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Brewery: 'Greener' beer with new boiler

Posted: January 16, 2013 - 1:07am
Brandon Smith, Brewing Operations Manager for the Alaskan Brewing Company, explains how they developed a new system to dry their used grains and produce steam on Tuesday. The new system could save the company over a million gallons of fuel over tens years.  Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Brandon Smith, Brewing Operations Manager for the Alaskan Brewing Company, explains how they developed a new system to dry their used grains and produce steam on Tuesday. The new system could save the company over a million gallons of fuel over tens years.

Ice-cold beer takes a lot of energy to make. From boiling thousands of gallons of liquids to affixing labels to bottles all along the line Alaska Brewing Company has industrial-sized energy needs. To help fight volatile energy costs the brewery has installed a one-of-a-kind spent biomass boiler to dry grain, boil wort and someday heat the beer tasting area.

Alaskan Brewing Company Brewing Supervisor and Engineer Brandon Smith is the guiding force behind the brewery’s biomass boiler.

Alaska is a unique place to brew beer due to its remoteness from brewing supplies and from the places breweries traditionally dispose of mountains of malt and other spent grains left over after it is boiled, mashed and dried.

The brewery has installed a series of energy saving technologies over the last decade that have led to cost savings through energy saving and less waste in the brewing process.

The brewery has been burning its spent grain since the mid 1990s. Until the boiler arrived in 2011, Alaskan burned half of its spent grain and the leftover portion went to feed farm cows in the states.

“It makes great cattle feed,” Smith said. “Lots of protein.” In an effort to save both ingredients and energy the brewery installed a mash filter press. The press produced a drier, finer-grained fuel that allows for the spent grain boiler.

Now the award-winning beermaker burns 100 percent of its spent grain in a two-story boiler housed behind the main brewery building. The boiler looks like an upended steam locomotive or a barbecue fit for two or three elephants.

The boiler came from King Coal Furnace Corporation of North Dakota. Steam from the boiler is currently used to dry spent grain in preparation for the boiler, Smith said. This alleviates not only the need for diesel fuel for that process but also need to ship half the spent grain out of state. However, the brewery expects to extend its use of steam, he said.

“The steam we can use anywhere,” Smith said.

King Coal sent a technician to Juneau to help install it and work some of the bugs out of the system. It will be lessons brewery staff have learned over nearly two decades of burning spent grain that will have to keep the fires burning.

“[Spent grain] is a unique critter,” Smith said. “It doesn’t burn like wood, it doesn’t burn like coal, it doesn’t burn like anything else really. But we’ve learned to work with it pretty well.”

Installation and set-up took several months. After several short test runs, Smith said the boiler has run continuously since Oct. 2012, save for the occasional stop for maintenance.

The $1.8 million system is a world’s-first and is expected to reduce the brewery’s oil fuel use by 70 percent, Smith said. Over a decade the brewery could save 1.5 million gallons of oil fuel. As cattle feed, spent grain was worth very little, Smith said. He said, as a heating fuel it is worth 10 times its previous price.

“We expect the boiler to pay for itself in four years,” Smith said. “Fortunately the farmer has a lot of breweries to choose from.”

Alaskan Brewing Company has produced beer in Juneau since 1986. It brews nine beers on a regular basis along with a varying array of small-batch Pilot Series brews.

• Contact reporter Russell Stigall at 523-2276 or at russell.stigall@juneauempire.com.

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