Fermenters: New or Old?

EDIT (5/26/09): If you have any questions on fermenters (new vs. old), please eMail me (info@www.thebruery.com).  I ended up haggling for a better price on the used fermenters and purchased those, which have worked fine for us but obviously aren’t ideal.  We’ve also purchased new fermenters from Premier Stainless, which I recommend.

While I’m trying to find a location for my brewery’s home, I’m also locating the equipment I need and making sure it will be available when I need it. I’ve already found my brewhouse, so need to put everything else together. Fermenters are the next most important piece of the puzzle.

I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this yet, but I’m running on a tight budget. If I told you how much, you’d probably give me advice I don’t want to hear. You might stop reading this blog. I won’t mention the actual amount now, but be assured it is not enough by most brewer’s standards. On paper it works, but it requires a great deal of time and luck in finding deals out there. Much of what I’ll be posting on this blog is my attempts to find deals on equipment and the place I’ll be operating from.

A few weeks ago I drove up to Northern California (about a 7 hour drive) to look at used fermenters. I hadn’t seen any pictures before driving up to see them, and was told these were going to be sold fast so I should take a look ASAP. They were priced very well, and for good reason I found out. They were not glycol jacketed on the cone, may not hold pressure, didn’t have a 60 degree cone, had a major buildup of minerals (beer stone) on the inside, didn’t have a Clean-In-Place (CIP) system, and seemed to be difficult to clean manually, as there were multiple rings of brown krausen indicating that many batches went by without a good cleaning.

I drove home the same day, and resolved that they were the best I could afford. Driving for 14 hours in a day can affect your judgement and morale. My thoughts were “I’m a startup, and I can’t afford to spend the money on good equipment. I can make these work, and I can do so better than the previous owner.”

The next day looked at the pictures I took of the equipment, and I saw more problems. Scratches that weren’t visible under normal light appeared with the help of the flash of my camera. I had to look elsewhere for fermenters.

A friend of mine, Curt Dale from Dale Brothers Brewing bought a system from Pacific Brewing System Technologies (or PBST) and is very pleased with the craftsmanship, so I decided to give them a chance. PBST is owned by Frank Ma, who lives in Southern California and runs a stainless steel manufacturing plant in China. He has a reputation for pricing under what other equipment manufacturers quote, including other Chinese manufacturers. I met with him and looked at Curt’s system, and I’m very impressed with his new fermenters. They have all of the features that other equipment manufacturers offer on new equipment, and the quality is excellent. If I were to get the same size as the used fermenters I was looking at, they would be much more expensive, but if I scale up the size of the fermenters to double or triple batch size, they become more affordable than the used fermenters.

The disadvantage of them is that there is no official warranty on them, so there is some risk. However, the used fermenters don’t come with a warranty either, so it’s a wash in that department. Others in the brewery equipment manufacturing industry have knocked Frank’s equipment, saying it’s not 304 stainless steel and the craftsmanship is poor.

From what I’ve seen, the craftsmanship is not poor. As far as it not being 304 stainless steel, I don’t think Frank would survive in this business if he is selling equipment claiming to be 304 stainless when it isn’t. I’ve spoken with brewers who have been using Frank’s equipment for some time, and they are very pleased with it and have bought more equipment from him.

My take is that those who have negative things to say about PBST are trying to sell me equipment, and they are assuming that I’m looking at buying from PBST. They offer similar equipment for a higher price, and they are willing to warranty the equipment for a year or so. It seems that they are threatened by Frank and his ability to price himself lower than everyone else. Other dealers of Chinese brewing equipment are just that, dealers. They contract out the manufacturing to the outside, rather than manufacturing it themselves. There’s an extra layer of expenses that have to be tacked on.

When it comes down to it, I trust Frank’s new equipment much more than the used fermenters built almost 20 years ago. Frank is looking to build a reputation among American brewers, not to make a quick buck. If he wanted to make a quick buck, he should charge more!

I haven’t ordered the fermenters yet, as I’m waiting to find a location first and make sure I have enough ceiling clearance for 60 bbl fermenters. If some great used fermenters come on the market in the meantime, I’d consider those over new ones. However, the used equipment market is very dry right now, presumably because there’s a lot of growth in the craft brewing industry, so it’s doubtful I’m going to find what I’m looking for unless I buy new.

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