The idea to write about the pros and cons of a pilot brewery, came to me as I was writing my last article about the process of customizing a brewery.
I was commenting on how breweries need to be more flexible and dynamic, to be able to offer constant unique brews to their drinkers.
Even if a brewery, brews just lager or hazy IPAs, there are still opportunities to offer different unique beers within these constraints.
The craft brewing sector is highly competitive, and breweries need to stay “relevant” and be in drinkers’ thoughts. With so many beers on offer, people often like to try something new.
Granted, breweries will have regulars; people who love one particular beer, which they’ll constantly come back to.
Furthermore, ensuring your beer is the best it can be, by having proper procedures in place and brew staff a correctly trained, is always more important than variety.
Please note: In brewing I always tell people safety is the most important above all else, in a brewery!
Still, mixing things up, by having different brews in their beer rotation, is something most modern craft breweries plan for, and carry out.
Pros And Cons of a Pilot Brewery – What is a Pilot System?
A pilot brewery is a smaller system generally housed in the main brewery. So, a brewery can produce smaller volumes of beer, than on their main larger system.
The size of a pilot system is often dependent on the size of the main brewhouse. Over my 27-year brewing career, working at and visiting other breweries.
I’d say good guide is for a pilot system to be a tenth the size of the main brewhouse. I’ve seen this setup ratio in many breweries.
For instance, the 2,000-liter Humdinger brewery, a project I worked on before originally had a 500-liter brewpub system, with a 50-liter pilot system, which is pictured below.
This is just a standard I’ve seen in the past. For example, there’s a brewery I know in Shenzhen, China which has a 5,000-liter main brewery and a 500-liter pilot brewery.
This isn’t to say this ratio is right for everyone, but a good metric for those starting out, to base their plans off.
Minimum Size Suggestion for a Pilot System
What I would say is, however small a brewery goes for a pilot system. Make sure the system allows for two kegs of final beer to be packaged. It can be the smallest kegs you fill, like 2 x 20-liter kegs.
The reason I suggest this is, if you’ve tap room, you can put the beer on plus, receive real-time feedback. Having two kegs of beer means a fair few people can try it, with the comments received being more useful.
Also, if it’s a new beer, having two kegs worth; allows people time to visit and try the new brew too. I used to like putting a new beer on a Friday, to try and kickstart the weekend.
Time Sink – Pros and Cons of a Pilot Brewery
Whatever size system you brew on, if you want to do it right, it’ll take time. Granted, a smaller pilot system allows for a quicker brew day than brewing on a main system.
However, you’re generally looking at least 5-hours minimum from start to finish. Even for the most basic pilot system. From prepping the brew water, till the final bit of clean down is done.
Then the fermentation and maturation length, will be similar to large system brew, until the beer is ready for packaging.
A lot of man-hours will go into producing a smaller amount of beer. In modern brewing, the cost of production is going up quickly.
With malt and utility prices increasing. The cost of labour is a major concern for breweries, it’s why many of my new clients look to automation to reduce running costs.
The time spent to produce a small amount of beer, always has to be considered.
Scaling Up Often Doesn’t Work
Pilot brew systems have historically been used by breweries to test out new beer ideas. If a pilot brew is successful and well-received, it’ll be transitioned to the main brewhouse.
The idea being historically breweries didn’t want to risk brewing an experimental beer directly on the big system, only to find out the beer wasn’t great.
Leaving a brewery with beer which is hard to sell, or one in need of dumping. Breweries should never sell beer they know isn’t right, as a brewery is only as good its last beer.
Quick note: If you make a bad brew, it doesn’t always pay to hide it with fruit, or rebrand it. It’s easy to pick-up new customers with good beer, but…
Much harder to re-engage customers who’ve had a bad brew. It’s often not worth the risk to your reputation…although the temptation is there.
Scaling Up Can Be Tricky
What many modern brewers have discovered is, it’s hard to scale up from smaller pilot systems to the main brewhouse.
Even if a pilot system replicates the main brewhouse, to be as similar to the main brewery as possible. It often doesn’t scale up to the big system so, easily.
For instance, hop utilization will always be different. Yes, over time you can understand the efficiencies of both brewhouses.
However, whenever brewing a new beer on a main system, it’ll always take a few brews to dial in the recipe. The geometry of the vessels will always be different on the pilot system.
Plus, working the wort will differs too, with timings likely being shorter on the pilot system. A lot of breweries, find brewing on the pilot and then scaling up is really quite different.
Playing Around with Raw Materials
Still, playing around with various raw material combinations, be it grain bills or hop additions. Does allow a brewer to get a sense of how a beer tastes, and if a grain bill or aroma profile, is on the right track.
Still, there’ll likely be a fair amount of tweaking on the main brewhouse, before a brewery is truly happy with the final beer produced.
What brewers tend to find is, pilot breweries are best used to produce smaller batches of unique and experimental beers.
For new brews planned for the big system, breweries should be confident in their research and recipe development. Meaning just go straight to brewing on the big system, forgoing the pilot batch step.
As my good brewing buddy Matt Jimenez (Matt’s LinkedIn profile) said when we discussed this the other day…
“Go BIG, or go home”.
Matt also went on to say, know your process and ingredients when scaling up. Have plenty of discussions as a brew crew. If you’re solo brewer, reach out to a fellow professional to talk something through, if you need a sounding board.
I’ve always got a few brewing buddies on speed dial, if I need to a second eye on some brewing related subject. Always keep good brewing records so, you can refer to them when creating a new recipe.
Take as much guesswork out of the planned brew as possible. For more information please see my article “How to Design a Beer Recipe With Images” where I breakdown recipe formulation.
Pros of Using a Pilot System
Now it’s time to look at some of the advantages of having a pilot system. Starting with experimental brewing.
Yes, as we have already said, pilot breweries can lay the groundwork for research and development (R&D).
However, many modern craft breweries use their pilot system to push out one-off, crazy and experimental brews. Granted if one of these brews proves a hit, it made be worked on, to become a regular beer.
Still, a pilot system when used to crank out one-off beers or seasonal specials allows a brewery to have regular new beer offerings. Keeping some of the more adventurous clientele happy.
Getting Creative to Satisfy Drinkers Thirsts
Many craft beer drinkers always want to try something new. A pilot system allows a brewery to be creative, without committing to brewing large volumes.
A brewery with a taproom, these days means having constant fresh beer offerings on tap. To cater for the more intrepid customer base. For taproom customers, variety is important, it’s what keeps them coming back.
Plus, many breweries truly understand, the importance of taproom sales. As they keep greater profits in-house, as compared to distribution.
As a brewing consultant I’m seeing lower volume, higher margin taproom models able to produce a series of one-off beers and seasonal varieties increase the demand for smaller systems.
This can be one of two ways. A larger production brewery: say a 5,000-liter brewery with a smaller pilot brewery (say 500-liters) to produce new beers for the taproom or limited release.
Otherwise, it might be a 700-liter brewpub with has a 100-liter pilot system, to ensure they are able to offer a variety of beers on tap.
I’d like to share a case study of my friends at Chaba Brewing in Kunming at this point.
Chaba Brewing Case Study – Pros and Cons of a Pilot Brewery
Chaba Brewing is a 1,000-liter brewpub in Kunming, Yunnan, China. Run by two guys Teddy and Tim. Plus, their awesome head brewer Kevin and assistant brewer Simon.
I got to speak with Teddy from Chaba Brewing about how they developed a beer using their pilot system, to become both an award-winning beer, and distributed throughout China in cans.
The inception of the idea started with home-brewing on Teddy’s balcony, whilst the brewpub was built.
To read about their case study please click this link. where I’ve written a short post about their journey. It’s makes for a great argument, highlighting the pros of buying a pilot system.
Pros And Cons of a Pilot Brewery – Propagating Yeast for The Main System
In smaller craft breweries where there may not be a room or budget for a proper yeast program. A pilot system can be used to propagate yeast.
Buying wet yeast to pitch direct into a large main system brew can be expensive. What I’ve done over the years is buy a smaller amount of wet yeast and brew a batch on a pilot system and pitch the smaller amount of yeast.
The next day or the day after, depending on the yeast. I’ll brew a big batch on the main system and push the pilot batch into the main brew.
Bingo! You’ve a healthy, viable pitch with a big enough yeast count for the main batch.
For more popular beers, you can even do a double batch over two days. With the second batch going into the same tanks as the first main batch.
Hopefully, the diagram above makes it clearer what I’m explaining. I used this method, when I was brewing in Shanghai.
It was a way to keep yeast costs down, when using fresh yeast wet pitches. In theory if the size of the pilot system is big enough, this can be used by most breweries who don’t have access to a dedicated yeast propagation system or equipment.
Pros And Cons of a Pilot Brewery – Split Batch to Make a Stronger Version of Main Brew
When you’ve main system and a pilot of 100-liters or more, there’s an option to make a stronger version of the main system brew, on the pilot brewery. Running both breweries in parallel.
It’s probably best to explain by example…
—> Let’s say I’m looking to brew a 2,000-liter main system batch of Double IPA (DIPA)
—> I could also brew a Triple IPA (TIPA) on the pilot system, let’s say 200-liters
What I would do is add more malt to the grain bill. To account for taking off 220-liters of the first running’s, from the DIPA main brew.
Make Sure You’ve Enough Malt to Hit Your Kettle Gravity Target
The extra malt allows me to still hit the pre and post boil gravity for the DIPA. I would run some of the first running’s over to pilot system, when I begin lautering.
I actually run a little of the first running’s to the main kettle before, switching over to transfer the strong wort to the pilot kettle. So, the wort is consistent, and also clear.
Once I’ve run 200-liters of wort to the pilot. I’ve essentially got a stronger wort version of my main brew. It means I can brew a pilot TIPA at the same time I’m making a main system DIPA.
Granted the TIPA will be finished before the main brew. Still, it’s a lot less work than brewing the TIPA separately, with a dedicated mash.
You could do this with several styles. For example, brew a tripel on the main system and a quintuple on the pilot system. It’s a different take on the parti-gyle brewing, in a sense.
Doing a Different Version of the Main Brew
There are three main methods, I can immediately think of when you can split the main brew and make a variation of it.
Wort Pre-boil into the Pilot Kettle
Very much the same of doing a stronger version of the same beer. However, instead of collecting wort during the lauter. You send wort to the pilot kettle pre-boil, only after the main kettle is full.
This allows a brewer to use different hops and/or adjuncts in the pilot kettle. This might be to trial new hops and see how the sensory changes compared to main brew.
Alternatively, you could make a sour version of the same brew, by way of kettle souring the pilot kettle batch. It’s a chance to play around with wort still on the hot side.
Post Boil Wort into the Pilot Kettle
This can be to trial some new whirlpool hops or again add some extra adjuncts. For example, add some add some spices to make a “Christmas version” of the main batch.
Making A Sour Version Using Particular Yeasts
As an off shoot to my wine yeasts article, I also talk about Acid Fermo Brew by AEB, it’s a yeast which diverts glucose in wort, to lactic acid (instead of biomass). Generally, about 12 to 13% of wort, is actually glucose on a typical brew day.
Once the glucose has been used up, you pitch another beer yeast, it can be the same yeast you used in the main batch, and ferment normally. This makes a “sour” version of the main brew.
Once Fermo Acid Brew came onto the market, I would often sour some of my core IPA using a pilot fermentation tanks. It was an easy way to keep the sour beer lovers happy.
There are also other yeasts you can use like Sourvisae, by Lallemend too. I’ve never used it myself, but I’ve read about brewers who have, and been happy with the results.
Adding Different Hop/Adjuncts
Likewise, you can divert some of the main brew into a pilot fermenter to dry hop differently or add some different adjuncts to make a fruited version of the main batch.
Any aromatics can be added really. It’s the ideal time to split a saison brew, then add some crazier or more experimental aromatics to the pilot FV batch, to see what the result is.
One time I took some 5% smoked lager to a pilot fermentation vessel, then added 25-liters of apple concentrate. I added the concentrate towards the end of the lager fermentation.
I then fermented out the apple concentrate too, making a 13% smoked graf. It was a daft thing to do, but I thought why not. It sold and people liked it.
Making Non-Beer Products
These days breweries are looking to cater for people who don’t drink beer. When a group of people come in, and one or two don’t like beer.
Being able to offer them something craft, which isn’t beer a can be a real crowd pleaser. This is where a pilot system can be useful.
Non-beer products can often be more easily scaled-up to the main brewhouse if needed as well. It can be RTD’s, which are “ready to drink cocktails”.
This can be as simple as having pre-mixed gin and tonic in keg, and then pouring from a draft tap. Then you can make non-alcohol products like hop water or something like Crafthead’s Duck Tea Deluxe.
It’s a 0% ABV refreshing cold beverage made using Yunnan Duck Shit Tea. This a cold water infused tea drink, with a sprinkle of stardust with Nicholas, the owners magic brewing tricks.
Overall, there are many ways a pilot brewery can be used to make non-beer products. It’s really up to the imagination of the brew crew.
Training Opportunity and Creative Outlet – Pros and Cons of a Pilot Brewery
Thanks to another brewer Sean Astill of Future Magic Brewing Co., for highlighting this point for me. Having a pilot system provides a creative outlet and a training opportunity for brewers in the team.
It provides the brew crew a low-risk recipe research and development (R&D) tool. As Sean goes on to say:
“Personally, I think investing in your brew team in a way which also makes you money and increases your brewer’s skills is 100% worth it.
It’s also surprising how quickly you can make a return off a reasonably cheap automatic home brew kit like a Grainfather.
You don’t need to baby it so; they can do a pilot brew while completing regular brewery tasks with minimal interruption…100% worth it in my opinion.”Sean Astill, Owner/Brew Future Magic Brewing Co.
I have to say I agree with Sean on this. Having a pilot system allows brewers to have fun, play with recipes and potentially come up with a great new beer.
Learn Through Experimentation
It allows brewers as we said before experiment with different grain and hop combinations. It can be a wonderful training tool too.
For example, when I was brewing in Shanghai, we decided to brew a raw ale. It was the first time doing so.
We did a lot of research, put a recipe together and plan out the whole brewing process we wanted to follow.
Being able to do the brew on the pilot we had, allowed us to go through the process and learn as we went along.
It gave us the confidence to do a larger 2,000-liter brew a month later. The 200-liter pilot raw ale brew was our proof of concept.
Pros And Cons of a Pilot Brewery Conclusions
Pros And Cons of a Pilot Brewery Conclusions
There we have it, our breakdown of the pros and cons of a pilot brewery. This article ended up being much longer than I thought it would be.
Plus, even spawned a support article, where I use Chaba Brewing Co. as a case study, to show how a pilot brewery can be advantageous to a brewery.
Pilot breweries have historically been used to “test” recipes before scaling up. Modern craft breweries tend to skip pilot batches, going straight to the main system when developing new recipes.
Yes, pilot systems can be used to test new malt and hop profiles. However, they are mostly used for brewing
- One-off beers
- Seasonal brews
- Activation or festival beers
- Limited releases
- Playing around with non-beer drinks.
- To prop up yeast and save a brewery money
- Make a stronger version of a main brew, taking some first running’s to the pilot kettle
- Make an iteration of the main brew, like brewing a sour version on the pilot
- Training and creative outlet
As you can see there are many pros to having a pilot system. If the sizing is right, a pilot system can be used as a basic cereal cooker too, to supply the big system for an adjunct beer brew.
With most modern craft breweries now needing to be dynamic and have one-off beer offering to keep drinkers interested. A pilot system really can offer value to a brewery, when used correctly.
Need Help with Your Brewing Project or Equipment Sourcing?
My name is Neil and I’m a British brewer based in China. I work as a brewing consultant, helping people with their brewing projects.
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