The Brewer Blog: Batch One
Warning – this is a monster post. Go grab a beer to sip on while reading this.
It wouldn’t be fair for us not to share the experience of our first brew day. Yes, we are opening a production facility and beer brewing will be occurring over and over again—but just how many times will we get to brew a near-perfect beer on the first go, using a professional brewing system that’s a huge step up from homebrewing, in a brewery that Brian designed, with equipment that we own, surrounded by friends and family? Never again! This is one major milestone in our lives, we can assure you.
The week leading up to our first brew day, however, is one we hope to forget. For the first time in Brian’s life, he slept maybe a total of 11 hours over the course of five days. The only way he made it through was knowing the rewards waiting for him!
The morning of the brew day started with Brian waking up at the brewery frozen (he spent the night there to try to get more precious sleep). Sleep in shorts without a blanket wasn’t a great idea (the office temperature was around 50° F!). Between the chill factor and our neighbor’s exterior building light blazing into the Valiant office, Brian was awake by 3am. He stumbled around trying to figure out where his shoes were, still half asleep (after having gone to bed around 12:30 a.m.). Grabbed his brewing boots—which hadn’t been worn for some time!—started the coffee, grabbed the recipe for the day’s brew, and stared at the mounds of malt bags that needed to be moved in order to find the ones needed for Veranda. Well, moving 55 lb. sacks of grain around at 3 in the morning is one way to wake up! Brian continued the search until he found all the required specialty grains and placed them over by the grist case along with about 1,400 lbs. of base malt.
As time passed, Brian did everything he could to get ready for guest brewer David Meadows, who works for Premier Stainless System (and as part of Premier’s service, provides customer assistance during the first brew sessions). David has over 30 years’ experience brewing, and that was experience that we didn’t want to pass up! Brian hoped to pull off a dual batch for the day, so he was going the extra mile making sure he had everything ready: hot liquor tank full (about 1,500 gallons) and at 204° F, grains loaded in the grist case, hops, yeast, cleaning supplies, oxygen all ready.
At 5:30 a.m. brewer assistant Jack showed up to help make sure things were organized as well, finishing up the grain handling situation. Right on time, at 6 a.m., David arrived. Brian quickly gave him the rundown: everything was a go except one major thing. The glycol unit had shut down sometime during the night (that’s not good!). David and Brian talked about this problem a little bit, trying to figure out what to. It was too early to call the manufacturer, but moving forward with brewing wouldn’t be smart since the glycol was needed to keep fermentation at the desired temperature. The guys continued troubleshooting until Brian realized that the pumps running on the recirculating reservoir didn’t appear to match what should have been running. David agreed that could be the problem, so up on the roof Brian went to swap pump circuits. He moved the control wires around and fired up the chiller. Everything worked! Just as they were getting ready to move forward, our good friend Rick Belcher showed up to lend us another hand. (Rick has been so devoted helping Valiant get off the ground, it simply wouldn’t have been right to brew the first batch without him!)
Up next, we needed to run some foundation water through the mash tun to pre-heat it. No problem, with 1,500 gallons of 204°F water ready! Switched the pump on, opened the solenoid valve to divert the hot water to the grist hydrator, pressure gauge increased, butterfly valve open, water started entering the mash tun and the in-line temperature started to rise. It was so awesome to see everything working! The mash tun needed to be pre-heated to a water temperature of 163°F. The in-line temperature was rising—and completely passed the 163° mark! No problem: mix cold water in with the mixing valve—right? Well, no. Opened that cold mixing valve full bore… only to get an incoming water temperature of 187°F, which is way too hot for mashing. The only thing Brian could do was throttle back the hot water coming in, but he’d have to sacrifice the amount of time to dough-in since now way too little would be flowing to fully hydrate my mash. Finally got the flow low enough to obtain the desired temperature… but noticed that the temperature was surging up and down 7 or 8 °F. Brian glanced down at the RO supply water pressure gauge and found the pressure varying from 35psi – 70psi. Oh no—had to adjust the boost pressure switch, which is located on the RO station. After about 30 minutes of messing around with this pressure switch, the best we could do was a 30psi dead band—which meant having to back down the incoming dough-in (also called Strike) water flow rate even more. The end result was a flow rate of around 7gpm that would now take, per Brian’s calculations, 43 minutes to dough-in. But at least we had a plan! So we moved forward, locked in the flow rate and temperature, and hit the auger button to shuttle the 1,500 lbs. of grain over to the grist hydrator.
This was it—no turning back once the malt and water mixed together! Quickly the facility was starting to smell like a brewery—finally! (Personally, Brian loves the smell of hydrated grains! Guess he thinks of the outcome when he starts smelling that mash.) The flow rate was adjusted so low that we were having trouble modulating the incoming flow of the grains since it was on a fixed speed device. We had to start and stop the auger several times to kind of modulate the flow of grains coming into the mash tun. There was a point during this process that our breaker tripped for the auger, so we increased that set point a little since the load on the system is a little higher than normal because of starting and stopping the auger all the time.
Finally the mash tun received all the grains and proper amount of water. Checked the temperature of the mash—a little low, but all in all acceptable. Mash racks were active and helping us slowly stir the grain bed of the mash, ensuring total heat conformity. Time for a recap of the things that didn’t work quite right up to that point. Brian had to bust out another list of parts that we need to order (man, it feels like this part of the project never ends!).
After about 30 minutes, it was time for recirculating the wort through the mash tun to help set the grain bed. With a quick throw of this valve and that valve, we had wort flowing into our grant. We turned the recirculating pump on to move the runoff back to the top of the mash tun. Perfect, everything working as it should—or so it seemed. But after about five minutes we noticed we were having trouble keeping the level high enough inside the grant (that means the flow of wort going into the vessel was reducing). Checking the manometers on the side of the mash tun, we opened the runoff valve some more. That’s when we noticed that we were starting to pull a vacuum on the runoff —not a good sign. Another 10 or 15 minutes messing around with the low flow problem only to realize that we officially had a stuck mash!!!! Noooooo! We were all in shock, but going back and thinking about it, the grains were crushed almost to the point of flour. Word of advice: don’t ever over-crush your grains.
We spent the next seven hours dealing with a stuck mash and it took that long to run off 24 bbl’s of wort over to the boil kettle. This was a mind-numbing experience (and David made it worse by indicating that this almost never happens!). We decided to break for lunch while the wort SLOWLY drained into the kettle. Finally, around 3 p.m., we had filled our boil kettle to the correct volume and the rest of the brew occurred without any more gotcha’s (believe it or not!).
It was truly amazing to peer into the boil kettle and actually see 24 bbls of wort! For Brian, this was big time. Even though he’s been brewing on his homemade 1.5 bbl system for around four years now, that extra 22.5 bbls is an eye-shocking view. Thinking about heat transfer, the steam boiler was already fired up and ready for action so the steam valves were all opened to the boil kettle (this took place actually just before reaching our final boil kettle volume) and we listened to the rush of 1,200 lb/hr steam running through the jackets of the kettle. Within almost 15 minutes of reaching our boil kettle volume, we had our first view of protein break trying to jump out of the manway of the kettle. I saw David jump for the hose at the same time, turning off the steam jackets. At least we have the power to boil! We’ve heard stories of breweries not having enough power, so getting to a boil takes a couple of hours. After the excitement of seeing off our massive protein break foam blob, a nice rolling boil started and we set all the timers. All that was left was adding hops and some protein coagulator (aka whirlfloc).
By this time, Brian was celebrating—but in an odd way. Another thing that he’s been waiting for was smelling the fumes and seeing the moisture coming from our boil kettle exhaust stack. So back on the roof he went and simply stood right in the foggy atmosphere, enjoying the vapor cloud of goodness. Yes, totally odd—but again, visiting breweries, nothing cranks in the senses for Brian more than smelling the brewing process out in the parking lot before he even gets to the door. Satisfied with his experience, he jumped back down to the brewhouse and joined the team as we prepared for the end of the boiling process.
Time does move quickly when you’re having fun. Before we knew it, we needed to add our hops and other kettle additions. Almost 20 lbs of Strisselspalt hops entered the boil kettle and that alone set off another round of amazing aromas (we could get used to this kind of thing!). While the hops were isomerizing (we think that’s a word!), Brian began sanitizing the heat exchanger and targeted fermenter. One thing is for sure: if you’re ever going to open a brewery, sanitization is a must and should be conducted to ensure your beer is how you wanted with its known yeast. Kind of a cool thing in our brewery setup—we can use the HLT boost pump to perform the sanitation step without needing a portable pump; everything is integrated. This integration was the base of Brian’s design for the brewery. He didn’t want to waste time connecting things when he could be watching over the beer the entire time.
Our 90-minute boil finally came to an end, and we set the remaining wort into a whirlpool to help us clear that wort as much as possible. It only takes about 10 minutes, which is amazing to think about since in the homebrewing world, Brian always did a 15-minute whirlpool. Any case, whirlpool finished, everything on the cold side (that is all the parts downstream of the heat exchanger to the fermenter) sanitized and ready. Again, a push of that button, a turn of that valve, oxygen flowing, bingo – 68° F wort entering the fermenter. Brian was amazing to realize the process was almost easier than homebrewing (but in a totally different way). We watched the cooled wort pass through the site glass, and while admiring all our hard work busted out a celebration beer. What a perfect time, Brian was thinking. This is how he thought it would be: a lot of hard work and dedication, and here he was in our brewery having a toast with the guys who helped us build our dream.
The fermenter filled almost in 30 minutes, about what Brian’s calculations had led him to expect. Guess the heat exchanger was sized correctly! To make things even better, Brian never turned the glycol on to our heat exchanger! He has it set up so that we can cool wort down for doing larger beers (that’s soon to come!). With just two more steps to take, Brian finished one more by taking our final gravity out of the newly filled fermenter—1.071, which was exactly what his recipe called for! That just sealed the deal, if you know what we mean. Talk about happy! After having a stuck mash, we nailed the starting gravity. We finished the process up by adding our unique blend of yeast to the wort, installing our blow-off tube, and setting the tank temperature where we wanted it. The rest of the work was cleaning (the not-so-glorified part of the job! But it makes up almost 60% of the total work done in a brewery). Brian likes things clean, organized, and maintained—it’s just his nature.
We finally finished the entire job up around 11:40 p.m. that day. I guess an 18-hour brew day wasn’t too bad for the first go—but we hope we don’t have that kind of duration on the next batch. Brian is excited to understand each of our brews and how each particular beer wants to be brewed. These beers have their own character and understanding these characters is important for the creator—but, more importantly, for the consumer.
Well, we told you this would be a long post. We hope you enjoyed reading it as much as we enjoyed writing it! This experience just had needed to be shared with our fans. We truly want Valiant Brewing to be a family business and within healthy families, you have to communicate. This blog is one way we communicate with you—but we have to be honest: we’re looking forward to communicating with you over this beer once it’s finished! Give us about three weeks and we should be ready to open our doors to the public.