By Kris McDowell
For the Oregon Beer Growler
Brewing craft beer is an art. Running a successful craft brewery is a balance of inputs and outputs. It’s the result of careful thought and planning, addressing each component of the business in the most efficient way possible. It’s undoubtedly a lot of work but one Oregon company has developed software that streamlines these processes, making it easier for craft breweries to focus on the part that we all love the most — the beer.
Beaverton-based Orchestra Software was started by Brad Windecker in 2008 to provide enterprise resource planning (ERP) software specifically for the craft beer industry. At the time, there were plenty of resources relating to brewing technology but nothing that addressed the business side of the equation — at least to the degree he intended. That intention was to provide true ERP, a comprehensive solution to run a business that would replace the various disparate tools and bootstrap solutions (i.e. QuickBooks, Peachtree, spreadsheets). Other companies were providing piecemeal offerings at a lower cost, but Brad aimed to offer a comprehensive package that was even more affordable as well as less complex — making it more approachable to craft breweries.
Identifying a need in the market is one thing and having the ability and know-how to implement a solution to address that need is another. So what put Brad in a position to go from idea to implementation? Growing up around a family business, Brad had always intended to be an entrepreneur and supported that plan by earning a business degree at San Francisco State University. Deciding not to take over the reins of the family business, it was somewhat of lucky chance that brought him into the craft beer fold. During his last year of college his girlfriend (and now wife) took him on a trip to Portland to attend the Oregon Brewers Festival. He was already enamored with craft beer, which could have landed him in a number of places, but during their visit he also fell in love with the city. From there, a path that combined his business background with a passion was forged.
The software Orchestra has created is similar to the kind that large enterprises utilize, but it has been brought down to an affordable level for small breweries or what Brad calls “democratizing technology.” It integrates purchasing and receiving, sales and shipments, production and packaging, quality control and inventory tracking while offering automated accounting and full reporting along with interfaces to third party systems.
Sound like a lot? It is, but it’s all part of what running the business side of a brewery entails. By addressing and successfully managing those things, businesses that utilize this software will not only run more efficiently, but will also have an advantage over those that are wasting time and resources on those same processes. By reducing the pressure of administrative tasks and allowing the focus to be placed on producing and selling product, Brad feels the industry as a whole is improving.
Starting with their early customers — Lazy Magnolia Brewery in Mississippi was the first, followed by Missouri’s Schlafly Beer and Firestone Walker Brewing Company in California — Brad says that, “word of mouth has been the biggest engine of growth since the beginning.” Brad sees an extension of that craft beer camaraderie in their Community Forum, an online resource where customers can ask for or offer help. It has not been uncommon for breweries that first connected in the Forum to go a step further and actually meet in person.
In addition to the always-available Community Forum, Orchestra offers an annual Orchestrate User Conference, yet another way to help their customers to get the most out of their software. At Orchestrate 2017: Level Up (Nov. 15-17), they are expecting 500 attendees who are there for the education and the networking.
Orchestra has come a long way since their inception and counts many Oregon breweries, including Buoy Beer Company, Cascade Brewing and Full Sail Brewery as customers. Their 40 percent year-over-year growth and 96 percent employee retention rate would make them highly attractive to many buyers, however, Brad isn’t interested in selling. He’s far more interested in continuing to grow and improve, changing craft beer on a global scale by expanding through the beer value chain. It may seem like a tall order, but based on how far they’ve already come it’s simply a matter of time before Orchestra is able to provide more avenues to help craft breweries run as efficiently as possible.
By Anthony St. Clair
For the Oregon Beer Growler
Growing, harvesting and processing hops can be a finicky pain in the cask. That’s why scientists, farmers, processors and startups are looking at how technology might increase production and quality. From flyover drones to LED grow lights in hydroponic greenhouses, the market is filled with more experimentation and innovation than ever — but not all new tech is created equal.
The challenges are many, says Jim Solberg, CEO of Indie Hops, a Portland-based hop merchant dedicated to working with craft brewers. Here’s a breakdown of some of the tech being examined:
Unproven and Unlikely
Hops and cannabis are botanical cousins. Cannabis has a history of being grown in climate-controlled greenhouses with LED lights and hydroponics — nutrient-rich solutions — instead of soil. Could hops be grown the same way?
“People don’t necessarily think about the differences between the perennial nature of hops and the annual nature of cannabis,” says Solberg.
Hops have one growth and harvest cycle per year. “After the growing period, the rhizomes need a dormancy period,” explains Solberg. “There is a sort of cleaning up the rhizome does. It’s like us with how sleep helps us function. Hops need overwintering to help them do that. To take that same plant and force it through compressed growth and dormancy cycles at a commercial scale, there are just too many problems and costs to make it viable.”
Cannabis plants are often grown to only a few feet tall, but hops can easily surpass 20 feet. As a result, hops require exponentially more greenhouse space, nutrients, lighting and temperature control. Those factors add up to sky-high economic costs — plus, pests and disease could be an even greater problem in an enclosed space.
“For commercial hop growers, it makes no sense,” says Solberg, but he’s glad that people are trying things out on a small scale. “They might learn something that affects development in a big way.”
Not all ideas are duds though, and farmers and processors are willing to invest in new technologies.
Since farm labor continues to be a challenge, engineers are improving machines that aid with picking, cleaning, drying. At this point, expensive newer machines are only viable for large operations — but Solberg sees the potential to help farmers realize “big savings during the labor of the picking and cleaning process.”
Farmers are also working on how they monitor and adjust plant nutrition. Environmental conditions change every year, affecting both yield and brewing qualities. “You’re trying to optimize the plant’s health, influence its growth habits,” says Solberg. “Advances give more rapid testing of plant material that give a sense nutritionally of what’s going on in the plant. There have been improvements that help stabilize production from a hop standpoint. It doesn’t make it uniform, there are variations, but it does have a positive influence.”
Visitors to a hop field may also see drones flying overhead. Drone-snapped aerial images help farmers evaluate stresses on plants and make adjustments to irrigation or nutrients.
A persistent challenge is field testing hops to know when they are at the optimal condition for harvesting. “In the wine world, they focus on refractometers — they measure the sugar. It’s quick, but there isn’t anything like that for hops,” says Solberg. While there is still no “quick-and-dirty field instrument” for hops, Solberg is hopeful that one could be developed.
Most exciting to Solberg are advances in hop drying and processing. U.S. commercial processors usually dry hops in a 24–30-inch thick layer, laid on a screen floor. Furnaces below the mesh put out heated air that rises, drying the cones. Monitoring moisture levels and temperature has been difficult. “If you let it get too hot, the hop oils can degrade,” explains Solberg. “And these thick beds of hops, there’s not a way to have them mixed through the process. Hops on the bottom don’t get moved, so the bottom of the bed gets warmer than the top, so you have uneven drying.”
Large-scale, variable-speed fans, sensors and mode cells placed on and in the hop bed and along the floor connect to software and provide crucial data. “They can record the weight of the whole floor of hops, and then factor in the weight change for an accurate view of how much moisture has evaporated,” says Solberg.
Hop breeding programs such as Oregon State University’s are also testing varieties that can thrive in drought conditions and still provide a brewing-quality crop. “Water is a larger and larger issue,” says Solberg. “If new hop varieties have both great brewing characteristics but take less water to grow, that could be compelling.”
At a recent global hops symposium at OSU, experts from around the world presented new findings on some of the hundreds of compounds — most as yet unresearched — that comprise any given hop cone.
“Hops are way more complex and interactive than anybody would have imagined. The contribution hops give to beer isn’t just a linear thing,” says Solberg. “There are a lot of so-called hop aroma precursors that don’t contribute in their natural form. During the brewing process and during fermentation, the yeast can help the hop release an aroma component. It’s not present before brewing, but later it releases a clear flavor or aroma component in the beer. Some hops actually do release their aroma compounds during boil, which we used to think wasn’t the case.”
The symposium has given brewers “tremendous ideas,” says Solberg, just as he, farmers and other processors are hopeful for new ideas and innovations.
“Science, research and tech will have some big impact over the next five to 10 years,” he said. “Over time, new things will come of it.”
By Jim McLaren
For the Oregon Beer Growler
The sparkling idea old Joe Priestley had back in 1767 didn't reach its most useful purpose until 2014.
It was 247 years ago when the chemist, who lived next to a brewery and began experimenting with their gas in Leeds, England, made carbonated water. But he stopped there. Making draft beer portable would have to wait.
As you know, beer naturally carbonates during fermentation; yeast eats sugar, making alcohol and carbon dioxide. Problem is that when you take the beer out of the barrel, air gets in and spoils the brew. So to take Joe’s discovery a step further, someone would need to fill that empty space in a barrel with what was called “fixed air” and preserve the freshness. Eventually this would lead to kegs — big kegs for taverns and pubs, pony kegs, Cornelius kegs, none of which are very portable. They are heavy and require attached external devices to get the beer out. But jump ahead to modern times at a bar in Portland and you’ll find another option.
“To keep good beer from going bad.” That’s what I told the guy on the stool next to me when he asked why I paid $149 for the stainless steel uKeg the ponytailed bartender at the Widmer Pub in North Portland was filling with Altbier. When I went on to explain that the uKeg is easy to use and keeps beer fresh for up to two weeks, he chuckled and said, “Who keeps beer around that long?” So, I asked him, “Haven't you ever had a beer you wanted to enjoy a little at a time, a seasonal release or, maybe, after you fill a growler you don’t feel like drinking it all in a couple of days?” “Well,” he said, “how do they keep beer fresh in that big can?”
This is where a trip to an Oregon beach comes in.
“I brought a glass growler and a cooler.” Standing in the front office of GrowlerWerks in Southeast Portland, Shawn Huff recalls how inspiration for the uKeg came from the good beer he’d put in his glass growler. “It was a Boneyard RPM IPA. I drank it one day, put it down, didn't drink the second day and then pulled it back out on the third day. It was flat. It was oxidized. All the work the brewer put into that IPA was ruined.”
So, I was thinking — pressurized growler,” Shawn Huff explains. “I saw some other people were doing it, but no one really from an engineering design perspective.”
Engineers! Brewers get a lot of attention. But who knows the engineers? Meet three you should know: Huff, Brian Sonnichsen and Evan Rege. (Evan was at a manufacturing plant in China when I visited the GrowlerWerks research-and-development warehouse.) Brian explains they met while working for ClearEdge Power, an alternative-energy company. He says Shawn’s idea for a pressurized growler came at just the right time.
“ClearEdge Power went out of business as we were working on this as an after-hours hobby, trying to figure out how to make it work.” Brian has a degree from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and 13 patents to his credit. Evan has a UC Berkeley degree in mechanical design and knows how to build fuel cells. Shawn owns four patents and is a chemical engineer; but, just as important, he won a business plan competition in college. All of that schooling and experience set them up for a dive into entrepreneurship. Brian says they figured, “What the heck? Let’s try this for six months because we can. There’s a program in Oregon that will let you start a business and you don’t have to look for a job for six months. It worked out fantastically.”
Some of the technology involved in making the uKeg is confidential and now being patented in both the U.S. and overseas. But when Brian and Shawn share what they can about how the uKeg works, it sounds simple.
“This is a double-walled, insulated vessel, so it keeps beer cold.” Shawn points out the first thing you’ll probably notice about the uKeg is a brass pipe climbing from the bottom of the vessel to a mini-tap at the top. “We go through the vessel so the beer exits from the bottom.”
Putting the tap on top means they can store a CO2 cartridge inside the variable pressure-regulation cap. “What that allows is you can put the top on, and once it is on you can set this dial and it automatically maintains your carbonation level. So all you have to do is pour.”
Thumbing through the owner’s manual that comes with the uKeg, Brian points out various carbonation settings, from 6 pounds per square inch (PSI) for stout, porter and cream ale to 12 PSI for lager, pilsner or even kombucha. A window on what they call the “sight tube” shows how much beer is in the uKeg. You can check it before you grab the brass handle provided for making your fresh draft beer portable.
“Our brand,” Brian reminds us, “is keeping beer fresh and being able to take it with you.”
Joe Priestley would be proud.
The GrowlerWerks trio has encountered some interesting liquor laws as they’ve moved into new markets. In Florida, there was a law allowing for gallon-sized growler fills, but not half-gallon sizes. In another state, the tap on a freshly filled growler had to be shrink-wrapped to prevent customers from pouring while driving. And when beer drinkers in Japan received the growlers they were due as part of the Kickstarter campaign, they found that Japanese law does not allow for growler fills.
For more information on the uKeg, go to growlerwerks.com.
OBG Blog Archives
Welcome to our archive pages! Read stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler from June 2012 to January 2018. For newer stories, please visit our new website at: