Building a Brewery, Chapter 2: The right tools for the job

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On old shed on Oakhold’s property outside of Duluth in Midway Township // Photo courtesy of Oakhold

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of monthly journal entries in which Oakhold Farmhouse Brewery founders Levi Loesch and Caleb Levar write about the trials and tribulations of starting their mixed-fermentation brewery in Northern Minnesota. Read Chapter 1: Oakhold Digs In.

How important is equipment?

When Levi and I started down this road a few years ago, I had the assumption that equipment was king—you get a nice brewhouse, some shiny conical fermentation vessels, a big glycol chiller, and the beer should practically make itself! But when I consider everything that has gone into our planning, the conversations with other brewers, and my year spent as an assistant brewer at Fair State Brewing Cooperative, I’ve come to realize the brewery (meaning the brewhouse and cellar) is just a minor part of what will become Oakhold Farmhouse Brewery. Of course, a significant number of hours have gone into weighing the pros and cons of various manufacturers, late nights learning and pouring over BTU calculations, and many dollars spent. But I know now that there is a lot more to opening and running a brewery business than the brewery itself.

Is it possible to choose the “right” equipment?

As more microbreweries continue to open, there has been corresponding boom in brewery equipment manufacturing. The options are seemingly endless, complex, and exceedingly polished. Every one of the manufacturers you contact is competing for your business, and is interested in selling you the fanciest system with all of the bells and whistles (read: the expensive one). But how do you decide which equipment is required from a practical standpoint, which equipment would be nice to have down the road, and which equipment is simply a showpiece and not needed for the production of high quality wort and beer?

Take enough brewery tours and you’ll see a wide range of systems and hear a variety of philosophies on the subject. You will taste outstanding beer brewed on brand-new, stainless turnkey breweries, as well as old, pieced-together systems complete with all their dents and stories to go along with them.

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Oakhold founders Levi Loesch, left, and Caleb Levar sample some of their beers at The Growler editorial office // Photo by Joseph Alton

It is for this reason that I am so completely thankful for my time at Fair State. Niko Tonks is a hell of a brewer and willing to share his acquired wisdom. Not only did he spend time at a number of breweries in Texas (including a five-year stint at Live Oak Brewing Company), he also helped get the brewery portion of Sociable Cider Werks going. Along the way, Niko has brewed on a variety of types of equipment and as a result has been a fantastic resource for me and Levi.

Also Joe Pond of Olvalde Farm and Brewing Company has lent us his insight, beginning with a late-night conversation nearly three years ago and continuing with opportunities to help out around his brewery. Brewing with Joe is a very different experience than my current position at Fair State, and Oakhold will incorporate the good ideas from both of these great brewers (with plenty of room left over for my own ill-advised ones.)

Related post – Building a Brewery, Chapter 1: Oakhold Digs In

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution for brewery equipment. Each brewer needs to decide what works best for their brewing philosophy and style, what allows them to adapt to issues that arise (and they will), and how to walk the fine line between staying on budget and staying sane on brew days. Do dedicated pumps and more hard piping than the lab in “Breaking Bad” make the life of a brewer much, much easier? Absolutely. But are they needed in a startup with limited cash to spend? Personally, I’d rather buy more wine barrels or plant more fruit trees. A more expensive setup may make brewing easier and more efficient, but raw materials, recipe design, and experience are just as important.

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The brewhouse at Fair State // Photo by Aaron Davidson

Levi and I have loved experimenting with new recipes and techniques as homebrewers. We wanted to ensure that this ability was not lost as we make the move into the professional realm. To that end, we decided that a three-and-a-half-barrel electric brew system was the right choice for us and our business plan. It’s not the most economical or efficient way to brew beer. It means that I will have to spend more time brewing to meet production goals, spend more money on electricity, and more time in the cellar moving multiple small batches instead of one larger one.

However, there are some benefits. Many small batches allow us to tweak recipes slightly, providing unique opportunities for blending and special releases and for the development of new and exciting flavor combinations. While we will be purchasing contract-brewed wort to establish barrel stock early on, an on-premise system of this size gives us the ability to continue doing what we love—and for us, that is worth a lot.

Next page: A mix of old and new, Oakhold settles on their system

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