The Pilot System

Creating a pilot brewhouse to mimic your main brewhouse to assist in scalability for current beers that are well known by their flavor can be vital for consistency.

This especially can be true when it comes to scaling up after an expansion and the former main brewhouse becomes the pilot system.

For Ithaca Beer, the brewery has both a 50-barrel production brewhouse as well as a 5-BBL brewhouse alongside it. The 5-BBL system was installed around the same time as the production system when Ithaca expanded into its new production facility in 2012.

Gregg Stacy, the New York brewery’s Director of Marketing & Sales said the pilot system was installed with a few objectives in mind: Test batches, experimentation, production for its taproom and also special releases that Stacy labeled “hyper limited” beers available for special accounts or occasions.

Those batches can be as small as 18 sixtels.

“This has allowed us to remain competitive and fresh in the market which has become even more important these days with the massive number of breweries entering the market,” Stacy said. “Short consumer attention spans require short runs of amazing hard to find beers. Most recently, we’ve been offering a number of New England style IPA’s under our XIPAA! brand (eXperimental IPA Accord).”

It is likely the main intent of most pilot systems is to give brewers a chance to experiment on a smaller scale without incurring the risk and expense of committing expensive ingredients and limited tank space to large volumes of beer that may or may not sell through, or even come out to a brewer’s satisfaction.

Abe Kabakoff, the head pilot brewer for Sierra Nevada’s Chico, California facility, said that the current pilot brewery that he runs was build nearly 15 years ago to mimic the main Chico brewhouse. The pilot brewhouse was envisioned as a tool to try out new processes and improve the main brewery, and so the first couple of years, it brewed a lot of Sierra Nevada’s classic Pale Ale. It also supplied the restaurant with a selection of rotating beers and some Chico-only favorites.

It is a five-vessel brewhouse with a mash tun, lauter tun, two boil kettles and a whirlpool.

“We even purchased a steep-conditioning mill from Huppmann to be sure our grain milling was as close as possible to production,” Kabakoff said. “Our kettles have similar internal calandrias to production, and an attempt was made to keep the volume to heating area ratio the same.”

Pilot Questons for Rogue‘s John Maier

Brewer: Why did you want a pilot system for the brewhouse?

Maier: I wanted to downsize from a 3,100 gallon brew system to a 150 gallon brew system – it’s great for one offs and product development.

Brewer: Why did you choose the system that you chose? Did you always want a 5-BBL system or did you look bigger or smaller?

Maier: I picked the Ss Brewtech system because I liked the engineering behind it and it’s on a skid. The 5-BBL brew length is perfect because it supplies all of our pubs with one keg. We offer these experimental “live lab” brews at our pubs to see how patrons respond to them. That’s how beers like Cold Brew IPA came to be. 

Brewer: What sort of specifications did you want from the system? Why did you want those specs?

Maier: I first wanted it to be a steam-fired system. I had double steam jackets put on the mash/lauter and wort kettle. Also the mash/lauter tun is sized perfectly for brewing 9 to 24 Plato beers. The system also has an oversized heat exchanger this allows for fast wort transfer while saving water.

Brewer: How has the system worked for you so far? What sort of creative brands have come from it?

Maier: The Ss Brewtech system is a dream to brew on. I get consistent extracts and yields and the beer quality is excellent.  I’ve been brewing a lot of traditional styles with a few twists like adding Yuzu to an IPA or brewing with roasted pineapple and roasted macadamia nuts. Next, I’m brewing a beer for the solar eclipse in August as Newport will be in the Path of Totality for 1 minute, 45 seconds!

He also noted that the original automation software was almost an exact copy of the production brewhouse, too. His team brews 10-BBL batches, and then ferment in 20- or 40-BBL fermenters, which is 20 times smaller than a larger production batch.

In the past many processes and products have been trialed in the pilot system, and not just for new flavors of beer.

“We were able to prove out that we could change our filtration process and stop using diatomaceous earth, an nonrenewable fossil resource and one of our last production wastes that went to landfill,” Kabakoff said, noting they also could show how the production brewhouse could adjust aeration and pitching schemes to optimize creation of natural sulfides, and prove out green beer centrifugation as a process to install in the North Carolina brewery.

The underside of Sierra Nevada’s pilot brewhouse has many features that were installed as a trial and never went to production as well, such as a wort cooler on the way to the whirlpool, a pump for forced convection through the kettle calandria, and an external calandria.

The business has changed a lot since the pilot was put in. When Sierra Nevada started the pilot program, the team would develop one or two new beers a year.

“Now we develop one or two a month,” Kabakoff said.

About six years ago, Sierra Nevada started doing its Beer Camp series with retailers, distributors and others, and bumped up pilot production by adding ten 17-BBL fermenters. Now Kabakoff and his team does a lot of new product development, and much less Pale Ale benchmarking and brewing for the restaurant.

“Our Mills River, North Carolina, facility has a 20-BBL system,” he said, noting that officially it’s the pub brewery there, and the Chico facility is the pilot house.

“That has helped take some pressure off by assuming some Beer Camps and product development responsibilities,” he said.

Scalability is a difficult thing, Kabakoff added.

“We can’t take a pilot recipe and multiply everything by twenty to get a production recipe,” he said.

Base malt works by the 20-times scale, he said, but somehow the production batch gets more color out of roasted malts, so the formulation is only needed to scale up by about 17 times.

Hops have been really difficult to align well, Kabakoff added.


“When we do benchmark Pale Ale, we need to use about 50 percent more hops than a direct scaledown would indicate,” he said.

On the engineering side, linear, area and volume measurements on tanks don’t all change by the same ratio, and so there are always differences.

“Think of a 4-inch cube vs. a 3-inch cube,” Kabakoff explained. “The ratio of side lengths is 4:3, the ratio of the areas of the faces is 16:9, almost double, and the ratio of the volumes is 64:27, more than double. Fermentation has to be run differently: a 40-BBL tank has 1/20th the volume, but 1/7th the surface area of an 800-BBL tank, and the 40-foot-tall, 800-BBL tanks have a lot more hydrostatic head than our 12-foot-tall 20s. We found that to flavor match with production, we had to ferment a few degrees warmer, because there is a lot more cooling area in the pilot tank, and under a top pressure of 10 psi.”

Even with all the worries that can happen in scaling, Kabakoff said that the 10-BBL system in Chico does give brewers a chance to play as well. Sometimes things that would never get committed to on a production scale.

“We’ve brewed a tea IPA, a mint Stout, a cranberry sauce Saison and a German gingerbread beer in the last six months,” he said. “It’s great for trying out crazy ideas and seeing if they get traction. We also make beers for many different events – Outside Lands in San Francisco, the Telluride Blues and Brews Festival, the Sea Otter Invitational, and sometimes a special beer for a city’s beer week.

“These small-volume brands are well served in the pilot. We can sponsor these events with a special touch because of these short runs, and I think it makes our sponsorship more meaningful.”

A disadvantage, he notes is that the brew team can go through a lot of work on a pilot batch, using a four-hour mashing process to make a really dry pilsner, caramelizing wort for eight hours for a special brew, or running three hop torpedoes on a tank, and if it is a big hit, it is a lot of trouble to make it work in production.

“It is really easy to use a new experimental hop in a pilot batch, but finding 30,000 pounds of that variety to start production brewing could mean contracting for next years’ harvest, 18 months away,” he said. “New product development must keep these factors in mind.”


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