Brewing Heating Options Part 4 – The Verdict

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We’ve reached the final part in our brewing heating options series, it’s time to draw some overall conclusions on Steam Brewing, Direct Fire Brewing and Electric Brewing systems. The aim of this post is to help you decide the right brewery heating option for you.

A quick recap on the different heating options covered in the articles series are:

Steam – One advantage of steam is it offers even heat distribution, read the main article here

Direct Fire – It can be a quick when heating up wort in the kettle, for the full article click here.

Electric – Electric is often the easiest to install as there are fewer local regulations to pass compared to direct fire and steam. For our dedicated electric heating article click here.

All brewery heating options have their pros and cons when brewing. So, how do you choose the right heating system for your brewhouse?

Well let’s start by looking at the table below for all the information we’ve learnt so far:

Brewing Heating Options

Let’s take a closer look at the each of the categories we’ve used in the above table. So, we can do a deep dive into the merits of each heating option. We’ll start with brewery size.

 

How Big Will Your Brewery Be?

The size of your brewhouse, will go a long way in deciding the right option for you. In smaller systems, 500 litres (4.25 US barrels) and below electric is most used. At this size you’re more likely a brewpub in a residential area.

Your main concern with electric heating is venting the steam from you brew kettle. If you can’t vent to the outside, you can run a steam condenser off your brew kettle steam outlet. These condensers run cold water through then vent turning steam to water which goes to the drain.

In residential areas there’s likely to be tighter regulations, which can rule out the installation of a steam generator and the use of an open flame. When you’ve electric heating, you’re only using electric elements meaning less red tape.

Easier Setup

Furthermore, using electric elements inside your brewhouse vessels means there are no boilers, pipes or water treatment needed unlike when using steam. So, if space is tight, electric makes sense plus, it’s cheaper too.

The main concern with elements, is if they blow out during your brew day. It’s always good to keep spare elements in stock to reduce downtime.

As you can see for a smaller brewery, the low initial start-up costs, ease in setting up and the fact it takes up little space makes electric attractive. Electric is ideal up to 1,200 litres (10 US barrels), with bigger electric brewhouses existing.

When you go bigger it becomes an issue of being able to draw enough power. In many locations, it would be cost prohibitive to convert the building to three-phase electric to run bigger elements.

 

Brewhouse between 5HL (4.2 US barrels) to 17.5 HL (15 US barrels) in Size

If you’re location can’t provide the electrical power needed for elements; direct fire becomes a viable alternative. Yes, the setup costs are more than with electric, however they’re still cheaper than steam.

Furthermore, the space needed for direct fire is manageable, depending on the system chosen. At this brewery size range, you’re mostly likely a taproom or large brewpub where space is still a concern.

Direct fire advantages over steam, are no boiler, boiler room or piping are needed. Additionally, if you’re in a residential area, direct fire is probably easier to install than steam factoring in local regulations.

Direct Fire Heats Up Wort Quickly

Direct fire heats up wort quickly (the quickest of the three methods). However, it’s prone to hotspots and a higher probability of caramelization particularly if heating using a firebox underneath the kettle.

If you’re use direct fire jackets on the kettle, there’s less chance of caramelization but it’s still something to look out for.

In this brewhouse size range, steam is of course and option too. However, you will most likely use an electric steam generator rather than a dedicated gas boiler. As they take up less room and are easier to maintain.

If you decide to buy your brewing equipment from China, they will often recommend an electric steam generator. Please note: Chinese regulations for housing a steam generator are less strict than elsewhere.

So, check with your local authorities first about what is and isn’t allowed before any equipment purchase. I’ve actually seen a 200-litre brewery in Shanghai run with an electric steam generator.

To conclude, with a brewery between 5HL (4.2 US barrels) to 17.5 HL (15 US barrels) in size all heating options are viable.

Breakdown

Steam – Ideal if you’re local regulations allow it, you’ve the budget and if you would like to use steam elsewhere (more on this point later).

Electric – If you’re building can draw enough power, you’re on a tight budget and local regulations take steam and direct fire off the table. One downside of electric, is it can take longer to reach a boil the bigger your system becomes, plus the boil maybe less vigorous too.

Direct Fire – If you’ve the budget and local regulations allow, direct fire is a decent option. Especially if you’re in a remote location where propane is handy fuel source.

 

Breweries at 1,750 Liters (15 US barrels) and Above

Where larger breweries are concerned, I’d always recommend steam where possible. You’re more likely a production brewery so, being able to use steam elsewhere is handy. Steam is good for keg/cask cleaning and for sterilizing wooden barrels if you have a program. Steam can be used for sterilizing compressed air for wort aeration too!

When you’re running a production brewery, you’re more likely to have a 3,4 or 5+ vessel system. Having steam so you can heat all vessels including your HLT at the same time is labour and time saving. When you’re doing multiple brews per day these savings really start to add up, to the point the extra costs of installing steam are recovered.

The bigger you go when using steam, the more attractive it becomes to use a calandria. Having greater control of the boil and evaporation rate, makes consistency from batch-to-batch easier to achieve.

 

Start-up Costs

If you’re planning a small brewpub (less than 500 litres) on a limited budget, electricity is perhaps the right choice. The physical installation of the equipment plus passing of local regulations is easier.

Furthermore, electric is the cheapest option to install compared to the others. Yes, it most likely the most expensive to run but the space saving plus, less maintenance required make sense.

Above 500 litres to 1,000 litres, it’ll likely come down to which utility is cheapest to run at your location, gas or electric. If you’ve access to natural gas, then direct fire is a good choice. The start-up costs are higher, however, over time you’ll recoup the extra expense in cheaper running costs compared to electric.

Additionally, if you’re in a remote location, propane is a nice choice. However, it really comes down to price and availability at your site.

Steam as we say is expensive to install, however above a certain size of brewhouse it makes sense. The heating is efficient, you’ll have even heat distribution, colour pick up is low, it’s relatively quick and can be unitized in other parts of the brewery.

 

Regulations and Efficiencies

The first table in this post highlights the efficiencies of the three main heating sources. Electric with its low-density elements is least efficient. However, it worth noting as the as the elements are immersed in the wort, heat transfer itself is quite efficient.

Electric is the preferred option dependent on brewhouse size and utilities available at your location. With direct fire the choice is a little more elusive.

Let’s recap the three main choices:

  • Direct fire heating from the kettle bottom
  • Internal helical coil
  • Jacket with indirect fire

When deciding which of the above choices best suits you; the factors are, how big is your budget and what are the local regulations at your location. The helical coil is the most expensive option.

However, like many expenses in brewing, the more expensive the equipment, the more likely it will pay for itself over time. Helical coils are extremely efficient and will save on ongoing gas running costs.

Direct fire under the kettle is the cheapest option so, those on a budget it’s a good choice. Please note however, there’s a greater chance of localized hotspots and caramelization so, be mindful when brewing lighter more delicate beers.

 

Hotspots and Differential Temperatures

Steam is the most consistent of the brewing heating options. Steam jackets don’t get as hot as direct fire jackets and offer more even heating therefore you’ve less chance of hotspots and caramelization.

Direct fire under the kettle leads to more hotspots, to the degree where clean-up after the boil is tougher due to “caked” on deposits.

Electric with its low-density elements, will lead to some localized hotspots in some brewing set-ups around the elements. However, modern elements and the improvements in technology makes this less likely but some caramelization will most likely occur.

Please note: Caramelization is desirable in some beers or even true to style. For instance, in some Scottish ales longer boils and caramelization are sought. Therefore, if you’ve a core range of beers where caramelization is desired, direct fire might be the way forward.

 

Color Pickup

Depending on the brewery heating options you choose, you’ll see different levels of colour pickup. In some beers like Barleywine, colour pickup is desirable. The picture below shows a Barleywine made with all pilsner malt.

Brewing Heating Options

The colour was achieved by boiling the wort for 18 hours in the brew kettle. Ever since I saw this picture, I’ve wanted to try this myself. As with caramelization colour pickup from the Maillard reaction in the boil is desired in some beer styles.

When comparing the main heating methods, the colour pickup is:

Steam Brewing

With the advancements in modern brewing technology, colour pickup on a brew day is less of an issue than before due to advancement in equipment fabrication. However, it’s always good to be aware of the issue.

 

Brewing Heating Options: Speed of Heating

This subject is more important if you plan to do multiple brews per day. Being able to heat up the mash quicker is preferred. It’ll save on time and labour costs. Electric with low-density elements takes longer (HERMS and RIMS) plus, the boil in the kettle maybe less vigorous.

Direct fire is able to heat up the kettle quickly however, a lot of the “heating power” is lost to the air. So, the helical coil and indirect fire with the coil being immersed in the wort is preferred if the budget allows.

Steam heats up wort quickly enough and is definitely the preferred method for heating your mash. The mash doesn’t need to be transported anywhere else (unlike electric) and heating is usually 1°C per minute. Furthermore, there’s less chance of “scorching” the mash compared to direct fire.

Also, when using a HERMS on an electric system for heating your mash, the HLT temp needs to be at the required mash temperature. This is less than ideal, adding time to your brew day, as you’ll need to heat up the HLT after the mash is at the right temp for lautering.

When using direct fire in your mash tun, localized hot spots are a concern, Yes, you’ll be heating the mash up quickly BUT, enzymes can become denatured or the grain scorched leading to off-flavours in your final beer.

When it comes to speed, even heating and convenience steam wins every time.

 

Versatility Around the Brewery

This is where steam comes to the fore, it can be used for many other tasks around the brewery:

  • Heating all brewhouse vessels using a central boiler, including CIP units
  • Cleaning and sterilizing casks/kegs on a dedicated cleaning line
  • Sterilize compressed air for wort aeration
  • Cleaning wooden casks if you’ve an in-house barrel program

There are other uses for steam too, which I’ll add later when I think of them. If you’re a larger brewery being able to use steam elsewhere, really makes it attractive when deciding among brewing heating options.

Brewing Heating Options: The Vigour of the Boil

Having a good roiling boil is preferred by brewers for decent evaporation rates and to drive off unwanted volatiles such as DMS…

Let’s Look at DMS (Dimethyl sulfide)

DMS (Dimethyl sulfide), is an off-flavor/aroma which presents as “corn” in finished beer. You really don’t want DMS in your brew. The best way to guard against DMS is on the hot side of brew day during your boil.

In lighter malts such a pilsner, SMM ((S-methylmethionine)) the precursor to DMS is present in larger numbers. This is why lagers are generally boiled for longer than ales when brewing.

The act of boiling wort drives off SMM leading to less likelihood of DMS being present in the final beer. When using electric, the boil maybe less vigorous so, please be aware of this issue.

 

Brewing Heating Options Conclusions

As you can see there’s much to consider when it comes to choosing the right brewing heating option for you. The key factors to consider are:

Utilities – Is three-phase electric available at your location? What are the costs of gas and electric where you are? Is propane a more convenient fuel for you as you’re in a remote location?

Location – Are you in a residential area, industrial zone or a farm brewery?

Budget – How big is your budget?

Building – Is space a premium? What are the local regulations or building codes like?

What Size System – If you’re small, then electric might make sense. If you’re bigger then steam is probably the way forward.

You’ve also other parameters like colour pickup, vigour of boil, speed of heating and the likelihood of hotspots which need to be considered. All together there are many variables to consider so, we hope our brewery heating options series has given you the tools to make a more informed choice.

With the advancements in modern brewing technology, colour pickup on a brew day is less of an issue than before due to advancement in equipment fabrication. However, it’s always good to be aware of the issue.

 

Brewing Heating Options: Speed of Heating

This subject is more important if you plan to do multiple brews per day. Being able to heat up the mash quicker is preferred. It’ll save on time and labour costs. Electric with low-density elements takes longer (HERMS and RIMS) plus, the boil in the kettle maybe less vigorous.

Direct fire is able to heat up the kettle quickly however, a lot of the “heating power” is lost to the air. So, the helical coil and indirect fire with the coil being immersed in the wort is preferred if the budget allows.

Steam heats up wort quickly enough and is definitely the preferred method for heating your mash. The mash doesn’t need to be transported anywhere else (unlike electric) and heating is usually 1°C per minute. Furthermore, there’s less chance of “scorching” the mash compared to direct fire.

Also, when using a HERMS on an electric system for heating your mash, the HLT temp needs to be at the required mash temperature. This is less than ideal, adding time to your brew day, as you’ll need to heat up the HLT after the mash is at the right temp for lautering.

When using direct fire in your mash tun, localized hot spots are a concern, Yes, you’ll be heating the mash up quickly BUT, enzymes can become denatured or the grain scorched leading to off-flavours in your final beer.

When it comes to speed, even heating and convenience steam wins every time.

 

Versatility Around the Brewery

This is where steam comes to the fore, it can be used for many other tasks around the brewery:

  • Heating all brewhouse vessels using a central boiler, including CIP units
  • Cleaning and sterilizing casks/kegs on a dedicated cleaning line
  • Sterilize compressed air for wort aeration
  • Cleaning wooden casks if you’ve an in-house barrel program

There are other uses for steam too, which I’ll add later when I think of them. If you’re a larger brewery being able to use steam elsewhere, really makes it attractive when deciding among brewing heating options.

 

Brewing Heating Options: The Vigour of the Boil

Having a good roiling boil is preferred by brewers for decent evaporation rates and to drive off unwanted volatiles such as DMS…

 

Let’s Look at DMS (Dimethyl sulfide)

DMS (Dimethyl sulfide), is an off-flavor/aroma which presents as “corn” in finished beer. You really don’t want DMS in your brew. The best way to guard against DMS is on the hot side of brew day during your boil.

In lighter malts such a pilsner, SMM ((S-methylmethionine)) the precursor to DMS is present in larger numbers. This is why lagers are generally boiled for longer than ales when brewing.

The act of boiling wort drives off SMM leading to less likelihood of DMS being present in the final beer. When using electric, the boil maybe less vigorous so, please be aware of this issue.

 

Brewing Heating Options Conclusions

As you can see there’s much to consider when it comes to choosing the right brewing heating option for you. The key factors to consider are:

Utilities – Is three-phase electric available at your location? What are the costs of gas and electric where you are? Is propane a more convenient fuel for you as you’re in a remote location?

Location – Are you in a residential area, industrial zone or a farm brewery?

Budget – How big is your budget?

Building – Is space a premium? What are the local regulations or building codes like?

What Size System – If you’re small, then electric might make sense. If you’re bigger then steam is probably the way forward.

You’ve also other parameters like colour pickup, vigour of boil, speed of heating and the likelihood of hotspots which need to be considered. All together there are many variables to consider so, we hope our brewery heating options series has given you the tools to make a more informed choice.

 


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