This autumn, after seven years in three locations, Eagle Park Brewing brewed its 10 millionth beer.
Thanks to a newly expanded Muskego production facility – which includes a new cooler, more barrel storage, more warehouse space and a canning like that’s twice the size – it won’t take nearly as long to get to the 20 millionth.
That’s in large part to a new brewhouse upgrade that has created efficiencies not only in the quantity of inputs required (and, thus, cost), but also in terms of labor and in the time it takes to brew a batch of beer or distill a batch of whiskey.
The key component is a 20-ton steel mash filter brewhouse with an augur in a bin at the bottom and an adjustable series of filters above. It does its job during the mashing and lautering stages of the brewing process.
“It's incredibly unique,” says Eagle Park Co-owner Jackson Borgardt. “The system is designed for maximum efficiency, from efficiency of your grain usage, water usage and labor, as well.
“The brewhouse we had before was a traditional brewhouse. You mash in, you boil, you knock out. This technology's all in the mashing and the lautering. In the mashing, you're converting the starches into sugars, and in the lautering process, you're separating the grain from the sugar water. That is where this really steps up.”
Instead of using roller mills which crack open the grain, as they used to do, they use a roller mill which pulverizes it almost into flour.
“From there, rather than going to a lauter ton where there's a false bottom with grates, now you're pumping it into a filter. There are 22 (filter) chambers on our system and each chamber holds 77 pounds. It gets pumped up from the bottom, fills it, and there is a screen in between each plate. On the backside there's a bladder that gets inflated by air, and it's squeezing the grain to get all the sugar and water out as opposed to using gravity and rinsing.”
This has many benefits, says Borgardt, including water usage.
“We save about 30 percent, based on our current calculation, which alone is great. We use thousands of gallons, right? It's a lot of money and it's definitely better for the environment. We're pulling less water.”
There’s also a savings on the amount of grain required for a brew.
“Grain absorbs water, and this prevents that,” Borgardt explains. “Because we're squeezing it and getting every last drop out, we're going from 70-75 percent efficiency to now getting 98-100 percent efficiency from our grain. So we're cutting out anywhere from 25 to 35 percent of our grain usage, depending on how big the beer is.”
“With prices rising,” interjects Co-owner Jake Schinker, “it's helping us avoid the price hikes that a lot of people are forced to do.”
“For Set List (IPA), for example,” says Borgardt, “on 100 barrels we're cutting out a literal ton of grain, 2,000 pounds. We do a couple hundred batches of Set List a month, let alone everything else in our portfolio, so that's literally hundreds of tons a year.
“And it's better for our farmer, who takes the (spent) grain every day. Now it's super dry, so the grain lasts longer, he can feed it longer to the cows. There's less waste. He's happier, which means we can also ship more to him, because there’s less water weight. We were starting to get to his capacity and this has definitely helped with that.”
Then there’s the labor savings and time savings which means the Eagle Park brew team can make more beer in the same amount of time.
In fact, the savings has already meant that one brewer who used to start at 6 a.m. can now get two extra hours of sleep, start at 8 and still wrap up earlier than before.
“We used to brew three, three and a half hours a turn on average,” says Borgardt. “Now we're between an hour and a half and two hours a turn. We can brew three turns in less than eight hours now. So, one guy a shift as opposed to two guys over 12 hours, 13 hours. That's huge for our growth.”
But, Borgardt adds, Eagle Park is not cutting staff. Rather it’s using the labor and time savings to boost capacity, which is good because in addition to its own beers, it now brews MKE Brewing Co. brands, too.
And the system can be used to create the distillers beer that’s the foundation of whiskey, too.
“We're not scaling employees back,” says Borgardt. “It’s just allowing us to have more headroom for future growth. We're trying to make a lot more whiskey this year, and with that speed of the system for single malt whiskey, we can turn and burn all day.
“So that production's going to add overall volume to the brewhouse and then bourbon; this system is highly efficient at making bourbon.”
Because the system can handle any type of grain, it’s a perfect fit for Eagle Park Distillery, too.
“That was a big thing,” Borgardt explains. “We were limited by the old system. We could do single malts all day because we're just making beer without hops and running it through the still.
"But the fact that now we can process raw corn, raw wheat, raw anything, gives us super flexibility. We even have the ability to, if we wanted to do gluten-free beer going forward, do raw millet and have no problem with this system.
“I wanted to make sure if we were going to buy one more system that it was going to be pretty much a one and done. We basically have the capacity to go to 40,000 barrels without any issue now.”
Borgardt says that this equipment is used around the world, especially in Europe, by everyone from Heineken to Jameson. At the moment, he estimates, there are about 20 of the systems in use in the United States.
At Coors Brewery in Colorado there are a half-dozen of the largest version of the system – each about the size of a city bus – all in a row.
There’s also a very small “micro” version – one of which is running at Modist in Minneapolis – as well as the medium-sized “junior,” which is what’s installed at Eagle Park.
Eagle Park – which Schinker and Borgardt co-own with the latter’s brother Max – had considered adding the new system as a modification to its previous set-up, but decided to take the full plunge.
“When we did all the math and everything, it just didn't kind of make sense,” Borgardt says, “because taking something that's very automated and now you're doing patches in, and you're having two separate automations trying to talk, there's just a lot of potential for issues. We were like, if we're going to spend this kind of money to upgrade, we want it to function the way it was designed to function.
“But we're good for a long time now, and just like most equipment in our industry, there's always a give and take. They're always sacrificing something. I haven't found anything yet that we're actually sacrificing.”
In fact, the system also allows a flexibility in terms of batch size that Eagle Park didn’t previously enjoy.
“We can do five-barrel batches, we can do 30-barrel batches,” Borgardt says. “We have 22 filter plates and then an end plate. The same brewhouse that we use for normal production can also be our pilot brewhouse. To scale from one to the other, all we have to do is literally just pick up that end plate and move it down the line. Say I need 330 pounds (capacity). I divide that by 77 per chamber. OK, I need this many chambers, cool. I'll pick up the end plate, move it in place, bypass the other ones, and I get the same efficiency.”
The old system was removed in August and the new one installed in September, which meant that Eagle Park wouldn’t be able to brew any beer for about a month. To prepare for that, it amped up production in July and early August.
When it fired up the new system, the learning curve was steep, Borgardt says, but they were able to dial it in pretty quickly.
Fortunately, they were able to put pretty much all the brews into the still, so in four or five years, Eagle Park will have a lot of four- and five-year-old whiskey.
“Everything that we did, we were able to turn into something else,” he says. “So the first couple turns we made single malt. It was us just figuring out what the efficiencies were and learning the system. We made 40 barrels of single malt that we just barreled a couple weeks ago.
“Then we did some Muskego Light, some really light beer, to see what the color pickup was, which we turned into a couple of different lagers because it wasn't quite what we were looking for in terms of the very defined target that we have to hit (for that specific beer). Then we made a couple hazy IPAs, just tweaking and adjusting.”
That first beer, which did not become Muskego Light, became a dry-hopped lager that’s on draft in the taproom right now.
“That actually turned out really good,” says Borgardt.
The more efficient brewhouse is perfectly timed with the opening this spring of the expanded facility in a space, formerly used as a tire warehouse, on the other side of the brewhouse wall.
It’s got tank space, warehouse space and that expanded canning line ... all of which will find use as this new more efficient brewhouse creates more and more beer.
“We needed more room for some more equipment,” Borgardt says of that new space. “We wanted enough room for more cellar tanks as we grow, which we do now have. But the biggest thing is we just needed more space for packaging. So we moved it next door. Construction started on that in March.
“We commissioned all the new packaging equipment in June, so we were shut down in packaging for three weeks at the end of May, early June. So then we had to catch up and then we had to immediately start planning for the brewhouse. It was a very nutty summer. Yeah, I don't plan on doing that anytime soon.”
That space will likely fill up fast, however.
“We've probably got enough tank space on our current pad to add probably another to probably get to 30,000 barrels (capacity),” Borgardt says, noting that Eagle Park likely brewed about 14,000 barrels of beer in the past year, including 11,000 that were packaged.
“And then whiskey production,” he adds. “Next year we're probably going to add another five, 6,000 barrels of wash on top of that. With growth next year and everything, we're probably going to be a shade over 20,000 barrels in production on that brew house.
“Then it starts to really add up quickly as far the savings, the water, the labor (from the new system). To get to 20,000 barrels on our old brew house, we were going to have to go to two full shifts of brewing, which maybe now is going to be nine-hour days. It means a brewer just has to show up an hour or two earlier. Not a big deal.”
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He has be heard on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories, in that station's most popular podcast.