Brewery Heating Options: Electric Steam & Direct Fire

In the final part of our brewery heating options series, we’ll roundup the information from the previous three parts and draw some conclusions. With the aim of helping, you decide which brewery heating options is right for you.

The three main brewery heating options are:

Steam – One positive, is steam offers even heat distribution, read the main article here

Direct Fire – It can be quick to heat up the wort in your kettle, please click here for more information

Electric – Main advantage of electric is it’s cheap to install, for more information please click here.

As you can see, they all have their positives, in the previous articles linked above we’ve already done a deep dive into each highlight their pros and cons.

The question becomes, how do I choose the right heating system for my particular brewery setup? Well let’s start by showing a table, with all the information we’ve learnt so far:

Brewery Heating Options Comparison Table

I think a good way to work through the problem is to treat the above categories and their own distinct section to explore in details. So, without further ado let’s start with brewery size.

Brewery Size

If you’re brewery is 5HL (4.25 bbl.) or under, in most instances’ electric is your best option. The reason is, you’re most likely a brewpub at this size, possibly in a residential area too.

If you’re in a residential area, your only concern is your steam for your brew kettle with electric. As there’s no boiler or open flame involved.

If having a vent to the outside isn’t viable then, you can run a steam condenser off your brewhouse steam outlet. This will run cold water through the vent and the steam turns to liquid and is directed to a drain.

Electric is cheap to install, as you only purchasing electric elements; there’s no boiler, pipes and water treatment unlike with steam. It takes up less space and the only major issue is if your elements blow out during a brew.

So, for a smaller brewery, the low initial start-up costs, ease of set up and the fact it takes up little space makes electric the ideal option.

Electric for your heating source is good up to 10bbl. (11.7HL); you do have larger electric breweries. However, as elements get bigger, they need to draw more power from the mains. A lot of buildings aren’t a rated to draw such power.

The installation costs to provide power for a larger electric brewhouse could be prohibitive. That’s when direct fire becomes a viable alternative.

Asian Brewing Consultant - Neil Playfoot Mashing In
Me Helping Out On An Electric Brewpub System in Wuxi, China

Brewhouse in the 5HL (4.2 bbl.) to 17.5HL (15 bbl.) Range

So, as we said electric is good up to 11.7HL (10 bbl.), if you’ve a building which can draw enough power. If it can’t, then direct fire could offer a viable alternative. The set-up costs are more expensive than electric, but still cheaper than steam.

Furthermore, the space needed for direct fire isn’t too big either, depending on the system you use. With a brewhouse in this size range, you’re most likely a tap room or brewpub, where space is a priority.

Also, it’s easy to run as there is no boiler, boiler room or piping. Plus, if you’re in a residential area, then it’s also more likely to pass regulations for installation, than using steam as well.

Direct fire can quickly heat up wort (the quickest of the options) however, it’s prone to hot spots leading to caramelization, especially if using direct fire heating from the bottom. This issue is less of a concern with indirect fire (jackets/coils) but you can still get some caramelization.

In this range of brewery size, steam is an option too. However, you’re most likely going to use an electric steam generator rather than a dedicated gas boiler. They take up less room and are easier to maintain.

With Chinese equipment manufacturers, they often suggest this option. In China regulations for housing a steam generator in your building may not be as strict as elsewhere. I’ve even seen a 200L system in Shanghai with electric steam generator.

Before considering steam for your system, please make sure with your local authorities, use of a steam generator is allowed at your location.

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So, in this brewhouse size range, all options are a possibility:

Steam: If you can pass local regulations for the steam generator, your budget allows for it and you want to use steam elsewhere (more on this later).

Electric: If you building is able to draw enough power, your budget is lower and local regulations make direct fire or steam hard to install.

One downside with electric is; it takes longer to get to boil, the larger your system is. Plus, the boil might not be too vigorous either.

Direct Fire: If you’re budget stretches to it, and local regulations allow, then direct fire might be a good option especially if you’re brewing in a remote location (as you can use propane).

Brewery Heating Options - Propane
I’ve used propane before when brewing in a remote location

Brewhouse 17.5 HL (15 bbl.) and Above

On larger brewhouses, I would always suggest steam. When you’re at this level you can use the steam elsewhere. It can be used for your keg/cask cleaner, for your barrel program and sterilizing compressed air for wort aeration.

When you get to a brewery this size15 bbl. (17.5HL+), you’re in production brewing territory. You may have a 3,4 or 5+ vessel system so, having steam to heat both the HLT (hot water tank), mash tun, and brew kettle can be advantageous.

It can save you a lot of time for each brew. So, if you’re doing multiple brews per day, the labour and time savings made, can help pay back the extra expense of installing a steam boiler over time.

At this level the amount of electric you would need to draw is too much for most locations. You can still use direct fire but, the benefit of being able to use steam on multiple brewhouse vessels makes it more appealing.

The larger the brewery; the more appealing it is to install a calandria, it gives greater control of the boil and evaporation rate. Furthermore, it is easier to replicate the processes from brew to brew.

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Brewery Heating Options: Initial Start-Up Costs

If you’ve a small brewpub (less than 500 liters) and limited budget, then electric is probably the way to go. The installation and local regulations are easier so, path to opening smoother. Plus, it’s the cheapest option of the three as well. Granted, it’s the most expensive to run but, at the smaller size with space saved it makes sense.

In the midsize range it’ll probably come down to which utility is cheaper at your location, gas or electric. If you have access to natural gas then direct fire might be the best option. The start-up costs are higher but the ongoing running costs are less than electric in most locations.

Also, if you’re in an out of the way location, then propane might be the best way to heat your brewery. It really comes down to price plus availability at your site.

When it comes to steam it’s the most expensive option but, at a certain size the advantages really stack up. It represents the best of the brewery heating options because; the heating is efficient, gives even heat distribution, color pickup is low, it’s relatively quick and can be used in other parts of the brewery.

Bespoke Brewing Solutions Hand and Malt Brewhouse


When it comes to efficiency of the different heating sources the table is self-explanatory. Electric with its low-density elements is least efficient. However, as the elements are in the wort the heat transfer itself is quite efficient.

You mostly choose electric depending on size and availability of your brewhouse and building. When it comes to efficiencies of using direct or indirect fire, the choices are a little bit more subtle. So, here are the three methods to choose from:

  • Direct fire box at bottom of the kettle
  • Internal helical coil
  • Indirect fire via jacket

It comes down to a few criteria, how far will you budget stretch too and what are the local regulations at your location. An internal helical coil is the most expensive option, however, like most expenses in brewing it does pay itself back over time.

The coil is the most efficient, as a heating source, I’m hoping Lanemark will share some numbers with me, which I will add later. Furthermore, in a residential area, like Villages Brewery in London, when installing their system, it’ll more likely be passed for installation by local authorities.

Direct fire underneath the kettle, being cheaper to install represents the best option if you’re initial budget is stretched. Just bear in mind there’s a greater chance of localized hotspots and caramelization so, be careful if brewing light beers and lagers.

Using Brewing Salts - How To
With lighter beers please caramelization using direct fire

Differential Temperatures/Hot Spots

Steam offers the most consistent of brewery heating options. When using steam jackets, they won’t get as hot as direct fire jackets. Plus, the heating is even so, the chances of hotspots or caramelization is low.

Direct fire under the kettle is likely to be the worst for hotspots, to the extent clean up after boil is often harder due to “caked” on deposits afterwards.

Electric with low density elements will also lead to some localized hotspots around the elements. However, with modern elements the chances of scorching are reduced but, some caramelization will mostly likely occur.

One thing to note however, for some beer styles caramelization is desirable or even true to style. In some Scottish ales, longer boils and caramelization are wanted. So, if your core range has several beer styles where caramelization is desirable then direct fire could be prefect.

Colour Pickup

Similar to hot spots, depending which of the brewery heating options you choose, you’ll see a difference in color pickup. In some beers like barleywine color pick up is desirable…

I’ve seen breweries with all Pilsen malt mash, boil the wort for 18 hours in the brew kettle, to achieve the beer color in the picture below:

Brewery Heating Options - Barleywine
This all pilsner malt brew was boiled for 18 hours

As with caramelization, some styles require a colour pick up from the Maillard reaction in the boil. For each heating method the colour pick up is:

HIGH PICKUP -> electricity -> direct fire -> indirect fire -> steam <- LOW PICKUP

Depending on beer style, color pick up may or may not be desired. To be fair, with modern technology and brewhouse design; color pick up is less of an issue with whatever heating source you use.

But, it’s always good to be aware; and ask your equipment manufacturer if color pickup is an issue with their system.

Brewery Heating Options: Speed of Heating

When brewing, especially if you’re doing multiple brews in one day; being able to heat up your mash or wort quicker is preferred. You’ll save on time and labour costs. Electrical elements can often take the longest with their low-density elements plus, the boil might not be as vigorous.

Direct fire can heat up the kettle quickly but a lot of the “heating power” is lost to the air around the kettle. Indirect fire coil or jacket offers less “heating loss” with a coil being the most efficient as it’s immersed in the wort.

Steam, is pretty good at heating up wort in the kettle quickly. However, it’s definitely preferred on a mash tun. The steam jackets properly designed for a mash tun, will heat up the mash at 1°C per minute.

You don’t have to move the mash somewhere else (unlike electric), and no chance of scorching the mash (unlike direct fire).

Electric using a HERMS or RIMS system will take longer to heat up the mash plus you need to pump it elsewhere. Also, when using HERMS system, your HLT needs to be at the desired target temperature of your mash, which is less than ideal adding time to your brew day.

When it comes to direct fire, localized hot spots are a big concern. Yes, they can heat up the mash quickly BUT, you might denature enzymes or the grains can become scorched leading to off-flavours.

When it comes to speed and even heating steam wins this round every time.

Uses Around the Brewery

So, steam is the only one of the brewery heating options you can use for other parts of the brewery. You can use it for:

  • Heating all other brewhouse vessels, including CIP unit
  • Cleaning and sterilizing kegs/casks on a dedicated cleaning machine
  • Sterilizing compressed air to sterilize wort
  • Cleaning wooden casks for your barrel program
Here’s a Chinese double headed keg cleaner which uses steam I sourced for a client

I’m sure there are other uses too, I will add them when I think of them. If you’re a larger brewery being able to use the steam elsewhere, really is important factor in your overall decision-making process.

Brewery Heating Options: The Vigor of the Boil

OK, so a lower priority than some other factors, when deciding on your heating choice. However, it’s worth noting here. A vigorous boil is desired for good evaporation rate, and to make sure unwanted volatiles are driven off.

Let’s Talk About DMS…

DMS (Dimethyl sulfide) is an off-flavour which presents as “corn” when in beer. It’s far from desirable in your brew. The best way to control it in brewing is on the hot-side, specifically the boil.

Brewery Heating Options - Corn DMS
DMS smells like corn when present in beer NOT desirable at all

With lighter malts such as pilsner, DMS is more of a concern, that’s why most breweries boil lagers for longer than ales.

The act of boiling your wort will drive much of the precursor of DMS; SMM (S-methylmethionine) away. Therefore, please if you choose electric, where boils are often “less vigorous” be aware of this issue.

Brewery Heating Options Conclusions

When deciding which of the brewery heating options is right for you, isn’t easy. The key factors to consider are:

Location – Are you in a residential area? In an industrial zone or say on a farm?

Budget – How big is your budget?

Building – Are you a brewpub with little space? What are the local building codes for your building like?

Utilities – What type of electric is available at your location? What are the prices for gas an electric where you are? Is propane a more convenient fuel for you?

How big is your brewery – If you’re small then electric is probably best? If you’re larger, being able to use steam elsewhere might be useful to you.

Then there are some other parameters like colour pick-up, how vigorous do you want your boil to be, speed of heating and potential for hot-spots and scorching which need to be considered.

All these factors, when considered together, will ultimately decide which heating method you choose for your brewery. I understand with all these options and factors, it’s not an easy decision to make.

If you need some help in these matters or with other issues regarding a potential brewing project then please feel free to reach out to me for assistance. I now hear you ask…but who am I?

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For the other articles in the brewery heating series please see the links below:

Brewing with Electric (Part 1) – For the pros and cons of brewing with electric click here.

Brewing with Steam (Part 2) – Find out why many brewers prefer steam in their brewery click here.

Direct Fire Brewing (Part 3) – For different direct fire heating options, with their pros and cons click here.

Lanemark TX Burners (additional content) – For a dedicated piece on the benefits of a Lanemark TX Burners system please click here.

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Who Am I?

Hello, my name is Neil, I’ a British brewer based in China. I first came to China in 2010. I’ve been lucky enough to have brew on a number of systems, in various parts of the world in my 25-year brewing career.

I now assist people with their brewing projects, helping people in a number of ways from recipe formulation to sourcing brewing equipment.

Need Help With Your Brewing Project?

If you’ve an upcoming brewery project and would like some help, or simply want to talk with someone, then please feel free to email me at:

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I’m currently advising on projects from the UK to New Zealand. I’m happy to answer some initial questions you might have and assist in any way I can.

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Thanks for taking the time to read my article today, I hope you found it useful. Have a great day and happy brewing.



Neil Playfoot

Neil is a brewer with 25 years international brewing experience. Based out of China (first came in 2010) he works as a brewing consultant helping brewers with their projects and brewing processes. To find out what services Neil can provide your brewery please click here. If you'd like to contact Neil you can email at
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