Do you brew?

Do you live in the Central District? Well, shit. Do you live anywhere around Seattle? Even if you lived in North Bend, it would be worth driving to hang with these guys for a brew day. I’ve been living in a house sandwiched between two of these guys for a couple years, and only just got to know them since news of the brewery hit the ground.

To sum it up, these guys are awesome. Whether you just got your first extract kit, or just welded together a brew stand complete with PID controllers and water treatment, you’ll enjoy a hang with the Central District Brewing Collective. Go see their website, make some new friends, and get your brew on. If there is one thing this craft can always benefit from, it’s more conversation over boiling wort with pints in hand.

Feeling charitable? I’m crowdsourcing!

As things come down to the wire, there are a couple elements that I’ve been trying to find on Craigslist that I just can’t seem to lock down. If anyone has any of the following, I’d love to talk to you about possibly buying them from you.

4 person patio table and chairs – I’m willing to do a little touch up work if they aren’t in perfect condition.

2 upright freezers – This one is tricky. I need the shelves to be removable and the inside dimensions to be a minimum of 24″x24″ and 50″ high. The shelves on the door are not an issue, I’ll be cutting them off.

iPad – Anyone have an old one that they don’t use anymore? It seems that these things don’t lose much value. I just need one for a POS system.

Shoot me a message in Facebook or you can email me from the contact info on the website. Any and all favors not involving cash will definitely involve some kind of beery return.

TTB Approval!

It’s official … I can make beer and sell it at 2504 S Jackson St without going to jail for it, or at least federal prison. Washington State LCB has given me conditional (on the TTB) approval, but not made it official yet. The Seattle Department of Planning and Development (DPD) is the biggest concern right now, but it’s my last real agency of concern. To be continued …

And then some good news …

After a few roller-coastery phone calls with various agencies, the tide is beginning to turn back in my favor. The DPD, which is in charge of land use and construction permits, has thrown me a bone in the form of Brian, the great fellow who just basically skipped me a step and fast forwarded my application 6 weeks. This chips a chunk off the top of the supposed 2 and a half months they surprisingly quoted me last time. I’m not going to go into detail, because it is head-bangingly boring, but I thought I’d throw that out there. I also got notice this week that the health department should be about 2 weeks from approval. They been very helpful in pre-screening meetings. My past experiences with the health department inspectors has not been a positive one, so let’s see if this holds up.

Best of all, I finally heard back from the TTB. Er, actually, I finally got them to answer my calls. I applied October 26th for a brewer’s notice. They quote you a quick 92 days from start to finish. Last Monday was the 92 day mark, and I called them for the 4th time “just to check up on things”. I had been told weeks before Monday that my application had been assigned to an agent who was busy processing it. Monday rolled around, and I was told that it had been reassigned to a new agent and that she was busy processing it. I would hear back that week some time.

Yesterday, at 103 days, I called again. They said that if I wanted to know about the progress, I could log into my online account, where details would be posted. I immediately logged in while they were still on the phone, and I got a screen that told me my password had been reset. I ask why this has happened, and she tells me it’s because it’s been so long since I last logged in. (!!!) I wanted to tell her that the TTB might consider lengthening that password reset time if it was gonna take so damn long to get the permit, but I didn’t. I get logged in, and the lady is trying to get me off the phone, before I notice in the notes that there is instruction for a Mr. Cass (presumably the applicant), saying that there are necessary changes he needs to make. Due to his lack of response, the application is about to be abandoned. Gahh! I am not Mr. Cass! I’ve been diligently calling to check up on it! Why is the lady not looking at the notes?! What is this parallel universe I’m in?!

The nice, but inattentive lady on the phone finally transfers me to the agent that is handling my application. This is the moment I’ve been waiting for. Actual contact with the person who has the power to say, “Yes, Justin, make beer and sell it”, or “Go suck on a carrot, you scofflaw, we would never let you make intoxicating spirits and profit from it!” Turns out this lady, known as “Terry”, is one of the good ones. She apologizes profusely for the lag in time, and wants to know if we can review the situation right now. I agree calmly, but with vigor. Three issues pop up.

First, a small clarification from an investor. Done. Second, the tax-paid service area (read “tasting room”) needs to be separated from the brewing area by a permanent wall or door. I start stressing. This would be a major hitch, and mean talking my landlord into it (his English is very primitive, and he just wants everything to be easy), paying a contractor to build it, changing the DPD’s plans and slowing them down, and breaking up the floor plan, which I really like having open the way it is. The gods speak to me from on high, and I suddenly realize that the front door swings about an inch from the keg cooler. A latch connecting the two would create a barrier between the spaces. She hesitates, consults her boss and agrees to it. Phew! You can imagine it in the floor plan below.

Floor plan

The most troubling, though not difficult to fix issue came in the form of a box that was incorrectly checked on my brewer’s bond, which is a $1000 security you have to purchase, ensuring the government of a buffer, should you decide not to pay your barrel taxes. The company I bought it from checked the one that says I “have” been convicted of fraudulent or felonious activities, a total record scratcher. A short (and kurt) conversation with said professional turned this ball around.

So we now have the TTB on the a roll. All requirements satisfied, I have the agent’s direct line, her attention, and I half expect to hear from her today saying that it’s a go. Please cross your fingers, because this would be a big deal.

Bad news

I suppose I should have seen it coming. Everyone that starts a business that includes alcohol eventually talks about a last minute hitch. It’s like the October surprise of boozy entrepreneurship. I’ve been very good about doing my research with this project. When you are struggling to do things on a shoestring, you can’t run in headlong. Risks have to be calculated. When it comes to the DPD, who needs to sign off on the change of the use of my space, the bureaucratic maze of codes and regulations and three letter acronyms has been head spinning. I can only wonder what the guys that put up skyscrapers and shopping malls go through.

The DPD has this nifty little website called the Project Portal, which seems to be their response to the one big problem that they have (outside all those codes ‘n stuff): you have to go downtown and wait in their office for 1-2 hours to do ANYTHING. Gotta talk to a land use coach for advice? No phone number … you gotta hoss on down and find parking in downtown, or bike in the rain, sign in at the desk with the frenetic, crazy lady, and wait like a tool until they call your name. This goes for permit specialists, engineers, all of them.

So I took the Project Portal on. In my 8 trips to the DPD, I picked up about 15 CAMs (client assistance memos), and figured out that the limited scope of my project would only need an MUP (master use permit), and the process would only take a grand total of about 2 weeks, start to finish. I was one of the lucky ones. I’ve been tweaking my architectural plans and getting things in line for months now. I figured I’m about a month out right now, and I thought I’d be conservative and get the ball rolling, so I dove into the Portal with my very own project number assigned to me in person by a permit specialist. The first number is 3. This will be important in a minute.

I get assigned a guy, and I get through the PAR (preliminary application report) and my PASV (preliminary application site visit) and tweak the plans a little. Next is a pre-screening, the intake appointment, more inspectors, and approvals. It turns out the damn portal won’t let me get a pre-screening, so I call my guy, and he alerts me, to my horror, that my 3 series number (a simple land use permit) will not do, that he’s assigned me a 6 series number (a construction permit). He then tells me that while the screening appointments for 3 series numbers are almost day of, 6 series numbers are 6 weeks out. WTFFFFFFFF!

Bottom line: according to today’s news, I’m at least 2 months from opening, and I could just pop the head off a kitten, I’m so mad. Tomorrow I’m gonna be finessing this situation as much as possible, and seeing if there’s something that can be done. More to come …

Final Stretch

The DPD application is submitted! The inspectors are sniffing around! City Light has signed off! The gas is turned on!

Things are finally starting to come together. I’m ordering printed pint glasses and t shirts and no longer making architectural drawings. This thing might actually happen. I got the fermentation chamber running yesterday, so I should be about ready to brew a batch this week.

Stay tuned!


So my first run of numbers made it look like I could be a wholesale facility and get away with it. My plan was to hide from the general public and turn into a scientist, making the best damn beer I could. I’d be alone with my ideas and I’d be able to crank it out and focus. I’d be a beer-making hermit. As one does, I left a few things out, and it turns out that everyone who says nanobreweries are difficult to turn a profit on are correct.

However, the guys that say they are impossible are dead wrong! Or, at least I think they are. I’ve stared at and tweaked and massaged the numbers into worst case scenarios, and it doesn’t seem impossible at all. It might be impossible if you plan on working 35 hours a week and being disorganized, but I like working, and I like building efficient systems. I’m counting on my work ethic and previous experience being the guy who pushes the beer to guide me through the process of profiting with it.

In light of financial analysis, and the fact that I’m beginning to miss the social interaction of standing behind a bar and helping people have a good time, it is impossible for me to not consider having a tasting room. I clearly do not have enough space to run a proper nightlife establishment from, but I can squeeze a crowd of 15-20 in and sell them all a few beers. If there is one thing I learned from the last 10 years of working in bars, it is that product counts for, at most, 50% of your draw. Hospitality and vibe are everything else. And most of that might be comprised of lighting and music.

Since the space has the brightest motherfriggin’ fluorescent lights you’ve ever seen, I fixed up a couple vintage industrial lights in the “tasting room” area. If the brewery was gonna be clinically lighted, I could at least provide refuge and try to separate them with furnishings. A trip to Earthwise brought a little inspiration in the form of an old schoolhouse sign with press in letters and grooved felt and planks of milled fir. The sign was hideous. Earthwise clearly wanted it gone, but I felt (no pun intended) that it had potential. It was suffering from a reddish stain on it’s mahogany frame, and it was capped by totally corroded brass (I like mahogany and brass) enveloping three felt boards, two black and one emerald green. It seemed like it just needed a solid sanding and stain and it would totally fit the vibe I’m going for. And it did! Somehow, I missed the before shot, but just use your imagination:

The plank is visible in the background. It was pretty rough reclaimed wood that really needed to be run through a thickness planer before sanding, but I just don’t have that kind of time, so 4 hours of sanding did the trick. 60 grit, 120 grit, 220 grit, 320 grit, so much sanding … a few coats of walnut stain and polyurethane, and voila!

The Earthwise gal gave me a massive amount of letters in about 4 different sizes, so I won’t be running out any time soon. I’ll be hanging the sign at some point – it’s just sitting on the bar top. Oh yeah, I found a bunch of stools on Craigslist today for $20 a pop. It’s damn near inviting! Time to start cleaning up the sawdust and do my sawing outside!

Video #2!

I’m on fire! More video … This time it’s of the grain mill I’m working on.

Video …

Here’s a little video of my current bottling “system”. Enjoy.

Tower of Power!!!

Everything Blichmann shipped me was great. They just didn’t ship me everything. My Tower of Power was missing the tower. I was only shipped the “of Power”. The day before I went out of town for Christmas was the day it showed up, of course. I put her together yesterday. Fairly straight forward, but it took about 5 hours. Ain’t she purdy? Can’t wait to fire it up.

Fermentation Chamber #1

I’ve decided that the way to go with a 1 barrel system is versatility. I want to be able to break up batches into 6 five gallon fermentations and try out broadly different techniques and ingredients post boil. I’ve almost finished a ferment chamber for 2 one barrel fermentors. Going with the Blichmann 27 gal fermentors (both with the 42 gal extensions), and using a single fermentation chamber for 2 fermentors, means a single day’s work can yield the following results:

Higher volume, all one recipe. Double batching equals 2 full barrels, and they both will ferment at the same temperature.

Medium volume, minor experimentation. One barrel batch, making 2 half barrels, perhaps making slight adjustments to one with the idea that I might notice the difference, but others likely wouldn’t, making experimentation on the fly an option, without having to re-brand a beer. Or just re-brand it if it turns out considerably unique.

Medium volume, much experimentation. One barrel batch splitting to 6 five gallon fermentations, perhaps for broadly playing with dry hop techniques or yeast strains. This will keep things interesting for those that come in for tastings, because I’ll have one keg of each variety, and will therefore be swapping out often.

Low volume, wild experimentation. Pulling out the old equipment, and doing a single batch of 5 gallons, this method would be used only for brand new, questionable brews. In other words, it would be weird enough that I wouldn’t want to waste more than $20 trying it out, in case it totally sucked.

Anyhoot, here’s the build on the ferment chamber in pictures:

Starting the first chamber next to the brew area

Had to work with the existing landscape and use the funny little stepped wall to my advantage.

Removed the door from a little fridge that someone gave to me and hacked the front lip off so that it would fit tight to the side of the chamber. This will provide cooling for the chamber.

Framed in an opening for the cooler.

On to insulation and wall coverings.

Then doors…

Doors hung.

Instead of a door handle, I used a barn door style hooks and bar, which should do a good (and cheap) job of sealing the doors tightly. The right door has a small vertical strip that over laps the left when closed, and pushes on the middle of the 2×4’s back. This, in turn, creates a wedge, sealing up amazingly well. It just needs weather stripping, paint, and a temperature controller!

Small victory today

For hunters and homebrewers, a regular old refrigerator just won’t cut it on volume. They need a small room size to store five deer carcasses, or the last 8 brews in corny kegs, but who wants to shell out a few grand for a proper walk in cooler?

Enter, the $300 Coolbot! It tricks a regular AC window unit into cooling a space down to 40 degrees or lower. It is so simple, I could cry. It has 3 probes that come off the main body. One senses the room temperature. One senses the temperature of the cooling fins in the AC. The last one is a tiny little heater, which gets attached to the AC unit’s original fin temperature sensor. By heating the sensor, the AC unit can be tricked into not turning off, because it thinks it’s work isn’t done. Typically this wouldn’t work because the fins would ice up into a solid block. They aren’t engineered to do this amount of cooling. What’s so awesome about the Coolbot is that it also runs a defrost cycle that keeps the AC humming along.

There are a few caveats. It doesn’t work on all models, portable units, or non-digital control models, but there are a plethora of cheap to free units on Craigslist. The one I picked up today fell out of a second story window and sounded horrible, so they were giving it away. I took them on their word that it still worked because it was free and I only had to drive over to West Seattle for it. When I opened it up, I found the noise was coming from a piece of duct tape that was touching the fan blade. I bent it over and it ran silently. Boom. See that goofy repair at the top there? That’s the first time I’ve  seen duct tape be the problem instead of the solution.

Plugged in the Coolbot:

and it immediately started cooling. So rad.

So now I just have to cut a vent hole in the roof and install it, double insulate the walls and the floor, add an exhaust duct for the AC and slap it in place. Well, hanging the door is going to be tricky, but I’m almost there.

The web of dependent details, with plenty of pictures

So you want to put a brewery indoors. The city wants to know how you want to do this. Fine, and that’s not really a bad thing. You will be either burning natural gas and creating carbon monoxide, or sticking electrical heating elements into water, after all. It seems like a good thing that someone who knows how these things should go together would sign off on your plans. The problem becomes creating a hierarchy of decisions that need to be made, while thinking far enough down the road that you won’t have to do it again anytime soon.

I want to brew in 1 barrel batches. I can get 6 corny kegs out of a barrel, and it makes accounting for things easy, being a nice round number. The problem with 1 barrel (or 1 bbl) systems is that it sits right between fancy home brewer (15 gal/1/2 bbl) and low-end professional territory (3-5 bbl). There aren’t a lot of brew setups in this range. Most people just weld their own stands and wire their own control panels. I have a few specialized skills and I learn fast, but I don’t weld, and I don’t fuss with electricity when it needs to plug into a wall. So what are my options?

First, gas fired boilers,

or electric brewery?

I really love the automatic, precise (and silent) nature of electric brewing. Set your strike temp and push go on the pump. Not babysitting a thermometer sounds like it would make brewing for money infinitely more enjoyable. Plus, no CO to worry about, only steam, so venting wouldn’t be a life or death matter, but it is expensive (to the tune of $8k-$10k) if you aren’t going to make everything yourself. Normally I don’t mind learning a new trade and saving a bunch of cash, but I don’t have that kind of time right now.
So gas it is! And what size can I get away with? While space is an issue, the most important factor is gonna be venting deadly gases. I was thinking that the existing wall vent fan in the space would be strong enough to pull CO fumes through the hood and safely outside, but it turns out it isn’t even close at about 700 CFMs (or Cubic Feet per Minute). I need something along the lines of about 2000 CFMs to do the job. The hood I bought for $125 off of Craigslist has a 16″ hole for ducting, and the fan on the wall is only 10″. Looks like kick ass fans are only about $150-$200, so I can just pull the old fan and widen the hole, allowing for enough airflow to guarantee I can use Blichmann’s high performance 72,000 BTU burners. They are small (not really meant for anything over a 20 gal batch), but efficient, which means less CO. I’m not positive yet, but I think a step up to 200,000 BTU banjo burners (necessary for a 1 bbl batch) would be too much.
I can automate things with electric burner controllers, but that notches the price tag up again. The available options for a brew stand with gas burners is a fairly short list. You have single tier (or hybrid two tier) designs that require pumps to move fluids from pot to pot, and generally cost $2k-$4k for one that someone else welded together for you:

And you have “gravity fed” systems, like the Blichmann Top Tier, which goes for about $600, and requires magical gravity forces to move the goods from tier to tier. For the record, this is the only piece of equipment that Blichmann (Blingmann) makes that will instantly save you money:

My biggest problem is space. The hood has a footprint of 7’x3.5′, which would barely fit a single tier setup, if it was 1/2bbl. If I hang it with enough clearance for proper ductwork overhead, I can’t use the Top Tier unless I bury the top shelf up inside the hood. The answer came in a hybrid of the two that should leave me some flexibility for the future, and the pots below eye level. Using a Top Tier, I can take advantage of it’s modular design to put two tiers at the same height and use a pump for that transfer. Small footprint, and not too tall, kind of like this guy’s setup:

The only problem with the Blichmann Top Tier is that you can’t fit their 55 gal pot on the stand, so you are limited to what you can brew on the next size down (30 gal), which maxes you out around 20 gal of finished product, or 4 corny kegs at a time. Not horrible, but certainly not a cash cow of a setup. The good news is, for an extra $700, you can get this bad boy, allowing automation of your burners and pumps, letting you clean/sanitize, take inventory, or do data entry while you brew, without constantly being paranoid that you are about to boil over or lose your mash temp.

So that’s the plan I’m settling on. I should be able to get a deal straight from Blichmann (they offer a deal to breweries) and hopefully get kettles, burners, stand, pumps, and automation for under $3k and be off to the races with minimal reworking of the existing space.

Gray might be an overreaction to the yellow, but I’m going for “beer laboratory” vibe here. Besides, the fluorescent lights are intense enough to handle such an overstatedly Seattle color.
Grain room shelves painted, and stank-free!

Opening walls and prepping the stinky room

There was no plumbing on the north wall, where there was an existing fan, so I had to get it piped in from upstairs. The shortest and cheapest source was directly overhead where I wanted to put the sanitation area, right next to the brewing area. In order to cut down on plumber expenses, I opened the wall up to see if I could find the pipes and prep them for cutting and soldering. I found a little friend in the wall, with some buddies – a few slugs living in rain water soaked insulation behind plastic sheeting, behind drywall. Awesome.

 I gave up and attacked the nasty carpet in the future grain storage and mill room. This conjured intense memories of ripping out carpet in a nasty house in Rancho Bernardo (north San Diego) when my dad took on a fixer in my younger years. There is no inherent reward in this kind of work, unless you are fortunate enough to harbor an intense masochistic streak.

 The day didn’t stop until the smell was coated with primer. Paint never smelled so good:

 The only remedy to painful work is a little self medication:

The space so far.

I meant to start blogging about the misadventures of starting a nano (pico? femto?) brewery back when I first signed a lease on the new space, but I’ve been so distracted by the process … until now. This, my friends, is what the space looked like on the day I signed the lease. It is worth noting that it smelled so bad that nobody wanted to stay in the space for more than a minute or two. The previous tenant used the side room as a kitchen, but there was no vent, it was carpeted, and they clearly didn’t clean very often. Barf.

Such a cheery color, really: 

The color-match from Lowe’s must have been fantastic, because I totally can’t tell where the touch-ups are:

Glorious combo – yellow and brown. So primal. So basic. So expulsive.


The first equipment purchase – a couple stainless steel prep tables. Also, Moose:

Shelves full of food grime, refrigerator full of mold: