Basic principles of brewing do not change with scale, so take comfort in this familiarity. Barley is crushed in a mill, usually on-site, and fed into the mash tun via flex auger or chain disc conveyor. Another flip of the switch. A grist hydrator is a common addition, designed to improve hydration of starch and regulate temperature fluctuations during mash in. A few basic hand valves meter this on non-automated systems. Once mashed, mixing from mechanical rakes replaces hand stirring. VFD offers fine speed control and Cadillac options might include lifting rakes. Conversion of starch requires the same time, regardless of batch size, so rest as each recipe requires. For faster results, consider adding supplemental enzymes!
Lautering represents a balance between mash and kettle, both figuratively and literally. Whether the process takes place in a separate lauter tun, or in a combined mash/lauter vessel, the objective is to collect sweet wort efficiently. Sparge water should be added at a rate matching wort collection. This results in a low differential pressure across the lauter bed, increasing flow-through. Running the bed dry, flowing too fast, or compounding excessive sparge water can all lead to bed compaction and a decrease in permeability. Wide and shallow lauters will aid in efficiency, but try to keep the bed at least 12 inches deep for particulate filtration.
Many lauter vessels feed the kettle via gravity, and a simple hand valve is responsible for flow control. Take care to avoid fully opening the mash outlet as it can slam particulate into the drain pipe, blocking the flow. Instead, slowly crack the valve and look through a sight glass or into the kettle/wort grant to check for a metered rate of flow. Adjust as necessary to achieve a collection time of 60-90 minutes for most brews.
Commercial brew kettles are much better than an outdoor burner. Steam fired options can be metered by hand valves to control the boil. In the event wort begins to boil up, full shut-off can be achieved instantly. Direct-fire options do not offer as much precision, but ultimately achieve a similar response with the flip of a switch. Optional on these systems, and practically standard on electric versions, a PID or Temperature Controller can be incorporated to hold a precise temperature. This automatically starts and stops heating within a preset band.
Heat exchangers are almost exclusively of the plate and frame design, with the ability to be disassembled and cleaned when necessary. Counter flowing cold liquor and hot wort creates the appropriate temperature on the way to the fermentation vessel. Controlling the VFD of the wort pump and restricting the outflow of the cold liquor can reach a reasonable balance between water usage and temperature exchange.
A step up from sight tubes, flow meters are a great way to track volumes of bulk liquids. Often measurements can be switched between volumetric measurements (gallons, liters, etc), providing easy reference for calculations. In addition to a total volume ticker, rate of flow is usually displayed in an easy-to-read format. This is especially useful in matching sparge and kettle run rates. Overall, dialing in water usage will ensure the maximum extraction is achieved.
Fermentation vessels are often conical, with the ability to collect yeast for re-use. There may be one or more “jackets”, dimpled or wrapped shells, that flow cooled glycol liquid around the tanks. These regulate the temperature of the active wort, and ultimately cool the wort to drop yeast and/or carbonate the liquid. Most modern fermenters are pressure rated vessels, but always verify a proper working pressure and vacuum relief valve is installed. Temperature changes alone can create pressure and vacuum changes inside the vessel capable of destruction or injury.
Advanced equipment such as mash filters, flash pasteurizers, or a centrifuge from Andritz are worries for down the road. Fortunately for introductory brewers Sankey kegs are quite simple. Learning to clean and fill them is often a first task, with plenty of practice to be had. Although monotonous, it should not be construed as insignificant. Spectacular beer can be ruined by an inadequate keg. This is the first and best opportunity to enforce strict quality standards. Upon utter domination of this activity, a green operator may be advanced to more intellectual roles.
Above all else, continuous education is key. Any person who dedicates time and energy into the brewing field can find a uniquely rewarding position. From laboratory operations to packaging detail, talents from all areas are needed to fuel the next generation of great beer!
After several years of providing hazardous materials training and maintenance for the world's largest brewing facility, JD began home brewing countless varieties of craft beer. Some early success and a detour with industrial scientific research engaged his interests in industrial equipment and complex science, while working at a liquid yeast supplier pointed him specifically towards enzymes. Currently heading Bircus Brewing Company in Ludlow, KY, JD blends contemporary flavors with traditional science and innovative techniques. With over a decade of operational brewing and independent contracting experience across 5 time zones, he has amassed a plethora of knowledge to share with fellow brewers.