Flying High: Pilot Systems Guide the Way at Breweries Large and Small

Feature by | Feb 2015 | Issue #97

Fairport Brewing Co.'s pilot system. | Photo by Dave Jones

When brewers at Louisiana’s Abita Brewing Co. wanted to play around with different hops for a new beer, they turned to their pilot system. And when Tröeg’s Brewing Co. of Pennsylvania wanted to introduce innovative small-batch brews to its lineup, it produced them on a pilot system, too. In Rochester, N.Y., Genesee Brewing Co., a one-time regional lager giant, is using a 20-barrel pilot system to re-enter the craft beer market. A few miles away, the tiny 3-barrel nano Fairport Brewing Co. uses a 1/2-barrel pilot to teach homebrewing to its loyal customers.

No one would take a plane trip without a pilot. Today, it seems, almost no one runs a commercial brewery—of almost any size—without a pilot system. The recent boom in new breweries across the United States has come with a secondary phenomenon: the growth in smaller scale commercial brewing equipment. “I would say, anecdotally, that more breweries have pilot systems than not,” says Julia Herz, craft beer program director for the Boulder, Colo.-based Brewers Association.

Today, as some breweries have become bigger and more elaborate, so have some pilot systems. And they’re coming out of the shadows. Now dedicated pilot equipment often stands alongside the big stuff. Frequently used to try out new ingredients or techniques for beers that will eventually be brewed on a larger scale, pilot systems are also sometimes used for beers that are never going to grow up. In either case, the expectation is that whatever comes out of the pilot system needs to be a winner.

“It’s no longer good enough to say, ‘Let’s try this on the 1,000-barrel system,’” says Dean Jones, brewmaster at the Genesee Brew House, the pub-style restaurant/museum/brewery that stands adjacent to the company’s 140-year-old main plant. “Now we’re able to say, ‘Let’s brew it on the pilot system first so it’s spot on before brewing it at the larger brewery.’”

A New Kind of Flight School
In the early days of craft brewing, if there was a pilot system at all it was likely the set of plastic fermenters and glass carboys the brewer had left over from his or her homebrewing days. Over time, their complexity grew. Brewers, after all, are typically tinkerers. Today, pilots can still be made from spare parts, but are more frequently purpose-built. Big breweries may have pilots larger than the main system in many micro or nanobreweries; some homebrewers have set-ups that are comparable to a nanobrewery’s pilot system.

That makes defining a pilot a little fuzzy, says Herz. Much like the ever-shifting definition of “craft beer” itself, size does not always seem to matter. “What it means to me is a system that is not the main brewing system in the brewery,” says Herz. “The pilot is a sacred set of equipment in many breweries,” she adds. “Magic often comes from these systems.”

A leading supplier of pilot systems is SABCo. Inc., a Toledo, Ohio-based manufacturer that got its start reconditioning beer kegs (the company’s name is the acronym for Save-A-Barrel Co.) in 1961. According to owner Bob Sulier, his small brewing system business (1/2 to 2 barrels) is split “about 50-50” between what he calls “advanced amateurs” and commercial brewing professionals.

SABCo.’s best-seller, the Brew Magic V350MS, is a 15.5-gallon set-up that began as a workhorse unit for small pub breweries. Even within the commercial sector, Sulier says, that part of the business is now split between use as a standalone unit or as a pilot. “Small pilot systems have grown in popularity for advanced amateurs as well as for large scale professionals,” he says. “The amateur hopes for well tuned recipes and variable free repeatability, and the commercial brewer prefers highly controlled, laboratory style experimentation, which is much less expensive than trials conducted using their larger brewhouse.”

Sometimes, Sulier says, brewers are so successful with his small system that they graduate to larger brewhouses (Out of hundreds of success stories, Dogfish Head is perhaps SABCo.’s most famous). Although he doesn’t build large brewhouses, he’s happy nonetheless. “We encourage new ​brewers to ​first learn the brewing process by reading and enjoying amateur brewing fun,” Sulier remarks. “Then they use our system and everything takes off, so they move up to a large brewhouse. And then they keep our little system in the back corner and use it to develop new beers.”

The First Trip Down the Runway
It’s almost impossible to find a brewery anywhere with a “typical” brewhouse/pilot system layout. But for a look at how a bigger, successful brewer uses one, let’s start with Abita Brewing Co., a fast-growing operation located just north of New Orleans. Abita actually has three brewing systems, a 200-barrel system on one side, a 100-barrel system on the other and a half-barrel SABCo. in between.

Abita is successful enough that it uses the larger systems even for one-time-only, limited release beers, or “one-offs,” making the SABCo. system a research and development playground. In 2014, Abita developed Wrought Iron IPA on it, using hops it hadn’t tried before like Equinox and Mosaic. “We figured out the hop proportions, how much to use in the boil versus dry-hop, that sort of thing,” says Jaime Jurado, director of brewing operations. “That’s not something you want to be doing at 100- or 200-barrels.”

Of course, after finding that right mix in the pilot system, the trick is making sure you can reproduce it in the larger brewhouse. It’s a process called “scaling up.”

“With a pilot system, you’re not going to get a dead-ringer,” Jurado says. “But you can get close. It’s more of a range-finder. It’ll need some dialing in as you scale up.”

Not all pilot brews become full-scale regulars or seasonals. That’s the philosophy behind the Scratch Beer series at Tröegs Brewing Co. in Hershey, Pa. (although some of their larger scale beers, like Perpetual IPA, did start on the pilot). Their website lists at least 169 different Scratch or one-off beers produced to date. Only a handful have been brewed more than once. It started with a California Common, but many are tweaked variations of standard styles, like Cranberry Porter or Belgian-style Brown. Others, like Cacaobunga Redux, show a bit of mad genius.

“It’s a single batch beer series that we do as sort of proving ground,” says Tröegs’ spokesman Jeff Herb of the 15.5-barrel brewhouse next to their main 100-barrel brewing system. “It first started as a way to celebrate the 10th anniversary. They actually started by revisiting old recipes they hadn’t done anything with.”

Rochester’s Genesee Brewing Co. built a 20-barrel pilot system in 2012 in an old warehouse adjacent to its historic brewery. That seems like a pretty big pilot, unless you consider the size of the principal brewhouse: 900 barrels. Now, pilot brewmaster Dean Jones wishes they’d gone even bigger. “If we knew then the positive impact the pilot brewery would have on the popularity of Genesee, we would have opened it sooner,’’ Jones says.

Genesee primarily produces legacy beers like Genny Cream Ale and Genny Lager, along with some of the products in the Dundee line. Initially, the pilot brewery was only meant to serve the adjoining tavern and restaurant. But Genesee started to hear demand for the pilot brews from local beer bars, and so it started a program called “Tap It Forward” in 2014. Now, every month or so, these one-offs are distributed to selected local watering holes. The latest is a Salted Caramel Porter made in collaboration with a local chocolate company.

With all that production, Jones hasn’t yet had time to develop a beer that will transfer to the big brewery. “That will happen,” Jones declares. “But the cool thing is this whole project is allowing Genesee to expand into the craft beer market.”

Just outside Rochester, the Fairport Brewing Co. is a testament to the fact that a brewer can make use of a pilot, no matter how small. Its 1/2-barrel setup complements a marginally larger 3-barrel nano brewing system. The main system is small enough that Fairport can afford to experiment with it, making some new beers on a trial and error basis. But they intend to use the pilot as an R&D lab, too. Meanwhile, the smaller system allows Fairport to invite local homebrewers in to experiment.

“They get to work on something other than plastic buckets,” says co-owner Paul Guarracini. Eventually, as the brewery continues to grow, he thinks the pilot will come in handy. “That’s when we can really use it to up our game,” he says. “That’s really what pilots are all about, right?”