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Old 07-21-2006, 11:14 PM   #1
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Default Don't Try This at Home - parts 1, 2 and 3

It was suggested I put these together so...

Part 1:

Dude suggested I share a bit of my story related to my journey as a professional brewer and the experiences therein. So I will try to do some of that here, although it might be better if I break it up a bit - part 1, part 2...

Like many of you somewhere I got the idea that turning my hobby into my profession seemed like a reasonable thing to do. I had a decade of homebrewing under my belt, loads of ribbons - what could go wrong? At that point there were only 2 breweries in New Mexico and none in Albuquerque. The time and opportunity seemed right. That was 1991.

At first I thought I would utilize a clause in the zoning law and open a small keg and 22 oz bottle micro out of my home. I began getting the licensing paperwork in order and registered the name Rio Grande Brewing. Licensing involved the city zoning, city council, the fire department, city utilities, the department of health, ATF, New Mexico Alcohol & Gaming, Federal Label approval, and probably others I don't remember. It sucked. But I started making my way through the maze, while at the same time started to locate the equipment I would need.

About this time I was contacted by a brewing friend who was thinking of doing the same kind of thing and wondered if I was interested in forming a partnership, which we did. He brought financial strength to the partnership and so we decided to shift our focus to opening a brewpub and began looking for a location.

During this effort I was contacted by a business group who owned a series of restaurants around town. They had the idea of converting one of their spots into a brewpub and proposed we go into partnership with them. They would own and operate the restaurant and we would own and operate the brewery. We pulled in another partner on our end, who was a friend that also had an interest in commercial brewing. The three of us worked together with the restaurant partners for a number of months until it became clear from both sides the idea really didn't hold water and we decided to go our seperate ways. They eventually opened Assts Grill and Brewing/the Southwest Brewing Company and became partners in the Pub Brewing Equipment Company. We on the other hand went off to find a space and write a new business plan.

We chased after a number of other locations, wrote and rewrote business plans, finally submitting a slick, full blown plan and bid on a downtown space. A month later it was rejected and we recognized how little we knew about starting a business, running a brewery and how we know even less about running a restaurant

So we licked our wounds and regrouped. We decided that our best shot would be a pure micro focused on bottled and kegged product with no retail/restaurant function. Again we started to look for equipment and space when I was contacted by a large investment group (owners of Famous Amos cookies) wanting a proposal for a LARGE regional micro. So we got to work and produced a new business plan. In the end the deal did not go through because the investment tax incentives they had anticipated never materialized. Damn goverment bean counters!

By now we were really tired of the whole run around. Further, one of our trio was having to move to Denver so his wife could complete a medical internship. So the two of us remaining said screw it and signed a lease on a commercial warehouse space. I was selling footware at REI, preaching on the weekends and was hungry for something new.

We decided to begin with a single beer in the general style of Anchor Steam/bastard lager. We actually applied for the name Bastard Lager, but were deneighed. Of course a couple years later Stone received approval for Arrogant Bastard, but such is life. We went with Outlaw Lager and let it be.

I will stop there for now and if there is interest, continue with the next part to talk about putting the brewery together.



Part2:

Cash was in short supply so we had to work on half a shoe string. The warehouse we leased had last been used by a winery (Gruet) and was really just a big warehouse space with high ceilings and a floor drain. It needed build-out so we brought a third partner on board who had some building experience. We built a huge, two compartment coldroom, one side for primary fermentation, the other for cold conditioning. The roof was built to support grain storage and such.

Our first fermenters were Grundy tanks, which are 7 bbl british serving tanks, not jacketed or conical. We bought 20 of them, 12 for fermentation, 8 for conditioning and constructed a manifort to connect them in series of four to accomidate our 28 bbl batches. The kettle was a horizontal dairy tank I located in a field on a local dairy farm and bought for $300. It was originally designed as a cooling tank, but we figure that if we reversed the flow, ran steam instead of coolent and pretended we didn't know any better it would work, and it did. We bought a huge boiler/steam generator and had to build a fireproof room around it. We found another horizontal tank for our hot liquor vessel and utilized the boiler to heat it as well. We put this on leg so it stood twelve feet off the ground and designed our system to utilize gravity. The mash/lauter tun was a simple stainless cylindar that we bought from a local winery. It came out of the pick-up on the way home and bounced along I-25 outside of Santa Fe, but the only damage was a small dent. We had a funky false bottom fabricated that utilized a couple copper plates, screening and pipe, put in a manway for grain removal, but it too worked really well inspite of our best efforts.

Our batch sizes were 28 bbl because that was the volume of the kettle. The equipment came from all over the area and we really had a frankinbrewhouse. The chiller was a beast of a unit that was also dairy salvage, but as with everything else, it got the job done, even if it wasn't pretty. We had inline oxygen and a plate and frame filter, a nice pump mounted on a skateboard. We always said, what did it matter, it isn't a show place. For a filler we found an OLD 24 head rotating filler. It ended up being a great buy, but when we got it we had no idea how it worked. We actually thought the lifters for the bottles were operated with water, not air. What a mess that was! We had to hunt all over for parts and spend days figuring that machine out. I built, invented actually, a 12 head, counter pressure keg washer and filller, which I keep saying I will some day market. For the first 6 months or so we did not buy a mill and use pre-crushed grain and believe it or not a motorized Corona mill for specialty grains!

As you can gather it was an unusual brewery. We did not have any consultants or manuals, so it was all seat of the pants. We had figured out the recipe and done loads of small test batches. It took months for all the licensing and inspections to get cleared and so we did a lot of homebrewing and drinking. We also lined up a distributor who just happened to be in the same complex. They took care of all promotion and sales.

We got things configured and gave it all lots of water tests. We also cleaned things with caustic and such, through which I learned the important lesson that one should not wear Teva sandles while working in large puddles of caustic soda. (Like I said, we drank a lot in that era.)

I think it took something like 6 months from the time we signed our lease until we had all the approvals we needed to get brewing. It had been a nearly three years since I had left my last church job and started this crazy path and we were just getting ready to brew. To say we were excited hardly sums it up.

Part 3 (see 1st reply)

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Old 07-21-2006, 11:15 PM   #2
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Part 3:

I really can't stress enough how complicated starting a brewing can be. Don't get me wrong, it was a blast, but all the details and the unknowns, well they are a bit much.

Label approval alone was a real run around. I am attaching an image of our first label.



It seems straight forward enough, but every detail required explanation. I came up with the design based on popular Southwestern art images, but the label approval people wanted to know why we wanted to use bones. "We don't ike bones" we were told. We also had to explain all initials and text. It took forever to get approval, and you can't sell beer without an approved label. Text has to be at least a certain size, UPC codes have to be registered, and there really isn't a lot of help out there. BUT in the end we got approval, learned the process and so there you have it.

Because our system was put together from here and there, we had no real idea about our efficiency, so for our first batch we made our best guess and went from there. We figured we would assume poor extraction just in case for the first batch, somewhere around 60%, but in the end the system work very well and we got closer to 80%. So that first batch was STRONG! It got the nickname "numbskull" from one local bar manager who woke up on his bar room floor, next to his Harley, and no idea how he got there. Not a really great situation, but a great opening night story!

Because everything was new, and there was great pressure to get the product out (we had the orders), we just marched ahead. Our first batch was a full 28 barrels. We used 2000 pounds of crushed grain, mixed it with a 225 gallons of water at about 170 degrees to get a rest at around 150. We had done the difficult work of calibrating the hot liquor tank and so we had some idea of what we were doing. We had a motorized paddle in the tun and so mixing was not a huge deal. Temperature loss was guessed at based on a know grain temp, and so forth. So the mash ended up being very close to our target. I think we hit 148 which made us happy. I had been having nightmares of mash temps being way off and losing 2000 pounds of grain, but except for the effeciency calculations we did well.

The rest was for 60 minutes and then we simply did a fly sparge to volume, plus estimated evaporation, in the kettle. We had not thought to do a test of evaporation rates for the kettle and that caused some problems. We ended up with less product then we had thought we would (about 3 bbls short) which meant the batch was even stronger then expected. We thought of watering it down, but in the end figured, "what the hell" and let it be. I don't remember exactly, but I think that first batch ran in the range of 1.070 when we had want 1.050.

Hopping was straight forward - three additions (60 minutes, 20 minutes, and end of boil). We used fresh leaf out of bales and could not believe how crisp and fresh the hops were.

Chilling was a challenge. We had run water tests but water is a little thinner then a 1.070 wort. We had to monkey with flow rates and valves, as well as oxygen levels (which was something brand new to us). It ran a little warmer then I had wanted but wasn't out of hand and so after a 12 hour brew day we called it beer. We had built up our yeast with DME and had an appropriate volume to get the job done. More actually, because we had a violent fermentation that really made a mess of our new fermentation cooler. The cooler was also a closed space, without adequate air and the next morning when we went in to check on things, well it actually was a dangerous situation. It is hard to breath pure CO2. Another lesson learned.

Waiting for 25 bbls to ferment, while wondering if it was going to turn out, because there were a bunch of orders and people counting on you, is a little nerve racking. Fotunately it was all fine. But we did have packaging issues. We had more or less figured out the bottle filler, but not really. We also had never used our plate and frame filter and so that was a concern. The filter came with a set of pads and so when it was time to filter we set everything out, started filtering and then tasted the beer. It was horrible. The filter was much too fine and we were stripping all the flavor out of the brew. So we had to stop and regroup. Fortunately we had another set of courser pads and got back at it with better results, but a barrel or so was lost and that was money down the drain.

We force carbonated and had no problems there. So all was left was getting the brew into packaging. Kegging was easy. I had built a filler and it worked very well, so we had draft beer. Once it was done we stuck a keg on tap and proceeded to drink it down with all our distributor, sales people, family and friends. It was the most satisfying beer I have ever had, and it was strong.

The kegs went out immediately to draft accounts in Albuquerque and Santa Fe. We held a variety of openings and had some nice local press. Of course we had to start thinking about another batch and a production schedule, but we still needed to get bottled product.

If you have ever used a counter pressure bottle filler you have a small idea of the situation we faced. Our filler was a 24 head, counter-pressure filler. It had a filling tank mounted on a carosel that rotated at a controlled speed. Bottles are loaded into lifters that put the empty bottle to the filling heads. These lifters have to rise and fall in a smooth fashion or the bottle isn't filled, or it foams every where, or the lifted shaft does not drop and the machine jams and expensive and hard to find parts break. All of these things and more happened. It was so bad that in our first multiple attempts no bottles got filled. It was chaos, broken glass, spilt beer, broken parts, tempers flairing. And to top it all off, that was the day I stopped smoking! It was a really bad day.

It became obvious that it was going to take time to get a handle on our filler. The problem was we had 80 cases that had to get out. We had opening tastings scheduled and shelf space waiting. So we did the only thing we could think of, we broke out the old homebrewing counter pressure bottle fillers and got busy. We had two of them. Mine had a 3-way valve on top and was not too bad, the other had those stupid needle valves and really sucked. Again, we called in the family and friends and made a night of it. We hand filled, hand labled, hand packaged and got our 80 cases out the door by morning.

Things slowly improved and got smoother. But there is always something to fix or worry about, but that is another story. Again, don't try this at home, maybe anywhere!
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Old 07-22-2006, 04:03 AM   #3
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Default So what is part 4?

It sounds like all you do now is home brew. What happened to stop brewing professionally?

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Old 07-23-2006, 02:10 PM   #4
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It is a lot of hot and hard work with an uncertain financial future. It became one of those "been there, done that" kind of things.

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Old 07-24-2006, 04:06 PM   #5
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wow - that's a pretty cool story. Glad you wrote it down. There is probably a pretty funny book in there somewhere - especially if you mix in your other profession.

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Old 07-24-2006, 08:40 PM   #6
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Awesome story! Thank you very much!

So would you recommend turning a hobby into a JOB, if you could do it all over again?

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Old 07-24-2006, 10:23 PM   #7
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WOW! Sounds like quite a bit of headaches. On the same hand it also sounds like some of the best days of your life. How many people have been THERE and done THAT. Did your brewery make more than one type of beer? Any advice for someone who is thinking of going into professional brewing? If you had to do it again would you do it the same or buy a brew pub and go from there?

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Old 08-02-2006, 02:18 AM   #8
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Not only is this an awesome story, but it's told by a great story teller.

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Old 08-02-2006, 02:44 AM   #9
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was there another rio grande brewing company? in the 1930's?

http://cgi.ebay.com/Envelope-Rio-Grande-Brewing-Corp-Albuquerque-NM-1938_W0QQitemZ110014038059QQihZ001QQcategoryZ567QQ cmdZViewItem

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Old 08-02-2006, 03:01 PM   #10
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Cool item. Yes, it didn't last long and the owner went on to start a brewery in California (Lucky Lager I believe). The brewery only lasted a couple years and the beer is reported to have been pretty bad. One story has it that the brewer was shot for making bad beer. The owner was investigated as a Nazi spy while he was here. I have only seen one bottle from the brewery and it was at the museum at the Oldenberg Brewery near Cincinnatti.

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