In reflective moments, when he’s not occupied negotiating with contractors, filling out government forms, installing equipment, or performing any of a thousand other tasks required to put his new microbrewery on line, Michael Bryant shakes his head about the project and calls it “crazy.”
“If I had done more investigation before I got my mind set, I would not have done this,” says Bryant. It’s not that he regrets embarking on this effort to open a seven-barrel microbrewery in his home town, Dunedin, Fla. It’s just that even as an experienced businessman — he owns a small restaurant construction company— starting a brewery can seem overwhelming.
“When you get a model business plan and start plugging in the numbers, it can convince you not to try. The first thing is to look at how much the license is going to cost — $3,000. Divided by 12 months, that is how much money I have to make a month just to cover that. That means I have to get this much beer out. That means bigger equipment.
“Two to three days into the business plan you decide you have to sell stock. Uh oh, you have to go public to pay the attorney to deal with the stock. It depends on all these other people now. It gets so complicated.”
Bryant’s original plan was to equip his brewery with a tiny 1.5-barrel brewing system. “I wanted to build my own equipment originally,” he says. “I was capable of building a 1.5-barrel brewhouse.”
But some long hours working over the business plan convinced him he needed a seven-barrel brewhouse — still small but too large to build himself.
“In the microbrewery business they say that the minimum size brewery you should be buying is 30 to 50 barrels,” he says. “We stayed small so we could stay in control and happy. We’re absolutely crazy, but we’re doing it.”
Brewery for Rent
Before purchasing equipment, the first step was to find a location. The Dunedin Brewery couldn’t fit in Bryant’s garage. The perfect space had to meet two major requirements: size and accessibility. The square footage had to be large enough for the brewhouse, fermenters, grain mill, and all the other equipment.
A large doorway would be needed to move all the major pieces of equipment into the work area. Large bags of grain and full kegs would also be moving in and out of the brewery regularly.
Bryant had planned for a large walk-in cooler to store materials and his finished product. Each batch produces seven barrels of beer, the equivalent of 14 kegs (15.5 gallons each). Since the brewery would be capable of producing two batches back to back, a large storage space for full and empty kegs was a definite priority.
Adequate plumbing and electrical services also needed to be addressed. Bryant leased a building site in a small industrial park not far from his contracting company’s offices in downtown Dunedin. The 1,100-square-foot facility met all the necessary requirements, including a large roll-up garage door. In addition the space was located in an industrial building on the only square block of the city that was correctly zoned for a brewery.
After the site was selected, Bryant drew up a set of plans, including a full set of blueprints, to begin construction. Area building codes require that outside contractors had to be hired for the electrical and plumbing. The rest of the construction, from painting the floor to building the walk-in cooler, was finished by Bryant and his homebrewing friends, who volunteered many hours.
If you are opening a microbrewery, it pays to do as much of the work as possible yourself, according to Bryant. “The biggest avoidable expenses came when I had to hire someone to do physical work I was too busy to take on,” he says.
Bryant was able to realize some savings by installing his 10-by-20-foot walk-in cooler himself. One of his friends knew the distributor of a type of snap-in Styrofoam insulated panels. After the outer wall of the cooler was built, these panels just had to be cut to size and placed on the interior walls and ceiling. Bryant purchased a conventional outer door, and the cooler was built at a savings of $4,000.
Tools of the Trade
Next, it was time to buy brewing equipment. Bryant planned to build a small 1.5-barrel system. He was familiar with the 1.5-barrel brewing through his work as a brewer’s assistant to Norman Dixon, then the brewmaster at the Brooker Creek Grill in Palm Harbor, Fla. Bryant also wanted the experience that came with matching and installing the brewing system’s components.
“I wanted to keep the design as simple as possible. I like things really simple, to the point where you can tell someone who doesn’t know what in the world is going on to ‘turn the valve on the pipe that leads from the vessel on the right,’ and the person can just go over and figure it out. Very simple industrial psychology,” says Bryant.
Before purchasing equipment Bryant researched what was available by studying various literature aimed at homebrewers. “Homebrew magazines have all kinds of solutions to difficult problems,” says Bryant. “After all, most homebrewers are inventors at heart.” He also gained a working knowledge of equipment as a brewer’s assistant to Dixon. Dixon, currently brewmaster at Maumee Bay Brewing Co. in Toledo, Ohio, helped Bryant with advice and support through the entire process.
Bigger Is Better?
Bryant drew the equipment he wanted and went to the Institute for Brewing Studies trade show in Austin, Texas, to research the equipment available and get information about different suppliers. “I made a catalog with the dimensions of the components and looked at different ways of putting it together,” he says. “I knew how I wanted to do it, but I wanted to see if maybe there was a reason why other people were doing it another way. I melded all the facts together and drew up a little 1.5-barrel system.”
The core equipment in his system included the requisite brew kettle, a grain auger, mash tun, heat exchanger with brewing pump, glycol cooling system, clean-in-place (CIP) unit, and two fermenters.
“I took that little system and started sending it out to people who advertised that they could custom build equipment,” he says. “I found out that it cost about as much to build the equipment as to buy it.”
In the meantime Bryant decided that a seven-barrel system would be a better investment, allowing him to brew more to support his overhead and opening up the opportunity to contract brew.
It took two months to research and purchase the equipment. Additional purchases included three water heaters to provide mash water and sparge water, various hoses, fittings, utensils, and laboratory equipment.
He bought his system from Cross Distributing. “They were willing to customize their equipment to my needs,” he said. “I think it’s better to put your own system together to fit your needs instead of purchasing a predesigned, all-inclusive turn-key system. If you need more, you can always expand on it at a later date.”
When everything finally arrived at the Dunedin site, Bryant hooked it all up himself. “Doing the work yourself saves you money,” he says. “It takes you longer, but you learn by doing it. If you pay somebody to do it all, you haven’t learned anything. When something goes wrong with the system later on, you won’t be able to fix it. You’ll have to call someone to come out, and they will charge $75 to $150 minimum just to show up.”
Bryant got a particularly good deal on the two fermenters he purchased. They were originally manufactured in Hungary to be distributed by Cross and were actually used as design samples. He paid used prices for equipment that was never really used.
There was a problem, however. When the fermenters were delivered, he discovered an internal hairline crack in the outlet valve of one. Although Cross offered to replace the tank, Bryant decided to leave the equipment in place and fix it himself. After many hours of trial and error, he found the leak and contacted a local repair shop to weld a sleeve in place, which fixed the problem.
“Problems in this business usually lead to solutions for other problems,” he maintains. “Because of a small leak I now have access to master repair technicians right down the street. If I have any more trouble, I can contact them at a moment’s notice and get service right away.”
A few other bugs had to be worked out of the system. The thermostat in the glycol tank, for instance, was not cooling properly and was finally diagnosed as having a broken wire caused during shipping. It turned out to be a small, easily remedied problem but one that required a few hours of head scratching to figure out.
Another mundane but necessary hurdle Bryant has had to contend with is meeting government safety regulations, which require the installation of a first aid kit, fire extinguishers, and an emergency eyewash.
“It’s the little things that get you,” Bryant says. “Add-ons that most people wouldn’t think about.”
With just short of a year of his time and $45,000 invested in research, location, renovations, and equipment, Bryant knows that it’s too late to turn back. “The brewery is like a cross between building a restaurant and a hot rod,” he says. “The basics are there, but you also have to find pieces of things and put them together to build exactly what you want.”
Next month: The first beer