Shortcuts to simplify life are most welcome. When they make business easier and help the bottom line, then those shortcuts are no-brainers. In his new-found role as inventor, brewmaster Brian Watson delivers such timesavers to restaurateurs and bar owners who want to make premium beer.
Most in the industry know Watson as an esteemed judge at the World Beer Cup and other international competitions, a founder of breweries, a brewing consultant and developer of award-winning beers. Now he has partnered with a Canadian engineer, and together they formed Natural Brew Inc., the company behind the SmartBrew system.
Nightclub & Bar spoke with Watson to uncover what prompted him to co-invent brewing technology and what the outcome is for craft beer and the industry at large.
You are at the top of your game as a brewmaster, so give us the lowdown on why you turned inventor.
I remain active in and proud of my original roles. This opportunity just came to me and I could not resist. My business partner, DME executive Peter Toombs, approached me to explore how to develop a cost-effective system for small breweries and brewpubs. As a mechanical engineer who has project managed hundreds of brewery installations, Peter’s idea was to provide a system that starts with wort—not dry or liquid malt extract. He believed this would reduce complexity and open the industry up to newcomers with little to no brewing experience.
I figured that meeting his challenge could even be a way to solve problems faced by those who already brew craft beer. Our SmartBrew answer was to simplify everything and automate as much of the brewing process as possible.
Tell us about the craft beer itself?
As a brewmaster, I settle for nothing less than great beer. I believe no one should have to settle. While automation makes our SmartBrew system easy to use, that is not at the expense of high-quality beer. SmartBrew consistently delivers great-tasting beer, batch after batch. We want more people to get excited about craft beer, more business owners to create beers with complex flavours and new opportunities for the industry.
We chalk that consistency up to our design, reliable components and automated controls, our selection of fresh wort, and having inventors who care about and understand beer and beer-making. Our clients simultaneously and successfully brew varied beers and ciders using their local ingredients combined with our wort, which is produced under my guidance.
Our customers and I can monitor the brewing process remotely. Emails from the SmartBrew system notify us as steps like fermentation are completed. I can log in from anywhere to troubleshoot what is happening at any of the breweries or brewpubs.
What obstacles have you faced?
Disbelief. Until people witness the system firsthand, they refuse to believe we have achieved all we set out to do. Despite the naysayers, we know our system makes brewing easy without sacrificing quality. Our customers using our SmartBrew system are happy customers. Above all, they continue to serve their own patrons premium beers made with creative and local, fresh ingredients—brewed by our system.
As for personal obstacles. I had to spend too much time studying instrumentation diagrams. After three years co-developing the system with Peter, we sold our first fully automated brewery in February 2013. Our initial entrepreneurial clients signed up in New Zealand. As you can imagine you cannot perfect a system off the bat. Being right there, we could adjust and optimize our initial design. We are fortunate to have had excellent partners.
They validated we were on the right track when they requested more tanks to meet their growing needs. We also learned from those early set-ups, so future U.S. based clients will benefit from the subsequent design improvements. Those substantial improvements now allow the standard SmartBrew to feature four fermenters, doubling the original beer output, while maintaining an initial cost under $110K, and of course, enhancing operating profits for brew makers.
You mentioned the system is fully automated, is elbow grease still needed for tasks like cleaning? I know my self-cleaning stove falls below my hands-off expectations.
It is staggering how many brewery issues are directly or indirectly linked to ineffective cleaning. Up to 90 percent. And, I have yet to meet a brewer who enjoys tedious and finicky cleaning.
So, our design reduces those risks and headaches. The SmartBrew system initiates its own cleaning cycle. The system also automatically dispenses the cleaning solution, controls the required amount of solution, sets the right temperature, selects the rate at which the cleaners are pumped through the system and determines how long the cleaning takes.
To answer your question about whether you need elbow grease. No, none. The system confirms when it is sanitized and ready for the next batch of beer. This automation also means restaurant or bar staff can focus on their main jobs instead of wasting time cleaning brew tanks and lines. That is a win-win.
What have been some gratifying moments along the way?
Early on, I got a kick out of receiving my first email from the SmartBrew. I looked at my iPhone and saw a message that read, “Your beer has completed fermenting.” Short, simple and oh, so sweet.
Most of all, I take pleasure in watching consumers enjoy pints of our beer. What a testament to hear them talk about the beer our clients brew with SmartBrew.
On an ongoing basis, I like knowing we are contributing to the growth of craft beers. We have invented an easy-to-use, automated system with the power to take the craft-beer industry to the next level. We open the doors for new clients to trend set without major risk-taking. They can brew creative, high-quality beers in 7 to 10 days. That is satisfying. Satisfaction you can taste.