According to Wiki “A television pilot is a standalone episode of a television series that is used to sell the show to a television network. At the time of its creation, the pilot is meant to be the testing ground to gauge whether a series will be successful, and is therefore a test episode of an intended television series.”

Brewers most always say the same thing about their pilot brewing system.  They are interested in developing a stand-alone brew that will be used as the testing ground to gauge whether their audience response is great enough to warrant making more. The entire test could be a hit, or it just as easily could be a bust. With this in mind, brewers most always are less than inclined to make a large quantity of what is essentially an experiment. The test audience therefore tends to be limited and a representative cross- section of the brewers intended target group. Otherwise, a brewer takes on higher risk by underwriting larger volumes of the experimental, unknown product on more people, with the hope and prayer that it improves the brewer’s market appeal. Most brewers agree that they prefer to limit the size of this test audience. Of course no one wants to make a large volume of undesirable product? Brewer reputations particularly with smaller venues, can be fragile. It follows that both quality and quantity for any future experimental offering, needs to be carefully considered before choosing that “perfect pilot.” For these reasons, every brewer seeking a true pilot brewing system has to eventually ask themselves a few questions prior to shopping:

  1. a) Am I really shopping for a pilot system or for a small production brewhouse? What’s the difference?
  2. b) Do I really need a professional pilot system, or will a simple HB unit do the trick?
  3. c) How important is scalability when it comes to a pilot system?

Every scientist on the planet will quickly tell you the importance of control when conducting an experiment. The same holds true with chefs, mixologists, and even concrete makers. When brewers seek an appliance for developing specific recipes, what possible use is there for creating a batch of product that they can never reproduce? If the ingredients change along with the procedures, of course the recipe along with future production volumes will in similar fashion be modified. If the pilot system cannot control such variables or the brewer’s actions are less than repeatable, then once again the recipe can be labeled “out of control.” A very good friend Sam Calagione, who is famous for developing amazing recipes, coined the words “snowflake beer,” when admitting that prior to his commercial days, each of his beers were different. Upon entry into the brewing industry, his first move was to seek a small and near variable free pilot system.

A pilot system can be a production brewhouse, but the reverse can be less than desirable if the capacity is too large and the system allows too much room for variability. If so, then “Snowflake Beer” will become your future product line.   Experimentation to perfect your signature IPA make take several attempts before experiencing that eureka moment. Why do this with anything that creates production volumes of your experimental failures.

A homebrew system is not a professional pilot.  At the HBC I love to ask homebrewers if they can make great beer. They all say yes. I then ask if they can make the same great beer twice in a row. They all say no. This is a function of variability. They may choose the same ingredients but their HB systems have not been designed to lock down the rest of the variables including: aeration HSA, caramelization, heat stratification, wort handling, stirring effects, temp control, inconsistent brewer input, timing controls, etc. etc.,  the list continues. For tuning recipes, the only true variable should be your ingredients.

A production design brew-house of reasonable size tends to be automated enough to fairly reproduce a recipe consistently. This assumes the ingredients, timing, and temp controls of the original recipe are duplicated in turn. If however the outcome of your pilot experiment is tainted with the variables of brewer input and the several other items in the laundry list above, then the production system will be brewing up a nice fresh batch of snowflake beer… and you will never be able to lock down the reasons for the differences.  Bottom line here is that you need a clean, “controlled” pilot experiment in advance of attempting to make more of the same. At most you may need to deal with a slight correction for comparative efficiencies between the two systems.

Perhaps one final question: What should I look for in a Pilot System?  I will suggest that history is a most important item. In today’s world of shiny imports and price attractive HB systems, it’s become easy for system makers to quickly expand their market by hanging the word “Pilot” in front of everything they produce. True pilot systems are designed specifically for piloting, laboratory, indoor use. This starts with extensive testing for the elimination of variables, meeting the high brewer standards for sanitary weld technique and using only industry acceptable connectors . . . namely no threads or bulk head fittings.

Last but not least, your pilot system can save you a lot of money and time.

Be sure to choose wisely!


Bob Sulier

Pres./CEO SABCO, Inc.