Electric, Gas Direct-fired or Steam: Which Brewhouse Is Right For You?

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One of the key decisions you will have to make in starting a brewery business is which type of energy source your brewhouse and your hot liquor tank are going to run.

If you’re in the process of deciding which type of energy source to use for your brewery build project, this read is for you!

Wort production and heating hot liquor are very energy intensive propositions. That’s why it’s crucial for you to make the right choice when it comes to the type of energy source to use.

This has to be done in a cost-efficient way, both in terms of the build costs and the running costs, because in a lot of cases, energy isn’t cheap.

Depending upon the energy source that you choose for your brewery, some can be quite cheap to buy, while others are more expensive to buy and commission.

The engineering decisions that you need to make can be quite confusing, especially if you’ve never built a brewery before.

But if you get this right, you’ll create a balance between build costs and running costs, setting your brewery up for long term rapid growth.

On the other hand, if you don’t undertake a proper analysis of which energy source is right for you, then you might wind up spending too much money on capital costs, energy costs, and labour costs.

An incorrect selection will affect your craft brewing business down the track. If this happens, your brewery won’t be as profitable as you would want it to be.

Another important thing that you have to remember is that you’re creating a craft brewing business, so you shouldn’t treat your brewery build project like a big home brew kit because it’s not.

There are three common types of energy source to choose from. We’ll have a look at each one and discuss their respective pros and cons based on the following metrics:

Procurement Costs – the cost of buying the equipment
Commissioning Costs – the cost to install and set up the equipment
Running Costs – the cost of energy and other incidentals while running the brewery
Scalability and Flexibility – how small or how big the equipment can be, and whether you can do things like step mashing and other sorts of things when you’re making your beer

I will be giving each of these aspects a score out of five. More dollar signs means more costly (less cost-efficient) and more stars simply means “better”. Let’s go!

Electric Brewery
How An Electric Brewhouse Works:

Electric breweries are probably the most simple in terms of how they work. You basically take a heating element and stick it inside the vessel. The heating element heats up the liquid that’s inside the vessel. It works just like your kettle at home, in your kitchen.

Electric Brewery Procurement Costs:

Electric breweries are generally the cheapest to buy because their fabrication and engineering are really simple. They don’t require any steam jackets or excessive engineering.

All you need is a vessel and an electric element (which is also relatively cheap), and you basically got yourself an electric brewery!

Electric Brewery Commissioning Costs:

commission. All you need to do is to give them a source of electricity, and it’s plug and play!

Your building might need some electrical upgrades to be able to support the amount of electricity that your brewhouse might consume, but apart from that, there’s really nothing else to add.

Also, since the brewery is electric, you don’t need any flue stacks, which means no need for fire approval.

Electric Brewery Running Costs:

Electricity is one of the most expensive ways to heat liquid, which makes the entire process inefficient, too. So, unfortunately, with electric breweries, this is where they fall down.


Electric Brewery Scalability and Flexibility:

There are certain limitations when it comes to the scalability and flexibility of an electric brewhouse.
First, most electric brew houses operate on a single infusion mash system, which prevents you from doing things like step mashing.

Electric breweries tend not to scale. Typically, an electric brewhouse will scale right down to one barrel or one hectolitre, but they can only really scale up to a maximum of about 15hL or about 13BBL.

Third, if you turn the electric elements on and there’s no liquid in the vessel, you can actually damage and burn out those electric elements, which can be very expensive to replace. Also, no electric elements equals no production, so you risk putting a halt to brewing completely.
One more thing that you need to consider is, when you’re boiling wort, you have to make sure that you’ve got a good rolling boil. If you’ve just got a little simmer going in your kettle, it’s not going to drive off that DMS and you’re going to wind up with those corny flavours in your beer.


Gas-direct Fired Brewery

How A Gas-direct Fired Brewhouse Works:

Gas-direct fired brew houses work just like the gas stove in your kitchen. You’ll have a vessel full of liquid and a gas flame sitting underneath it, and that heats up the contents of the tank.

Gas Direct-fired Brewery Procurement Costs:

When it comes to procurement costs, a gas-direct fired brewery is quite similar to an electric brewery in terms of the vessels themselves because they are relatively simple.

However, a gas-direct fired brewery will cost you more money because it will require you to buy a gas burner to go under each vessel, and the gas burners themselves are slightly more expensive than an electric element.


Gas Direct-fired Brewery Commissioning Costs:

The good thing about gas-direct fired breweries is that you don’t need a separate piece of infrastructure like a boiler to power your vessels.

However, you’ll need to hire a gas fitter to hook up the gas burners under each vessel.

On top of that, you’ll need to have a system of flues to support each of the gas burners.

In most cases, an exhaust flue is enough to take all of the exhaust gases out of the building, but there are some jurisdictions that may require an inlet flue as well.

So, in terms of commissioning costs, gas-direct fired breweries can get rather expensive.


Gas Direct-fired Brewery Running Costs:

A gas-direct fired brewery can save you a lot of money on running costs.

Natural gas and propane are much cheaper sources of energy per kilojoule than electricity. Because gas-direct fired breweries operate more efficiently, your running costs will be significantly reduced.

But you have to make sure that they are properly configured, otherwise, you could wind up in a situation where the exhaust gases coming out of your gas-direct fired brewery are quite hot and you’re wasting a lot of energy.


Scalability and Flexibility:

In terms of flexibility and scalability, gas-direct fired breweries are a notch above electric breweries.
With a gas-direct fired brewery, you can start heating the wort as soon as the bottom of the kettle is covered, saving you a lot of time in the process.

Gas-direct fired brewhouses can also go much larger than electric breweries. I’ve seen gas-direct fired breweries up to about 25hL or about 22BBL, and they’ve operated just fine.

One drawback, though, is the way heat is applied to the kettle. Upon turning on the burner, gas-direct fired breweries can initially be a bit laggy in terms of heating. Also, at the end of the boil, there can be a lot of carryover heat, and the boil can continue for a few minutes after turning off the burner.

You can attempt step mashing with the gas-direct fired mash tun, but you have to be careful because if you don’t watch it, you can actually scorch your mash.

More importantly, you need to be wary of the carbon monoxide risk because you’re burning inside an enclosed space. Make sure that you’ve installed all the necessary flues and that your gas-direct fired brewery has been approved by your local fire department.


Steam Brewery

How A Steam Brewhouse Works:

I love steam breweries and how they work!

There are jackets around the sides and at the bottom of the vessel and steam is passed through these jackets, which then transfer the heat into the contents of the vessel.

You’ll need a boiler at your brewery to generate the steam and a special pipework plumbed around your brewery to take the steam from the boiler to the vessels being heated.

A quick reminder, though, steam works at very high pressure, so there’s a lot of safety considerations you need to be mindful of.

Steam Brewery Procurement Costs:

The fabrication of a steam-jacketed vessel is a little more complicated than that of an electric or a gas-direct fired brewery. You will need to fabricate the steam-dimpled jackets around the sides of the vessel, and that can increase the cost of each vessel slightly.

You will also need to buy a boiler. When you buy your boiler, make sure to buy your boiler from a licensed and reputable dealer because this is a high risk piece of equipment and may need local licensing.

If you choose to buy a boiler from a manufacturer in China, it might not be up to code for your country, so it’s best to buy your boiler locally. It will cost you more but it will definitely save the stress of trying to retrofit a Chinese boiler to be up to your local code.


Steam Brewery Commissioning Costs:

When it comes to commissioning costs, there are two factors that you need to take into consideration.

First, you’ll need someone who is licensed to come and commission your boiler; and second, you’ll need a steam fitter to run all the steam plumbing around your brewery.

Both of these things can be quite expensive.


Steam Brewery Running Costs:

Even though the procurement and commissioning costs of a steam brewery are quite high, its running costs are significantly lower.

The reason is that steam runs on pressure — the energy that you use and the flame that’s required to heat the steam only come on when you need steam pressure. Meaning, when you don’t need steam pressure or you’re not trying to heat anything, the boiler switches off and sits there idle.

So, if you think about it, steam is really, really efficient in terms of running costs. You just have to make sure that your steam lines are suitably insulated so you’re not wasting any energy.


Steam Brewery Scalability and Flexibility:

A steam brewhouse is super flexible.

It can scale right down to nano brewery size and can scale right up to hundreds or even a thousand hectolitres or a thousand barrel system – kind of like the big industrial breweries use.

It’s also very gentle when it’s heating, making the risk of scorching your mash or your wort really low.

But the best thing about a steam fired brewery is that if you want to undertake a full step mashing programme, steam gives you the ability to do that with ease.


In Summary – Which Type Of Brewhouse Is Right For You?

If we take a look at the scores from all of the different types of brewery side by side, we’ll see that each has its own pros and cons.

Generally, procurement and commissioning costs appear to be inversely proportional to running costs. So, the more you spend upfront on procuring and commissioning your brewery, the more you’ll save money down the track on running costs.

The same goes for scalability and flexibility. By budgeting more for equipment upfront, your equipment will be able to scale and grow as your brewery business grows.

Now, here are my recommendations:

⦁ Less than 10hL/7BBL Brewhouse. An electric brewhouse is totally decent. The procurement costs are low, the commissioning costs are low. Sure, you can only do single infusion mashing, but that’s good enough just to get you started. It’s a good system for up to about that size.
⦁ 10-15hL or 7-12BBL Brewhouse. A gas-direct fired brewhouse might be the right choice for you. This is because when you’re getting to that size, electric tends to struggle and gas-direct fired can save you those valuable energy costs.
Larger than 15hL/12BBL. Steam is your best bet. It’s also my personal choice in terms of flexibility, because it can scale all the way down to one barrel, and it can scale all the way up to almost infinite size.

So! Which type of brewery are you looking to buy for your brewery build project?

I hope this guide helps you in making an informed decision. Whether you’re thinking of starting a dream brewery or growing an existing brewery, I’m always here to assist!

Head on over and check out my free training at https://rockstarbrewer.com/freetraining for more great pro brewer content.

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