What I learned during my internship at Big Rig

I’m a student in the Niagara College Brewing Program, and one caveat with the course is there’s no dedicated time for 4 months of continuous on the job training. This was changed a year or two ago, so the program went from being two years long to sixteen straight months (with two week breaks in between each semester). The issue now though is that it’s very difficult to get more real world experience aside from the craft brewery in the college.

A recent graduate of the program gave me a number of pointers, one of which was “use those two week breaks to intern at as many breweries as you can.” Half-way through my last semester I took that advice and started emailing a number of breweries to see if they would mind me showing up to help them around their facilities. I wasn’t looking to just brew either, it was everything: keg washing, packaging, cleaning the floors, cleaning tanks, you name it! Sadly I didn’t hear back from many of the breweries, and that was when that same graduate suggested emailing Lon Ladell at Big Rig Brewery up in Ottawa. A day or two later I got a short response back from him and it was a yes!

I didn’t know much about Big Rig and missed out on the chance to check out their facility before I left Ottawa just after they had opened. I also hadn’t seen their products in the GTA liquor stores so it’s not like I’d had the chance to try many of their products either. In order to educate myself a bit more, V and I stopped by their Ogilvie restaurant location over Easter weekend. I had their Brown Ale and was extremely happy with the product. I was also really impressed with how much they had grown over the last three years. They had their original brewpub on Iris, the new restaurant at Ogilvie and their production facility in northern Kanata. It’s a crazy amount of growth, but was also a good sign that they are doing well.

The first day of my break I showed up not entirely sure what to expect. I introduced myself to Lon and then he took me into the facility where he found what my first task was going to be: filtering. This was AWESOME! I’ve missed out on a lot of chances to see how filters are used at school, and it was going to be the first thing I got to experience. I was introduced to the person who handles their filtering, Brandon, and he did a great job explaining everything he was doing. Big Rig uses a number of filters, but their workhorse is a horizontal plate DE filter. I’d read about this kind of filter in my textbooks but didn’t really get how they work, it was cool to see it in action.

The next few days were followed up with packaging on the canning line. Theirs is a five single lane five head filler from Cask. At the school we had a manual two-heat filler, so it was nice to see what the automatic ones look like and how they operate. While I didn’t get to do the operation of the canner, I shadowed the person running it and they explained what everything was doing and the various QC procedures that need to be performed. The big thing I learned is that these systems are finicky and require more people than the manufacturer promised. The machines are all based on timings and anything can mess that up, usually the seamer (the thing that fuses the lids to the cans). There’s also lots of information you need to process to know that everything is going right. Thankfully that input is sound, and you’ll become accustomed to the rhythmic sound of proper operation. It’s when that sound stops happening that you know something is wrong. Personally my favourite is the one where the seamer starts making a crunching noise and spewing beer everywhere.

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Today we be canning.

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As I had promised, I also did a bunch of cleaning while at Big Rig. One of those days I was tasked to the keg washer. It was very similar to the one we have at school, except there’s an interface that allows the operator to tweak the cleaning program. It’s always really hard to make keg washing something enjoyable, but I tried my best to find a way. There were tons of kegs that had to be cleaned, so I mostly focused on trying to set up a pipeline in order to keep the keg washer in standby for as little as possible. So I’d have my kegs washing, my externally washed and wiped kegs in line ready to swap, followed by another set of kegs sprayed and soaking in cleaner. The last thing was to figure out when I’d stop; I decided that a nice 4x4x4 grid of 50L kegs (64 kegs) would be a great time to stop for this former software developer. That was a bit of a longer day, but hitting that target was pretty great. And by the time I’d arrived to work the next day, a third of that pile had been torn down to fill with more beer already!

I got to finish off my internship by helping one of their brewers (who is a graduate of my program) on a batch of wort. Their system spits out 42hL (4200 litres) of wort in about 6 hours, which they transfer into their 80 (or so) hL fermenters. On my first time shadowing I mostly pressed a few buttons and asked lots of questions, but the second time I got to brew on the system (with lots of professional supervision!). Their brewhouse is a two-tiered system: Mash Lauter Tun (MLT) and Kettle/Whirlpool; very much like we have at the teaching brewery. The big difference though is you can’t realistically mash in 700 kg of grain by hand. Their MLT is covered and uses rakes to help move things around and even out the mash. They also have a hopper that allows them to control how the grain and water are blended together and it’s pretty awesome. Since the grain and water are getting blended almost immediately, the strike temperatures don’t need to be as high. This also means that the risk of getting dough balls is way lower than at school or home.

Now being a brewer, I don’t just get to make wort and move liquids around. I also got to do a lot of the cleaning after lautering and boil. Cleaning after lautering was probably the hardest job I had to do at the brewery. There’s 700 kilos of soaking wet grain that needed to get moved out of the MLT, and while we had some tools to help, it’s still very manual (hint: you use a shovel). I didn’t take note of how long it took the pros, but just getting the MLT to the point where you’d have to hop into it to get the rest of the grain out took me something like 45 minutes. Though, once you’ve removed the majority of the grain is where the fun part begins! There’s still some residual grain in the MLT and the easiest way to get it out is to hop in and blast it out with water. So using some long hose and a butterfly valve I’d physically get into the MLT and spray it down until I couldn’t see any more grain kicking around. If it was the end of the day, we’d prepare the MLT for it’s daily cleaning by adding about 300L of 90°C water and some caustic.

The kettle side of things is pretty straight-forward since we just have to time a few hop additions and let the boil do its thing. At the end of our boil we threw in our copious amount of whirlpool hops and started up the pump. While all this was running we hooked up our transfer line to the appropriate fermenter. These hoses were already filled with sanitizer, so hauling them around was pretty tough, but we knew that the hoses were ready to go.

After whirlpool we’d take some samples to figure out what the Original Gravity is and then start the transfer. Hitting our target temperature was way more straightforward than using the heat exchangers at school. At Big Rig they are able to dial in how fast the wort is running through the heat exchanger through the use of a Variable Frequency Drive on their pumps; it’s like a dimmer for your lights but smarter and doesn’t destroy the device you are slowing down. A nice thing about the VFD is it’s driven by a dial, so getting a consistent speed is far easier than using ball valves. As with most things in the brewery, the transfer takes a fairly long time (~1hr for 4000L), so we would start our next mash or tearing down at the end of the day.

I have to say that the experience I gained from working just 10 days at a production brewery was invaluable. Seeing how operations scale up and how other breweries do things gave me another perspective on what kinds of processes and tools can be used to aid ones brewing process. If you’re a student in a brewing program, or just looking to get into brewing, consider reaching out to your medium sized crafted breweries and offering up some help.

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About Chris

If there is a place that serves or sells beer I've never heard of, I'll find a way to get there. A fan of the humble Pale Ale, though always willing to try a pint of something new. I also enjoy brewing my own beers and love sharing the science of the beer making process.