As some of you will know, Fallen Brewing started up in April 2012. We (which in this instance means I) didn’t have premises, we didn’t have any commercial equipment and we didn’t have a great deal of funding. The ‘company’ was just a naïve and enthusiastic homebrewer with a passion for making great beer and a desire to share it with as many people as possible. Over the past 7 years, we’ve expanded the team to 8 employees and now produce 250,000 litres of quality beer per annum (our current capacity). We supply loyal customers from the independent on- and off-trade, iconic venues such as Gleneagles and multiple retailers including Aldi, Lidl, Waitrose and M&S.
For this March blog, I wanted to touch on how we started up, how we developed our initial (and current) processes and then look at some of our equipment and how, with the benefit of hindsight, we might have done some things differently.
Anyone who has spent a significant amount of time homebrewing will tell you that it’s perfectly possible to make great beer with the most basic of equipment. With a cobbled together brewkit and some plastic buckets, it’s feasible to produce beer that rivals the best commercial examples. Of course, it’s also equally possible to go out and blow significant chunks of money on top specification stainless home brew kit but this won’t necessarily ensure a better end product. These basic principles are (I’ve learned) exactly the same at commercial scale. The most important things when brewing at any scale are knowledge, skill and nailed-down reproducible processes. Of course, higher specification equipment can give you a better chance of achieving the latter but the amount of money you spend does not guarantee quality in and of itself.
This previous point is rather convenient as we didn’t have much of a budget when we started up. Initially the expenditure was limited to a van, a small population of casks, a reliance on contract brewing by a local brewery and some contract bottling. A basic website and some graphic design costs for the initial branding and we (I) were off and running. Whilst peddling wares to local central Scotland trade accounts (most of whom remain trusted loyal customers and friends) I had a project running alongside to establish our own premises. In December 2012 we bought the old Kippen Railway Station and by April 2014 we were up and running. There was a lot of business planning, fundraising and equipment specifying during this time but we eventually established our own premises and started producing beers exactly the way we thought we wanted to (at the time).
When specifying the equipment initially, I was really looking at our processes through the eyes of a homebrewer rather than a skilled, technical commercial brewer. Also, I didn’t have the budget to employ a good brewing consultant. There were building refurbishments to add to the overall project costs so equipment budget was critical. I’d like to think that I mostly got it right with the essentials and basics (as per the entry level homebrewer) but there were certainly mistakes made along the way. Open-top fermentors (relatively inexpensive but functional), dish-bottom CTs with racking valves that were a little too high (preventing maximum yield) and various other pieces of equipment that were perfectly functional but not quite of the ideal specification. However, we had no choice but to make it work and we developed our processes around the equipment we could afford.
Here are the good bits, the things we love about our kit and, when we upgrade, will try to reproduce:
- Manual control. Whilst we didn’t have the budget for automation, I now feel that processes such as mashing, sparging and hop additions require a certain amount of ‘feel’ e.g. I prefer to mash thick and at a higher temperature than ‘industry-standard’ for the majority of our core beers to give a creamy, full-bodied texture.
- All FVs and CTs will have a full-size manway on the lid for hop additions. We’ve tried lots of different methods for dry-hopping but our trusted method is to pour them into the top of the tanks (dry) after fermentation is complete. This is followed up by multiple CO2-based ‘rousings’ to help the hops disperse through the beer and settle out.
- At the moment, all of our cans and kegs are naturally carbonated. We mix sterile sugar solution with the finished beer, package the beer then leave the cans or kegs in the warm room to condition and carbonate naturally. There are two significant benefits: 1. No reliance on extraneous CO2 and the associated cost of reliable systems to package using force-carbonation; 2. Secondary fermentation soaks up any dissolved oxygen (the biggest enemy of fresh beer) that might have been picked up during the packaging process. However, from a practical and space perspective this method of conditioning is not ideal so as we look to expand this is almost certainly going to be an area of compromise.
Here are some things I would love to have done differently (all of which will be obvious to those in the know):
- Following on from point 1 above, it would have made so much more sense to invest in force-carbonation from the start. It was an expensive luxury though and from a homebrewer’s perspective there was a perfectly reasonable, and cheap, alternative.
- Invested in conical unitanks from the start. These would have maximised efficiency and yield, minimised the need for transfer between fermentors (with the associated risk of dissolved oxygen pick-up and contamination). However, they were also three times more expensive than the tanks we actually bought.
- Invested in a boiler/kettle/copper capable of handling pellet hops. We have a kettle that can only really handle leaf hops and it is a significant additional drain on time and effort to dig out the leaf hops after the boil each day. On the plus side, the brewers all have beautifully soft skin from their daily steam baths while in the kettle digging out the hops.
- Invested in a hop-back or whirlpool. At the moment we do an 80 degrees centigrade hop steep at the end of the boil. Whilst this gives good results that we’re happy with, I’m sure we could achieve even better hop profiles in our beers by adding a hopback or whirlpool.
- Invested in a brewkit capable of brewing multiple batches on the same day. This is not realistic for most/all entry level kit such as the one we started with (and still have) but in hindsight, if we could do it all again, this might have made the ‘must-have’ rather than ‘nice-to-have’ list.
- Specified as much as possible standardised tank fittings. The different tanks and outlets from different suppliers featured a myriad of different fittings which require different hosetails. This means lots of adapters or lots of changing of hosetails which gets very tedious, very quickly. 1” RJT, 1.5” RJT, 1” Tri-clamp, 1.5” Triclamp, DIN20, DIN40 to name just a few. We’ve tried to remedy this over time but this is a big one when we specify our next kit.
The first 5 years at the old Kippen Railway Station have been a huge learning curve. As we look towards the next 5 years and our next expansion (more on this in a future blog), our shopping list is growing. In the current market where brewers seem to be expanding exponentially, there is always ‘equipment-envy’. The centrifuge; the faster/better canning line; the depalletization assembly; the bigger, better brewkit; the list goes on. Our focus will remain as it always has been which is making great beer using a combination of knowledge, skill and reproducible processes. Investing in the right equipment will help us achieve our goal of continuously improving our processes and we’re really happy with the knowledge and skill of the Fallen team and look forward to continuing to knock out great beers for you to enjoy.
Thanks for reading
Paul and The Fallen Brewing Team
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