System Update: Review How You Brew | Craft Beer & Brewing

System Update: Review How You Brew

Updating your brewery can be one of the healthiest things you can do, says Josh Weikert, as he 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.

Josh Weikert 8 months ago

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“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.

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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 induction 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.

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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.

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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.

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 easily. 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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