A Small Brewing System for Nimble Beers

Thanks to tremendous growth, Firestone Walker is now accustomed to making large-scale batches. For its new Venice Beach, California, location, the brewery went small to foster creativity and collaboration.

John M. Verive May 26, 2018 - 12 min read

A Small Brewing System for Nimble Beers Primary Image

The brewhouse—the collection of equipment that converts raw ingredients into wort—is the heart of a brewery. From a custom-fabricated one-barrel nanobrewery setup to the workaday turnkey systems from manufactures such as Premier Stainless and BrauKon to large-scale multi-million dollar brewhouses that cook away at the country’s largest craft breweries, there are no one-size-fits-all brewhouse designs. And with more than 5,000 breweries now operating in America, there is an example of every conceivable configuration of tuns and kettles. In the Los Angeles community of Venice Beach, there’s one brewhouse that’s unique in both configuration and in how it’s used. The 10-hectoliter system at Firestone Walker’s Propagator brewpub is as streamlined, as efficient, and even as stylish as a German luxury car, and it gives the lauded regional brewery a nimble vehicle for chasing trends, exploring new ground, and even revisiting some old favorites.

“Los Angeles is our fastest-growing market,” Firestone Walker Cofounder David Walker says, and the Propagator gives the brewery a permanent foothold in L.A., joining the taproom restaurants in Paso Robles (home of the main brewery) and Buellton (where the wild ale–focused Barrelworks is based).

The Venice campus, a little more than a mile from the beach, is the base of operations for Firestone Walker in Southern California and includes a taproom restaurant, retail store, offices, and other support infrastructure. At the core of the compound is a cutting-edge brewhouse built by Kaspar Schulz—a 340-year-old manufacturer that’s been family-operated in Bamburg, Germany, for ten generations. Kaspar Schulz is known for their brewpub-scale systems and advanced brewhouse automation.

“I find Schulz setups all over the world,” says Firestone Walker Brewmaster Matthew Brynildson, and when the idea for a Los Angeles-area brewpub began to take shape, he knew he wanted a Kaspar Schulz brewhouse for the project.

ADVERTISEMENT

The Propagator was originally conceived as a test bed for new Firestone Walker beers and as a training ground for Firestone Walker’s brewing team. The Schulz system was configured as a fully automated brewhouse that mimics the controls and interface of the production brewery in Paso Robles, but its mission has changed.

“We’re really pushing on experimental beers here,” Walker says, and though the brewpub’s output is comparatively small (just less than 1,000 barrels in the first year of brewing), he says the Propagator has a “profound effect” on Firestone’s brewing culture. “We were piloting beers 50 barrels at a time,” Brynildson says, and the 8-barrel scale of the Propagator makes for a more agile pilot brewing system. Beyond brewing test batches for projects in development, the Propagator makes a line of exclusive beers for service at Firestone Walker taprooms in Paso Robles and Buellton.

The smaller system is also used for ingredient tests—including a line of single-hop beers—and a line of “throwback” brews that revisit some fan favorites that no longer fit into the production schedule in Paso. There’s also a steady stream of collaboration brews scheduled in the Venice brewery, now permanently staffed by two brewers: Head Brewer Evan Partridge and Assistant Brewer Valerie Hicks.

The pair works in the close confines of a brewery annex attached to the taproom and restaurant. The space is tight, but manageable, and the brewery is dominated by the three steel cylinders that comprise the skid-mounted brewhouse. A dual hot/cold liquor tun feeds the other vessels: a combination mash tun and kettle and a lauter tun stacked on top of the whirlpool. A maze of piping runs between the vessels, and everything is connected by a network of sensors and pneumatically actuated valves that control the flow of water and wort.

At the top of the brew deck, mounted between the two main brewing vessels, is a computer terminal where almost every aspect of the brew can be monitored and controlled. The Brewmaxx software—the same system used at the brewery in Paso Robles—is the key component of the Propagator’s mission. But don’t call the automation setup the brain of the system—the brains behind the beer are wearing boots and gloves. “Eating lunch during vorlauf usually doesn’t fly,” jokes Erik Mendoza during a recent brew day at the Propagator. The crew from local L.A. favorite Highland Park Brewery was collaborating with the Firestone Walker team on a hoppy lager.

The brewhouse was quietly recirculating wort through the lauter tun, and the group of brewers and hangers-on, including Firestone Walker Brewmaster Matthew Brynildson, had some downtime to enjoy a leisurely lunch. Occasionally, a brewer would run back to check on the lauter, just to be cautious. Brew days are streamlined and remarkably hands-off. Even grain-out is simplified by a plow attachment in the lauter tun that pushes the spent grain from the manway with minimal shoveling.

ADVERTISEMENT

It takes two turns of the brewhouse to fill the 20-barrel fermentation vessels (there are four fermentation vessels currently, plus a bright tank), and the team brews twice a week on average. Much of the labor is collecting samples for quality testing, adding hops to the kettle or whirlpool, managing yeast, or setting up for transfers. Brews begin by milling grain in to the grist case the day before a brew. The next morning, grist is augered over to the brewhouse where an oversized grist hydrator preconditions the grain as it heads into the combo mash tun/boil kettle.

The steam-jacketed vessel heats and stirs the mash as prescribed by the automation software and specific recipe. After mash out, the thick porridge is transferred into the lauter tun. Once the grain bed is set by recirculation, the lautering begins. Software controls the frequency and depth of cuts made by the tun’s rotating rakes based on the flow rate and turbidity, and the runnings are pumped back into the combo tun/kettle. Wort is heated in the steam-jacketed kettle, and an external calandria (a tubular heat exchanger that heats wort quickly) increases efficiency. As with all the automated processes, the brewers can make adjustments on the fly or take over control manually.

“Sometimes there are still little hiccups,” Partridge says as he calls up an “instant replay” of another morning’s brew, a batch of Generation 1 IPA, on the Brewmaxx control panel. He switches the display from the brewhouse layout, with graphics representing each vessel in the system connected by colored pathways representing the flow of wort and water, to another colorful graph that logs the incoming stream of data. He isolates the yellow line denoting mash temperature and zooms in on the first hour after mash in. A hot spot had developed in the mash tun, and when he increased the spin rate of the radial agitator that stirs the mash, the yellow line angled sharply upward. The spike was followed by a swooping decline back toward the target mash temperature, then a second more pronounced downward plunge. Partridge had corrected the temperature with two cold-water additions.

Every detail of the brew is logged by the Brewmaxx software and supplemented by measurements and notes taken by the brewers. All this data, along with samples of finished wort and fermented beer, is sent for analysis at the main brewery. Twice a week, a bear-and-lion–emblazoned truck arrives in Venice from points north loaded with full kegs, material, and ingredients from Paso Robles. It returns to the main brewery with kegs of Propagator beer and samples of wort, yeast, and beer destined for the brewery’s extensive quality lab.

Partridge can call up the Paso brewery if he needs a bag of grain or a box of hops or even a fresh yeast pitch, and Brynildson gets a low-drag brewery where he can test recipes (such as those for the series of Leo V. Ursus double IPAs) or audition new hops varieties. He says the Propagator’s series of single-hop pale ales has helped him formulate the rotating hop bills featured in the widely distributed Luponic Distortion IPA. The Propagator both informs the direction the main brewery will take with new releases and fills in stylistic gaps in the company’s taproom restaurants (as with Taproom Brown ale and a hefeweizen). It’s a symbiotic relationship that benefits both the brewpub and the parent brewery.

The brew wraps up when the boil concludes and the hot wort is pumped into the whirlpool (often onto a fresh dose of hops), then through a heat exchanger and oxygenator and into a fermentation vessel. The yeast is pitched inline as the vessel fills, and the system is cleaned and prepared for the next day’s brew. About thirty or forty kegs of beer are packaged per week: a quarter is served in Venice, and the rest gets trucked to the Buellton or Paso Robles locations. Partridge is working on a plan to ramp up production to allow for more experimentation, and Brynildson is eager to fit a few oak barrels into the Propagator space to begin exploring more “rustic ales.”

The Propagator took longer to launch than Firestone Walker anticipated, and the cost was much higher than the initial estimates as bureaucratic delay and construction challenges dogged the project. Walker, ever the romantic optimist, quips that while the Propagator is the source of 90 percent of the brewery’s headaches, he’s still excited by the possibilities it offers. The brewpub’s unique identity within the larger Firestone Walker family is beginning to emerge, and Walker wants the Propagator to be as identifiable and as respected as Barrelworks.

That aspect of the Firestone Walker brand demonstrates that the largest impact on the final beer isn’t bacteria or oak but the humans shepherding those wild cultures and mixed fermentations, and the Propagator will be most successful if it follows that model. Even with a computer-controlled system, it’s people on the brew deck who have the biggest impact on what the final beer tastes like. Automation is no substitute for passion, and Firestone Walker is looking to their small-scale brewpub to help balance their brand expansion.

ARTICLES FOR YOU