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Automating the specialist brewer's art

05 July 2015

Beer is big business. The number of European breweries grew by 75 percent in the last five years alone, in part due to the 'craft beer revolution', which has seen a multitude of microbreweries spring up, particularly in the UK and USA. Emilian Axinia discusses how automation is helping to spearhead this growth.

Brewing is not so much a production method; more an art form - the recent craft beer trend is a testament to this fact. There are now breweries and microbreweries dedicated to revitalising ancient recipes, using local sources of ingredients for their beers. Craft beer producers depart from the mainstream, focusing on the brew master's innovation and skills, and moving away from mass production.

You might think that automation, more associated with mass production, would not be part of this brewing revolution. That’s not an unreasonable assumption, but it is a fact that these new brewers are turning to – and gaining much from - sophisticated automation systems to aid them in their craft.

This might be programmable logic controller (PLC) based or the software might be hardware independent, running on an embedded industrial PC with display and bus I/Os. It doesn't really matter; software is available to handle the basic, batch and recipe control, and produce a visualisation of the entire process.

Brew beginnings
When producing beer there are many different stages - mashing, boiling, fermenting and each of these is carried out by a batch cell - such as the mash kettle, lauter tun, wort kettle and whirlpool. These all have different process requirements, and without a control system, valves would have to be opened and closed, cells turned on and off and samples taken - all manually. 

Moreover, most breweries make a selection of different beers. Even producing the same beer for different types of storage - bottles or kegs, for example - requires slight variations of the recipe. The brewing process of two different beers is never going to be exactly the same; temperatures, quantity of ingredients and brew times will all differ from beer to beer.

A control system, pre-programmed for the different recipes and process requirements, reduces the likelihood of human error, but it doesn’t necessarily remove brewers’ skills from the process. Instead, it cuts down their workload and ensures they can focus on other, possibly more important tasks.

These systems provide the brew master with greater control over his process and – perhaps most importantly - better repeatability. Automation plays a central role, not only in achieving expected results in a timely manner, but also in creating the conditions of maximum repeatability as well as reducing waste, which can have a big impact on a small business operation.

A key ingredient
Yeast is a living thing and because of this it needs very specific conditions to produce the best results in a beer, especially when breweries are more inclined to experiment with different varieties of this basic ingredient to achieve interesting tastes. Many different strains of yeast are used for brewing, but they fall into two main categories: top-fermenting and bottom-fermenting. The first is mainly used for brewing ales, porters, stouts and wheat beers, while the second is used for larger style beers. These different types of yeast require close control of temperature.

A batch control system equipped with multiple recipes provides the flexibility to change between different beer production campaigns, while reducing the risk of batches needing to be discarded due to incorrect temperatures, ingredient quantities, timings and sequences. Another benefit of automation is that each stage of the process can be monitored, either locally via a single or multiple HMIs or even remotely, depending on the size and capabilities of the brewery. 

It is important to note that the freedom and creativity of the brew master are not compromised when the process is automated. An authorised user will have ultimate control over different tasks, like creating control recipes based on templates, adjusting certain recipe parameters and starting recipes, and will have supervision of the process at every stage, taking corrective actions as process alarms dictate.

Furthermore, the process data for every brew can be archived. Information is essential for traceability, which is a legal requirement of food and beverage producers. And in the age of ‘big data’, information accumulated over time concerning process or energy efficiency, material consumption or quality analyses can typically be stored and later analysed to improve future operations. 

Emilian Axinia is industry manager, food and beverage at Copa-Data. Zenon is Copa-Data's scalable HMI/SCADA offering, providing an integrated IEC 61131-3-based PLC system, process monitoring (local and remote) and dynamic production reporting.

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