Commercial craft brewers have skills. Mad skills. But all of that beer doesn’t make itself in the palm of their capable hands. Those skills need to be honed on commercial brewing equipment. Most everyone starts out on your basic 5 gallon homebrew system. There you are, standing over a bubbling wort, stirring, smiling and drinking a beer. No doubt you’re thinking
I’ve got this shit in the bag. My CAR IPA
[Coffee, Avocado, Rhubarb] recipe will make me millions. I’m opening a brewery!
The gap between that reality and moving onto commercial level brewing (not to mention your horrific taste) is significant and fraught with peril.
Besides the actual purchase and build-out of the building, the biggest capital investment a new brewery faces is the brewing system. For some smaller breweries, the brewing system is even more expensive then the build out. Costs of brewing equipment range anywhere from around $50,000 for full 7 barrel system made in China, to $250,000 for a single, custom, US built 750 barrel fermenter.
The brew tank industry has a front row seat to the massive changes of the craft beer boom because the beer starts with them, literally. Melinda Marks, of Marks Design and Metal Works (aka Marks) out of Vancouver, WA says
Just 5 years ago the most popular fermenter was 15 barrels. Now, it’s 60 barrels.
Volume has increased, making quality that much more important. A 400 barrel fermenter holds about $500,000 of product, so these are extremely important pieces of equipment. They must be built well. Failures aren’t acceptable. According to the good people at Marks, buying a cheap Chinese system is not the way to go. Marks proudly provides 100% US made brewing systems and equipment.
The welds, steel and quality standards of Chinese tanks don’t match up. We’ve heard too many stories of systems breaking down, or glycol jackets falling off because of bad welds and poor design. They just don’t last anywhere near as long as US made and they have lower standards. Plus, our tanks aren’t made in sweat shops by teenagers. – Melinda Marks, Vice President of Marks Design and Metal Works
750bbl Fermenter for Ballast Point Brewing
I’ve also heard some breweries buy cheaper Chinese systems and have a welder customize them for you after it shows up. This makes the startup costs considerably less, which is extremely important for a new brewery.
Melinda Marks is married to Ryan Marks, who started Marks Design and Metal Works in his garage. He started offering services to pharmaceutical and dairy companies. Marks is currently doing some work for a coffee company, but with the booming craft beer business they barely have time for anything else. They are booked out until November of this year and they are making some of the biggest baddest-ass fermenters and brewing systems in the US. Earlier this year they constructed a 750 barrel fermenter for Ballast Point, one of the fastest growing breweries in the US.
Marks has a strong reputation and it’s one reason they are in talks to build the largest US made fermenter in the US, a 1,500 barrel beast for Ballast Point. It will hold more than $1.8 million in fermenting beer. To give you some perspective, the massive breweries (by craft standards) of Victory Brewing and SweetWater Brewing, are installing multiple 1,000 barrel fermenters. Marks’ will be 50% larger.
The booming industry has brought stiff competition. There are about 6 tank companies in Portland, OR, just 20min south on I-5. Melinda says, “Tank companies don’t collaborate and they fend for themselves and keep proprietary information to themselves.” That competition can be impacted – but rarely – by the price of steel. They watch the price of steel because a project bid is about 40% material and 60% labor. This means $100,000 of a $250,000 fermenting project could be impacted by a fluctuation in the market. Sandwiched between an insular competitive market and steel prices, tank companies must rely on their good reputations and track record. Marks has a great record in Bellingham.
Wander Brewing’s US Made Tanks (via Wander’s Facebook Page_
Wander Brewing went with Marks Design and Metalworks because we felt that as a local, community-minded craft brewer, it is important that we also support our local vendors and tradespeople. 100% of our tanks are American made right here in Washington State. We are proud of that. At the time we placed our initial order two years ago, I think we were the largest brewhouse Marks had produced for a Washington brewer and they have since went on to grow their business to be recognized nationwide. We have always been impressed with the quality of the Marks tanks and they were again our fabricator of choice for our recent tank expansion.
I think many consumers would be surprised to know that much of the equipment used to produce the local craft beer they drink is fabricated overseas. If you are drinking a Wander beer, you can be sure that it is brewed with quality ingredients on 100% Washington fabricated vessels.
Earlier this year, Geemacher in Pennsylvania became the first present day domestic manufacturer of stainless steel kegs. We placed an order earlier this month and will have American made kegs arriving next month which will help us to extend our support of domestic suppliers into our packaging. – Chad Kuehl, Owner/Head Brewer, Wander Brewing
Craft is about knowing the roots of your beer. It’s about knowing who makes what with what ingredients. Do you know where your favorite brewery got its brewing system from? Drinking local should also stress brewing local.
Next time you’re standing over your 5 gallon homebrew system dreaming big about your brewery, consider what you may be getting yourself into. Are you going small? Are you going big? What values will you stand for when you first open your doors? Most importantly, can you scale a CAR IPA recipe into a 750 barrel fermenter? Let us know.