You can’t brew beer without brewing equipment. That’s a given. But where the hell do you find all the equipment you will need? We talked about our decision to go direct to Tiantai in Jinan (China) in Episode 2 of the Operation Brewery podcast.
After recently returning from China, here is a full report of how it went.
Throughout the process of deciding on a supplier, we were in constant communication with Tientai (and other companies). We initially contacted about 10 suppliers, and of the 10, Tientai was the fastest to respond. Not only that, but they provided a great deal of detail about all the ingredients and had a deep understanding of the brewing process.
Many manufacturers, especially in China, will meet your needs; a brewery, a washing machine, a 10-ton garbage disposal. It’s important to deal with a company that knows what’s critical to your specific process, and Tiantai really seemed to understand that. For the next nine months, Govs sent emails back and forth every few days, revising equipment designs and improving parts that didn’t meet requirements.
He told them point blank; we wanted a Chinese brewery that met our specifications, was reasonably priced, and could compete with the best, and in return we would provide them with the growing demand for new breweries in Australia that we could recommend (without any financial reward).
We have been fortunate to speak with several of Tiantai’s former customers who have been operating their equipment and they have provided us with excellent feedback on areas where improvements can be made. Tentech has always been willing to implement these improvements, and many of the changes have come from their own brewing engineers.
The main changes revolve around automation and electronics, and basically where we can do that, we remove them and replace them with manual controls. The theory behind this is; if a Chinese PLC controller fails, we may stop working for a period of time, however, if a butterfly valve fails, we can easily fix it ourselves or with the help of a local trade company. This adds a lot to the hands-on process, but from all of Gov’s experience brewing craft beer, it’s actually what he prefers (he supports brewing his own beer better than a computer).
The next high-priced items that are usually less reliable in China are: pumps, electronics, glycol chillers, and boilers. We worked with Tiantai to find a better manufacturer for our pumps (one with a stronger pump body and thicker seals) and we replaced all electronics with global brands like LG, MEC and Siemens. The chillers were also upgraded to accommodate the hot Queensland summers and our choice of locally sourced steam boilers in Australia (imported boilers are difficult to get compliance approval and spare parts for in Australia).
Additional creature comforts were added such as; heavy duty stainless steel leveling pads for the tank legs, variable speed controls for the pumps, bottom and side ports for separate delivery and drainage, fins within the HLT to prevent vortex pooling, rotating shelf arms on the fermenter, custom designed PDL bag filter units and manually controlled keg flushers.
Not only did this careful process greatly improve our brewery design, but throughout the process we kept negotiating aggressively on price, which was approximately 15% lower than our initial quote. Now we’re ready to order!
We submitted a purchase order, paid a deposit, and quickly began making plans to inspect the equipment at the end of production (about 80-90 days). We booked our flight and flew to China on day 75.
Our first stop was the port city of Qingdao (you may have heard of Tsingtao Beer). We woke up in the morning and did what all good brewers do, go find a craft brewery.
This can be difficult to do in China, the internet is very restricted and almost no one speaks English. Before you leave Australia, do yourself a favor and buy a VPN so you can access Chinese email and social media (we went with Astriel) and use whatever your bank tells you before you leave in local currency (we had some problems finding a machine to accept our cards), a particularly tricky little situation, but that’s for another day The Story.
Back to our brewery search, we were lucky enough to find a local craft brewery called Strong Ale Works. After a failed attempt to get there by cab, we called a number we found on a chat forum and to our surprise, John answered. John, the owner/director of the brewery, is a former Pat American from Reno, Nevada, and has been in China for 12 years.
John welcomed us in and gave us a tour of his brewery with the guidance of his Labrador puppy “Barley”.