Equipment

Batch 100!

Yet another new beer! On Wednesday we'll be tapping Batch 100 Imperial Oatmeal Porter with Vanilla Beans (9.8% ABV). This was one of our easier naming sessions, as you can imagine. The beer was brewed on our 5 barrel pilot system with a helping hand from our 30 barrel big boy brewing system. Earlier in the year, Jonathan quickly figured out that brewing high-ABV beers on the 5 barrel system was tough due to the size of the mash/lauter tun. The amount of grain needed to produce enough sugar for the yeast (in the case of Batch 100, 950+ pounds) required at least two separate mashes, which was adding an additional 3-4 hours to the overall brew day.

The solution has turned out to be using the 30 barrel mash/lauter tun for the first step of the brewing process. The grain is milled as normal and then transferred to the 30 barrel mash/lauter tun through an auger pipe. Once the mashing and lautering process is complete, the wort is then transferred to the 5 barrel kettle for boiling. The Batch 100 recipe calls for 4 specialty malts and flaked oats in addition to the base malt that we use in the majority of our beers. Chocolate malt is one of the speciality malts - it provides most of the color and a lot of the classic Porter flavor you will taste in the beer.

When fermentation was almost complete, Jonathan prepared 41 Madagascar Vanilla Beans and dropped them into the fermentation vessel. Why 41 beans? Because we can only purchase them in quantities of 16 or 25! After 3 days of conditioning, the rich vanilla flavors we were hoping for were evident and the beans were removed. From there, the beer was cold conditioned, carbonated, and packaged into kegs. Now it's ready for the taproom! 

The first mash in at The Virginia Beer Company (which was Single Hop Sessions - Mosaic) took place on January 24, 2016. Those of you who have been with us since the beginning will probably remember that opening day beer! Batch 100 was brewed on December 21, 2016. One hundred batches in 333 days - not too shabby for our first calendar year. All told, we brewed 57 unique beers in 2016. Five of those beers are still biding their time in various barrels, waiting for a 2017 release. That is a new beer for the taproom about every seven days or so following the opening day lineup we had available on March 26, 2016! Besides our four year-round beers, there were only five beers that were brewed twice (Citra Pale Ale, Deadbolt Double IPA, Saison Tournante - Rye & Amarillo, Green's View IPA, and Rob Your Head Imperial Red). Others may return in the future...we're excited to share those old friends as well as many, many new beers in 2017!

Roll Out The Barrels!

On a daily basis we're reminded of how challenging it is to open a complex manufacturing operation like a brewery. There are a million pieces to the puzzle; we've completed the border and are slowly making headway as we try to fill in the rest. Given that we've ordered the bulk of our brewing equipment, submitted a site plan, and are close to completing our building plans, we've now moved on to other pieces of equipment that are equally as important but require less lead time.

A beautiful sight, especially when full of VBC's finest #BurgBeer.
A beautiful sight, especially when full of VBC's finest #BurgBeer.

One of those items is our keg float. The beer we produce will only be as good as the container from which it is served! While kegs may seem relatively minor in terms of the entire brewing process, they are a major expense for a brewery and can become a bottleneck for production if there aren't enough available. Cleaning kegs is a repetitive, thankless job the best job in the world, is anyone interested?

Understanding the lifecycle of a keg is important before considering how to procure them. Kegs arrive at a brewery and are then cleaned and sanitized according to the brewery's procedures. The keg is filled with finished beer and then transported a wholesaler's warehouse. From there the wholesaler delivers the keg to a retailer upon order. The wholesaler returns to the retailer to pickup the empty keg once it has been served. The empty keg then returns to the wholesaler's warehouse and is eventually returned to the brewery. 

This process can be quick (2 weeks or so) but is generally between 4-6 weeks. Retailers will sometimes hold onto a keg for a long period of time before serving the beer. Basically, breweries have no idea when their kegs will be returned! Another issue to consider is keg loss. This can happen due to simple misplacement of kegs, wholesalers returning kegs to the wrong brewery, or somebody stealing kegs and scrapping them for cash. The Brewers Association calculates that keg loss costs every brewery between $0.46 and $1.37 per-barrel of annual keg production. That really adds up over time! 

Standard keg dimensions and volumes. VBC will be using 1/6 Barrel and 1/2 Barrel kegs.
Standard keg dimensions and volumes. VBC will be using 1/6 Barrel and 1/2 Barrel kegs.

There are a few options when it comes to procuring kegs. One is to simply purchase new kegs from well-known manufacturers like Franke or Schaefer, or from companies that resell kegs from China and other places. There are some used kegs available for purchase as well, but prices are generally high (everybody is looking for kegs!) and you never know how well the kegs have been treated/cleaned over time.

One of the industries that has benefited most from the enormous growth of craft beer is the keg leasing industry. There are multiple companies (like Keg Credit, Keg Logistics, and Atlas Keg) that offer daily lease rates for new kegs. Most offer either set term leases or lease-to-own programs that include a purchase option after a certain period. Some companies, like Microstar Keg Management, go even further and integrate the logistics of the packaging process into the keg lease. Microstar provides breweries with as many kegs as they want from a pooled set of kegs, and once those kegs are filled and shipped to a wholesaler the tracking and return is completely handled by Microstar.

Every brewery handles their keg needs differently depending on a multitude of factors. We are currently considering each of the options laid out here and are planning to make a decision within the next month or so. At least we get to put together another spreadsheet to help evaluate our options! It's like we never left the world of finance. But it's better to be evaluating kegs instead of hedge fund performance!

Brewery Equipment Ordered!

With all the small batch pilot brewing I’ve been doing (with a little production-scale collaboration on the side), I’ve just been dreaming about the day I get to brew on a production scale again, and we are now one step closer to that happening as we put in our down payment for the brewhouse and tanks earlier this week!

After working with a few different equipment suppliers to design our equipment, we have settled on DME Brewing Solutions. They make top of the line brewing equipment and have been incredible partners in designing our future brewhouses (that’s right, brewhouses, plural) and tanks.

DME.jpg

We are going to have two separate brewing systems, one which will cast out 30 barrel batches (930 gallons) for year-round and seasonal series, and a smaller 5 barrel brewhouse for one-off taproom releases, recipe development and limited release wild ales. Having these two different systems is really integral to what we’re trying to do at VBC. We want to be a packaging production brewery, but at the same time, embrace the taproom experience for our customers by providing an ever-changing tap list.

Coming from my more regimented production brewing background, I couldn’t be more excited for the creative freedom that the 5bbl system will allow for, while still having the capability to crank out relatively large batches of year-round and seasonal beers. It’s the creative freedom of a brewpub within a larger production brewery- the best of both worlds for a brewer and beer lovers!

As for our tank farm, we’ll be starting with four 60bbl fermentation vessels and four 5bbl fermentation vessels as well. At max throughput, which we probably won’t reach in the first year, that’s over 6,000 bbls/year of production with just our first round of tanks...and there’s plenty of room to add more capacity!

Installing two breweries in the same facility is not without it’s challenges, though. It makes for much more complex pipework, infrastructure and other engineering concerns in order to allow us to utilize some of the larger brewhouse’s support equipment, such as liquor tanks and grain handling, for the smaller brewhouse. We have a solid plan in place for how the process should flow, but it’s definitely more complex than your average start-up brewery or brewpub system. It should be a fun challenge and definitely worth the effort and expense for the wide variety of beers that having two systems will allow us to produce.

With our building and equipment set, here’s to BIG batches and taproom exclusive beers!