Customization Fosters Innovation: Choosing the Best Brewing Tanks

By: Tracey L. Kelley

Head Brewer Joe Kesteloot of Peace Tree Brewing Co. in its Des Moines, Iowa-based innovation brewery. Photo courtesy of Peace Tree Brewing Co.

The long game of brewing isn’t always obvious in the glass. Some producers spend up to two years evaluating what to brew and what equipment will craft the best product. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this approach, but for brewers eager to get started or respond to an expansion demand, it’s critical to have a long-term mindset to produce creatively with fiscal responsibility.

When choosing tanks, especially fermentation tanks, there are numerous questions to answer before snapping up a standard model and placing it in the rack. The equipment in the brewhouse reflects as much about your approach as the end result: attention to detail and processes, ease of production and quality standards.

Patrick Mears is the sales and marketing manager for Marks Design and Metal Works, operating in Vancouver, Washington. Since 2008, Marks Design has specialized in designing custom stainless steel fermenters to brewers’ unique specifications but also fabricates brite tanks, cider tanks and other stainless steel vessels. Mears told Beverage Master Magazine the brewer’s personality, and approach helps inform his company to meet your needs.

“We’ve happily helped many groups who didn’t have a clue what they needed other than a produced volume and a budget. However, our expertise can be more useful if you’ve had a chance hammer out your vibe,” Mears said. “I know that sounds crazy, but it tells us a lot! Are you nerdy about beer and want extreme control over every aspect of the process and log all the data to look for trends? Are you super laid back and simply want to provide your neighborhood with an alternative to Applebee’s? Do you want to be innovative, or are you looking to perfectly reproduce old world beers?  Your brewhouse is an extension of you.”

For new producers, knowing what’s needed beforehand can be difficult. Evaluating potential tank requirements by nebulous considerations of volume, beverage, processes and other factors sometimes makes the choice more challenging.

  Joe Kesteloot is the head brewer at Peace Tree Brewing, Co. based in Knoxville, Iowa. Peace Tree, established in 2010, now has three taprooms in Iowa and an extended retail presence. They produced approximately 5,500 barrels in 2018. Kesteloot agreed the decision is tough, especially when “you don’t know what your flagship beer(s) may be yet,” but offered particular sources of insight. “It helps to get out in your market and talk to your potential customers, and weigh that information with your strengths. If you have a distributor, you ask what the market needs are. You can also look at the current market trends, but those trends are always evolving.”

Brewers should consider tank choices and sizes by determining, “some multiple of the brewhouse size,” said Bryan Boynton, Ph.D., brewer for Snake River Brewing, a brewery and pub located in Jackson, Wyoming. Established in 1994, Snake River is the state’s oldest brewery, and they now sell their beer throughout the U.S. The company produces an average of 8,000 barrels annually. “A 15 barrel brewhouse would lead to 30 or 60 barrel fermenters, bright tanks and serving tanks.” He suggested, “top manway tanks are ideal for all brewing styles, and especially important for ease of dry hopping; and tanks with racking arms that can rotate in the tank are ideal again for all styles, allowing for ease of transfer and filtering.”

Another consideration that factors into tank selection is the potential for multi-purpose use. William Stacy is the managing director of THIELMANN, a European company with U.S. headquarters in Houston. THIELMANN has produced containers for all types of products for more than 275 years, now with a particular focus on aseptic stainless steel tanks and kegs. In his brewery visits, Stacy said he’s continually impressed with the way producers ask double-duty of the company’s fermenters to maximize their investments.

“Some popular applications for our fermenter include brite tank, carbonation vessel and also a yeast propagation vessel. Large breweries use it for running small batches and test samples, and some even as a serving tank,” Stacy said. “This versatility and competitive price allow for the breweries to afford accessories and customization for the applications they require.”

Kesteloot sometimes takes this approach in the brewhouse. “One of my small-scale tanks doubles as a fermenter and a brite tank. However, I always transfer from fermenter to brite: I don’t ferment in it and leave it in there as brited beer. That tank rotates as one or the other function,” he said. “With most of my beers, I like to make sure they are off as much yeast and sediment as possible before serving or especially packaging.”

“I personally believe using fermenters as unitanks provides the most flexibility,” Mears said. He suggested buying the same amount of tanks as if you were pairing with brites, “but all the tanks would be conical fermenters. This way, your production doesn’t have to slow down because one of your brites are still full—you can just flip the fermenter to brite mode.”

While Boynton believes tanks can be multi-purpose in some instances, he offered a word of caution: “A fermentation tank doubling as a serving tank only works for certain styles of beer,” he said. “Most styles don’t allow for this combination. The removal of old yeast, dry hops and sedimentation that will push through to a consumer usually needs to be avoided.”

Stacy added that some producers intending to diversify their product lines often shop for tanks that can provide the most versatility. “Similar to root beer, sparkling or bubbling water is another offering brewers are moving into—filtering the water and just adding C02 to the tank prior to canning or bottling,” he said. “This is why we encourage brewers to think ahead about tank use and talk with their vendor about what type of kit specifications to accommodate other needs.”

Peace Tree Brewing Co. also crafts root beer, and often uses existing tanks for the process—but carefully. “We have designated hoses, carbonation stones and filler parts for root beer only. Many of those flavors can carry over to other brews, so we keep those pieces of equipment completely separate,” he said. “Even a mixing tank other than our brew system is used for root beer ingredients. Any tank used for root beer goes through a rigorous cleaning to remove any residue. This also applies to any sour beer we make with wild yeast.”

“If I Knew Then What I Know Now….”

The camaraderie of the brewing industry means the portal to quality information is always open. We requested our experts provide candid insight into tank, fitting and equipment decisions, and how they influence processes.

Boynton of Snake River Brewing stressed the significance of many factors. “Pressure Relief Valves (PRV) are very important for safety. If possible, buy tanks that are larger than expected brews to allow for a vigorous fermentation and not clog PRVs—which can lead to an explosion with grave consequences,” he said.

“Also, temperature probes that control the fermentation temperature need to be placed where one brew from the brewhouse is within its contact. If the first 15 bbl brew goes into the 60 bbl fermenter and doesn’t reach a temperature probe to turn on the cooling system, you have an uncontrolled fermentation,” Boynton said. “Finally, ease of cleaning without shadows, which are areas that the clean-in-place system doesn’t connect with well; and multiple zone cooling controls are the most important.

When asked what he wouldn’t do again, he replied: “No side manway tanks would have been purchased, and there was no need for conditioning tanks.”

Kesteloot of Peace Tree Brewing Co. seconded Boynton’s reference to temperature probes. “Probe location in fermenters and brite tanks are important. If you’re brewing multiple brews in a single fermenter, make sure the temperature probe is able to read the first brew, or maybe add multiple probes,” he said.

He also explained why tank shape and cooling jackets might matter to your processes. “We look at height-to-width ratios and cone pitch. Yeast can react differently in certain shape vessels. The right cone angle is necessary to collect healthy yeast,” Kesteloot said. “Even the way the cooling jackets are spaced or separated can help with certain applications. If you’re packaging from a brite tank and unable to finish the tank, the cooling jackets need to be located in the right spot to keep beer cold until packaging can resume.”

He added that learning how to accommodate Peace Tree’s expansion pointed to one crucial detail: “Anticipating the amount of cold storage we needed was a big challenge. It seems like we could always use more. Maximize the efficiencies in your processes as much as possible, so you have more wiggle room to be flexible later.”

Manufacturing experts Mears from Marks Design and Stacy from THIELMANN highlighted a fundamental but critical factor: bad tank quality reduces output and increases contamination.

“We offer field services in addition to tanks and systems, and have spent many field hours fixing tanks from other manufacturers that took shortcuts during fabrication or used low-quality material,” Mears said. “Within the past year, we fixed four 240 bbl fermenters at a single location! The tank manufacturer took shortcuts during fabrication, causing cracked welds on the inside of the tank within just a few years of purchase. Those cracks not only caused the tanks to leak precious revenue but also put the tank at risk of producing off-flavors due to the now unsanitary environment.”

Stacy echoed choosing a quality product and encouraged producers to “specify in tank selection aseptic characteristics and polished welds. This assures breweries that if operated properly, these aspects can reduce the risks of contamination. THIELMANN tanks, for example, are a fully aseptic design for easy cleaning with a simple spray ball,” he said. “We’ve recently seen some poorly-welded vessels in breweries and wineries. This substandard welding and lack of polished welds allow for severe risks with contamination.”

Invite the Vendors to Come to You

The nuts and bolts of tank decisions come down to what your vision is, and how well you communicate this to your equipment vendors.

Each producer has a different purchasing method—some buy tanks outright, using finance options that make sense within the guidelines of individual business plans. Others may lease or rent—an especially popular choice for seasonality spikes, short runs or additional product lines.

What does the typical fermentation tank cost? It depends. Establishing a base of $6,000-$7,000 or more per unit provides a launch pad, but what if the tank is multi-purpose? A standard brite tank may start at $2,500, but be as high as $6,000. Does this leave more wiggle room for additional equipment or change what you’ll produce? Should you utilize a turnkey system and work from that for a while?

Mears told Beverage Master Magazine that customization is what saves money in the long run. “The biggest mistake I see over and over is a brewer simply sending an email or filling out an online form and asking for a standard quote on a system,” he said. “If you take the time to have a conversation with us, we can put together a real quote that fits your specific needs. Explain what you really want, and if it isn’t in your current budget, we can help you decide what comes now vs. later.”

Stacy added: “We find budgets are a large factor, especially for new breweries. I would suggest they ask about the versatility of the systems. To be able to buy one piece of equipment and get three or four different uses out of it is a rare find,” he said. “For specification purposes, we have added many of the popular fittings and connections to make a tank a versatile, multi-use vessel. We also can customize the manways and connections to meet the specific needs.”

Producers that take advantage of customization find it allows for better operations. “We had vendors come to look at our space, and scale our square footage vs. ceiling height to maximize the most volume possible,” Kesteloot said. “They also examined our layout to see if things were going to flow from tank to tank, to packaging and out the door.

Based on increased demand, Boynton at Snake River Brewing said the company scaled up as needed. “We have a hodgepodge of tanks purchased through different sources.  The new large 60 barrel tanks we purchased are very nice.”

While no one can predict the future, these experts suggested using your objectives to determine tank needs. “Right now, with the popularity of IPAs, there are many specialized tanks for dry hopping as well as techniques for dry hopping in standard tanks,” Kesteloot said. “Breweries are using this equipment to maximize flavors and aromas. These are some things we’ll take into account in future expansions. We may even go backward in some applications and add some old, traditional methods.”

Maximizing budget. Providing quality products. Preparing for growth. It’s incredible to think your tank selection is a primary catalyst to accomplish these and other objectives. So take time and let the experts walk you through a set-up that fits your needs. “It’s important to brewers to be innovative, but it’s also important to be consistent and crank out the moneymakers,” Mears said. “Why not have a system that can do both?”

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