Monitoring production to ensure consistency starts with a few key functions.
Investment in your first laboratory requires a few key pieces of equipment
Your craft brewery is up and running, and demand is starting to grow. How do you ensure the product you are selling remains consistent in taste and quality as production increases? Setting up a brewery quality control laboratory is critical in answering these questions. Many breweries will start with basic quality control of their beer as a goal and expand to more analytical processes to maintain product consistency.
Because there are so many aspects to any brewery lab, the biggest uncertainty any brewery, big or small, may have is where to begin. The most important initial decisions you need to address include setting a goal for your lab, identifying staffing needed to operate the lab, and deciding your budget for lab installation. But whether you are building your first lab or expanding the lab you already have, every brewery should plan for these few critical laboratory functions:
- yeast management
- microbiological control
- fermentation control, analysis and tracking
For a new brewery looking for some basic equipment recommendations, here is everything you need to know to get started on the right lab-track.
If this is your first lab, the best route to take is by starting with simple yeast management. Essentially this is just using a microscope and some viability stain to view your yeast, perform cell counts for pitching rate calculations, and obtain viability data. Doing this routinely will help improve the consistency of your fermentations, but will require you to get a good microscope that is comfortable to use.
There are many microscopes on the market, but for a simple procedure like this you will not need anything too robust. The key elements you should look for in a microscope are binocular (rather than monocular, to make viewing easier on your eyes), a mechanical stage (for moving your viewing slide around), and at least 400x magnification capabilities. 400x is all you will need to view yeast, but if you plan on viewing bacteria in the future you will want to start with a microscope that can magnify up to 1000x. A good quality 400x microscope is priced $300-$500, while a 1000x microscope will be a couple hundred dollars more.
In addition, you will need a few other accessories for cell counting such as a hemacytometer (the counting chamber slide) and your viability stain. You can find a hemacyometer as inexpensive as $15 online, but the counting grids on these are much more difficult to find or see, especially if you are not an expert at using all of the settings on a microscope. The best kind to purchase is what is called a bright-line hemacyometer, which will make viewing extremely effective.
To implement an effective microbiological control lab, there are three essential pieces of equipment you will need: a small scale (+/- 0.1 gram sensitivity) to measure your dry media ingredients, a small autoclave or pressure cooker to sterilize media, and an incubator to incubate sample plates for microorganism growth. Both the scale and autoclave/pressure cooker are fairly easy to find and do not have specific requirements in this case, other than finding one that is properly sized for your needs. The incubator should also be sized for your needs, and should have good temperature control in order to maintain temperatures up to 35°C, +/- 2°C. This is likely your highest priced item here, costing anywhere from a few hundred dollars for a basic incubator, to nearly $1,000 for something a bit fancier with multiple racks and digital temperature gauges and control.
You will need a good amount of training to be able to properly perform and interpret results from microbiological testing. Otherwise, you may consider hiring someone for the lab that has this experience. In either case, you’ll want to get a few beer microbiology reference guides to help get you on your way because these procedures and results are quite specific and unique, even for someone that has a science background. A great starter book is Brewing Microbiology by Ian Campbell (around $150).
Fermentation Control, Analysis & Tracking
Fermentation control and analysis is another critical piece of any brewery quality control program. Aside from temperature, one of the most important aspects of a successful fermentation is dissolved oxygen (DO). Yeast requires oxygen to form the lipids they need to grow and function optimally. Many craft breweries are well aware of this; being able to provide adequate wort oxygenation is, however, a bit of a challenge. Dissolving oxygen into liquid is very dependent on factors that are not static, such as temperature and density of the wort, as well as head pressure on the tank. Oxygen also comes out of solution quite easily, so oxygenating at the right time and place in-line is very important.
One piece of equipment that every brewer should invest in if they are serious about consistently successful fermentations is a dissolved oxygen meter. Like electronics, DO meters have gotten better and less expensive over the years and there are several makes and models to choose from. Ideally, you will want a meter that is designed to be in-line and is specific for wort oxygen, as opposed to packaged beer oxygen, which measures with a different sensitivity. Also think about the oxygen probe and maintenance – a meter with a glass probe will be more expensive but will better handle brewery CIP systems and will need to be replaced less often, while a traditional membrane probe will be less robust and have to be replaced frequently but is significantly less expensive. You can find a good in-line dissolved oxygen meter for anywhere between $3,000 to $5,000.
Once you have a good handle on your fermentation, you’ll want to make sure you are tracking fermentation performance to allow you to identify issues early and trouble-shoot. Much of this involves simple tracking and record-keeping for core beers and being able to identify deviations to normal yeast behavior. Although this does not necessarily require specific equipment to properly track fermentation metrics, development of a consistent method of record-keeping is critical. There are excellent software programs out there that help you to record information and mine the data, but if you are proficient with Microsoft Excel, you can easily set this up yourself.
Now You're On Your Way
Using these basic equipment recommendations to set up laboratory capable of performing these key functions is a great start to help the brewer achieve and maintain consistent product. Once you start down the path of implementing your own brewery quality control program and building a brewery lab, the adventure never ends. The basics are a substantial way to open the path to bigger and better labs, including more precise and technological equipment to perform more precise and technological analysis on your beer. In the end, any level of brewery quality control is a step in the right direction towards what every brewer wants, and that is great quality, consistent, beer.
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