Mario Criveller commands the room as the Lakes & Legend Brewing crew sets up the brite tank in their soon-to-open downtown Minneapolis brewery. Head brewer Andrew Dimery adjusts pipes and monitors conditions as they test the pieces of equipment that makeup their brewhouse. Steam pours out sporadically.
Dimery, who has worked in production breweries before, is hands-on, but this is Criveller’s turf today and his presence in the room is felt. “I think he’s the best-dressed brewer I’ve seen,” says Ethan Applen, one of Lakes & Legend’s founders. Criveller’s lack of rubber boots and flannel is a sign that, while experienced with the brewing process, he is of another trade entirely.
Mario and his brother Bruno’s company, Criveller Group, has been manufacturing brewing systems since the late 1970s, through the 1990s bubble and on into the 2000s boom. He’s seen many a brewery through the trying gestation period that comes in the months before opening, and this situation is no different. Dimery is tired of the pilot system he’s been using to test recipes. Everybody in the room is ready to move forward and begin using their main 15-barrel system.
This progression is typical of the path many professional brewers take—from a homebrew setup in their garage, to a more refined pilot system, to a commercial-scale brewhouse. While most people are familiar with this story and that of craft beer’s explosion in popularity on a global scale, little attention is paid to the manufacturing side of things, which has also seen significant growth. Beer isn’t just barley, hops, water, and yeast. It’s also stainless steel, valves, vents, hoses, and drains—a maze of plumbing and electrical work that lays the foundation for any successful brewery before the first beer is ever brewed.
“Technology in the beer industry didn’t really change,” Criveller says. Improvements have come along, sure, but the philosophical process is still mostly the same. What has changed since the ’70s is the marketplace. Previously, microbreweries didn’t have the market share, Criveller says, so they had to focus primarily on finding an audience. Today’s start-ups, on the other hand, already have a core audience in place and are therefore able to concentrate more on things like the mechanics and efficiencies of their brewhouses.
That new reality, paired with the sheer quantity of breweries popping up everywhere, has been a boon for Criveller Group. They’ve built around 40 breweries in the last three years, working all over the world, from Ecuador to Italy. At one time Criveller even had their own brewery, the Niagara Falls Brewing Company (now owned by Moosehead), to use as an educational tool. But they were first and foremost a manufacturing business, so when Moosehead made them an offer they opted to return to their roots.
Those years spent on the production side of brewing proved fruitful, as Criveller Group gained the knowledge needed to increase their success in the manufacturing industry. In brewing, Criveller says, it’s not the technology, scale, or budget that sets a brewery apart: it’s the nuance of the building and the brewers’ styles.
“The big difference from one brewery to another is exactly the type of beer they want,” Criveller explains. “Before we talk about the equipment, we talk about the beer.” For this reason, it’s essential to collaborate with the brewer; different styles have different needs. “They [Lakes & Legends] want to make 16 different beers inside the same space,” he says, “from a very light beer with 3% ABV all the way up to 11 to 12%.” This is a real challenge, he adds, but he and the brewers can typically meet in the middle. Ultimately, the decision falls to the brewery.
Once a brewery’s needs are identified, it’s up to a team of technicians and contractors to set up the equipment correctly. Finding the right technicians and contractors, says Paul McDonald, who spent 18 years at Diversified Metal Engineering (DME), is key to success. “All electricians have the same training but not all electricians have worked in breweries.” Components are not universal across the board, he explains. With that in mind, it’s easy to see how invaluable it is to have a person like Mario Criveller present during these final stages, and these sort of in-person visits by manufacturers have more or less become the standard across the industry.
When Fulton Brewing completed the build-out of their new Northeast Minneapolis production brewery, a representatives from their manufacturer, Esau & Hueber, came for an in-house walk-through.
Bad Weather Brewing, who opened their taproom and production brewery in St. Paul last month, participated in a 4-day walk-through with American Beer Equipment (ABE) out of Lincoln, Nebraska. With a technician on hand, they ran water through the brewhouse and carefully simulated the entire process before a single grain ever touched the kettle.
Even with the careful collaboration between brewers and manufacturers, equipment failure and malfunctions are a part of life. At Bad Weather, it was a chiller issue that made head brewer Andy Ruhland’s first brew day move at glacial pace. Instead of 30 minutes, it took more than three hours to complete the crucial step of chilling the wort after the boil on his first batch. But hiccups are expected, Ruhland says, and a technician was able to resolve the issue. (A double brew day following this roadblock made up for some of the lost time.)
Fulton had a similar learning curve on their new high-tech gear. Trying to coordinate mechanical set-up with computer programming proved to be a challenge: once, after everything was set up, they lost an entire program setting due to a power outage. “It’s something we have to work with,” says Fulton head brewer Mikey Salo. So, too, is the seven-hour time difference between Minneapolis and Germany, where Esau & Hueber is based, which comes into play when questions arise.
It doesn’t always feel like it to the consumer, but the journey beer takes before hitting a glass is a mechanical epic, as much as it is an agricultural one. It takes constant communication between brewer and builder to get each batch from fermenter to keg and maintain consistency once everything’s dialed in.