Grain Handling, Storage & Conveyance: The Beginnings of a Successful Brewing Operation

By: Gerald Dlubala

An engineer, architect and brewmaster walk into a brew space. No, this isn’t the beginning of a joke, but rather the start of a multi-point approach in laying out a successful and reliable grain handling and storage system.

  ABM Equipment works with brewery owners and brewmasters to develop their projects from concept to completion. They use collaborative teamwork and deliver cohesive systems integrated to work together as a complete unit rather than a group of individual machines pieced together. 

  “When you understand the effects that your grain handling and storage system has on your entire brewing process, you realize how important it is to be one of the initial items discussed when laying out a brewery,” said Adam Dubose, Operations Manager at ABM Equipment. “Proper grain handling and storage planning include considering the entire brewhouse and production plans while remaining aware of available space. When all of these things get included early in the planning process, it becomes easier to determine the needed specifications regarding storage options, handling capabilities and system speeds versus available space. Then you factor in expected growth and go from there.”

“We always like to see a brewer mill their grain if possible,” said Dubose. “Pre-milled grain is crazy expensive, so even a small mill with a flex auger is better than using a pre-milled product. You can control crush, increase safety and improve your time and labor costs. Instead of shouldering bags and risking physical injury, you push a button. Most breweries now have a grist case as well. Then you can start talking about bulk storage to cut costs even more dramatically – sometimes in half – over the use of bulk bags. Your return on investment includes cutting physical labor, saving workers’ shoulders and the savings on buying at bulk prices.”

  In terms of brewery installations, almost all of their projects use either flex augers or chain discs for conveyance. “Flex augers are the usual choice for entry-level applications because they are the low cost, reliable choices,” said Dubose. “Their downside includes higher required maintenance, meaning that they need to be oiled more often and will likely require routine elbow replacement after about six months, depending on use. We remind our clients that if they don’t schedule a little downtime to maintain their equipment, the equipment will schedule it for them. Chain discs are a popular go-to method for grain and malt conveying because they’re versatile, run a little quicker, maneuver tighter corners and are gentler on the product while moving it from place to place. Chain discs can connect silos, handle long runs, vertical climbs, bulk bag unloaders or specialty hoppers. The same chain disc line can carry infeed to mill and then loop back around and go from mill to mash. They are also lower friction options, so that translates into lower wear in parts.”

  Dubose told Beverage Master Magazine that silos provide the most significant savings and return on investment when considering grain storage options. Larger bulk purchases translate to a lower price point, offer more opportunities for system automation, better grain consistency, longer storage times and the chance to free up some valuable indoor floor space.

  “We recommend silos with a minimum 65,000-pound capacity so a brewer can receive a typical 48,000-pound grain delivery without having to run their silo dry,” said Dubose. “Larger capacities are available if desired. Bigger may be better when it comes to needing only limited grain deliveries, but it’s more common to link silos for the additional capacity and then use an automated sourcing system. With more than one source available, a brewmaster can mix the contents of multiple sources for new, seasonal or different mixtures and recipes. We can link up to eight sources from one system, allowing the brewmaster to choose which product is needed and from which source. Quality stainless-steel silos have a minimum 20-year life expectancy with proper maintenance, which usually means keeping them touched up with paint to reduce any chance of corrosion. Silos situated closer to saltwater or in coastal locations normally get a paint upgrade to help reduce the corrosive effects of saltwater. Our silos feature smooth walls to deter any grain from getting stuck and deteriorating or rotting, and we manufacture our gates for excellent dust inhibition. We reduce the need for ladders with built-in level indicators, and we help navigate any municipal restrictions by using creative workaround strategies. For brewers that use bulk bag grain, bulk bag unloaders are available in an easily installed, low-profile form. They can use a hoist and trolley configuration to help reduce grain costs and labor through efficient use of super sacks.”

  Spent grain is a related yet separate issue, requiring its own storage area. Spent grain storage should alleviate the mess of raking or shoveling the spent grain into totes and moving them to outside storage by forklift or pallet jack. The type of storage needed depends on the number of daily brew cycles and anticipated spent grain pickups. Spent grain silos are also constructed of stainless steel to fight corrosive contents, but they’re usually not polished like the more visible grain storage units and are elevated for truck access either underneath or along the side. If using a silo for spent grain storage, the brewery may require an additional pump at the mash discharge to get the spent grain over to the silo.

  Dubose told Beverage Master Magazine that it’s crucial for a brewer to partner with a grain handling and storage provider that works within the brewery’s desired layout and approaches it in a complete system mode versus a supplier that sells and provides only equipment and nothing else.

  “We look at all facets of the operation and the speed and throughput of your process to make sure it all works in unison. Control panel automation helps brew consistency and labor control, but it’s also a way to keep your equipment from damaging itself. A brewer has to know their limitations regarding their knowledge in certain areas, and they have to partner with a supplier that will work with them as if it is their own business. Another thing to look for is a supplier that carries spare parts in their inventory like chains and gearboxes to help out when the OEMs don’t have the part. We at ABM Equipment will do that for our clients.”

  “It’s really about taking the brewery’s concept, including the amount of storage or bulk bag storage needed and projected, and then providing the proper mix within the space allotted,” said Dubose. “A workable and successful layout within a brewery’s space and allotted budget ultimately dictate our recommended conveyance and storage design.”

Good Planning Leads To Proper Handling Equipment and Right Sized Grain Storage

  “In so many cases, having adequate space to store enough grain inside the brewery is often overlooked, and you see a variety of bags and pallets placed wherever they can fit,” said Dave Ewald, Director of Sales for Bratney Companies, providers of state-of-the-art equipment, processes and solutions for their clients. “The layout and choices for grain handling and storage should be done in the initial planning stages of the brewery. Then, with more planning and forethought, an area can be designed to store the brewery’s grains in an organized and efficient manner.”

  Knowing what your planned and projected grain usage will be in conjunction with what the expected lead times are for deliveries goes a long way to dictating what type of storage is necessary. Upgrades can include silos, conveyors with floor dump hoppers, bulk bag dump stations, and more. These save time and minimize physical labor like bag hauling and ladder or stair climbing.

  “Conveyor types range from simple, flexible conveyors to chain disc systems to drag or screw-type conveyors. Conveyor mechanics typically include either a screw type, helical coil type or disc system that runs by chain or cable. Each has benefits and treats the grain differently while conveying,” said Ewald. “The key factors in determining the best conveyance solutions come back to the capacities needed, distances to convey, the number and complexity of the rises and runs to get the malt from point-to-point, and the ability to still facilitate a good cleanout between malt types. For example, leftover dark malts mixed in with pilsner malts will affect the color and taste of the beer.”

  “The capacity needed by any brewery is largely determined by the brewery size and the capability of their roller mill,” he said. “Many mills run between 1,500 and 3,000 pounds per hour and run a simple flex conveyor or chain disk system. Flex conveyors are quite simple in their design and construction, usually featuring tubing constructed from PVC or steel. It is fair to say that many breweries only operate their conveyors once or twice a day for a couple of hours, so the system’s longevity is naturally extended. On the other hand, breweries that run several batches would look for longer-lasting and more durable solutions. It really is a balance between needs and overall cost.”

  Ewald told Beverage Master Magazine that storage most often falls into the use of a hopper-bottomed silo to hold a truckload of malt. Suppose a brewery can get their grain by the truckload. In that case, they enjoy the economic advantages of buying in bulk, and the higher initial investment in the equipment is usually recovered in a relatively short time. Likewise, with conveyors, the brewer can slow a conveyor system down to handle lesser capacity if needed. For example, if the conveyor runs 4,000 pounds per hour, the brewer can alter and decrease that through a frequency variator or drive system change. Conversely, the brewer can’t modify a 2,000 pound an hour conveyor to run twice the speed, so if they can afford the higher speed systems upfront to match their planned production increases, it’s a better option.

  “Most applications are pretty straightforward,” said Ewald. “Working with an equipment provider on the head end of your brewery planning and knowing what considerations need addressing upfront goes a long way in ensuring a successful, properly sized and reliable system. For example, a case in point might be if the conveyor runs overhead across the taproom or restaurant portion of a brewery. The last thing you want in an area where patrons should be enjoying themselves with your food, conversation, and your beer is an excessively noisy conveyor.”

  When the economics of buying in bulk versus bags make sense, that’s generally when changes, including expansion, take place. Ewald said it’s not too difficult to make a case for a brewery producing as little as 1,500 to 2,000 barrels per year to justify the expense of a silo and slab and be able to recoup that cost in less than a year. From that point on, the cost savings goes right into the brewery’s bottom line. A brewer should inquire with their malt providers to confirm the exact savings point on a per pound basis and see if there are any partnership incentives available through the supplier to help obtain a grain storage silo.

  “I suggest that a brewer engage a company that has the history and knowledge to be able to discuss overall plans and can look at their entire grain handling and milling systems,” said Ewald. “Being able to provide and take responsibility for a total solution versus looking at one piece from one manufacturer, another from a different supplier and so on, is critical. It is often the little things in a brewery’s overall flow that get overlooked, like transitions, gates, spouting and the system control interface.”

  “Another consideration,” said Ewald, “Is after all the fun that comes with grain conveyance, milling, and brewing, you’re then going to have to deal with the spent grain. So it’s best to have an idea of how much spent grain will be stored, the time that it will be in storage, how it is going to be moved out and where it will be going. [These are] all things to think through before you brew that first batch of goodness.”

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