one of the health­i­est things you can do. The dis­com­fort is tem­po­rary. Let’s walk through a prospec­tive sys­tem-re­boot process that will en­able you to get the most out of it and get back to your “con­sis­tent” life as soon as pos­si­ble.

Step One: What Do You Want?

This process starts with fig­ur­ing out what you want out of your brew­ing. What do you com­plain about? What do you love? What might make your day eas­ier? Do you want more beer? More ser­vice op­tions? Start with a “per­fect world” in­ven­tory of what you want, com­pare it to what you’ve got, and de­cide whether you want some­thing dif­fer­ent. Even if the an­swer is, “Nope, I love ev­ery­thing about my beer and brew­ing,” there are still things to be im­proved (faster or eas­ier brew day, higher ef­fi­cien­cies, etc.). This step, though, lets you break out of your in­cre­men­tal, “small ball” mind­set.

You should also go out of your way to con­sider op­tions you’ve pre­vi­ously con­sid­ered and re­jected. A bad idea three years ago isn’t nec­es­sar­ily a bad idea to­day. Cir­cum­stances and wants change. Con­sider ev­ery­thing!

Step Two: Think Big

Sys­tem re­designs start with what I call the “Big Three”—heat source, mash ves­sel, and ket­tle. What­ever para­pher­na­lia you sur­round it with, ev­ery brew­ery con­sists of some kind of heat, some way of mash­ing grain (un­less you’ve de­cided to go back to noth­ing but ex­tract—an un­usual, but not nec­es­sar­ily bad idea), and a ket­tle in which to boil wort. What­ever your cur­rent setup, re­con­sider it.

Heat source is the big­gest call. Gas vs. elec­tric isn’t a ques­tion with a “right” an­swer, but each def­i­nitely has its ad­van­tages. For that mat­ter, I’d point out that you’re re­ally talk­ing about three or four dis­tinct op­tions: gas (prob­a­bly propane, but you might also have a ded­i­cated nat­u­ral-gas-line op­tion), elec­tric re­sis­tance el­e­ments (stove­top/hot plate), elec­tric im­mer­sion (heat sticks and el­e­ments), and elec­tric in­duc­tion (my pre­ferred method). These can also be paired—i know sev­eral brew­ers who use both in­duc­tion and other elec­tric el­e­ments to “help” the in­duc­tion unit along, and for that mat­ter, I know at least one brewer who uses an in­duc-

Some­times it’s ex­tremely use­ful to flip the en­tire ta­ble over and re­con­sider your whole ap­proach to brew­ing and the de­sign of your brew­ery. First, it al­lows you to break out of any ruts you might have got­ten into. Sec­ond, we live in a time of ex­cit­ing tech­no­log­i­cal evo­lu­tion in brew­ing equip­ment and in­gre­di­ents, to say noth­ing of the ease with which home­brew­ers can get ac­cess to pro-qual­ity stuff. Third, rewrit­ing your recipes and start­ing fresh can be in­vig­o­rat­ing, and you get to ex­pe­ri­ence anew the ex­cite­ment of tast­ing the first at­tempt at a new beer.

tion unit as a se­condary water heater/ pre­heater and gas for the boil. If you’re mak­ing ad­just­ments to your heat source, con­sider the im­pact on your brew day with re­gard to time-to-tem­per­a­ture dur­ing heat­ing (mash/sparge water and to boil), and whether you have any process changes as a re­sult (for ex­am­ple, when I went from one heat­ing el­e­ment to two, I found it con­ve­nient to go no-sparge rather than in­cor­po­rat­ing a hot-liquor ves­sel).

Then there’s mash­ing, and there your op­tions are in­su­lated-cooler mash tun, di­rect-fire mash tun, or Brew in a Bag (BIAB). BIAB is an in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar op­tion, and go­ing that route will likely en­tail ei­ther a re­duc­tion in batch size or an in­crease in ket­tle size. Any changes could re­quire down­stream recipe ad­just­ment since ef­fi­ciency will likely change. Those switch­ing to a HERMS/RIMS sys­tem in par­tic­u­lar may see a marked in­crease in ef­fi­ciency.

Last, changes to your ket­tle will prob­a­bly come from a de­sire to ad­just your batch size, but some may ben­e­fit from a change based on heat source (in­duc­tion re­quires a ferro-re­ac­tive ket­tle) or ge­om­e­try (wider vs. nar­rower base, for ex­am­ple, to in­crease heat­ing ef­fi­ciency).

These are fun­da­men­tal sys­tem up­dates and will cause the most ad­just­ment in other ar­eas. If you’re chang­ing one, don’t be shy about chang­ing them all. Dis­rup­tion has a peak be­yond which it isn’t re­ally caus­ing any more work—when caught in the rain, you can only get so wet.

Step Three: Sweat the Small Stuff

If you make big changes, you’ll be mak­ing small changes, too. Even if you don’t make big changes, though, sweat the small stuff and make sure it makes sense for your sys­tem and process. Those brew­ing ac­ces­sories can make or break a sys­tem, and might not be ob­vi­ous can­di­dates for up­date, ad­di­tion, or re­moval.

There’s “big” small, and “small” small. “Big” small in the brew­ery means chillers, pumps, hop rock­ets, and the like—ba­si­cally the things that in­volve mo­tors or move­ment or liq­uid. Yes, I can pick up my ket­tle and dump my mash/sparge water into the mash cooler, but do I want to? Will I be able to in two years? Do I need a con­cus­sion pro­to­col be­cause when I do so, I al­most al­ways slam my head into a shelf near the burner? An­swer these ques­tions and more and see if you can “buy back the time and ef­fort you’ve lost,” to para­phrase St. Thomas More. “Small” small would be ther­mome­ters, grav­ity tools, spoons, pitch­ers, and the like. Some­times you live with a lot of small in­con­ve­niences and sub-op­ti­mal out­comes sim­ply be­cause you don’t think it’s worth your while to change them. Think about it. A prob­lem is some­thing we want to fix.

Most im­por­tantly, con­sider whether your se­condary brew­ing tools are do­ing what they need to do as part of a dy­namic brew sys­tem. Ev­ery change—in equip­ment or goals—can cause rip­ples in what you need to be the brewer you want to be. Get gran­u­lar.

Step Four: The Day Af­ter

Don’t stop at the end of the brew day. Take a hard look at your fer­men­tors, fridges, and ser­vice equip­ment, too.

Fer­men­tors are an area where a sys­tem up­date can bring about sim­ple and dra­matic im­prove­ments. That bucket or car­boy you got with your “I Wanna Be a Brewer” kit, even as­sum­ing it has sur­vived your batches thus far un­scathed, might no longer be the gold stan­dard. There are Bet­ter Bot­tles, wide-mouth bot­tles, plas­tic con­i­cals, steel con­i­cals, and more, and prices have only come down. Your dream fer­men­tor might now be in reach.

Re­frig­er­a­tor and chest-freezer space might be your bot­tle­neck—think about an ex­pan­sion. Take a look at tem­per­a­ture con­trol, too, and con­sider an up­grade (cheap, these days) from that ana­log tem­per­a­ture con­troller to a dig­i­tal two-stage ver­sion. You can never have too many re­frig­er­a­tors, ei­ther—if you don’t have one for fer­men­ta­tion, a sec­ond for ser­vice (kegs), and a third to store fin­ished bot­tled beer, well… i just don’t know what you’re wait­ing for. These can not only help you im­prove your beer, but also keep it bet­ter, longer.

This is also a ter­rific time to re­place your keg ser­vice equip­ment, whether you up­date it or not. Tub­ing, faucets, shanks, fit­tings, O-rings—they all wear out even­tu­ally, and even if you’re not ex­pand­ing your taps or adding a nitro faucet or swap­ping out tap han­dles, use this as an ex­cuse to strip down and freshen up your tap sys­tem. You might be sur­prised (and/ or dis­gusted) by what you find.

Your equip­ment changes will nec­es­sar­ily re­quire some process changes to ac­com­mo­date. If you’ve got­ten this far with­out swap­ping out any of your equip­ment, though, con­sider process changes any­way. Small things—such as ex­tend­ing your mash time, whirlpool­ing, and switch­ing up sparge tech­niques (not an ex­haus­tive list, ob­vi­ously)— can have mean­ing­ful ef­fects on your beer. Pay par­tic­u­lar at­ten­tion to any new clean­ing, san­i­tiz­ing, or main­te­nance ne­ces­si­ties you might have added, and be sure you know how to clean/ san­i­tize that equip­ment be­fore you start us­ing it!

Step Five: In and Out

Now that you’ve re­freshed your equip­ment, large and small, con­sider the in­gre­di­ents you use and the process by which you use them. Re­visit what you brew with and why. We get into ruts with in­gre­di­ents, which isn’t a bad thing, but it is lim­it­ing. Have you changed some­thing in your equip­ment that now makes some beers more or less at­trac­tive to brew? New BIAB brew­ers never have to worry about stuck sparges again, so wheat and rye are now no prob­lem for you. Go­ing from bagged hops to a spi­der means you can add more hops, more eas-

ily. Ask your­self what lim­i­ta­tions you had, and whether they still ap­ply. Also ask what new lim­i­ta­tions you might have cre­ated. You might find that there are in­gre­di­ent-spe­cific ef­fects to con­sider.

And, of course, your equip­ment changes will nec­es­sar­ily re­quire some process changes to ac­com­mo­date. If you’ve got­ten this far with­out swap­ping out any of your equip­ment, though, con­sider process changes any­way. Small things—such as ex­tend­ing your mash time, whirlpool­ing, and switch­ing up sparge tech­niques (not an ex­haus­tive list, ob­vi­ously)—can have mean­ing­ful ef­fects on your beer. Pay par­tic­u­lar at­ten­tion to any new clean­ing, san­i­tiz­ing, or main­te­nance ne­ces­si­ties you might have added, and be sure you know how to clean/san­i­tize that equip­ment be­fore you start us­ing it!

What goes in de­ter­mines what comes out.

Step Six: Throw Out the Book (or Just Shelve It for a While)

This is the last phase. Once you have your new equip­ment, in­gre­di­ents, and pro­cesses in place, you’re go­ing to need to change your recipes. This is both a re­ac­tive step (switch­ing up so much will re­quire ad­just­ments to make the beer you used to make) and a pro­gres­sive step (why are you so hell-bent on mak­ing the beer you used to make?). If you’re 100 per­cent, def­i­nitely, no-ques­tions sat­is­fied with your ver­sion of [fill in beer here], then by all means, aim for that tar­get again. How­ever, this is a per­fect time to try to im­prove on your pre­vi­ous recipes. You can al­ways dou­ble back to your “stan­dard” recipes and tweak them to fit your new sys­tem and process, but since you’re in for a sig­nif­i­cant amount of work to do that any­way, why not go for some­thing new and bet­ter?

When rewrit­ing recipes, I al­ways start very sim­ple—base grain, maybe one or two spe­cialty grains, a sin­gle cho­co­late malt, one or two hops, a known yeast—and re­build from there, lay­er­ing/ad­just­ing through re­peated at­tempts at the same style/beer. Three passes should do it: one to es­tab­lish a base­line, a sec­ond brew to in­cor­po­rate larger changes, and a third to fine-tune the recipe.

Re­cov­ery Time

So, how long does it take be­fore things are back to full, re­li­able pro­duc­tion? It de­pends. The long­est ad­just­ment I had was when I built my (cur­rent) in­door, sin­gle-burner in­duc­tion sys­tem. It was about six months (fif­teen batches) be­fore I was pos­i­tive I had it back un­der con­trol. Other ver­sions of this took much less time: my first switch over to in­duc­tion led to an im­me­di­ate im­prove­ment in my beer. A lit­tle pa­tience might or might not be re­quired, but if it is, stay the course. It usu­ally works out for the best.

If it doesn’t, though, save those re­ceipts. Not ev­ery re­design works out. When I first thought, “Hey, I’ll build my­self an au­to­mated 10-gal­lon nat­u­ral-gas sys­tem,” I found that I hated the process, it all took too long, and I didn’t need that much beer per batch. I scrapped it al­most im­me­di­ately and re­designed again.

De­velop the habit of be­ing open to change, and you’ll be much fur­ther along the (never-end­ing) path to per­fec­tion—or so says the An­glo-amer­i­can whiskey lover.

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