Howdy y'all! Today I wanted to take a little time to discuss the brewhouse we purchased and how we came to the conclusion that this was the best selection for Off Main.
WHERE WE STARTED
We started off brewing like most people do -- in a 10 gallon orange cooler. While the system was crude (I was lautering with a gallon sized plastic pitcher), it was effective. Like thousands of other homebrewers, we were able to create brews that were surprisingly good, given our experience and kit limitations.
As expected, multi-stepped mashing was difficult and our efficiencies were somewhere in the 65% range, which isn't that big of a deal at the 5 gallon batch size. Overall, it was a system that worked. But it was clear that we needed an upgrade to become more sophisticated.
WHAT CAME NEXT
The next step was to frankenstein together a more sophisticated (though still fairly crude) 3 vessel, RIMS direct fire system with 2 - 20 gallon kettles and our old 10 gallon cooler for sparge water. This system certainly increased our capabilities, as well as batch size, but it was still with its limitations, namely a lack of temperature control. It took a lot of expertise and experience to keep consistent mash temps and even then, it was hit or miss.
Like many of you would likely agree, brewing for years on these two systems allowed me to see what we needed in a system to truly have an impact on the quality and consistency coming out of our brew days. Granted, the brewhouse is just one piece of the puzzle for creating epic beers on a consistent basis, but for today's post we're going to focus on the brewhouse itself.
HOW WE CHOSE THE BEST BREWHOUSE
When we decided to start walking the path that leads from hobby to profession, our first conversation was around the brewhouse. We wrote out a list of everything we wanted to take into consideration before we committed thousands of dollars to "the best brewhouse." We did our research, shopped the heck out of this decision, talked to numerous industry professionals and a handful of manufacturers.
We based our brewhouse decision on the following criteria:
Capabilities - Size, temperature control, future growth planning
HERMS vs. RIMS - Which heating system was best for us
Electric vs. Gas - What were the startup and use costs of each?
Brand Consideration - Customer Service, warranty and price
So the first question we had to answer was what were the capabilities we wanted the system to have? How big should it be? How many vessels? What level of automation did we want? We knew that we wanted to prepare for future growth, while still being able to play in the experimental space. Our previous system had allowed us to brew up to 1/2 barrel (roughly 15 gallons) batches, so we knew we needed to at least equal that size, but did we want to be able to go bigger than that?
The answer was yes. However, being a small brewery-in-planning, going larger than a 1 barrel (31 gallons) system did not make sense for the time being. So 1 barrel it was, but we made sure to include in our list of necessities, the ability to double batch (mash a second brew while boiling the first). This would allow us the ability to double our capacity while keeping brewdays to a manageable length.
HERMS OR RIMS
Once we set our sights on a 1 barrel system that had the ability to double batch, the next major question was one of functionality. HERMS vs. RIMS.
HERMS, or Heat Exchange Recirculating Mash System, is a system in which the mash in one vessel is recirculated through a length of stainless steel tubing submersed in water in a second vessel (the hot liquor tank). Basically, this is a fancy way to hold a temperature without directly heating the mash (sort of like a counter-flow wort chiller, but in reverse). This method allows for very precise temperature control, multi-step mashes and no threat of scorching the wort during heating.
RIMS, or Recirculating Infusion Mash System, is the same idea as a HERMS, just without circulating through the hot liquor tank. The mash is recirculated through the grain bed using a pump that draws wort from the bottom and redistributes it on the top of the grain bed. This system requires direct heating and thereby has the added concern of scorching the grain bed, which would lead to a ruined batch. Both of these systems work to increase efficiencies, reduce hotspots, and increase wort clarity. We were leaning towards the HERMS just from some of the reading we had done and people we had talked to, but once we decided on the last piece of the puzzle (heating source) our mind was made up, HERMS it was.
Deciding on a heating source (gas or electric) was vital to the HERMS vs. RIMS decision because of the scorching concern. Heating a grain bed of about 75lbs of grain with direct gas fire, can be tricky. Granted, the system we would have would have some automation built in to protect from that (namely short bursts of heat to maintain the temperature, but having burnt a batch or two in my day, it was still a legitimate concern. Tobacco beer, anyone?
Because of this history, I was keenly interested in an electric system, so I started doing my research. Given the size of our system (1 barrel) and our need to double batch, we would need to have at least 4 heating elements running at the same time. This raised two concerns, first was our ability to increase our electrical facilities at the house to support this and the control box's ability to support this.
After discussing with some friends who are electricians, there was real concern as to what it would take to increase our home's electrical capabilities to make this jump. That information, coupled with the pricing research we had done on the control boxes designed to make this happen, made our decision for us, our system would be fired by propane. While it was vital to keep our initial costs in check, it was equally important to be able to move this system once the time came to go pro, and with gas, we would not have to make the same electrical upgrades twice. With propane, we could simply move our system to the new location and be up and running. Taking this information, we circled back to the HERMS vs. RIMS debate and decided that a HERMS was the best solution for our needs.
We had finally landed on the system, a 1 barrel propane HERMS 3 vessel system. Now, which one do we buy? With the explosion of brewing and homebrewing in the last decade, there is certainly no shortage of reputable companies putting out high-quality products…it's tough to choose!
In typical fashion, we set out to create a list of what we wanted from our brewhouse manufacturer. First, we wanted a company that understood the financial constraints small, developing breweries are under. We had a budget and needed to stay in that realm with the highest quality we could find.
Next, we were looking for a long-term partner, a manufacturer who would bring quality to our relationship through more than just a quality product. We looked for a partner who shared the same values and hustle as us, who had excellent customer service and wasn’t too “big-time” for us little folk. Basically, we wanted to work with good people - our people.
And finally, we were looking for a company who was producing a product that was able to balance all of our system needs. We could not have been happier with where we landed at the conclusion of all this mental calculus.
We ended up purchasing an Alpha Ruby from Ruby Street Brewing out of Ft. Collins, CO. Their Alpha Ruby rig has been used in countless production, small-scale and in-planning breweries. They provided us with a balance of budget friendly, high-quality and amazing customer service.
WHERE’S THE BREWHOUSE NOW
Currently our order is still in the manufacturing stage, but Chelle and the team at Ruby Street Brewing have been amazing in providing updates on the build. They’ve even taken time out of their day to send us pictures of the progress (we knew we chose the right brand)!
If I could do anything different in the process from dreaming of buying to actually buying, it would be to have purchased the Alpha Ruby sooner. It checked all our boxes. It is small enough to allow us to continue pilot operations, yet big enough to handle small scale production as we grow. It, and the wonderful team at Ruby Street Brewing, will certainly be a major part of Off Main Brewing now and in the future.
We know everyone’s journey is different with brewing. Let us know what you considered or are considering in your brewhouse purchase. What’s important? What’s not? What questions or issues do you wish manufacturers could help address better? Tell us in the comments below or on Instagram!
And stay tuned for more brewhouse updates - it’s exciting stuff!