Cellar Considerations: Planning and care

Photo courtesy of Blichmann Engineering

As brewers we know that the romance is in the brewhouse. Fine-tuning the malt bill for the finest balance, creating the perfect hop schedule with the latest hop variety for that ultimate flavor explosion for the customer. But the reality is that a lot of the magic of beer happens in the cellar. Here the wort and the yeast perform their beautiful dance to create the sublime beer that will be all the rave of the taproom. Or it hits a rock on the tracks and creates a train wreck of epic proportions . . . think exploding cans due to hop creep.

When working with nanobreweries-in-planning, a decent bit of time is spent helping to select a right-size brewhouse and even more time is spent helping to select the right quantity and size of cellaring equipment. It is rare for the brewhouse to be the bottleneck of production. Almost always the cellar is the regulator of capacity.

The key to success is having a solid plan for how much finished beer you will need to start and how much capacity you need to add as you grow. Study your local market to know what types of beers you may sell and how much. Check out the other breweries in your area, or visit communities similar in size and consumer type as yours. Breweries in other communities will likely be more open about what beers sell best, what quantities, and what proportions are sold in their taproom vs. what is sold in kegs or cans to other retail outlets. Take good notes and try to put together a sales plan for your business.

Too many brewers get caught in the mindset of brewing only what they personally prefer or what their heart and soul love to create. While creativity is a huge element of the success of the craft industry, it really needs to be balanced with the hard reality of the needs of the business. Homebrewers can afford to make whatever they want, experiment, tinker, dump batches, and be the artist of their brewery because their paycheck and bank balance don’t come into play too much.

There are two strategies to employ. You could tune into what customers in your area are buying, and make sure your cellar is adaptable to that. Or you could go out and focus on beer styles that are not commonly available and develop a niche brewery (e.g., sours, lagers, etc.). This information will be valuable as you determine needed tank capacity for aging ales, lagers, and other beverages you might be making to fill your market need.

Tank Sizing

Most of our nanobrewery customers have a few “flagship” beers that they may rotate seasonally, with the balance being a continual rotation of beers so customers always have something new to come in and try. There are a couple ways to manage flagship beers. One is to have one or two double-batch sized fermenters, and if you are not kegging all the beer, a matching bright beer tank. The balance can be tanks matched to your brewhouse size. Alternately, the flagship beer can just simply be fermented in separate vessels. This also allows you to brew on separate days of the week as opposed to back-to-back, or having to brew a second batch immediately the following day. That said, it now means you have to clean and manage a second tank.

A lot of running the brewery has nothing to do with brewing beer. Be sure to recognize your time is limited, particularly as a nanobrewery owner. Be realistic as to what you can get done. As a rule of thumb, brewing three days per week is fairly typical, particularly to start with. As your business grows you can increase that but you’ll probably need to consider adding staff to allow for more batches per week.

The key to success is having a solid plan for how much finished beer you will need to start and how much capacity you need to add as you grow.

Once you’ve determined your needed output, the next step is to determine how many tanks you need to start with and how many you’ll need to meet your growth plans. Some of the key parameters that a nanobrewery-in-planning needs to consider when charting their cellar space are their brewhouse size, percent lagers vs. ales, and days per week they want to brew. Once those details are ironed out, it’s time to place an order. Here is the link to our online planner tool that allows you to run multiple scenarios:

Glycol System

I cannot stress how important it is to plan ahead, even though you don’t need to buy all the equipment upfront. Planning in advance lets you be prepared to expand quickly without having to build an addition to your building, or get delayed waiting for that long lead time glycol chiller to arrive. As the saying goes, the runway behind you does no good. In fact, many breweries add the plumbing for additional glycol hook-ups at the initial installation. It is also wise to add spare temperature controllers in your main control panel if you are not using tank-mounted controls.

Glycol systems are a vital part of your cellaring performance. And temperature control is the key to repeatability, healthy vigorous fermentations, and getting the best possible beer quality. This is NOT something to skimp on. The key to selecting a glycol system is two-fold. You should select a commercial-grade unit with excellent LOCAL service support. If the unit goes down, you need to get it back up and running as quickly as possible! And make sure the company you are dealing with is familiar with brewing applications.

The second is having it sized for the capacity you’ll need in the future. It is also helpful to select a chiller manufacturer that can provide an installation schematic specific to your system to avoid any startup issues, and have everything ready for expansion. An alternative is to plan for a second chiller as you grow. The advantage is backup. If one unit fails the second can maintain temperatures of the affected tanks. You may not have enough cooling capacity for crash cooling a tank, but you’ll protect the beers you have actively fermenting.

Expansion Considerations

When to expand should be a trigger point from your sales and growth rate you planned for earlier. I highly recommend having a target sales rate at which you’ll review your expansion plan. Be sure to do it early enough to order and receive additional tanks. A good rule of thumb: If you’re debating it in your mind you should probably get off the dime and start ordering equipment. Recent supply chain issues have thinned the available inventory. Be sure to keep in touch with your suppliers letting them know your plans in advance to reduce your wait time.

With that said, be mindful of overly optimistic expansion plans based on exaggerated growth as well. Too many brewery owners end up in financial jams and eventual bankruptcy because they did not realistically model their growth. A brewery should be able to afford new equipment with zero additional revenue to prevent fiscal problems. Be sure to catch up on all of Audra Gaiziunias’ columns to make sure your financial books are in order and you have a firm grasp on your cash flow before making a major investment in a cellar expansion:

Cleaning & Maintenance

Brewhouse equipment cleaning and maintenance is fairly simple. Cellaring equipment, on the other hand, is in constant contact with the beer, so proper care and maintenance is vital to keeping your gear in top operating condition. When you are first commissioning your equipment always perform a thorough cleaning and a good passivation. Most manufacturers do clean and passivate the equipment, but some residual soils and grinding dust may remain on the surfaces. Work with your chemical supplier for specifics, but in general, a caustic wash and rinse, followed by a nitric or citric acid treatment will give a thoroughly clean surface that contains no free iron from the manufacturing process.

When brewers talk about passivating a tank, they really mean “thoroughly cleaning the surface and removing all free iron.” When the surface dries and is exposed to air, the chromium in the alloy instantly reacts with it and forms the protective layer of chromium dioxide automatically. The brewer’s job is to facilitate the meeting! So what exactly is free iron? Free iron can be carbon steel dust, grinding dust, or areas of stainless no longer protected by the chromium dioxide passive layer.

This could be in the parent alloy material such as weld defects, or from a foreign object on the surface such as grinding dust. If left untreated, these defect areas can create a pit or rust where corrosion can accelerate rapidly. Frequent close inspections are highly recommended. If you do see a pit don’t panic. It can be ground out and cleaned deeply with a pickling gel, and you can be on your merry way. Just note that DIY grinding projects can quickly end in failure when folks grind through thin-walled, small vessels.

For ongoing maintenance, we recommend passivating with nitric/citric acid about once per year. Remember, stainless isn’t a magical alloy tolerant of all things we throw at it. It is predominantly iron, with enough chromium and nickel added to create enough corrosion-resistance to survive in the environment to which it is exposed. Never use chemicals longer than recommended and we don’t recommend storing your vessels full of chemicals. Certain chemicals can cause permanent damage to the stainless and gaskets, including silicone butterfly valve seals!

As a small business owner and brewer you’ll soon realize that time is a rare commodity divided between brewing, sales, marketing, purchasing, distribution, etc. So anything you can find to expedite processes without sacrificing quality is a must. A large time consumer is cleaning kegs. If you use a lot of kegs in your process an automated keg washer is a worthwhile consideration. A single head keg washer can clean and sanitize upwards of 20 kegs per hour. The added plus is the consistency and quality of the cleaning and sanitizing. It also doesn’t require a lot of skill to run so the work can be delegated to “the new guy.”

Issue: September 2022