The Brew-Magic Story – An Adventure into Precision Brewing

Brew-Magic has a very long history of success. It all began with fundamental ideas developed by Rodney Morris, a noted brewer and microbiologist, who considered a continuously circulating mash to solve several problems found in conventional systems. Then in 1990, author and brewing scientist Dr. George Fix, along with a small team consisting of master brewers, electrical and mechanical engineers, began work on a project to pursue Rodney’s concept by creating a 1/2 barrel sized pilot brewery that could do what no other small brewery could do. The goal was simply to eliminate the multiple problems and variables that were so typical of small batch brewing. If such a goal could be accomplished, the result would be a money-saving pilot system for brew-laboratory use.

A pilot brewing system is simply one that is used for recipe development. Like any fine chef, brewers realize that experimentation with food products not only requires imagination and skill, but also the sometimes delicate balancing act of temperature, time, and ingredients. Taste appeal can easily be compromised by even minor fluctuations of any of these three and must be carefully controlled in order to perfect a great recipe, and even more importantly, to be able to repeat the same great recipe! Oftentimes, test batch experiments are discarded when finished products are determined later to not be worthy of repeating. Alterations of heat, boiling time, hops, additives or methodologies along with continued trial and error brewing, have always been expensive but necessary tasks. Brewers don’t prefer to make large batches of experimental beer for this reason. Logically, it is less costly to throw away 10 gallons of poor beer than to throw away 300 gallons of poor beer. Of course, brewers can sell rather than discard these inferior brews, but risk a possibly disappointed audience in the process. It’s therefore an advantage to be able to create as small a batch as possible to keep experimentation expenses at a minimum.

Back in 1990, even more frustrating were the subtle, less than stable features of typical pilot brewing systems. Simply said, these inconsistencies made small batch brewing a complex challenge. These same issues continue to plague virtually every home-brew system as well as most all commercial pilot systems even today. Brewers who are unable to control the multitude of variations that affect the brewing process, are destined to produce a different product, entitled snow-flake beer by professional brewers, with every future attempt to repeat the same recipe. In short, reproducing any brew creation can be a troublesome venture when both the recipe as well as uncontrollable, outside influences play a part in the beer’s finished characteristics.

The project, in 1990, attempted to reduce these influences to assure the brewer that it was truly his ingredients and methods that determined the outcome of the product rather than some hidden, or surprising other factors. Many problems needed to be resolved. Some recorded issues were the primary cause of other issues. For example, most any brewer with a kettle of grain and wort, like our chef with a pot of soup, is fully aware of the inherent flavor consequences of overheating or scorching. The accidental caramelizing of wort is a constant fear on the minds of small batch brewers who tend to feel more secure by stirring the pot often to make sure that the sugary liquid is in constant motion while in contact with heated surfaces. Unfortunately, the action of stirring is virtually never a repeatable one and can have flavor altering effects on the finished product just like scorching.

In similar fashion, as heat in the form of a gas burner or perhaps an electric element is introduced, a resultant stratification or layering of heat occurs near the heat source. Wort in close proximity to this heat tends to be too warm, while liquid further away tends to be much cooler. Mash conversion efficiency is, of course, temperature dependent. Stratification, like caramelization, adds yet another reason to stir in order to keep heated layers blended.

For the sake of repeatability and recipe development, control of the actions and reactions of the brewing system as well as the actions and reactions of the brewer are equally important. For the team’s project, any brewer or brewery design action which was determined to create a less than repeatable outcome became a target for elimination. The action of stirring quickly became one such target for several reasons….

Small batch brewers stir when they believe it to be necessary and are convinced that their actions contribute positively to the product outcome

Brewers can be both aggressive and/or gentle with their stirring technique depending on the density of the grain bed and other factor

Stirring grain along with wort modifies the mash while thickening it. Flour and husk contents are released into to the wort depending upon the degree of grain crush and the stirring technique.  Mash bed density and malt starch content is affected along with enzyme activity. Tannins which may be allowed to leach into the wort may in turn affect astringency.

During a circulation or sparge procedure, mash density issues can be problematic and result in stuck-mashes. Brewers stir to avoid such issues. Inconsistent and less than predictable efficiencies and yields may result.

In general, stirring is less than a repeatable process. It creates more problems than it solves and rewards the brewer with cloudy, turbid wort for boiling. When applied to small batch brewing, it can have some dramatic product altering effects that rule out its practical usage during precision recipe development or for consistent, multiple batch production.

In the early 1990’s as thermal electronic controllers were making considerable contributions in large scale brewing practices, several designs for electronically maintaining mash temperature with small batch brewing were attempted, but with limited success. Circulating wort past a small surface area heating element, managed to create those undesirable scorched, caramelized flavors previously mentioned. The damaging effect known as hot side aeration (HSA), had been researched and proven to create additional off-flavors as a result of mixing or stirring air into heated wort. For these reasons, the concept of RIMS (Recirculating Infusion Mash) was highly criticized for its potential ability to damage what was considered to be good wort.

In spite of all the bad press of the time, the major problems of caramelization, hot-side aeration, stratification, temperature control, stirring, cloudy or turbid runoffs, low and inconsistent yields, and a less than dependable pilot brewery ……were all solved with the 3rd of 4 prototypes of the team’s new little brewery. They proudly named it Brew-Magic in August of 1990.

Brew-Magic’s design was radically opposed to the thinking of the time, but also introduced new methods which have revolutionized small batch brewing ever since. For the first time ever, wort moved through the grain by incorporating a refined RIMS technology, rather than the grain through the wort by stirring. The less than repeatable inconsistencies of mash stirring were effectively replaced with a no stir grain bed which now acted as a static filter. With the grain remaining undisturbed, circulating wort clarifies. As full extraction takes place with excellent efficiency, haze and suspended solids are left behind prior to transfer of the wort to the boil kettle. Utilizing heavy-duty keg design kettles with concave bottoms, grain is suspended above a fully perforated false bottom. Circulating wort gently moves through the grain in a very uniform pattern toward a centrally located siphon below the false bottom. The concave, bowl-shaped bottom provides a directed wort flow without the eddy currents created in the corners of standard square bottomed kettles.

Spending the grain with no-stir consistency was a major accomplishment, but the design team was also interested in eliminating all stratification issues within the vessel. It was delightfully determined that continuous, smooth blending of the wort during periods of low level temperature adjustment, resulted in a top to bottom temperature uniformity without the use of a spurtle. It was essential that this blending be done without infusing air into the circulating wort. For this reason, a uniquely stabilized mashing technique for the Brew-Magic System was in order.

Grain is held between two equal layers of wort…the first layer below the false bottom that supports the grain, and a second layer of equal size above the grain bed. As circulation takes place, the brewer has full control over flow rate and easily monitors the depth of the upper wort layer to maintain the state of equilibrium. Recirculating wort joins the upper layer of liquid in a slow-turning whirlpool pattern that blends surface layer temperature without showering, frothing or foaming of any kind. The centrally located siphon below the false bottom gently pulls the blended liquid straight down and through the grain bed. Off-center siphons were determined to create irregular flow patterns and potential reductions in yield efficiency.

Smooth, no-bubble circulation is established with wort directed away from heated surfaces and then redirected without aeration. Heavy stainless surfaces insulate against temperature loss while reflecting heat back to the mash. Once again, any subtle outside influence was considered less than desirable for the purpose of pilot quality repeatability. Even the pump impeller design was specifically chosen for its non-aggressive, smooth-flow characteristics. While testing and analyzing Brew-Magic years ago, Dr. George Fix (Author: Principles of Brewing Science) wrote the following:

“Brew-Magic is able to do what I thought was impossible! It’s a totally automated system with which the brewer can exert precise control. Much to my surprise, not only was there no frothing or foaming, there were even no air bubbles present. It had the clearest runoff one could want. Later analysis of the finished beer indicated that there was no hot side aeration during circulation. In fact the beer was exceptionally smooth with a mellow malt flavor. Workmanship by SABCO is first rate.”

Today, the Brew-Magic V350MS Pilot System is found in the laboratories, micros, pubs and garages of the largest as well as the smallest brewers in the world! (Yes… even AB owns +20 and has one at every facility in N. America). You’ll also find them in food-science universities and community colleges. SABCO can proudly claim that Brew-Magic has single-handedly started more new commercial breweries than most all others combined. New professionals desiring accurate, repeatable recipe development and production have relied on Brew-Magic to safely get them started with consistent methodologies, dependable results and amazing brews! With over 3500 in current use in over 40 countries, you won’t find a more tested and brewer-approved system anywhere. Please consider becoming a brew-magician with your very own Brew-Magic System by SABCO.


May all your brews be Magical !

Bob Sulier

CEO/Pres. SABCO, Inc.
Toledo, OH