Should you Buy your own Brewery Equipment or get a Consultant to Help?

This question has been faced by countless brewers over the past 20 years in Australia and surrounding areas.

Many, especially at the start of the craft beer movement, have resorted to the cheapest brewery as possible maybe because that’s what they did when they first stated homebrewing.

But commercial brewing is NOT homebrewing. It is a serious business and like any business it should treated as such because you don’t want to fail.

As a consultant, I may be biased and answer the header question with “you should have someone help you with selecting, installing and commissioning your brewery”.

But let’s look at the question impartially.

Shakespeare’s famous quote, “To be or not to be, that is the question” from his play Hamlet has been used throughout recent history when one is faced with a dilemma. Probably today we use the modern version, “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” which may be equivalent to Hamlet’s quandary about life and death.

If you are not familiar with Hamlet don’t worry.

We always face questions about whether we should we do something or shouldn’t.

When it comes to spending money or investing into something we usually are a little more cautious and many of us err on the side of caution and hold onto our money. In some ways I am the same and so need a little more convincing.

The answer will always be found after taking some time to do our homework.

In today’s society we are drummed with messages of instant gratification that you can have it all now, which you deserve to have it now, rather than in past times when it was about saving first, doing our due diligence and then wisely spending the money to purchase something.

 When it comes to business we often have to make decisions based on the information we have at hand and like it or not we sometimes pick the wrong path. In hindsight we are always right. But if we do not have hindsight to be our guide what can we do?

After doing his or hers due diligence a good entrepreneur doesn’t let obstacles or wrong decisions stop him/her from continuing and moving forward towards their vision; bad decisions are like “water off a ducks back”.

However, when deciding on which brewery you should purchase, this is a big decision, more like a life changing decision.

I see many new craft brewers purchase equipment that is usually based on price and then they work from there to try to “fix” any problems they did not foresee initially in order to make the brewery work.

Sometimes this works without too much hassle but more often than not it can be a real pain in the butt and your hind pocket. And in the end you still do not get the practically working brewery you’d hoped for. It is at best a compromise! And a compromise is difficult to work with day in day out.

Experience Counts

When I was attending University to complete my Science degree my father would say to me that experience is more important than knowledge.

I was really taken aback by his comment because, although he did have vastly more experience than me (after all he was older) in his profession as a farmer, I was made to feel that I could not possibly catch up to him because he would always be older than me and therefore have more experience.

I felt that my intellect would show him one day that I was superior (how brash).

After Uni I landed a job as a supervisor in the food industry. It was a well paid and I felt that I was being rewarded for my hard work of 6 years at University.

But I soon realised that I had little experience in what I was doing and even less in supervising the 11 or 12 people. To make it worse I was on a rotating weekly shift, which played havoc on my sleep patterns, concentration and energy levels.

In short I disliked it.

But it taught me one big lesson, that experience would be the big winner, no matter what I had studied at University.

In reality, I eventually came to believe that it is a blend of intellect, belief, experience and wisdom which lubricates all that is important in all our life endeavours.

After my first 4 years of work, when I left my first job, I was the better for it. It was like being thrown in the deep end of a swimming pool and told to swim or sink. So I swam as best I could. And I learnt a hell of a lot about life, people and getting the job done.

It put me in good stead for the rest of my life.

But it need not be that hard for you, the start up brewer.

My Brewing Days

I have now been brewing for about 31 years and a lot wiser and relaxed. I now know where I am going and if I were to describe my life with just a short sentence it would be “to continually be the best version of myself as I can be”. This involved a lot of soul searching and mind training.

And in business, and indeed life, the most important words I’d use now to describe what I believe in would be integrity and quality.

I suggest you be true to yourself and to your values and always strive to use quality equipment and ingredients to make quality beer.

With that said price is of secondary importance when selecting a brewery.

Yes, yes it (price) is still important but secondary to your life values and beliefs and to truly help others. And as a brewer you want to deliver the best possible beer to your customers so that you feel you haven’t cheated yourself and them.

It’s about being free to have a conscience, belief and let the rest follow.

It is definitely not to strive for the quick buck or the immediate gratification to become rich at any cost. This is folly and unsustainable.

When we are young and brash we just couldn’t perceive that cost of goods is not king. (After all I hear that making beer in Uni usually means making as cheap a plunk as possible, just so you can become inebriated; cheap and nasty beer).

If you want to be successful in life, no matter what road you take, you must first and foremost do and be aligned with your core values and beliefs, period.

Selecting a Brewery

Of course I am not saying that you must purchase the Rolls Royce of breweries.

That would be folly for most people, unless you have a handsome inheritance coming your way.

The reality is that most people have life savings, or borrow from family/friends or talk to their bank for finance.

So they will tend to limit what they think they can afford and so finance themselves with the least investment in line with their feelings of self-worth and aligned vision.

Limit yourself in this way and you consequently limit what you can achieve when the business is up and running.

You should first believe in yourself and your product. If you absolutely cannot do that then you will not realise your dream of having a thriving and growing beer business. You can only succeed to the extent that your beliefs allow.

And if you restrict yourself with a budget brewery you most likely will not produce a good, consistent beer and are setting yourself up for failure.

Dream big and have lofty goals and then work on yourself first to align your values and beliefs to achieving that which you really want.

In saying all this then, what sort of brewery should you purchase and can you do it by yourself.

We return to the original question, above.

The First Question Answered

You have your business plan and have worked on yourself and values and know what your vision is.

Next you may be thinking you know what brewery to purchase.

You are an engineer or scientist (or even a non-technical person) so you understand the workings and mechanics of making beer with whatever equipment you need. You have the intellect, right?

But what about your experience? Oh,…..maybe it could be better.

You can borrow the experience from other brewers who have already gone through what you are about to go through. Good start, but have you considered where they got their experience? You see, if you have been brewing at home or the ones you ask for advice have got their experience from courses or homebrewing should you feel comfortable that they can give you the entire lowdown, advantages and disadvantages for the brewing gear choices available just because they came a few years before you?

You see, the biggest problem in the craft beer industry at the moment is not knowing how to make consistent beer with long shelf life. Some brewers get it; most don’t appreciate it yet or even know where to begin to solve this problem.

The equipment you choose is the beginning of making consistent beer, with long shelf life.

Why is this important?

Customers expect the beer to taste the same when it is made and when they buy it 12 months down the track. Good brewers know this and know how to make it last.

I know this can sound damning but some, if not most start up brewers won’t know immediately how to achieve consistent beer.

In my Masterbrew course I teach students what the 8 secrets are to making consistent, long lasting beer. Equipment is one very significant part of them.

I have found that experience comes slow and there are many, many traps that are unforeseen that will come up when least expected; and over a number of years. Experience cannot be learned fast. Not to mention the angst, inability to making good, consistent beer and then knowing how you will be selling which affects your credibility in the market.

And credibility is everything!

Although I teach brewers how to brew I realise that that is only phase 1 and the real test comes down to a lot of experience.

These days just about all the affordable breweries come out of Asia, in particular China. Many years ago most of these breweries were white elephants, because they just didn’t work. They were cheap and nasty and unsuspecting buyers would need to retrofit them to make them work.

For example, when I worked on helping install my first brewery in Victoria in 2008, I was working for an import company that started to bring in breweries into Australia.

I was asked to help install one, after the purchase was made, so I had absolutely no input into the selection and specification of that brewery.

There was a list of faults the length of my arm, in fact 2 pages long. This cost many, many $1000’s to retrofit not to mention the launch date was shattered totally by a couple of months leading to loss revenue.

And also the brewhouse was magnetic, meaning it was not made from a good quality stainless steel; it began to rust on first use.

The owners were furious and eventually demanded a partial replacement!

How embarrassing to be associated with this project and a waste of time and money.

In cases like these experience counts heaps. And I got my experience from some of the best in the industry; working at Fosters for over 14 years taught me what to do and then running an entire large microbrewery really tested me from day to day.

These days brewing equipment is getting better all the time but not all manufacturers are good.

And those that have reasonable breweries still need to be guided by professionals, for the most part, from Western countries. There tends to be a lack of brewing experience in the up and coming countries and again, many just do not understand the workings of their breweries they manufacture; so how can they manufacture breweries that comply in every way to making good, consistent beer? And do they comply with safety regulations and requirements for the country they are intended for?

Most often not!

You may have a list of things you want in your brewery but unless you have many decades of brewing experience then you will undoubtedly miss some significant things that the manufacturer will not know about.

Because of their lack of brewing experience the manufacturer relies on the buyer to tell them what they want in the brewery design. This reverse mentality allow the manufacturer to eventually become successful because it puts the onus on the buyer, and the advantage for the buyer is that he gets a cheap brewery, requiring minimal engineering and brewing knowledge from the manufacturer.

It is like the tail wagging the dog! Or is it a case of the blind leading the blind?

This arrangement is not sustainable and soon reports from users of those breweries spreads to other brewers wanting to go alone in China, and so, badly engineered and operating breweries will very slowly become a thing of the past.

Unfortunately there will always be the unsuspecting customer who falls in the trap and buys cheap equipment.

I have seen some pretty weird and wonderful requirements from customers from countries outside Australia that would totally be inappropriate to Australian standards and good manufacturing requirements.

Countries like Australia, New Zealand, USA etc have advanced brewing requirements but each country can be different in electrical power ratings, pressure ratings and the like so that they can comply with local law.

So just because you have a degree from a prestigious University (again I probably will offend someone) and have worked your way up in your industry to a high level (congratulations) you should be aware that setting up a brewery can be filled with so many traps that if you went in without a good, experienced consultant you will likely have many missing significant things you just cannot think of.

In the long run it will most likely cost you more to retrofit the brewery you purchased and still not have the one you were thinking you were going to get.

For example, one brewery I helped a client with bought his brewery from a manufacturer in China and when I was shown the quotation I was very hesitant to recommend it; too many holes, too little understanding from the manufacturer. What made it worse was that they did not speak English making communication difficult?

In an attempt to change his mind I furnished a quotation from my preferred and proven supplier but in the end my client went ahead with the first quoted brewery supplier. I think he regrets it now because of the problems associated with it.

We inspected the brewery when complete and made about a dozen changes which my client had to pay for. In addition, one of the auxiliary pieces of equipment was not working because of design faults and when installed we spend days trying to get it to work. This affected the quality of the beer and so some major overhaul or a new one is required.

The cost of the changes was borne by my client and the total cost exceeded my quotation. Not to mention that the launch date has been extended by months, resulting in loss revenue and continual leasing costs for the building.

So have I shown you that going without a good consultant is unwise?

In Conclusion

You can easily see by a couple of examples that going in search of brewing equipment by yourself or help of a friend (who may be an exceptional homebrewer) will not necessarily lead to overcoming the myriad of unexpected traps that surely will come up.

You will lose time to try and retrofit the problems, experience frustration and lose revenue getting set up when you could have started earlier to brew and sell your good beer.

Worse still you could end up with a Frankenstein brewery that you will have to deal with on a daily basis that you need to tame and fight against in order to achieve your consistent beer making process; not an easy task. You will feel challenged at every corner, every minute of the brew and every day you use your equipment.

The result will be variable beer at best and at worse bad tasting beer, and you will be continually stressed, leading to sickness and wishing you had gone another route.

You may produce infected beer, or bad flavours. The end result could be shutting down your business and vowing you will never do that again.

Engaging an experienced consultant will short fuse these problems and even if there are some issues the consultant can help diffuse them and see the solution before you purchase your equipment; an investment really worth the money.

We at Precision brewing Systems have decades of experience in large commercial breweries and microbreweries that simply can’t be found readily or even from many of the brewers of the small microbreweries.

We understand your concern with budgets but the return on your investment is usually within a couple of years or so. When you consider that you will be brewing good, consistent beer from the start you will build up a reputation that is second to none and you will be happy to concentrate and put your efforts on developing other beers and selling and marketing you beers because your brewery will tick along with minimal problems.

You will not be continually pouring money into your Frankenstein brewery in order to try to get it to work better. There is really nothing more frustrating and costly than doing that.

In fact, in the long run you will not only be saving money you will be making more money because your brewhouse efficiency may be higher (up to 93%), your beer losses will be lower, and the demand for your beer will be greater because you can now effortlessly make consistent beer.

The bottom line is that you will have a vibrant and growing business, instead of a struggling business which frustrates and stresses you daily making you wish you never left your hobby of homebrewing.

With the extra revenue you can invest in marketing and selling the good beer you have made. This will build you a reputation that is in line with your values, your vision.

But if the beer is variable at best no amount of marketing can get you repeat business and you will struggle and eventually fail.

So when you are ready to buy a brewery you will be better informed and hopefully the quandary Hamlet felt will no longer puzzle you because you will select wisely with the proper assistance of a seasoned consultant.