Let me share my frustration regarding fermentation with you. My frustration regarding fermentation? Yes, I feel that if there is one part of the process of craft spirits production that is riding in the back seat, it is fermentation. It is the one step that so many craft distillers neglect. My message here, today, is that it shouldn't be neglected, that it should be in the driving seat of any craft distillery, not in the back seat!
Focus on the wrong things
Most craft distillers focus on distilling. And maybe on mashing. But not on fermenting. Fermenting is often seen as a necessary evil. A time consuming process that hampers the distillery's overall efficiency in maximizing alcohol production. Fermentation is where the actual alcohol is produced, so its all about yield, right?
Wrong! Yes, of course, the actual alcohol is produced during the fermentation stage. It is where sugars (converted from starch during the mashing phase that precedes it) are turned into alcohol. But alcohol production as fermentation's focus point? That is all wrong! It is wrong because it is during the fermentation phase that most of the flavor (depending on recipe and equipment 80 - 100%) is created.
A paradigm shift on fermentation
If flavor is created during fermentation, and if craft distillers need to compete with Big Alcohol on taste, rather than costs per liter produced, I propose a shift in paradigm. That new paradigm sounds like this:
"Fermentation is the most important step for each and every craft distiller wanting to produce their own whiskey, brandy, or rum."
Current and new paradigm: the consequences
The existing way of thinking, where fermentation is primarily judged to be a bottle neck part of the process, aimed at alcohol production, leads craft distillers to under invest in fermentation equipment. In stead of fermentation taking place in the controlled environment needed to optimize (consistent) flavor development, cheap options like IBC's, totes or under designed, thin, stainless steel vessels are chosen.
Most craft distilleries focus on investing in distillation equipment and not in fermentation equipment. Most craft distillers look for a shiny new still that only helps them (in the best case scenario) to rectify the mistakes made during their uncontrolled fermentations. Most craft distillers spend 80% of their equipment money on the still and only 20% on those parts of the spirits production process that help create better flavor.
And the money that is spent on fermentation, is usually invested in underrated equipment. Most fermenters one can buy, have - depending on size and manufacturer - a sheet thickness of 0.7 to 1.7 mm. Would you buy a still that thin? Of course not! So why buy thin sheeted fermenters? Because the craft distiller considers fermentation less essential than distillation.
When we put fermentation in the driver's seat, if we change to my proposed new paradigm, and declare it the most important step in the spirits production process, the following happens:
- Equipment investment focusses on fermentation as well as distillation;
- The fermentation equipment that will be acquired, will give you more control over consistent flavor development;
- The fermentation equipment will see a rise in build quality.
As a result, craft distillers will finally be able to make taste rich product with better taste than Big Alcohol. And as consistently as the bigger producers can.
Costs and investments in your craft distillery
When Big Alcohol sets up a new distillery, do you know how they divide their equipment investments? 98% goes into mashing and fermenting and only 2% into the actual still. Total control over flavor and alcohol production during fermentation makes the still actually less important.
I am not saying you, as a craft distiller, should follow their lead to the letter. But I do challenge you to evaluate and reassess the numbers. Where Big Alcohol spends 98% on mashing and fermenting, our industry only spends 20% in that realm. If flavor is king, shouldn't craft distillers at least up the investment in their fermenters to (or slightly above) the costs of their still? And if you are not convinced about the importance of controlled fermentation, please take a look at craft brewing. Or investigate the wine industry. They have been "craft" for over 2 millennia and may know there priorities better.