Brew for Africa - 011-949-1009 / 076-173-9196

So you would like to know how to brew beer commercially?

Believe it or not, but we do get this sort of question a lot:

"Dear Brew for Africa,

I have never brewed a drop of beer in my entire life. I have now decided to start a commercial brewery. I mean, people are doing this in their own kitchens, so how hard can it be, really? I would like to start sales in a month or two. Can you please tell me how to do this and quote me on whatever I will need?

Unfortunately we're going to have to be blunt here: if you have to ask this question, the short answer is "Don't". While this is almost certainly not the answer you were hoping for, we'd be doing you a disservice if we didn't point out some of the realities of the business to you.

First of all, the key ingredients to successful commercial brewing are skill, know-how and experience. You should not only know how to brew beer but, first and foremost, you should know how to brew the same beers consistently again and again. It is also vital that you know how to brew for drinkability, i.e. how to produce beers that people drink in quantity, since volume of turnover is going to be vital if you want to make ends meet. Last but not least you should understand how to brew on a commercially viable basis, by keeping your ingredient costs down and your production and operational costs manageable. Something on the order of ten years of brewing experience under your belt is a minimum requirement if you want to make this work, and experience in running production and managing a business wouldn't hurt, either.

As far as the required investment is concerned, you will need proper industrial equipment. This ranges from temperature controlled fermentation vessels with glycol chillers to mash tuns and wort kettles, either with direct electric or indirect steam heating. You'll need filtration equipment, carbonation equipment and one or more bright beer tanks. All stainless steel, with assorted connectors, pipes, lines, tubes, valves, gauges and what not. You'll also need a cold room. In short, you're typically looking at an investment on the order of at least a million (ZAR) just to begin with. The first question is how much fermentation capacity you will need, which in turn depends on the number of beers you plan to have in your product range, the fermentation time required for each one (think lager styles vs. ale styles) and the brew length (i.e. the batch size per brew) that you have in mind. As a general rule of thumb, your break-even point will most likely fall between 500 and 1000L batches on average. In other words, if you brew batches of 500L or less you'll end up doing a lot of hard work but you'll have very little money left to show for it at the end of the month. And that's after you figure in the expense of heating and refrigeration, the cost of transportation of ingredients and product, and the effect that the cost of bottles and labels have on the beer's shelf price, to name only a few.

Then there's the fact that brewing is only a small part of it. You'll need filtration and carbonation. You'll need kegs or a bottling line, but preferably both. If you use kegs, you'll need a lot of them because many of them will be outstanding for weeks or more, and then you'll need to get your empty kegs back in time to keg your next batch of beer. You'll need distribution channels. You'll need the logistics to get your your product out the door in time an on demand. The cost of heating and refrigeration will form the bulk of your energy costs, so you need to maximize your efficiency there. You'll need to plan the pre-ordering of your ingredients, because malts are typically imported by the shipload only 3 or 4 times a year, while hops have to be pre-ordered from next year's crop. This means you'll need accurate projections on how much malt you will need six months from now and how much hops you are going need between one and two years ahead. Once you have these prognostications worked out correctly, you will then need enough warehouse space on hand (rodent-proof storage for your malts; refrigerated storage for your hops) to store these vital ingredients.

And that's is only the start of it. Sooner or later you'll find yourself fixing a leaky valve at three in the morning, or working up a sweat and stuffing up your back while trying to get a batch of beer kegged before the truck arrives. Not to mention the licensing and other paperwork you will have to deal with. You will have to be registed as a producing brewery; you need to file with your local revenue service (in South Africa this is SARS) for the excise on the alcohol produced (of which you will need to keep accurate records) and you will need to obtain a certificate of acceptability for your premises as a food producing facility. Other licenses may be required as well. Your local craft brewer will happily give you a tale of the trials and tribulations in that department. He or she will also tell you that commercial craft breweries almost invariably work because of the brewer's passion for beer and brewing is so great that it makes up for working very hard and making long hours for little money.

Last, but not least, this is simply not a question that can be answered just like that. If you don't know how to brew commercially, or if you even don't know how to brew, no verbal or written advice is going to give you the skills, experience and know-how you will need! Few people would decide to start a restaurant, then go to their local supermarket expecting to be told what food they should cook and how they should cook it. Cooking a proper, restaurant-grade meal requires a cook with skills and expertise. One cannot simply tell you how to cook such a meal if you have no prior cooking experience whatsoever! Yet when it comes to brewing, too many people expect that successfully operating a commercial brewery without any proper skills in this field is something they can do simply on the basis of a few answers to the queston of how to do it. Unfortunately it simply doesn't work that way.

That said, if you have a solid amount of experience brewing your own beer and you end up deciding that you do want to wear the rubber boots after all, let us know. We'll happily give you whatever assistance you need. We can refer you to professional industrial brewing consultants, who can help you start a commercial brewery. They don't come cheap, but if you are serious about investing in commercial brewing, this is one of the expenses that come with it.

Good luck!

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