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!