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Thursday, 28 July 2016

New distillers need chemical engineering expertise, says Scott Allen

As with many business and lifestyle trends, the current surge in UK-based craft distillers has its roots in the US, where a desire to give consumers more choice resulted in hordes of new craft brewers and spirits companies entering the market. This trend was picked up in the UK and over the past few years we have seen significant growth in the number of small craft distillers starting up. So how do you define a craft distiller? In truth there is no easy answer to this question.

In my opinion the majority of the existing malt distilleries in Scotland could be considered craft, so perhaps the term "new craft distiller" may be a better description. In the main, new craft distillers operate at very small volumes of alcohol (˂250,000 l/y) and are independent of the large drinks companies. The geographic spread of the new distilleries is wide, stretching the length and breadth of the UK, although it should be noted that Scotland has seen more than its fair share of new operations due to the premium product status associated with Scotch and, more specifically, single malts. That said, gin has also witnessed significant growth, with new and unusual distilleries springing up on a regular basis.

Gin has the advantage of lower set up costs and you can take it straight to the market as there is no maturation time. Whisky requires a larger capitol spend, more process plant is required, and you need to mature the spirit, which means further spend on casks and warehousing.

THOSE WHO GO IT ALONE

Gin may be less complicated to produce but challenges still remain, and this is when the distiller should seriously consider tapping in to the expertise of a suitably-experienced chemical engineer. To be fair, there are a number of new craft distillery operators who realise the benefits associated with bringing in a chemical engineer at an early stage, but there are those who decide to go it alone with possibly only an architect to assist with the planning application process. Unfortunately, a general lack of knowledge, particularly in the area of process compliance and process safety, can lead to issues.

There is a belief that some aspects of process safety compliance are only relevant to the larger distillers, which of course is not the case. A chemical engineer can provide guidance on this and assist with ensuring the process design is sound and thoroughly risk assessed. Process layout can also be an issue as the appointed architect may not appreciate the amount of pipework required at the distillery and the associated plant access requirements. Distillery redesign is not uncommon when a project gets under way and those involved realise that the proposed plans are not going to work from a process perspective.

The larger distillers understand only too well that investment in process design and hazard analysis will help to ensure projects stay on track. Lack of funds with the smaller distillers can mean there is a temptation to cut corners. It is not necessarily that they don't understand the importance of process design but there may be a belief that equipment suppliers can provide this specialist expertise.

CHALLENGES TO OVERCOME

Of course, suppliers will understand the operating requirements of their products but there is often a lack of knowledge when it comes to the wider integration of their equipment into the distillery process. This can lead to issues with utility requirements, effluent process safety, breakdown at supplier interfaces, and lack of standard process design documentation, e.g. P&IDs – all things that a knowledgeable and experienced chemical engineer working on the project would ensure are being performed and managed to the correct standards.

In summary, there is no doubt that the insatiable appetite from consumers for new and unusual spirits presents a number of business opportunities for new distillers (and associated suppliers) and it is clear that, as a result, we now have some interesting new products coming to the market. However, experience to date illustrates that there is still a significant education process required to ensure that new distillers understand the advantages of engaging with experienced chemical and process engineers at the earliest opportunity.

 

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