Scheduled Downtime: Craft Brewer’s Big Boy Toys

'Hand crafted' has artisan cache, but consistency and volume demand the kind of automation tools used by major breweries.

By Kevin T. Higgins, Managing Editor

Custom Metal Craft Tallgrass

Every hamlet of any size in America has a local brewer today, more than a few of which produce beer of undistinguished flavor or uneven quality. Those planning to survive craft brewing’s inevitable shakeout know they not only must meet demand, they must consistently brew flavorful beverages that reflect shifting tastes.

That usually means investing in the kinds of process controls and automation comparable to what major breweries enjoy. Tallgrass Brewing Co. in Manhattan, Kan., is following that game plan. Founded in 2007 by a former geologist and homebrewer, Tallgrass invested $7 million in a new 60,000-sq.-ft. brewery that opened earlier this year and quadruples capacity while delivering new capabilities.

Tallgrass’s original brewhouse consisted of two vessels for batches of 15 barrels (465 gallons). Grain mash and lautering were done in one, with brewing taking place in the second. “I used that system from the very start,” recalls founder and CEO Jeff Gill. “It wasn’t that great a jump from homebrewing. It was 100 percent manual and very basic.”

Physical turning of valves and throwing of pump switches was required. “There were limitations throughout the process,” he ruefully recalls, with few options in pump speeds or mash temperatures. To compensate for mistimed steps, four batches of wort were blended in a fermenter to smooth out flavor inconsistencies prior to pitching the yeast.

Grain is the raw material of beer, and Manhattan is home to Kansas State University, the epicenter of grain science in America. Having ingredient expertise of that stature locally available is reassuring, but designing a modern brewery required outside help. For that, Gill traveled 300 miles southeast to Springfield, Mo., home of Custom Metalcraft Inc.

Custom Metalcraft specializes in stainless steel vessels and material-handling systems. The firm had equipped other craft breweries, but the Tallgrass commission required much more automation. After researching the available options, Ralf Hoffman, process system engineer, recommended Siemens’ PLC-based Simatic PCS 7 platform, which doesn’t require any ladder logic programming. Function blocks built into the system’s Braumat Compact brewing libraries simplify recipe creation and management.

“Once it’s set up, it’s very intuitive to change your recipes or even manually override them if you want to change some parameters,” he says. “That made it a good fit for us and the customer.”

The new brewhouse has four vessels, including two 50-bbl. (1,550-gal.) brew kettles. Mashing and lautering are done in separate vessels. “Instead of working on one brew, two brewers now are working on two simultaneously,” says Gill.

Simplified operation and programming “was the key to streamlining production,” suggests Ed Montgomery, food and beverage industry manager for brewing at Siemens Industry Inc., Atlanta. “Our system gives Tallgrass Brewing speed and consistency, regardless of who is running the shift.”

The oldest Tallgrass brewer is 27. None is an engineer, but a day’s training was enough get them off and running. “They’ve been on smart phones since they were teenagers,” Gill points out, and that orientation was enough for them to master the technology. “I’ve been pleasantly surprised about how they’ve been able to modify codes and add automation capabilities.”

Cheeky names like Buffalo Sweat stout and Zombie Monkie porter are typical of Tallgrass’ beers. The flagship 8-Bit pale ale references the operating system in early Nintendo video game consoles. Rather than numbering brewery vessels, fermentation tanks are christened Samson, Flash and Tank, the names of muscle-bound performers on the television series “American Gladiator.” These are generational markers that resonate with millennials and announce these are not your drunk uncle’s beer.

“I didn’t quit my boring job as a geologist not to have a fun company,” scoffs Gill.

Consumer preferences and markets are constantly shifting, and craft beer reflects that. The new brewery provides production flexibility to expand specialty offerings, such as sour beers and barrel-aged brews.

By law, bourbon must be aged in new, charred oak barrels. Many used barrels are finding a second life in craft brewing, imparting whiskey and wood notes during cellaring. Beer epicures flock to events like Chicago’s annual Festival of Barrel-Aged Beers, and Tallgrass will be among the exhibitors this November with Bourbon Barrel Vanilla Bean Buffalo Sweat, part of its new Explorer series.

The premium-priced Explorer series is accelerating ROI on Tallgrass’s new brewery. Total production this year is expected to reach 25,000 bbls, 56 percent higher than the old facility’s capacity, with growth to 100,000 bbls possible. Higher prices from Explorer beers will increase revenues even more. Gill expects payback on his $7 million investment within 18 months.

Tallgrass is part of the growing craft beer trend toward aluminum cans. Cans were sneered at in craft circles until six or seven years ago, when glass bottles were the only acceptable format for retail sales. A walk down any liquor store’s aisles today tells a different tale.

Besides providing better oxygen and UV protection, cans lightweight shipping costs. Tallgrass dumped glass and went exclusively to can and keg filling in 2010. The switch to 12-, 16- and 19.2-oz. cans has facilitated geographic expansion. Tennessee became the 14th state this year where the line is distributed.

Some craft brewers are wary of automation, reluctant to lay off loyal workers to help justify the expenditure. Layoffs weren’t an issue at Tallgrass, where staffing doubled to 30 with the new facility.

“Small brewers think they can’t afford automation,” notes Siemens’ Montgomery. “They really can’t afford not to automate in today’s market.”
Gill concurs. “It’s a much more complicated machine than we had, with many more capabilities,” he says of the new brewhouse. “Automation has allowed us to be more consistent than if we were still operating by hand.”

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