Learning About Beer: The 4-Vessel Brewhouse

If homebrewing is a bike, then a 2-vessel brewhouse is your average car, and a 4-vessel brewhouse is a Tesla Roadster. Everyone learns to ride a bike and does so for many years. Many people graduate to cars, usually some cheap or used ride to get them around. Then, finally, a very few get something as profoundly bad ass as a Tesla.

I’ve lost count of all the breweries I’ve visited in the past 11 years, from folks as small as DogBerry to as big as Sierra Nevada. What I can still count, on my hands, is the number of breweries I’ve been to with a 4-vessel brewhouse. To learn more about what a 4-vessel brewhouse is, and their difference from 2-vessel systems, I headed down to Rhinegeist to talk to Head Brewer Jim Matt.

Rhinegeist Brewery

In short, the brewhouse turns crushed grain, water, and hops into wort. Regardless of if you’re using an orange cooler and an 8-gallon pot or a 60-barrel 4-vessel fully automated piece of German engineering, they all serve the same basic function. From there the wort temperature drops, moved to fermenters, and yeast added to turn the wort to beer, but that’s a story for another day.

2-Vessel and 3-vessel Brewhouses

2-vessel brewhouses are present in the vast majority of American craft breweries. Usually ranging from 7-barrel up to 50-barrel systems. Pictured below is MadTree’s brewhouse, a 15-barrel 2-vessel system.

MadTree 2-vessel vs 4-vessel

2-vessel usually means one vessel for the mash/lauter tun and another for the boil kettle/whirlpool. Which is exactly the setup MadTree has above. The vessel on the right receives the grain and hot water; it sits there mixing for about an hour while the hot water sucks the sugar out of the grain.

The vessel on the left is the boil kettle and whirlpool. Any guesses on what happens in the boil kettle? Boiling! Tough question, right. The sweet wort from the mash/lauter tun moves over and boils. Brewers add hops during the boil, creating bitter wort. For the whirlpool part of this process, the wort gets stirred into a whirlpool. This whirlpool helps drop the hops and other bits out of suspension clarifying the wort.

A slight tweak on the 2-vessel system is the 3-vessel setup. The 3-vessel brewhouse is some combination of separating the mash tun and lauter tun or keeping them together and separating the boil kettle and whirlpool.

4-Vessel Brewhouse

For a 4-vessel brewhouse you have one vessel for each step, mash tun, lauter tun, boil kettle, and whirlpool. Rhinegeist’s 4-vessel brewhouse is below.

Rhinegeist's 4-Vessel Brewhouse

Each part of the 4-vessel system operates the same as the combination of its 2-vessel counterparts. The incredible advantage of the 4-vessel system comes in the ability to perform multiples steps at the same time.

With a system this big, Rhinegeist can pump the entire mash, grain and liquid, from the mash tun over to the lauter tun. Rhinegeist has a 3-inch valve between the vessels. This valve allows Rhinegeist to move everything over to the lauter tun (shown below) and begin cleaning the mash tun for the next batch.

4-Vessel brewhouse lauter tun

The wort remains in the lauter tun for the 100-minute lauter process. Lautering, be it in 4-vessel, 2-vessel, or orange cooler, is simply the process of washing the grain to stop saccharification (sugar conversion) and ensure you get every bit of sugar from those grains. Each bit of sugar increases your brewhouse efficiency, homebrewers get around 75% efficiency, Rhinegeist hits 90 to 92% efficiency.

Rhinegeist’s 4-vessel brewhouse is a 6o-barrel system. Once 45-barrels have been lautered and pumped over to the boil kettle they start mashing into the mash tun again. On a 2-vessel system, after lautering and pumping over to the boil kettle you’d have to mash out all the grain and clean the mash/lauter tun before being able to start again.

4-vessel brewhouse touch screen control panel

As for that super fancy touch screen above, I’ll leave it to Jim Matt.

We recently upgraded this from a semi-automated to a fully automated system … It’d tell you, mash in the grain with 30 barrels of water. You’d open all these valves on the touch screen, you’d watch till you hit 30 barrels, you’d stop it, it’d do its rest thing.

Now, it’s almost as easy as “Siri, brew Truth.”

4-vessel brewhouse boil kettle

There is no difference in the boil kettle for a 4-vessel and 2-vessel system, they both take the sweet wort, boil it (usually for 60 minutes). To make things more efficient, and more impressive, Rhinegeist uses these three canisters below for hop additions to the boil kettle. Instead of opening a bag of hops and dumping it into the kettle, the automated system recirculates the boiling wort through the hop dossers in 60-minute, 20-minute, and 10-minute intervals for each of the three dossers. Just like would happen with a 2-vessel system.

4-vessel brewhouse hop dosser

Again, the significant advantage of the 4-vessel system comes with the ability to operate the individual pieces simultaneously. Rhinegeist brews four 60-barrel batches a day to fill one of their 240-barrel fermenters. This automated 4-vessel system, and the tight timing they’ve developed, saves three hours of each brew day vs. their 3-vessel system. Plus, the general lack of manual labor is much easier on their brewers.

5-Vessel and Beyond

Jim mentioned that the one expansion Rhinegeist could make – though they’ll probably never need to – would be a wort receiver to receive the wort after the lauter and before the boil allowing them to mash in sooner. Sierra Nevada in Asheville has 6-vessels in their brewhouse. Including a wort receiver and a hop strainer along with the mash tun, lauter tun, boil kettle, and whirlpool.

There isn’t much beyond there except increasingly larger barrel capacity: 60, 80, 100, 240 barrels and up and up until you reach AB-InBev/MillerCoors capacities.

UPDATE: My friend got me this info after I first published yesterday. MillerCoors brewery in Trenton, Ohio has a 1,000-barrel, 3-vessel brewhouse. They use a mash tun, lauter tun, and boil kettle. I guess they skip the whirlpool due to the lack of hops and extended lagering time. Plus, they probably have some ultra bad ass filtering system. They brew on that system five times to fill their 5,000-barrel fermenters. For reference, Rhinegeist brews four times to fill their 240-barrel fermenters. Rhinegeist did 30,000 barrels last year. That MillerCoors brewery plant is brewing 1,000 barrels at a time, and it’s only one of seven breweries plants in America.

If you have anymore questions about 4-vessel brewhoues leave a comment and I’ll find an answer for you. Any other parts of the brewery you want to know about? Just let me know and I’ll get it done!

6 thoughts on “Learning About Beer: The 4-Vessel Brewhouse”

  1. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen Rhinegeist and Braxton make mention of a “hop gun” on social media posts. Is that where the canisters attach to which then feeds into the boil kettle at the intervals you mentioned? Curious on what that device does/how it works into the system.

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  2. Seems like a qualifier might be in order here – 4 vessel infusion brewhouse, maybe?

    Some explanation of the vessels used in continental lager decoction brewhouses, and in north american adjunct lager brewing, not to mention malt extract production, distillery, happoshu, and third way would be nice additions to this article.

    Does the hot liquor tank never get counted in brewhouse vessels?

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    1. Highly unlikely you would have a 4 vessel brewhouse that used an infusion mash tun as opposed to a jacketed mash tun. Adjunct breweries may require an additional vessel often known as a cereal cooker. Only home brewers count hot liquor tanks as a “brew house ” vessel, as in a home brew kit you could use your kettle to double as a hlt, so a separate hlt could be considered an additional vessel, but that would be a pretty ghetto way to make a comm brewery

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  3. Hi Tom

    A very interesting article.

    I assume that having extra vessels in a brewhouse would result in a quicker brew.

    Would you be able to give me the time it takes per batch in a two vessel, four vessel, five vessel and six vessel?

    Thankyou

    Cheers

    Peter

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    1. Peter,

      It’s not that more vessels save any amount of time per batch. From brewing on a stove, to in a garage, to a 10-barrel 2-vessel system up to a 100-barrel 5-vessel system it still takes the same amount of time PER batch. The advantage to having 4, 5, or more vessels is that it allows you to have beers in different stages at the same time. If you have 2 vessels you can only really have 1 brew going at a time. If you have 4 vessels you could have 2 brews going at the same time at different stages of the brewing process.

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