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When Brewing Beer, Small is Big

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There is a trend in manufacturing that doesn't get talked about so much. It slips under the radar a bit.

It's not because it isn't good or interesting and it's not that it's not cutting edge – quite the contrary. In fact there doesn't seem to be any good reason that people aren't talking a lot more about it. I'm thinking about the rise of small.

Ask any beer drinker in a UK city ten years ago what their favourite brew was and you'd likely have received one of several fairly standard answers. You'd still hear many of the same ones today – “I'm partial to a pint of the black stuff!” or any one of many big-brand European lagers and ales. But nowadays you might hear a few less marketed beers mentioned. The last few years have seen a remarkable rise in craft beer – a 7% increase in production last year alone, according to the Society of Independent Brewers – and it's reflective of some interesting manufacturing, cultural and economic changes.

The economics of craft beer production in the UK has benefitted from some progressive taxing which has eased the burden on smaller brewers as opposed to larger brewers, opening the profit margin for craft beers a little. There's probably an argument for cost of transport and the rise of more localism, particularly in hospitality, where provenance has become an increasingly important byword for the care and attention a venue places on its food and drink.

But that may be slightly simplistic and perhaps a little unfair on some of the brewers who are showing that British Craft Beer has a global market. Judging from the sharp rise in exports, thanks partly to another cultural phenomenon, the Beer Festival, and also to more progressive help from the likes of UKTI export programmes, there appears to be continental, even global, appetite for British bevvies.

From a production point of view there are some important changes supporting the growth too, as the manufacturing equivalent of Moore's Law sees many of the advantages of the big brewers stripped away by powerful, smaller production line technologies that help brewers, and SMEs of all kinds compete with the bigger boys.

The growth of craft beer is not purely a UK thing, of course – the same cultural drivers are to be found in many countries around the world, including the number one beer drinking country (as of 2014), Czech Republic. Not far behind as a nation of beer lovers, and with a proud heritage of craft beer of their own, is the US. We have a great little case study of a craft brewery which took advantage of factory software and modern automation systems here.

A craft beer must sell on the attention to flavour and boutique – even fashion – element of their products. With smaller runs and more variety, this fits very well into modern manufacturing techniques. However, batch consistency and overall efficiency are of paramount importance; and it's here that capturing and managing data with software and controlling processes with automation so that real time changes to production can maintain product consistency come to the fore.

Here's an illustrative snippet from the case study of the US Craft beer linked above:

For example, the new system enables the brewer to track how a pressure variance (caused by mash density variances) affects product quality and make inline corrections to improve throughput. But when that same pressure information can be correlated to outlet flow or buffer tank level, he can also better plan and execute machine maintenance activities. The system enables operators to pass information accurately between shifts with a permanent record that can be relied upon for regulatory compliance purposes. The master brewer can watch multiple variables at different phases of the production process all from a single position, rather than patrolling the plant floor.

So small is beautiful. And small can now also be perfectly formed, especially when it comes to brewing craft beers. The principles apply beyond brewing of course – we have a variety of solutions of all kinds and the expertise to help our customers make the most of what they make. Click here to learn more.

Phil George
Phil George
Technology Consultant Team Leader Software & Control, Rockwell Automation
For the last 32 years Phil has been working with automation and information solutions in many different vertical sectors. Currently he’s using this experience to help businesses become more efficient by adopting Industrial IoT (IIoT). He majors on practical execution, working with many blue chip and SME customers making unprecedented advances by adopting IIoT. He manages an engineering team to blueprint “The Connected Enterprise.”

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