Brewing a Better Beer

Aug. 7, 2017
Independent craft beer start-up Hi Sign Brewing was ready to go to market using manual processes in its brewery, until a chance meeting with a military friend led to an automated system that creates consistency and scalability in the process.

University of Texas at Austin graduate, Mark Phillippe, joined the Marine Corps at the age of 30. Shortly after returning from a deployment to Afghanistan, he was concocting craft beer recipes and bringing growlers onto the base to share his latest beers with the other Marines. So when his time with the Marines was done and he had to focus on a career, he turned back to his hobby and began working towards turning a dream into a reality.

With some private equity startup capital and a small business backed loan, Phillippe was ready to launch his company, Hi Sign Brewing, based in Austin. Early on, he had some mentors—like a vodka distiller named Tito—who taught him about being an entrepreneur, to never stop learning, and not to be afraid to take risks.

And so, Phillippe hired a talented Head Brewer, Andrew Shelton, and started going to craft brewing industry events. It was at the Craft Brewers Conference, just nine months before opening the doors to his business, that he ran into a Marine buddy, Colin Chisholm, who was working with Siemens. The two had spent time in Afghanistan together, and this chance meeting was the beginning of a new business partnership.

Phillippe was ready to launch Hi Sign using manual processes, because he thought that high-end technologies in the brewhouse and overall price tag to automate were cost-prohibitive. But after discussing the options with Siemens and the equipment OEM, he realized that automation was not out of reach for Hi Sign Brewing.

He knew that, with so much craft beer competition, it is important to achieve a baseline level of quality that can be repeated and scaled because, in the beginning, Phillippe had to spend wisely.

“Siemens was awesome about holding our hand through the process,” Phillippe said during his presentation at the 2017 Siemens Automation Summit in Boca Raton, Fla. “We had healthy constructive dialogues, which sometimes started with me and the design guy at the OEM figuring out what the first few things we’d do to go down the road of automation. What would make our lives easier on a brew?” This can help ensure consistency and quality each time.

On the Siemens side, Chisholm was well aware of budget constraints so the project team did everything they could to make the solution as affordable as possible. “Our goal was to be as far under $100,000 from engineering to commissioning as we could get,” he said.

The Craft of the Beer

Brewing beer is a perfect mix of science and artistry. The process of brewing beer changes between beers and breweries. This makes it difficult to automate. During design we focused on three critical points in the brewing process: mash tun temperature control, cooling the wort and thermotic control of fermentation.

The first step in the brewing process is mashing in—mixing milled grain with water. This process activated enzymes in the grain to break down starches to simple sugars. Different enzymes work at different temperatures and produce different out comes. Controlling this temperature is critical to consistency. Hi Sign uses the Siemens Simatic PCS 7 distributed control system to automate a water mixing station which is implemented on the mash tun water supply. This controls the water temperature to be mixed with the grain, thus creating a well-controlled temperature in the mash. Hi Sign also added a temperature probe in the mash tun vessel to monitor the temperature over time. Working together, the two systems actively control the temperature and check the result, insuring consistency. Having this in place removes human error and fluctuations in temperatures, and creates a user-friendly piece of equipment.

After the sugar water from the mash tun is separated from the grain husks it is boiled in a kettle. The resulting liquid is ready to be cooled. This is the second control point we focused on at Hi Sign. The process of cooling the liquid from the kettle brings boiling (212 degrees F) liquid to 40-70 degrees F. This is done for a few reasons, but mainly so that yeast can be added right away to begin fermentation; if the liquid is left hot it will develop unwanted flavors and, if not cooled at the same rate, the beer is difficult to reproduce. At Hi Sign, the process is designed to be set it and forget. A variable frequency drive (VFD) and flow meter controls ensure that the rate of the liquid to be cooled is always the desired speed. As the liquid passes through a heat exchanger, a control valve adjusts the amount of cooling power used to bring the liquid to its target temperature. A temperature probe reports back confirming the temperature has been reached. The software allows Hi Sign to trend the data to analyze and take a snapshot of equipment.

The final control point that is automated is fermenting. During fermentation, the yeast will break down sugars into alcohol and CO2. Rate of fermentation and flavors produced by the yeast vary greatly in different temperatures. Hi Sign uses a temperature probe in all fermentation tanks and a valve to control the chill power going in to the tank. Together they work just like a thermostat in a house. This ensures the temperature during fermentation is the same, yielding consistent fermentation times and flavors.

Automation Set Up

The current Siemens set up at Hi Sign consists of a single industrial computer, an AS410-5H controller, two racks of ET200S I/O, a Scalance Switch, Sinamics G120 Drives and Sipart PS2 valve positioners. The PCS 7 software includes OS single station with AS/OS engineering and advanced process graphics.

After the boil is complete, the brewer “knocks out” the wort (cooling it from 212 degrees to 70 degrees to maximize fermentation). The VFDs then allow the brewer to set it and forget it. During the process, valves open and close based on needs to maximize efficiency. The software allows Hi Sign to trend the data to analyze and take a snapshot of equipment.

“The interface allows us to see everything to make sure we hit all of the metrics as it goes through the process,” Phillippe said. When you have four different beers fermenting simultaneously, you can see an overview of real-time temperature and a graph of what the beer is doing when it is in the tank. “You want to maintain a consistent temperature while the beer is in the tank,” he explained. “If there’s a weird flavor present in the beer, that can attributed to something that went wrong in the process. You can go back and look at trends and reports and, for example, see that on day five the power went out and a temperature spike caused this.”

In that respect, the system allows reverse engineering to correct issues going forward. “If Mark gets a call from a brew pub, he can go back and see what the measurements were,” said Chisholm.

Just as important, the system is scalable; as Phillippe wanted to make sure they could add on infinitely as the company grows. “We can add modules and we are just paying an engineer for design time,” he said. “It gives us the confidence that we can scale with ease and go to a company that will support us.”

Phillippe’s main message is that automating a startup craft brewery can be done on a tight budget. “And for us, it was completely worth the investment,” he said. That’s especially true for the head brewer who has the confidence that the process is consistent and, just as important, he has a supplier that will support him as the system grows. It’s also easy to train new brewers because the system can be learned in easy-to-digest segments.

The user interface provides all the necessary process information for the operators to run the brewery and for the head brewer to add new recipes. The cellar area uses a combination of trends and a spider diagram high-performance graphic which helps the operators focus on the key performance indicators associated with this important step. This provides the operators with an automatically generated graphical representation of the burner interlock scheme on the brew house graphic. This tells them exactly where they are in the process and what actions they need to take—helping to ensure quality and reduce wait times.

Now, just five months into the launch of Hi Sign, the company has nine craft beer flavors. “And we are selling a lot of beer, as fast as we can make it,” Phillippe said. With the Simatic PCS 7 automation platform the Head Brewer can easily and rapidly add new recipes from the operator interface to help Hi Sign expand further and meet seasonal preferences and new consumer preferences.

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