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Automation, Technology & The Romance of Craft Brewing

Automation, Technology & The Romance of Craft Brewing

There was barely a bar stool available at Fishtown’s all-local, all-draft beer haven Johnny Brenda’s, when I ducked in one Saturday night in late October. I spotted co-owner William Reed at a first-floor table beneath the stairs, weaved my way through the crowd and slid into a booth across from him and his pint-sipping pals. After a few sips of my own, I was feeling bold enough to launch into an excited description of the automated system I’d recently seen at Odell Brewing.

I’d had the chance to visit Odell during my trip to the 2013 Great American Beer Festival, and the newly renovated Fort Collins brewhouse had left an impression. Gleaming brew kettles suspended beneath rough-hewn rafters made a gorgeous juxtaposition, but what really caught my attention was a trio of computer monitors. On a desk at the side of the room, three side-by-side screens displayed a visual representation of the entire brewery. Next to schematic representations of each vessel, pipe, and valve were numbers flickering with up-to-the-minute measurements taken in real time.

As I listened to one of the Colorado brewmasters chat with Ed Yashinsky, the Tröegs brewery manager who’d arranged the visit and let me tag along, the scope of the computer system began to dawn on me. From that perch, a single person could oversee the entire brewing process. And not only monitor the process, but also control it with unprecedented exactitude.

With a click of the mouse to get things going, a brewer could sit back, relax and watch beermaking happen. From milling through mashing, lautering through fermenting, things would advance according to a pre-set program. At any step of the way, the computer could make adjustments—if the mash appeared too cloudy, for example, or fermentation temperatures rose too quickly—automatically taking corrective steps until measurements fell between a recipe’s set parameters. Instead of relying on guesswork and chance, brewers now had a precision tool to use to make great beer.

“It was amazing,” I gushed, back in Philadelphia. “It’s a whole new world for craft brewing.” I faltered as I registered the skeptical tilt of the faces surrounding me and realized my enthusiasm was not shared.

“That sounds kind of awful, to be honest,” someone finally said, and several heads nodded in agreement. “An automated computer system? That takes all the romance out of brewing. It’s barely even ‘craft’ anymore.”

An automated system. As I considered the phrase, images of Laverne and Shirley struggling to keep up with Shotz Brewery’s relentless conveyor belt popped into my head. “No, no, it’s not like that,” I began, but then I started to wonder. Did the new technology pose some kind of threat to the heart and soul of American craft brewing? Was computer automation making craft beer better…or worse?

 

AUTOMATION AT WORK

Odell’s new brewery was built by a young company in southern Germany called BrauKon and the first automated system BrauKon installed in the U.S. was at Pennsylvania’s Tröegs Brewing. When John and Chris Trogner were preparing to move their growing production line from Harrisburg to a new, larger facility in Hershey, the brothers collaborated with BrauKon founder Markus Lohner to make the new system fully automated.

“It all started because I burnt a hole in my brew kettle,” John Trogner told me during a recent walkthrough of the 90,000-square-foot Harrisburg brewery. “I really only went to Markus looking for better control over the temperature of my boil. What I got was so much more. He opened my eyes to the benefits of automation. This new system has actually allowed me to be more creative than ever.”

At every point along Tröegs’ 50-barrel brewing line, hundreds of sensors measure all possible variables—flow rate, pressure, temperature, weight, time—and relay that information back to a computer. Custom software running on a Siemens industrial PC allows brewers to set and tweak parameters for each step in the brewing process. Brewers can even dial in remotely and start mashing in from off-site, or check fermentation temperatures from the comfort of home.

Variables that range from the distance between mill rollers to the rate of flow of mash water to the angle and speed of rakes swirling around the lauter tun can all be set in advance. Once a brewer comes up with optimum settings for a brew recipe, the settings can be saved to a disk and then run over and over again. When you want to brew a particular beer, just call up its program and press go. Because a computer is controlling each step, very high consistency is within reach—it’s suddenly much easier to ensure your recipe will taste the same each time it’s produced.

 

THE CALL OF CONSISTENCY

Is the ability to exactly replicate your beer a good thing? Trogner asserts it is. “When people buy Mad Elf, they want it to taste like the Mad Elf they remember,” he explains. “Just like people have food memories, they have beer memories, too. If they can’t match that memory, they become disillusioned and might not buy the beer again.”

“At Tröegs, we love developing new and interesting flavor combinations,” he continues, adding, “Any flavor that’s in food is game. But once we come up with something great, we’re always chasing after it. With automation, it’s much easier to get close to the original—really, really close—each and every time.”

In fact, lack of consistency from bottle to bottle or batch to batch is one of the factors cited as leading to the so-called “shakeout” in the late 1990s, when the newly booming American craft beer industry experienced a major slowdown and many breweries shut down.

Victory Brewing co-founder Bill Covaleski believes dependability is crucial to a craft brewery’s success. “As much as craft brew consumers like to try different beers,” he points out, “they want their favorites to be consistent. When they crack open a Golden Monkey, they want it to taste like a Golden Monkey, not something unexpected.”

Victory has embraced automation as long as it’s been in business. Back in 1986, Covaleski’s wife wrote a DOS program that provided brewers with computer control over several factors, and the same program—running on an old 286 system—took Victory all the way from its inaugural year (1995) through its first major overhaul in 2004.

“We went from zero to 45,000 barrels on that program she banged out,” Covaleski remembers, laughing. When Victory did upgrade and install a fully automated brewhouse, it was because he and co-founder Ron Barchet wanted to maintain diversity while producing enough volume to meet demand. In order to do that, several different beers needed to be in production at any given time. Thanks to the new software control, a single brewer was able to work on at least three different beers at once.

 

ARTISANAL MANUFACTURING

Covaleski often refers to what he and colleagues in the industry do as “artisanal manufacturing.” The artisanal aspect is the creative mind that selects the ingredients, comes up with an idea for what the final product should taste like, and formulates the recipe. “Assuming you get all that right,” he says, “you want automation to assist you with the rest.”

John Trogner agrees. “Coming up with the recipe is the hardest part,” he says. The other challenge with regard to reproducibility is that the starting elements are all organic. Even well-cultivated strains of grain, hops or yeast can vary from year to year, season to season. If a brewmaster is experienced enough, they’ll still be able to come up with the same product by modifying their original recipe just slightly. The automated control makes this kind of tweaking miraculously easy.

Of course, physical machinery is still on the receiving end of any software commands, and Trogner estimates that at least once per shift a brewer walks over to double-check a valve or a switch in person. Plus, the unpredictable sometimes happens—like when a batch of Mad Elf went crazy in the fermenter and burst through the top, spilling nearly 40% of the precious Christmas ale on the floor.

Ability to troubleshoot is one reason he prefers to hire brewers who have had experience in a manual brewhouse (it’s often time spent at a brewpub). “Would someone who only knew this kind of computerized system be able to handle it if a program didn’t execute as planned? I’m not sure,” Trogner says.

 

BRAUKON BRAWN

“No matter how much or little a computer assists, the brewer deserves all the credit for a great beer,” says BrauKon’s Andreas Wagner. Wagner was project manager for the Tröegs brewery upgrade, and also oversaw the installation of similar systems at Sly Fox, Flying Fish, Susquehanna and Pittsburgh Brewing Co.

“The brewmaster is of utmost importance,” Wagner told me one December morning via Skype, his light but jagged German accent inflecting each word with gravitas. “Consider race cars. You can have the most tricked-out vehicle on the planet, but the driver still needs to know what to do with it. At BrauKon, we try to make our systems as intuitive as possible, but in the end, it all comes down to the brewmaster.”

Wagner holds a degree in beverage and brewing technology, but his high-tech credentials are infused with centuries of brewing tradition. He graduated from Weihenstephan, a division of the Technical College of Munich that was founded in 1885 as the Royal Bavarian Academy for Agriculture and Beer Brewing. Weihenstephan is also the name of the university’s associated brewery, which traces its roots back to 1040 and goes by the moniker “the oldest brewery in the world.”

BrauKon factory and offices are directly next to the university, and the R&D department draws on this deep well of beer knowledge to develop ever-more modern brew works for brewers all over the globe. World renowned German stainless steel forms the base, and sensors from widely-acclaimed Endress+Hauser make up the instrumentation.

 

SENSE AND SENSITIVITY

Sometimes, that instrumentation can be overly sensitive. Johnny Brenda’s co-owner William Reed is also a former brewer, and when we reconvened in late December to discuss beer and computers over coffee, he recalled working on a collaboration beer at Pottstown’s Sly Fox in early 2012.

It was just a few months after the installation of the new 50-barrel BrauKon brewhouse, and Sly Fox brewers were getting familiar with the system. When the specialty brew was ushered into the fermenters, alarms indicating out-ofscope temperatures started going off left and right. “You could hardly hear yourself think,” Reed remembers.

In the end, all that needed to be done to solve the problem was loosen the temperature tolerance in the base computer program. A little more leniency was needed for the specialty brew, since it was new and different from anything that had come before. So, although brewmasters like John Trogner rhapsodize about the ability to control fermentation temps by half a degree—“I can play with the ratio of black pepper, clove and banana in DreamWeaver Wheat like never before!”—precision isn’t always what craft brewers are looking for.

 

ADDITIONAL ADVANTAGES

Consistency and precision are far from the only benefits automated systems offer. Energy conservation is a big one. Victory’s huge new brewhouse is more automated than ever—“You simply can’t handcraft a 200-barrel batch of beer,” Covaleski points out, “because no person could stir it” — and it’s also more energy efficient than ever before. Vapor generated during wort boiling is condensed to create hot water used throughout the facility and computer-controlled cooling systems use less than half the energy previously needed.

Safety is another bonus. Thanks to the “clean-in-place” (CIP) maintenance systems built-in, brewers no longer have to clamber inside brew vessels to scrub them down between batches. Because electronic sensors can measure pH along with other factors, brewmasters can be assured that not only is the equipment is clean, all the cleaning agents have been completely rinsed out and aren’t lingering around to taint the next brew.

New automated packaging lines, like the one Tröegs recently installed, place bottles gently into the boxes, greatly reducing the possibility of broken glass. A camera sensor then snaps pictures of cases before they’re sealed to make sure the bottles are properly sealed and seated before shipping. That new line can turn out over two hundred 12-ounce bottles of beer each minute, and combined with new 800-barrel fermentation tanks, will help Tröegs top the 55,000
barrels sent to market in 2013.

 

GROWTH IS GOOD

In all these ways, automation is key to the growth of craft breweries. Sly Fox just crossed the 15,000-barrelsper-year mark, making it a “regional” rather than
“micro” brewery according to Brewers Association guidelines. Susquehanna Brewery is depending on the BrauKon system to take production from 5,000 barrels in its first year to 17,500 soon, to more than 100,000 by the end of the decade.

“If we don’t want to accept new craft beer consumers,” Covaleski says bluntly, “we can ditch automation.” With the automated system at Victory’s new Parkesburg facility helping keep the impressive four-byfour array of 1,000-barrel fermenters full, Victory is on track to produce a whopping 225,000 barrels next year, with the capacity to do half a million once everything is up and running.

Is growth itself a threat to craft beer? That question comes down to how you define craft brewing. It’s a debate that’s raged through the community for decades, and likely will continue.

On that December morning at Menagerie Coffee, William Reed came up with the best definition of craft brewing we’ve come across. It’s not the degree of automation that separates craft from non-craft brewing, nor size, nor the quality of ingredients, necessarily. (“Budweiser uses some of the most gorgeous hops I’ve ever seen,” Reed says.)

What defines craft brewing is the unwillingness to compromise. To value quality and experimentation above saving money, to allow the bottom line to take a back seat to making the best beer possible.

Given an uncompromising philosophy, should craft brewers embrace automation along the way? As Covaleski says, “If a computer can open a valve for you, why not let it?”

About Mat Falco

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