So we had the money and recipes all sorted but needed a kit.
The kit you decide to use is integral to so much at the beginning. The more money you spend on a kit, the more it can do, so you can brew fancier beers for less money and the variables mentioned before are controlled by the machinery and testing equipment making it much easier to make consistent and top quality beer. We’ll drop some figures here and they are based on equipment that produces 500 litres of ‘finished’ beer. This is also known as a 3 barrel kit but the barrel system is dumb so we talk in litres. Here’s a handy link for converting them and as a tip it’s always best to confirm if you’re buying equipment from people who use barrel measurements what the total capacity is in litres. There are different amounts for UK and USA barrels and it can mean fill capacity or fill + head capacity so quick tip to check.
For a new kit like the example in this picture there are several companies out there that will visit a space and design a kit, install it and test it with you. £35,000 is the ballpark as a minimum for all the tanks needed and for the extras at 500 litres quotes will normally be from £50,000. The next option down which is the most popular for new breweries is to buy a second kit either as a whole unit or to buy tank by tank and cobble them together. Luckily with the growth in craft beer there are both a lot of breweries who are selling their first kit in order to scale up which is great or the less fortunate ones who have folded. You do need to know what you’re doing if you buy one of these kits and if you cobble together tanks there is extra capital needed to replace seals or pressure test or put new fittings on tanks before they'd be useable. There is also a good amount of money needed to convert a kit to a space with electrical or space needs and deep chemical cleaning being pretty common costs. SIBA have a classified section on their website that we stayed glued to for about 2 months hoping that the perfect equipment would pop up, it didn’t. This kind of kit would normally run you around £10,000 at face value but deals are always about.
Eventually after a huge amount of research and considering really weird plans like converting old industrial boilers or renting tank space and becoming gypsy brewers we decided to use an Italian company that make brewing tanks and olive oil storage tanks, Polsinelli. They are very well respected in Italy and still operate as a family business that started out as specialists in wine and olive oil production equipment in 1956. Like the rest of the choices made up until now we chose to the hard way, buy generic tanks and retrofit them with fittings, insulation and accessories ourselves, essentially building our brew kit from scratch.
The order with polsinelli ended up including a Hot Liquor Tank, Mash Tun with custom built false bottom, Boil Kettle, 6 fermenters, cooling plates, lids and pedestal stands which came to approx £3000. We calculated the cost to retrofit them each with insulation, valves and taps, converting the cooling plates and a chilling system at £2000 which is a cheap option that seemed like a genius plan. Unfortunately when we came to put the order in because of the unusual destination the delivery price had to be recalculated and it was much more expensive. As the tanks would need to be wrapped and palletised before being sent over 2 borders the transport cost came back as about £1200 more than what I’d budgeted for. This was 100% my fault for not doing the small print reading. Shit!
Polsinelli is located in a town called Isola del Liri about 80km south of Rome or 1300 miles from Dorset It was too far in to planning to try and get a different kit or wait for one to pop up on SIBA. Step in Nick with the solve. The plan was simple, see if we could get sponsored or crowdfunded to pay for the van hire and travel and use the experience as a marketing opportunity and potentially learn about italian craft beer along the way. As an experienced road tripper, Nick figured out the cost of hiring a long wheel base and driving down would be cheaper than getting our own courier but would only have 4 and a half days to get there and back. If you’re reading this blog there’s a good chance you helped and a massive thank you to all who did, we couldn’t have done it without you all.
There were also a few other challenges to plan round. We’d have to drive in shifts which is fine but would definitely need a 3rd driver due to an entertaining eye problem I have. Luckily our friend Jamie Rowl stepped in to help. We would also have to pay for our own food, accommodation and anything fun to keep it above board and fair to the crowdfunders. We were quite poor at the time from pouring our own cash in to the brewery so our budget was tight. None of us knew if it was even legal to drive to Italy and import quite unusual looking kit. Seeing three lads with a bunch of Breaking Bad looking stuff was bound to set off some red flags. A very friendly guard at the english channel station told us they have giant van x-ray type machines that image the contents of large vehicles to make sure no funny stuff is going on but we were still pretty anxious.
We approached all the van hire companies around Dorset in the hope of sponsorship or a deal but in the end had to pay the standard price. The crowdfunding raised just over £1,300 in exchange for t-shirts, bottles of beer and guided tastings for different levels of contribution. The response was incredible and before we knew it our bags were packed.
The first couple of days driving were pretty uneventful to be honest with a couple of nights spent sleeping in the van to save money and debates over music. Our thinking was to get down to Polsinelli as quickly as possible in case something went wrong with the kit or along the way so pit stops were functional. As a treat for this being boring though here's a clip of Nick and J waking me up.
When we arrived to polsinelli we were buzzing. 1,300 miles down and were finally going to see the tanks from the months of dreaming. Our expectation was just a quick stop at a warehouse with maybe a bit of an attempt at google translating a polite “thanks”. Instead, we were greeted by Elisa the head of Customer Relations and PR and Daniel who is now the third generation and current Managing Director of the company. Imagine spending 2 days straight in a van with 2 other guys and then having an impromptu meeting with the head of a very important company. Yikes.
It turned out that Daniel is the most hospitable man in Italy. We were taken to a full 3 course lunch with local produce and wines all completely gratis. We all swapped origin stories and future plans with Daniel introducing us to everyone in the town, the whole Polsinelli team love the people they work with and it was an amazing example they set. After lunch all of us drove a couple of miles up to a beautiful house owned by ‘Mr Gi’. This must have been a common event as none of his family were fazed by smelly English guests. Bottles and tanks and tubes were everywhere but there were no brewing smells. As our curiosity peaked Daniel picked up on it and asked the giddy Mr Gi to reveal what he was doing with his house/ drinks equipment showroom. In between excited hops Mr Gi started handing out shots and did not stop for an hour. Homemade limoncello, grapa, ouzo and a dozen other spirits that were all incredible. It’s so fun how much a few shots can make friends of such a random group of people with one translator struggling to keep with slurring and Dorset slang. We ended up around 12 drinks in at 3 in the afternoon with about 250 miles left to go for the day. Guess who lost rock / paper / scissors and had to drive.
At this point we’d reached our destination and loaded up and had an easy 2 and a half days driving to get home. It was time to enjoy ourselves after saving some cash by sleeping in the van. The first stop was Florence for negronis and a bar crawl on the river side. Trying to navigate italian roads and drivers in a huge van was stressing us all out so all pictures post this point include hangovers. The people in the bars we visited in Florence were insane. In one bar for example, inside on the dance floor was a lone dude slowly swaying and hugging himself to no music for a good half an hour and simultaneously outside Jamie watched an american social media consultant being wooed by a very drunk english art dealer. It was also great to see craft beer being embraced by a culture that is as proud of its history and place in the world of food and drink. Italy has embraced the changes and advances that have come from the spread of the industry in such a natural and enthusiastic way which was so fun to see.
The next stop was Chamonix. The town was preparing for the upcoming ski season so was a bit quiet which was fine by us. We spent most of the night at the amazing brewpub, Micro Brasserie De Chamonix, admiring their equipment and chatting to the incredible brew team there. Sourcing good quality hops and yeast to a freezing cold mountain must be such a challenge.
The next day we made it through the channel station pretty easily. There was a rucksack left in a terminal so the anxiety that had been building up was moot. Terrorist threat trumps english weirdos with brew kits. The trip was amazing and we'd like to offer another huge thank you to everyone who donated and helped us plan it. It was such a great thing to see people get behind the project in a way we never expected and made what we were trying to do seem possible. And also a special thanks to Jamie Rowl who helped us out of a jam with driving and photography skills and put up with me and Nick for 4 days. He’s a true legend!