When Paul Werni sold his commercial landscape construction business, he batted around other ideas to start up. As luck would have it, he got a home brewing kit for his birthday. Not bad, he thought, but he’s more of a cocktail guy than the beer guy. So, he read up on everything he could find on distilling spirits and attended numerous workshops, even traveling to Germany and Austria, to learn more about running a small distillery.
In time, he talked an old college roommate into working for him, and, in 2007, Werni opened the doors to the 45th Parallel Distillery, in New Richmond, Wisconsin, taking the name from the imaginary line that draws a circle through this part of the globe marking the halfway point between the equator and the North Pole.
“In the beginning, information was hard to come by,” Werni says. “There were very few distilleries to learn from. Cash flow was difficult, and there were few supplier options when it came to equipment for a small operation like ours back then. Even finding glassware was tough.”
Wet Head brother-in-law
But the most important information – and probably the most important as far as our magazine is concerned – came from his brother-in-law, who was well versed in steam boilers and related hydronic components.
That would be Ted Schmelling, a Wet Head friend of ours we’ve known since the 1990s. We still remember an ice-cold late winter afternoon visit to a Wisconsin training hall in which Schmelling put in radiant heat in one half of the building and left the other half for forced air. Sounds odd, but he did it to show the superior comfort afforded underfloor heat. We still remember the clear difference in comfort between the two spaces.
Over the years, we also bumped into him a time (or two) at the ISH Show. After years of radiant installations, Schmelling moved on to rep sales, and is currently a territory sales specialist for hydronic rep firm Hot Water Products out of Milwaukee.
“I’d probably be more involved in Paul’s operation if he had decided to brew beer,” Schmelling jokes. “But I definitely knew the importance of steam and other related mechanicals to an operation like this.”
Schmelling outfitted Werni’s original 3,000-square-foot facility with a low-pressure steam system powered by a 1,000 MBH Burnham cast-iron unit, complete with a Weishaupt modulating burner.
“Those burners are the best and most reliable made,” he adds. “It went 10 years without needing a part – and the boiler is often running 24/7.”
A reliable and consistent supply of steam and hot water – Werni goes through 200,000 gallons of water a month – is a mandatory starting point to turn grain into spirits.
Why is steam so important to distillation?
“During my training seminars, attendees often ask why steam is used rather than a flame under the kettle,” writes Ray Wohlfarth in one of two definitive books he’s written on the subject of using steam for distilling spirits and, for that matter, brewing beer.
Wohlfarth shares a simple story that illustrates his point so well that we don’t have the heart to attempt to edit it. So, here it is in full:
“My daughter Abby loves when I make hot chocolate for her in the winter. She doesn't like the chocolate mix in an envelope that you pour into a hot water mug. She prefers the old-school version where I heat the milk in a pot on the stove and mix in the Nestle's Quik.
“When doing this, I have to keep stirring the pot, or some of the chocolate milk will stick to the bottom of the pan, make a mess, and is a nightmare to clean.
“When using a direct-fired or indirect-fired kettle, that same phenomenon can happen inside your batch. The flame, about 3,500 degrees, is applied to the bottom of the vessel. By the time the flue gases leave the vessel, the temperature drops to about 400 degrees. The hot flue gases lose over 3,000 degrees F through the kettle and will be at different temperatures throughout the journey.
“The brew at the bottom will be much hotter than the brew at the top of the kettle. There is a wide temperature fluctuation (stratification) in the kettle, affecting the product.”
Only steam, powerful enough to power ships and locomotives, is gentle enough to eliminate this kind of temperature variance that could ruin a mug of hot chocolate let alone a vat of what could have been Werni’s latest batch.
Grain to glass
Werni’s business is decidedly a “grain to glass” distillery with much of the grain he needs grown and harvested on nearby farms.
That northern latitude Werni borrowed for his distillery’s names gains importance considering it cuts through many other well-known wine and spirit-producing regions in France, and Italy as well as the Pacific Northwest.
Werni started out making vodka since this spirit doesn’t require aging and can be sold to the public in a manner of weeks.
The grains used for his 45th Parallel Vodka are grown just eight miles from the distillery. Once the milling, mashing, fermenting and distilling is finished up, the spent grains are shipped to another farm to be used as feed for cows, pigs and chickens.
But what with his two original copper pot stills imported from a German manufacturer that’s been in business for more than 125 years, Werni also wanted to move into so-called brown spirits, such as whiskey and bourbon, that require at least a few years aging in oak barrels before they can ever be poured into a glass.
His entry into whiskey production began with distilling contracts for other brands – a common practice for craft spirit distillers industry wide – before launching his own New Richmond Rye; W Straight Wheat Whiskey; and Border Bourbon brands.
“We’re a manufacturing facility,” he says, adding that 90 percent of his production is for whiskey. The distillery now acts as a full service facility that includes bulk production, storage, private labeling and bottling services and recipe development. 45th Parallel Distillery has about 25 different spirits all together, including unusual items, such as a horseradish-infused vodka and aquavit, a Scandinavian spirit commonly flavored with caraway and dill.
“Most craft distilleries are in high traffic areas with a lot of tourists stopping by,” he explains. “But we’re not in one of those areas. This is a farming community, and, luckily, we’re in a part of Wisconsin with a lot of grain.”
The company takes great pains to note that it does not buy bulk spirits and repackage or blend them into its own products. Everything that goes in the bottle is produced right at 45th Parallel Distillery.
“We don’t do anything fast: slow fermentation, slow infusion, slow distillation, slow blending, and slow aging,” Werni adds. “The result is a definite difference in taste.”
Over the years, Werni has steadily added to his complex. In 2019 alone, the distillery added a 12,000-square-foot expansion that doubled still capacity (from three to six), added more fermenting equipment and warehousing space, increased the automated bottling capacity, and included a new events center with a full kitchen for an expanded tasting and tour experience.
Along the way, Werni has beefed up his steam operation with an additional 2 million BTU boiler.
While it may not have anything to do directly with distilling spirits, Schmelling also installed a Viessmann Vitodens 100 and a Heatlink radiant floor system in the original building and has since added more Viessmann units and Heatlink radiant throughout most of the property.
“When Paul added on to his original building, the GC talked him out of radiant heat and used overhead infrared gas fire tubes,” Schmelling says. “Eventually, when Paul wanted to expand more, he could tell the difference so he wanted radiant.”
Schmelling also told us he and Werni are in the early stages working with Focus on Energy, a Wisconsin program that offers information, services and financial incentives to help residents and businesses select and install cost-effective solutions that save energy and money.
“We want to figure out a way to reuse the waste water and the heat that’s in it,” he adds. “Right now, Paul is using thousand of gallons of water for cooling, and it’s just going into the storm sewer.”
One building that is without Schelling’s handiwork by design is a 5,000-square-foot rickhouse, an unheated warehouse where spirits are stored while they age. Stacked floor-to-ceiling, the whiskey barrels are made from various woods selected for the flavors they impart during the aging process and naturally go through wild temperature swings thanks to the state’s weather.
Mug o’ suds
Werni’s timing was right for his venture. In 2007, 45th Parallel Distillery was only the second craft distillery operating in Wisconsin, and one of only 50 in the US.
Like the craft beer and wine industries, craft distilling has been on the rise. According to the American Distilling Institute, there are currently 1,600 craft distillers in the US. And craft spirit sales have risen to $3.2 billion in 2019 from $1 billion in 2012.
Meanwhile, craft breweries might have lost some of their novelty since they came into force in the 1990s, with many of those original “small” outfits swallowed up in acquisitions by mainstream brewers.
Still, plenty remain if only because more people prefer a glass of beer than an Old Fashioned. According to the Brewers Association, a trade association representing small and independent American brewers, there are more than 8,200 craft breweries of varying sizes in operation.
And anybody who wants to brew an IPA needs to depend on steam just as much as distillers like Werni.
Insane in the Grain
Cypress Brewing, Edison, New Jersey, actually started operations using electricity to steep the initial starch source of barley and other grains. But that source of energy could only take the business so far.
As a result of its success with such beers as Insane in the Grain; 17 Mile and Runway Model, Cypress Brewing wanted to expand in a big way a couple of years ago.
Brewery owners decided to increase beer output 10 times – from a two-barrel system to a 20-barrel system. Each barrel produces approximately 31 gallons of beer.
“This was a major expansion and adding the much larger vessels required us to move from an electric heating elements system to a more robust and precise steam heating system,” says Charlie Backmann, co-owner of Cypress Brewing.
The brewing team tapped Canada-based DME Process Solutions to specify the requirements for the new system. DME recommended Cypress implement a steam heating system and provided the necessary BTU ratings and blue prints for the design.
Backmann chose David LaBar, owner of DL Mechanical of Port Reading, New Jersey, to specify the boiler model and handle the installation of the new steam system.
After reviewing the design parameters, LaBar recommended installing a Weil-McLain 88-Series cast-iron low-pressure steam boiler.
“The boil kettle required about 550,000 BTUs, but we wanted to exceed the heating load requirements to give us some room for future growth,” LaBar adds. “The 88 Series boiler is rated at 1.05 million BTUs.”
Steam system design
In a low-pressure steam brewery operation, the boiler converts the water into steam. This steam enters the steam main and travels to the boil kettle and the hot liquor tank, a tank that just holds water, and heats the water. The steam then enters jackets inside the boil kettles where it unleashes its latent heat.
According to Backmann, there are three different jackets inside the boil kettle depending on the amount of beer being brewed.
“The steam starts in the very bottom jacket which makes up about five barrels,” Backmann says. “The next level jacket is five barrels to 10 barrels and the last one on top is 15 to 20.”
A low-pressure steam system operates between 10 and 12 PSI. Most breweries require a minimum of 10 pounds steam pressure, which is equivalent to about 240 degrees for the boil.
According to Backmann, a major advantage of steam heating is its ability to offer precise levels of heat.
“Electric heat is very direct and constant, and when crafting beer you can actually scorch some of the wort – the sweet infusion of ground malt or other grain before fermentation – which can alter flavors,” Bachmann adds.
To add efficiencies to the system, LaBar designed it to feature two 5-inch steam risers from the boiler into a 6-inch drop header to provide the dry steam. This design ensures the steam used in the process is extremely dry.
“The dryer the steam, the more efficient the system,” LaBar explains.
Once the kettle condenses the steam, it releases the condensate via float and thermostatic steam drip traps to a condensate receiver and pump that moves the condensate to a boiler feed pump. The boiler feed pump returns the condensate to the boiler when the water level falls low enough.
A total of seven F&T traps were used, three on the boil kettle, one on the hot liquor tank, one at the end of the steam main drip, one on the kettle riser drip, and one on the hot liquor tank riser drip.
The entire process is automated through a computer that manages the temperatures and the solenoid valves that control the steam entering the coils.
Backmann says one major benefit of the new process is there is less charring of the beer.
“Before with the lighter beers we sometimes tasted a slight burnt flavor in the background because the electric element came in direct contact with the beer,” Backmann adds. “Now that the vessel itself is jacketed there is a much better dispersion of the heat. Everything is very balanced and heats from the bottom all of the way to the top.”