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

Why electric, instead of a direct-fire or steam-heated system?

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The future home of Oakhold Farmhouse Brewery // Photo courtesy of Oakhold

In a word, practicality. Levi previously mentioned that we needed a well and septic system due to the lack of city water and sewer utilities where we are located. This lack of utility service also extends to natural gas, which would force us to install a tank on site if we wanted to use a direct-fire system.  Furthermore, burning that much liquid propane indoors has its own set of problems—including a costly install of the system itself, and increased ventilation requirements.

But we do have access to three-phase 208-volt electricity. We could install an electric steam boiler, but the added cost and floor space requirement would offset any small advantage in efficiency that a steam system would afford us on the small three-and-a-half-barrel scale of our on-premise system. Yes, electricity is expensive and an electric brewhouse has its own challenges. But I think it’s the best choice for us.

We hope to eventually install solar panels on the brewery barn. While the electricity generated by those panels isn’t able to be used directly by the brewhouse, there will be other ways it can tie into the existing infrastructure and offset our energy consumption more broadly.

Choosing to buy “local”

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An example of a 3.5-barrel brewhouse from SysTech // Photo courtesy of SysTech

After many quotes from various suppliers and a considerable amount of staring at our budget spreadsheet, I decided that SysTech Stainless Works out of Canton, Ohio, would build the mash/lauter tun and kettle that will serve as our brew system. There are a number of reasons for this choice—including their incredible responsiveness, their competitive pricing, their willingness to sell items a la carte to ensure we stayed within budget, and their openness with design plans and documentation.

More than anything though, we felt that purchasing a U.S.-manufactured brew system fit with our ethos. Sure, we could have saved some money buying equipment from overseas. But money is only part of our calculus, and we’re happy to say that we are supporting another small business here in the Midwest.

What about fermentation capacity?

A keen reader will note that I didn’t list any fermentation vessels on the purchase list from SysTech. I’m sure that their shiny stainless FVs would have been great, but at Oakhold we will focus on oak fermentation and aging (hence the name…creative folks, us).

Over our years of homebrewing and my current stint at Fair State, we’ve learned that oak aging is the easiest way to achieve the flavor profiles that we’re after. Great sour and funky beer can be made in stainless, but wood provides a porous environment that allows for the yeast and bacteria to take up permanent residence. In this way, previously inoculated barrels serve as a perfect fermentation and aging vessel for repeated use. Repeated use of barrels and cultures adapts the organisms used to their environment and builds up larger cell densities, resulting in beer achieving the desired acidity levels and flavor profiles in a shorter amount of time.

The ability to decrease turn times is incredibly important for a brewery specializing in mixed-culture beers, and is a key reason why we have worked so hard over the past five years establishing and characterizing our mixed cultures and individual isolates (More on that in another entry!). We’ve also had the opportunity to inoculate barrels that will be used as “seed” cultures for the first barrel fills at Oakhold to ensure we have enough Brettanomyces, Lactobacillus, and Pediococcus to go around.

The barrels used at Oakhold will primarily be sourced from California wineries, but we are very interested in working with coopers for larger format fermentation vessels down the line (think puncheons and foudres), as well as using Minnesota oak in the cellar. Because Levi and I both love to drink Saison Dupont (especially the dry-hopped version), we’ll have some small amount of stainless steel in our cellar, but we look forward to staying true to our namesake for the majority of our beers. But don’t expect to find us with brand new conical vessels with fancy dimpled glycol jackets, shadow-less manways, and a couple thermowells. Instead, we’ve been collecting used dairy tanks to be used with free-rise saisons in order to coax out the traditional fermentation profile we so enjoy.

A mix of old and new

Five years from now, when I walk to work past our well, the flower gardens planted by my wife and close friends, and numerous fruit trees whose produce will find its way into our beers, I expect to be greeted by a brewery that is uniquely my own. A fancy flexible impeller pump will transfer beer from the kinds of oak barrels brewers have been using for generations. A smartphone-controlled electric brew system will fill dented old dairy tanks with sweet wort. A tricked-out microbiology lab will take shape from castoff equipment from the 50s and 60s.

Every brewery is unique, and we’re looking forward to sharing what this one will do. It’s going to be a lot of fun.

Cheers,
Caleb Levar (Chief feeder of microbes at Oakhold Farmhouse Brewery)

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