Size Matters: Turning homebrewers pro since 1997

Do you know how many pro brewers your homebrew club has produced? One, two . . . a few? I’m part of a rather small club, the 25-member Red Ledge Brewers, and we’ve very proud to respond to that question by stating we’ve helped launch a dozen brewing careers. I think it has a lot to do with the experience and comfort level members get brewing on the club-owned, 7-BBL “homebrew” system. The original club-built mash tun actually made an appearance in the November 2002 issue of BYO:

The Red Ledge Brewers homebrew club is based in Grand Ledge, Michigan and was the brainchild of Karl Glarner and Tolin Annis in 1997. Karl was the owner of The Red Salamander homebrew store while Tolin was a loyal and frequent customer. While unfortunately the store has since closed down, the pair joined forces to start Sanctuary Spirits in 2013, a brewery/distillery/winery. Meanwhile, over the last 24 years, the club has upskilled roughly 100 members while retaining a deep core of 20 or so homebrewers.

The club is fortunate that Grand Ledge is in mid- Michigan farm country and its members have contacts in the dairy industry for used equipment. The current system consists of a 300-gallon (1,135-L) milk cooler as the mash tun and a 280-gallon (1,060-L) jacketed stainless steel kettle previously used in a commercial bakery to proof bread.

Red Ledge Brewers 7-BBL brewing system means they can fill roughly 50 5-gallon (19-L) carboys for fermenting. Photo courtesy of Thom Cannell

Originally, as befits the title of our annual, sometimes bi-annual Fire Brew club event, the kettle was fired using wood, but has since been upgraded to a 6,000,000 BTU propane burner array. This massive heat source consists of four burners originally designed for flaming crops as a form of organic pest control.

The process of brewing will be familiar to all-grain homebrewers. Water is heated in the kettle to strike temperature, then transferred to the mash tun by pump. After years of experimenting, we’re pushing water up into the mash tun through our member-built 3⁄4-in. (20 mm) copper tube manifold. The mash is stirred, then allowed to rest until starches are converted. Sparge water is heated in the kettle, then pumped into sanitary buckets for a batch sparge. We’ve tried both slots-down and slots-up in the manifold with no apparent difference, though stuck mashes are too frequent. Perhaps that’s due to the way we pump in water and dump sacks of grain by hand with constant stirring.

Originally, as befits the title of our annual, sometimes bi-annual Fire Brew club event, the kettle was fired using wood, but has since been upgraded to a 6,000,000 BTU propane burner array.

The wort is then run off by gravity into a grant, then pumped back to the kettle for boiling. After the boil, the wort is pumped through a large plate chiller used originally for chilling milk —it’s something the club plans to rebuild or upgrade. Output is then dispensed through a four-port manifold into the waiting personal fermenters.

After Fire Brew, members take their fermenters home to add whatever yeast and/or other adjuncts they decide fits the wort profile. The members then ferment their beer to taste, so we may get brown ales from a Baltic porter recipe and saisons or lagers from a pale ale recipe. A tasting meeting is then planned weeks to months later, depending on the style of beer. It’s fascinating to compare how the various member beers taste with different yeasts, adjuncts, and fermentation regimens employed on the same wort.

The education opportunities afforded by having a portable, 7-BBL system have been instrumental in producing an astoundingly large percentage of professional brewers from a relatively small club. We also have a great time doing it!

So far seven members have started their own local breweries and five more joined the ranks of professional brewers. We just wonder who is the next.

Issue: July-August 2022