Using Lean Principles to Homebrew

For those who don’t know, Lean is a workplace philosophy that involves reducing waste and increasing “flow” at the system level. It applies to any service (like making cars) or process (you guessed it…making beer). I have slowly become a fan of Lean (I’m actually on a Lean Steering Committee at work and give talks about how to Lean libraries…weird, huh). The goal is to have the best quality beer for the least amount of work.

Reducing Waste

Motion, Transportation
In a perfect Lean system, the product (beer) and the people (you) move as little as possible. Before I got a fermentation chamber, just to take one example, I found myself moving the beer to various places, depending on what I was doing to it (brewing, chilling, fermenting, cold crashing, bottling). That’s a ton of wasted motion. Now I move it three times: to the deck to brew (roughly 10 feet), in the bathtub to chill (20 feet), and into the fermentation chamber for everything else (including bottling, 30 feet). Theoretically, the beer wouldn’t have to move at all. For example, if you have four thousand dollars to “waste,” there exists a BREWHA BIAC All-in-One conical system that virtually does everything in one place (mash, boil, chill, ferment). But I wonder how hard that bitch is to clean.

Other ways to limit motion:

  • Store brewday equipment all in the one spot, close to where you brew. On brewday, you grab and start. No looking for stuff.
  • Chill close to where you brew. Ideally, the chiller and water source would be right next to your heat source.
  • Ferment close to where you chill. Are you seeing a pattern? As for my set up, I’m hoping to improve on this by installing a large utility sink next to my fermentation chamber. But that requires plumbing.
  • Store empty bottles close to where you sanitize them. Empty bottles are kept in my basement, and I sanitize them in the dishwasher about 30 feet away (there’s really no other place for them). Ideally, I would buy an extra dishwasher and place it next to my fermentation chamber, next to the bottles. Are you getting the whole Lean thing by now? Probably.
  • U shape: Ideally, your brewing process and workspace would literally form a U shape. One end of the U would be the beginning of the process (cleaning, milling or mashing, depending on your setup); on the other end, the finished beer ready to drink. For most people like me, this is completely impractical but good to keep in mind.
  • Buy in bulk: less trips to the homebrew shop. The reason I don’t buy in bulk is because my homebrew shop has a barley mill that I like to use, so I don’t have to buy one.


all my brewing stuff is here, labelled, ready to go

Doing something to the product that doesn’t need to be done. In my opinion, taking several hydrometer readings qualifies as waste. You are doing something to the product that doesn’t need to be done (also, it’s a waste of beer and time). When homebrewers talk about “insurance” and “peace of mind” and “just in case,” these are all technically wasteful; it means there might be something fundamentally wrong in the process that you have to compensate for, a defect. However, I’m slightly wrong, because taking hydrometer readings can actually save you time, which is Lean. So I take a balanced approach. I take a hydrometer reading 5 or 6 days into fermentation. If I’m convinced it’s done, I move along. If not, I take another reading a day later. I have no interest in taking other readings.

If a process increases the quality of the product, like adding gypsum to an IPA water profile, that is consistent with Lean principles. Increasing quality is not waste. Does taking a pH reading actually increase the quality of the product? Assuming it does, and there’s not a better way, it’s Lean.

Other ways to limit processing:

  • stop transferring to a “secondary.”
  • think of ways to modify your fermenter into a bottling bucket: dual purpose equipment.
  • stop using a “hop bag”
  • stop re-hydrating dry yeast, just sprinkle
  • for BIAB, consider dumping the grains in the bag

Any form of needless waiting is waste. A typical beer takes 2-3 weeks from grain to glass, sometimes shorter. People that rack beers to “secondary” for a month are waiting, which is considered waste. People that bottle condition for months, I consider waste. The perfect Lean system makes the time-frame as short as possible. More controversial, and drawing on some experiments from brulosophy, mashing and boiling for more than 30 minutes could be considering wasteful waiting. In other words, mashing and boiling for 60 or 90 minutes might not have a qualitative positive effect on your beer. Which would be waste. I talked to a guy the other day that did 90 minutes mashes for 1 gallon batches!

  • instead of 60 minutes hop additions, try First Wort Hopping
  • to get to a boil faster, put the lid on you boil kettle
  • start the brew day with hot water from your tap (make sure your water is safe first), rather than starting with cold water.

This isn’t a problem for most homebrewers; rather, underproduction is. However, sometimes homebrewers scale up just to scale up. They think it’s more “efficient.” Not so. There is nothing fundamentally more “efficient” with brewing 10 gallon batches, as opposed to 10 1 gallon batches. It all depends on the system in question. Lean thinking is about brewing exactly how much you need, when you need it, at the time you need it. It’s not about making 500 bottles of Kolsh that sit in your fridge for a year.

The brewing equipment and ingredients you routinely use should be at hand, in a logical spot, and read to go. Equipment you don’t use should be either thrown away or put in storage. For example, I have a box in my basement titled “extra equipment” which contains an old strainer I rarely use, some random tubing, and a dry hop strainer. They are not mixed with the stuff I actually use.

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