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Craft beer offers opportunity for more than just brewers

Monday, December 18, 2017   (0 Comments)

Arthur Thomas


Brewery tanks in production at W.M. Sprinkman in Waukesha.

When Brian Sprinkman has customers come to town, he’ll now have a real-world showroom to take them to on the edge of downtown Milwaukee.

Actually, it is more like three showrooms, as Waukesha-based W.M. Sprinkman Corp. is responsible for the brewhouses in three of the more high-profile brewery projects in Milwaukee over the past few years.

It started with a 10-barrel facility for the Pabst Milwaukee Brewery, then there was the 85-barrel brewhouse for MillerCoors LLC’s 10th Street brewery, and finally, the 60-barrel Milwaukee Brewing Co. project at the former Pabst complex.

"It was just a timing thing,” Sprinkman said of the three projects the company’s staff has referred to as the "beer triangle.”

The three breweries Sprinkman is working on are all within a mile of each other and represent the full range of Sprinkman’s work. While the Pabst project is mostly manual and the Milwaukee Brewing one involves some automation, the MillerCoors project takes things to another level.

"That’s an exciting project for us because it will represent our most automated brewery that we’ve ever built,” Sprinkman said. "It will be a very sophisticated craft brewery.”

It also helped to validate the decision made in 2016 to move W.M. Sprinkman’s headquarters from Racine County to Waukesha. The company went from a 33,000-square-foot facility in the Town of Raymond to a 52,000-square-foot building previously occupied by Oberlin Filter. That additional space has been useful as MillerCoors and Milwaukee Brewing tanks have made their way through production at the same time. Sprinkman said some of the MillerCoors tanks could not have been built at the previous facility and would have been made at its Elroy facility instead.

"It’s huge that we were able to build some of the MillerCoors tanks here in Waukesha,” he said.

Beyond the additional space, Sprinkman also made the move because of the efforts to develop a skilled workforce in Waukesha County. Sanitary stainless steel welding is a fairly niche skilled trade, Sprinkman pointed out, and the three projects and others promoted by growth in the craft beer industry may put additional demand on the company’s staff. But he added Sprinkman has worked well with Waukesha County Technical College to get students the right training and there are already eight graduates on staff, with another two starting next year.

"It’s proven to be fantastic,” Sprinkman said.

In the past several years, there has been an explosion in craft brewing. In the mid-2000s there were almost 1,500 breweries in the United States. The growth took off in 2010 and last year, there were roughly 5,400, according to the Brewers Association, a national trade group for small and independent craft brewers. Wisconsin alone has gone from 72 breweries in 2011 to 138 last year, according to the group’s data.

While the new breweries and brewpubs opening and expanding across the region draw headlines, the area is also home to a number of companies supplying the equipment to make beer. In addition to Sprinkman, there’s also New Berlin-based TechniBlend Inc. and its sister company ProBrew LLC, Oconomowoc-based Quality Tank Solutions LLC and Milwaukee-based Spike Brewing LLC.

Derek Deubel, president of the two New Berlin-based companies, said TechniBlend serves larger beverage manufacturers, while ProBrew seeks to adapt the same technology to smaller, craft brewing situations.

Like Sprinkman, he praised the work done by WCTC to train students for positions at his company, particularly in the areas of welding and automation technology. His companies currently have five welders under the age of 28.

"I didn’t expect to be able to find that,” Deubel said.

The increase in the number of breweries has created plenty of competition, and that’s generated additional interest in the products made by equipment manufacturers.

"You just can’t be a new brewery anymore; you have to be different and you have to be good,” Deubel said.

He said brewers increasingly have to worry about producing a quality product consistently and efficiently.

"You better be able to give the same product back to the consumer again and again,” Deubel said.

Brewers are starting to turn toward manufacturing processes to meet those consumer demands and that plays directly into the hands of equipment makers. Deubel pointed to ProBrew’s centrifuge and carbonation offerings – which help speed up various parts of the brewing process – and improved packing equipment as two areas of growth.

"There’s a lot of entry-level equipment in the market,” Deubel said of canning and bottling lines. Many breweries have systems that can handle as little as 30 cans or bottles per minute, he said, while ProBrew’s systems can process 90 cans or 50 bottles, while also adding quality assurance elements.

Sprinkman and ProBrew are located just a few miles apart and while their offerings diverge in some areas, the two companies are competitive when it comes to brewhouses.

ProBrew has been working on a new 20-barrel system for Waukesha-based Raised Grain Brewing Co. that will offer additional automation for the brewery.

Deubel said Raised Grain is a good example of a brewer that’s taken a steady approach.

"They started really small (and) brewed good beer,” he said.

There’s some concerns nationally as beer volumes level off that the industry has reached a saturation point. Deubel said he’s also worried that brewers turning toward more manufacturing processes could cause the industry to lose some of what makes it unique.

"I hope that doesn’t go away and I don’t think it will, because the brewers are very creative,” he said, noting the rise in popularity of barrel-aging, sour beers and the use of other ingredients.

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