So, Wot’s… Uh, the Deal?

Obviously, I haven’t been writing.  Haven’t been brewing, really, either.  Three or four batches in the last year, which is pretty much an all-time low since I started all-grain brewing.

What happened?  As Raoul Duke said, “What’s the score here?  What’s next?”Fear-and-Loathing-in-Las-Vegas

 

*sigh*

I spent much of the summer of 2013 researching what was needed to start a brewery.  I’ll spare you the gory details, or I would if I hadn’t already written them, but the basic answer was obvious:  Money.  More specifically, money I didn’t have.

There are varying levels of investment for various levels of expectation.  I could start a brewery out of the garage for a relatively small investment of time and a few modifications.  My intent, though, was to create a new job for myself, and virtually no one is supporting themselves out of a garage brewery.  Income minus expenses would equal bankruptcy and loss of the brewery.

A real, income-producing brewery involves a much larger scale that I could not afford.  I had no industry experience to bargain with, or borrow against, as it were.  No one was lined up to invest, and even if they were, it would be difficult for me to relinquish any sort of control over the business.

The same was true for the taproom idea.  Leases, build-outs, employees, little cash, and no real experience to work with were not a winning combination.

The real deal breaker, though, was that over the months I had ceased to be income-positive.

So I went back to work.  Having a generalized IT background and years of experience means I can still get a job around here, in most cases, pretty quickly.  As it worked out, I found one within a couple of weeks and am still working there, this time as a supervisor.  Managing a team of six is a great opportunity, and the experience gained should help me when I revisit the brewery and taproom idea a few years down the road.

I’m eager to get back to brewing more regularly.  I brewed a stout and brown ale on back-to-back weekends and it was fun to get back to basics.  I only brewed five gallons, didn’t use the Tower of Power for anything but the hot liquor, and relied entirely on gravity to move the fluids around.  Hit all of my marks on the stout, but flubbed the brown a little.  Nothing fatal, but too hoppy.

Proximity to my LHBS has had an impact on me.  My previous job was less than five minutes from Larry’s.  Now I work a good bit further away, and Larry’s isn’t really on my way to anywhere, so I’m less likely to go.  I need to get over my aversion to ordering ingredients online.

bee and borageAt any rate, this site will probably be changing over the coming months.  I’m spending  time on other projects, like Madera Verde Garden, and I’d like to showcase some of that work (most of which is my wife’s).  I still enjoy writing, and I’m looking forward to presenting some topics for which I have a passion equal to brewing.

In the meantime, support another local brewery, and cheers!

Perfection in Five

I’ve been slowly progressing through what I call my “Perfection in Five” series. I haven’t been brewing the same recipes often enough to really dial them in.  By that I mean I haven’t defined a repeatable recipe and process.  Perfection in Five challenges me to produce one perfected recipe within five brewing sessions.

For years I’ve been brewing 10 gallon batches per session.  As I’m sure I’ve said before, it takes the same amount of time to brew five gallons as it does 10, so why not brew 10?  If I make a good beer, I want to drink it and I want other people to try it, so it works out well.  But if I don’t think the beer is good… well… it sticks around too long and becomes a burden.  Since Perfection in Five is an experiment that was meant to be completed quickly, I didn’t want a bunch of beer hanging around, so I decided that five gallon batches made the most sense.

Except I disposed of all of my “small batch” equipment when making room for my new equipment.

I’ve invested in a system where even a 10 gallon batch is small, so trying to produce five gallons really is asking too much.  I understand now that I want the option to scale back, so I decided to buy an industrial 10 gallon Igloo cooler for a mash tun.  This cooler is designed to keep water cold for a few days at a time, which tickles my fancy for mashing in a near-freezing garage.  My assumption is that it will do just as good of a job insulating a hot mash as it would a cold drink.  Yes, temperature control is a fetish.

I wanted another control for this experiment to be the ingredients, so I put together the recipe and calculated how much of everything I would need to produce five 5-gallon batches.  I gathered up enough grain and hops so that every run of my experiment would use the same batches of those ingredients.  Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough yeast available at my LHBS, so the control is slightly less controlled in that I will be using two different batches of the same yeast.

This is going to be fun for me, and it’s a great time of year to brew the German pils style I’m trying to duplicate with this recipe.

Where to Begin?

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been particularly focused on my business.  Recently, I made the decision to change course, and because that means starting the “start-up” process over again, I thought I’d make a better effort at blogging about what I’m doing.

Maze

This is what starting a business can look like from a high level.

When I first met with them, the Small Business Assistance Center provided me with a basic map for the start-up process.  From a very high level they break it down into nine stages:  1) Concept, 2) Research, 3) Planning, 4) Protection, 5) Funding, 6) Start Up, 7) First Mile, 8) Growth, 9) Profit!

The first step, your concept, should be the easy part because all you have to do is conceptualize what you want.  Presumably, you’ve already been doing that.  Until recently, I wanted to open a brewery (I still do), but today I’m envisioning a taphouse with many, many more beers than just my own.  I see two dozen taps, top-notch service staff, and a physical space that encourages customers to settle in for a couple of drinks.

It’s fun to play around in the concept stage and dream many dreams, but at some point you have to act or the dreams will go nowhere.  Once you have an idea of what you want to do, it’s time to do some research.  Kirk Davis from the SBAC says that this is a step that many new business owners overlook or don’t appreciate enough.  I was one of those.  I wanted to go from the concept stage to the planning stage to the start up stage, but it’s simply not effective to try to do that.  In my next article, I’ll talk about what kind of research I’m doing and what I’ve discovered so far.

Sea Change

aquarius-wallpaper-11778-hd-wallpapersThey say that the only constant in life is change. According to my wife, that’s doubly true for an Aquarius, which, unfortunately for her, I am.

dude question

That doesn’t look like a beer, Dude.

I’ve been thinking hard over the past few months about what I need to do with my business.  Starting a brewery is capital-intensive, which means it’s expensive.  Yes, I could brew a barrel at a time, but I wouldn’t have time to do much else.  If I want to be efficient (and profitable) then I have to buy a larger system, and that takes money, which means investors or loans, which means increased risk.  I knew this going in, but I chose to look past it.

I’ve always been concerned about how I will make money during the down time between applying for my brewer’s notice and the point when I can sell beer.  I bounced a few ideas around in my head but never came up with something that really made sense.

So my wife asked me the question, “What are you really trying to accomplish?”  Truth is, I had been asking myself that same question over and over.  The answer was much clearer in my mind than I expected:  I want to run an establishment where people want to go to drink really good beer.  Not just my beer–any good beer.  That’s different than what I’d envisioned.

I love to try new beers.  I make it a focus to try every new beer I find in a tavern or restaurant.  I know other people are like this, too, and I can’t think of a better quality in a customer.  Are you like this?  If so, I’ll make you a deal:  You keep coming in, and I’ll always have something new for you to try.

cheers

Where everybody knows your name… and only occasionally get up in your business.

I love a place where I can be comfortable by myself or when I’m with a group.  Sometimes I want to tuck myself away in a corner to read or write, sometimes I want to sit at the bar and chat with the beertender and other patrons, and sometimes I want to sit at a big table with nine of my friends and celebrate the end of the fantasy sports season.  That’s a tall order for one establishment, but that’s what I want to offer.

And I love to teach.  Sometimes to a fault.  I want to help my customers understand and appreciate beer, and that has to be a fun thing to do when you have a wall of taps behind you, through which flow some of the best beers in the world.  Or… I can take your order and piss off so you can enjoy it in peace.  Whatever works for you.

A successful tavern could pave the way to starting the brewery, especially if I can find the right location to make that easy.

The Taxman Cometh

And I’m not even talking about the looming U.S federal income tax deadline, rather, I’m talking about the 500% increase in taxes on beer production that’s been proposed by the Governor of the State of Washington, Jay Inslee

As I’ve gotten older, I gotten more cynical about government — who hasn’t, right?  But cynicism doesn’t change the reality of any situation, and I realized that I’m not doing anything to change that reality.  Today I sent a message to three representatives in our state House, Mark Hargrove, Pat Sullivan and Joe Fitzgibbon, and the text of my message is included below, if you’re interested in reading it.  Hargrove and Sullivan are the representatives for my residence and the desired location for the brewery.  Fitzgibbon appears to be a potential champion of the cause, and he’s on the House Finance Committee.

I also realize that a sternly-worded letter isn’t likely to change reality any more than cynicism is, but I am voicing my opinion to my representatives, right?  Isn’t that how it’s supposed to work?

This tax increase is an extremely hot topic in the WA brewing industry right now, as you might imagine.  The potential economic impact to small brewers is, from my perspective, staggering.  Let’s take a look.

You know what?  Let’s not.  You should, though.  Washington Beer Blog did it better than I would, and I have other work to do.  Educate yourself, beer drinker, for the sake of all that is local beer — seriously — then talk about it with someone else and let the legislature know if you think it’s the right thing to do.

Text of my email to my representatives:

I am writing to ask that you reject any bill or proposal that will increase taxes on beer production, and that you provide vocal support to the WA Brewers Guild’s request to exempt microbreweries from the permanent $23.58 per barrel tax proposed by Gov. Inslee.

I am in the process of starting a brewery in the city of Auburn.  My residence and my desired location both lie within your jurisdiction.  Having just been laid off my from job at <some local company>, I have an incredible opportunity to focus on starting a business that will source its raw ingredients from Washington agricultural producers, and will provide jobs to local residents, tax income to the city and state, and fantastically good beer to the residents of the city I’ve lived in for over 26 years.  This proposed tax increase puts my dream at risk at a time when I can little afford to see more money go out the door.

The mass producers of beer have already been paying this tax, but the small producers have not.  This exemption has not given the small brewers any real competitive edge against the big boys, who have tremendous economy of scale, but it has allowed the small brewers to retain more of their earnings, and virtually all of them have invested those earnings back into their businesses in the form of equipment, real estate and labor (jobs!).  An $18.80 increase on each barrel of beer is a HUGE increase in costs to these small businesses — well over 5% on every keg they ship out the door.

I applaud the directive to properly fund the education system in Washington, but I’m asking that you don’t do it at the expense of one of America’s fastest growing industries.  Because all of the new breweries in Washington are “microbreweries”, this change in policy will affect EVERY SINGLE NEW BREWERY in the state.  Washington’s beer products are widely-known, but we have a long way to go to compete with states like Oregon and Colorado.  I feel strongly that Washington, the largest producer of hops in the world and among the country’s leaders in barley production, has perhaps the greatest potential of any state to provide world-renowned beers that could be household names like Microsoft, Amazon and Boeing have become.  If you allow Gov. Inslee’s proposal to to move forward in its current form, you will dilute that potential.

Today I happen to be working on outlining my production costs.  These numbers will determine my fate with investors and creditors, and ultimately will decide if I can afford to start this business.  Right now the spreadsheet says that state taxes will cost me $4.78 per barrel, and the totals look okay.  When I type $23.58 into that field, the numbers change — and so do my chances of success.

Plans, Vol. 1

Despite my lack of posts, I’ve been keeping an eye on the site traffic and recognize I have a lot of work to do.  I intend to break up a few of my earlier Blichmann posts to provide more thorough reviews and better pictures.  I also have a few reviews I haven’t started yet.

I find myself with more time on my hands than I expected to have right now, so I’ll be out in the garden making improvements and documenting that work.  Next week I’ll be picking up the butchered hog I purchased this year and will be making prosciutto and country ham with it, plus sausage, bacon, pulled-pork, ribs and so much more!

Plus, I have more than a handful of brewing recipes I want to work on, so you’ll see a bit about those in the coming weeks, too!

Beerban? Kanbeer? What?

In my office I have a large whiteboard that’s drawn up with lanes that correspond to various steps in the brewing process.  The first lane is labeled “Planned”, thusly named to indicate they are beers that I plan to brew.  A sticky note with the name of the beer is placed in this lane when I decide there’s a recipe I want or need to brew.  The color of the sticky tells me whether it’s a lager, a light ale or a dark ale.

Beer kanbanThe next lane is labeled “Primary”.  I move the sticky note from the “Planned” lane to this lane after I’ve pitched the yeast into a batch.  At this stage I create a sticky note for each vessel the beer fills.  If I brewed a 10 gallon batch and split it into two carboys for fermentation, I would modify the original sticky note and create a new one.  I include the name of the beer, the date it was brewed, the OG, and the name of the vessel in which it resides.

The “Primary Fermentation” lane is divided in two with a dotted line.  On the left side are the “IP”, or In Progress beers.  These are beers that are actively fermenting.  On the right side are the “Ready” beers, which are those that are done with primary fermentation and are awaiting transfer into the next carboy, or a dump of the yeast from the bottom of  a conical.

The next lane is called “Secondary”.  It also is divided in two. I move the sticky note from the “Primary/Ready” lane to the “IP” side of this lane when a brew has been racked into a new vessel or the yeast has been purged from a conical. I also write the transfer date and gravity onto the sticky.  When the beer is done with secondary and is ready to be kegged or carbonated the sticky is moved into the “Ready” side of the lane.

The next is called “Finish”, and it is split into two lanes called “Crash” and “Carbonate”.  If I feel I need to crash a beer before racking it into a new keg I will move the sticky into this single lane.  If I am just going to carbonate it before putting it on tap, I put the sticky in the other lane.

Finally, I have a lane called “Kegged” and it, too, is split into two lanes, one for Bottling and one for Serving.  If a keg is tapped, I’m “Serving” it.  If a keg is going to be bottled, guess where that sticky goes?

This methodology is called Kanban, and it is a system for metering and tracking work and resources.  It was originally embraced by Japansese manufacturers, and it works well when you have a limited number resources.  The concept is that the tickets are “pulled” from one column to the next only when a resource is available to do the work.  It helps in maintaining reasonable workloads and identifying bottlenecks in the work flow.

For me and the brewery, it helps keep track of what is going on.  It’s wonderful to be able to see at a glance where my beers are at in their process and to know where I might run up against a limitation.

Blichmann Therminator and Thrumometer

The Blichmann Therminator was the second investment I made in a Blichmann product, but I’d say it was the most valuable and revolutionary for my brewing process.  For years I used an immersion chiller, and for many of those the chiller was undersized for the 10 gallon batches I was brewing.  The difference was mind-blowing.  I’ll say this:  If you only buy one fancy-schmancy brewing gadget for yourself, make this the one.

The Therminator is a plate chiller.  Cold water circulates across one side of the plates and the hot wort counter-flows across the other side of the plates.  The result is a very effective heat exchanger that can easily cool 11 gallons of hot wort down to 68 degrees F in less than ten minutes and can leave you with all the hot water you need for cleaning up.

When I bought mine, I didn’t choose to include the optional connection accessories, but if I had to do it again I would.  The Blichmann Quick Connectors, which I discussed in another post, are awesome for connecting hoses from the boil kettle to the chiller, and from the chiller to the fermenter.  I’ve never used the back-flush adapter, but I’m not really sure how useful it is.  The spray nozzle on my garden hose fits right over the wort in/out ports, so I just hose it out a few times in each direction, drain it, and store it for the next use.

A regular garden hose will easily connect to the water flowing out of the chiller, but for the flow in it wasn’t as commonsensical.  I went to the local hardware store and bought an adapter that has a female garden hose connection on both sides, each able to rotate independently of the other.  I tighten it on to the chiller first, then connect the hose coming from hose bib in the garage.  If the hot wort is flowing through the chiller at a good clip, you’ll get some extremely hot water that I collect for soaking and rinsing parts and tubes.

I live in an area where the ground water temperature averages about 56 degrees F over the course of the year, which contributes to the efficiency of my system.  The Therminator is so efficient, however, that anyone will benefit. There are relatively easy ways to augment the chilling process to get down to your target, even in places where ground water is much higher in temperature.

You can sanitize the Therminator in one of two ways: Use a sanitizing solution such as StarSan, or boil it in a pot of water.  Originally I soaked mine in StarSan or pumped StarSan through it, but I read somewhere that acid solutions will erode the metals over time.  Accurate or not, that seems reasonable to me, so I’ve gone to boiling The Therminator for at least 15 minutes in my original (now spare) five-gallon boil kettle.  It costs a bit in propane, but I think it will help extend the life of the Therminator.

I used the chiller with a gravity feed for a dozen or so batches and it worked wonderfully.  Because the flow rate drops as the boil kettle drains, I had to regularly alter the cold water flow to maintain the temperature going into the fermenter, but that was really the only drawback.  I will say, though, I really appreciate how a pump accelerates the process and allows me to ignore the cold water flow.

I use whole hops almost exclusively, and in a few situations I’ve had large hop chunks wedge themselves in the chiller, restricting the flow.  Most have come out by “blowing it out” using a garden hose with a trigger nozzle.  There has only been one time where nothing I tried cleared the blockage, including a half-assed attempt to use my air compressor.  Eventually I decided to boil it like I was sanitizing it.  As the water started to boil, the hop plug blew out (not violently, but be careful if you try this!) and I was once again able to run liquids through it.

The Blichmann Thrumometer is a very straightforward product: A solid tube of aluminum with an embedded liquid crystal thermometer.  As wort flows through the tube, the thermometer changes color quickly relative to the temperature of the flow.  A 3/8 inch tube fits nicely over each end, with or without clamps.  It came as a surprise to me that Blichmann offers only this one small bore, but it in retrospect it really hasn’t been an issue.

To sanitize, I soak mine in a StarSan solution for at least five minutes.  I’ve dedicated tubing to the Thrumometer, so I just run the lot into a bucket of sanitizer right before flame out and it’s ready when it’s time to chill.  One end of the tubing connects to a Blichmann 3/8 in. 90 degree connector screwed on to “wort out” of The Therminator, and the other end goes into the fermenter.

The Therminator and Thrumometer are solid investments.  I expect that I’ll have to replace the Thrumometer in time, but it’s already lasted a couple of years and made filling the fermenter much easier.  The Therminator has unquestionably saved me countless hours of time and gallons of water.  I can’t think of a better combination for making a brew day more efficient.

Blichmann Quick Connectors, Auto Sparge and Hop Blocker

I know–it looks like this blog is really just a front for Blichmann Engineering’s PR department, but that’s certainly not the case. I’m writing about the things I’m doing right now, and what I’m doing happens to revolve around Blichmann equipment.  I bought a lot of it recently, and I’m still working through the kinks.

In my previous post, I went over my experiences with the Tower of Power.  I specifically didn’t mention the other Blichmann products that I was using because I wanted to talk about them separately.  The Quick Connectors, Auto Sparge, and Hop Blocker are under review today.

Blichmann Quickconnect Washer

There’s nothing particularly complicated about the Quick Connectors.  Each connector comes with the “nut”, which is a standard 1/2″ female NPT connection.  The outside of the nut, however, is rubberized and ridged, making them comfortable to handle even when hot.  No tools are required to screw them on or off–hand tightening is sufficient.  To keep the connections leak-free, there is a rubber o-ring, or washer, on the inside of the nut.  One of the best benefits of thisdesign, in my opinion, is that it has eliminated my need for teflon tape.  No more scraping off the old crap for cleaning!

The rest of the connector is also stainless.  1/2″ and 3/8″ straight hose barbs, 90-degree elbow options, and a 3/8″ male NPT flare are all available.  I bought a half-dozen of the 1/2″ hose barbs and one of the 3/8″ flares.  Prior to this purchase, I had been using connectors bought from the local hardware store.  They did their job, but they required tools, teflon tape, and were made out of brass, none of which were ideal.

The difference was immediately noticeable: The Quick Connectors can be permanently attached to their hoses because they allow the nut to rotate independently of the hose barb.  The whole kit and caboodle can go into the sanitizing solution without having to fish the connectors off the bottom of the bucket or sanitize them in a different container.

The 3/8″ flare is a huge bonus for beer line cleaning.  I can quickly attach the connector to the pump (did I mention without teflon tape?) and equally quickly attach my beer lines for their 15 minute BLC bath.

The Auto Sparge is the Blichmann answer for simplified sparging.  It mounts to the mash tun through a hole drilled just under the rim of the vessel.  A 1/2″ male NPT connection on the outside of the mash tun allows you to connect the hot liquor tank and/or a recirculation from the mash (see my post about the Tower of Power).  On the inside of the mash tun there is a large adjustable float and a silicon outlet tube that runs through another, smaller float.

The large float is fundamentally the same thing as what you find in your toilet tank–it’s a hollow plastic ball attached to a stainless rod and a brass valve.  When the float comes up, the flow from the outside is restricted.  When it comes down, the flow increases.  Used in conjunction with a flow meter, the Auto Sparge can make the sparging process almost completely touchless, as the flow into the mash tun will automatically match the flow going out.

One complaint about this design is that, when combined with the location of the hole it’s mounted to, there are limitations to how low the volume of the mash can be before the Auto Sparge isn’t effective or efficient anymore.  The issue might be mitigated by a longer stainless rod, but I haven’t yet tried that.

The outlet tube has not worked ideally for me, but I’ve been using a 20 gallon mash tun to brew 11 gallon batches of beer.  With a 15 gallon mash tun, it might work perfectly.  As I’ve used it, the flow tends to be too fast and forceful to leave the top of the grain bed undisturbed.  It creates a crater and a tight recirculation flow that doesn’t really disburse the heated liquid efficiently.  I found myself tending to the top of the grain bed to encourage the flow to be more consistent throughout.  Also, the outlet tube has gotten clogged where it’s constricted by the small float that keeps it on top of the grain bed.

The Hop Blocker is not my favorite piece of equipment, but I’ve been using it regularly.  It looks something like a large tin can with large holes drilled into it from the midline-up, and smaller holes from the midline-down.  It also has a stainless steel “wrap” that can slide up and down the unit via a hook that’s exposed as the kettle drains.

Blichmann says the Hop Blocker is made for filtering pellet hops, and its performance is largely dependent upon whirlpooling to isolate hop material and trub in the center of the kettle before you start the runoff.  As the liquid level in the kettle goes down, you slide the wrap up, exposing the smaller holes at the bottom.  I don’t typically use pellets, but when I do I use a filter bag, so this purchase was not necessarily a logical one for me.  My hope was that it would work even better with whole hops, but that hasn’t been the case.

Over the course of a couple of brewing sessions, in addition to the Hop Blocker, I’ve gone back to stuffing a copper or stainless mesh, like a pot scrubber, under the drain tube as a pre-filter.  This method has proven to keep out most of the larger hop material without having to use a full false bottom.

One of the things I like about Blichmann is that they make equipment that is obviously designed for a specific purpose.  They’ve put thought into their designs, whose form follows their function.  I haven’t even mentioned their ball valves, which are stainless and can be fully disassembled for thorough cleaning.  I had no idea how gunky a ball valve could get until I took one apart after a few uses.