Part Two - How To Choose The Best Equipment For You

Choosing Your Equipment

Buying new equipment to start or expand your business is an exciting prospect, but is also fraught with potential issues.

This article is focussed on choosing equipment - the next one will be about your site. A lot of people choose the site first. Personally I would run this and the equipment in tandem a good supplier will help you to assess whether a site is feasible from the point of utilities and logistics.

I hope that my experience relayed here can help you in avoiding at least some of the pitfalls of what you’re about to embark upon. Good luck!

1. What Do You Need?

Bespoke v Configurable:

A key point at this stage is not to be too rigid in what you state that you ‘need’. A good supplier will take your broad URS (user requirement specification - see below) and apply their experience to it to give you a specification that will work for you. If you go into any discussion with specifics such as exact vessel dimensions or evaporation rates, then you’re asking for expensive bespoke equipment when what you need is configurable equipment where the development costs have been shared among many customers.

Remember that this goes doubly for large pieces of software - bespoke software is very expensive in the long term as it ties you to the person who wrote it.

Gather Information For the URs

You need to sit down with your business plan (see Part 1), business partners and key staff and together write down a detailed list of how much of what beer you need to produce to achieve the goals set out in the plan. This will form the basis of your URS.

Once you have decided upon what your outputs should be, discuss and confirm your desired shift patterns - this will be a key factor in deciding the size and level of automation that you need. You want to make sure that you don’t regularly work outside the shifts you set, and that you are also using the equipment sufficiently to justify investment. It’s a fine line and one that needs careful thought and group discussion.

Draft the URS

  • State the broad production goals from the business plan - the supplier needs to understand your product mix as well as your overall production

  • Factually describe the current facility in bullet points (doesn’t need to be overly detailed)

  • Loosely define each area and use bullet points to describe this - remember you want the supplier’s ideas and experience. This is an example of the sort of loose detail, I mean with notes for you in italics:

    • Brewhouse to cast out 50hl cold wort

    • Brew 4 times in 16 hours total

    • OG will be between 1.040 and 1.070 at full volume (50hl)

    • Grain from silos

    • (remember that your supplier should be able to suggest how many based on your product mix)

    • All mash ins to be supervised (i.e. the brewer is present)

    • Mash-out will be automatic to a container below the mash / lauter tun and pre configured to add a spent grain pump later

    • Pellet hops (no flower hope) in the boil - 4 additions maximum per boil

    • Non hop botanicals will be used for aroma in a special vessel after the kettle

    • (leave it to the supplier to suggest and show whether you should have a hop back or a whirlpool)

    • Preconfigured to brew 10 times in a 24 hour period

2. How To Choose A Supplier


You now know what you need, you’ve contacted a load of suppliers, maybe you’ve also been to one of the German shows, Brau or Drinktec, and met a few suppliers already. Now you need to differentiate between them - separate the sales spiel from the fact.

A lot of suppliers have a friendly reference who they are sure will be positive to a prospective new customer. What a lot of suppliers also have are very disappointed references who have been let down - you need to seek these out.

Choose who you visit wisely - make sure that they have experience of similar equipment outside the particular one that you’re visiting them about.

For example, if you were one of our customers looking at an automatic CIP set, you should visit people who have had other automatic systems, not someone who had only cleaned tanks and lines manually prior to purchasing our equipment. Also make sure that the customer is not a recent one as you need to make sure that the relationship between the supplier and their customers doesn’t sour over time. You want someone whose experience is broad and whose experience and opinions of a supplier you can benefit from.

Planning Reference Visits

  • ask for a full reference list

  • call around several references

  • visit at least one reference with the supplier

  • visit at least one other without the knowledge of the supplier

  • ensure that whoever you visit has experience of different specifications of equipment

  • visit references who have had the equipment for a while and ask about after sales service

Evaluating Equipment

Assessing the Technology

What you need is a way to assess equipment without investing much time or money. The simplest way to o this is to piggyback off the time and money invested into technology by the large brewers because global brewers spend an absolute fortune analysing and appraising equipment and suppliers.

We have supplied equipment including deaeration (DAL) columns, carbonators, canning lines, kegging lines and filtration systems to large brewers. It’s a long procurement process and it’s always focused on accuracy and efficiency, often with a panel of experts appraising the equipment. You can benefit from their investment by looking at what they choose and asking your supplier for a definitive list of reasons why they chose that piece of equipment. The chances are that the ABInBevs and Heinekens of the world choose the best.

REMEMBER ‘it’s the best’ is meaningless without facts related to performance.

Work With The Supplier

Having done the reference checks and talked to a few suppliers, you should be ready to narrow it down to two or three and get stuck into the full project planning.

When we are quoting for a job, we often do a lot of work for free. We have long meetings discussing concepts, we choose equipment, and for large CapEx projects we sometimes create layouts of a customer’s future site. We do this to make sure that we are supplying the best solution to your problem (which grows our reference list) and to build relationships with you. You should get a lot of ideas and help out of this as well as using the experience to decide which suppliers (and which individuals) you want to work with.

Always remember that you should trust your supplier implicitly because you’re not only going to be handing them a lot of money in the short term, but placing the reputation of your brand in their hands in the long term.

Do You Need a Consultant?

Ask yourself what you need a consultant for, bearing in mind that good suppliers will be supportive and helpful through this equipment choosing phase. If you are aiming to have the same consultant for the entire project as many of our customers do, make sure that that person is well versed in health and safety. No matter the size of the project, the default position is now that it is the client’s responsibility to comply with CDM Regulations - here’s a short overview of the roles and responsibilities.

If you decide that you need a consultant, make sure that you choose an expert in the field. Get references for consultants in the same way as you do for equipment: from trustworthy people who have experience with other consultants and who have had some time to reflect on their experiences.

To make sure that your consultant has experience that you cannot quickly gain, make sure that you differentiate between a previous consumer / user and an expert. You can gain the insights of an experienced consumer for free by making reference visits (see the second paragraph of our advice on this above). You should always be on the lookout for signs of this, so if you get the feeling that your supplier is teaching your consultant, this should be scrutinised.

Buy For The Future

By this, I don’t mean that you should buy the biggest and the best. Instead I mean that you should buy a quality piece of equipment that:

  • can be serviced and repaired easily

  • you can grow with, and

  • you can sell at the end of its useful life with you.

Remember buying something cheaply made as a temporary solution is often a route to failure.

At Ambro it’s most often when discussing canning lines that we hear people say that they will save money in the short term by buying a cheaply made piece of equipment and buy from us in a couple of years when they need to upgrade. This makes my heart sink because often those customers have so many problems with their can line that they can’t make their forecast sales. Poor quality packaging equipment is costly in several ways:

  • high running costs as it will be labour intensive and reject rates are high

  • high maintenance costs as it will go wrong more and

  • high cost to reputation as the quality and integrity of the packaging will be lower than demanded by the multiples

    • this can be disastrous - remember that supermarkets will delist producers who give them leaking, under-filled cans

Next time we’ll discuss evaluating Potential Sites, here’s a quick snippet:

Your business plan should have helped you to consider what your long term growth plans are and you will have made sure that these are feasible. Now you should know what you need from your site. When looking for sites, we do what we call a ‘full fat’ layout - this is what the site will look like at the planned maximum capacity, and cross out what is not necessary in the short term. This ensures that we only consider sites with the required space and that the ancillaries and equipment are sensibly designed and positioned for the future. For example, we’d advocate installing glycol pipework at the outset that is designed for growth. This doesn’t mean massively oversized pipework as that comes with its own problems in terms of flow rates when under-utilised. Instead, look at making sure that the system can be isolated, dismantled using unions as opposed to cutting pipework, and locally drained so that you don’t have to stop production to expand later. This will prove cost effective and hopefully prevent headaches in the long term.