Valves in Action: The role of valves in breweries and distilleries

April 2, 2019

How do you like your beer? Whether you're an IPA connoisseur or would prefer a stout, one thing's certain: you don't want any taint. A taint is any element that shouldn't be there. Sometimes it's a flavor, sometimes a smell, sometimes it affects how the beer feels in the mouth. Whatever the form, drinkers don't want it.

The valves used in brewing, and also distilling, play an important role in beverage taste. Here's a brief look.

Batch processes

Beer is brewed mostly in batches. Barley is milled and mixed with water before passing through a series of tanks for mashing, lautering, boiling, and so on. At each stage, the tank is filled for processing. On completion, a valve at the bottom is opened and the liquid flows through to the next step. After cooling, fermenting, and filtering, it makes its way into cans, bottles, or kegs.

Distilling is very similar, up until the liquid gets to the distillation stage. Here, it's boiled and the condensate is collected as spirit. Barrels are filled and then left to age. Again, as a batch process, valves are used to start and stop flows.

Notice how these valves are only for flow control – on and off – rather than regulating flow.

Cleaning processes and valve materials

Brewers and distillers obsess over cleanliness, and for good reason. Any sediment trapped in the tanks, pipes, or valves is a potential source of contamination and can taint the product. Caustic cleaning is carried out regularly, usually supplemented by steam cleaning to sterilize every contact surface.

Brewing and distilling involve heat, but it's the cleaning processes that really challenge the plumbing equipment. While PVC piping may be appropriate in some areas, such as chilling, stainless steel is the most widely used material. It withstands high temperatures and chemical attack, and it can be manufactured with smooth surfaces that leave no place for microbes to hide.

Valve types and considerations

Ball and butterfly valves are widely used in brewing and distilling. As quarter-turn valves, they open or close quickly, and the handle direction indicates their state. There are two main types of ball valve to consider: reduced port and full port. In the full port ball valve, the bore through the ball is the same diameter as the pipe. It makes the valve larger and heavier but has the advantage of not restricting flow.

The butterfly valve uses a blade to open or shut off flow. As it's in the center of the pipe, it inevitably creates a certain amount of restriction and can collect solids such as hops. Butterfly valves tend not to close as tightly as ball valves and may not be as durable.

Two other considerations are connection type and ease of cleaning. Valves used in brewing are either threaded or use the tri-clover clamp design. The latter is generally preferred because it's difficult to get sediment out of threads.

Both butterfly and ball valves can have internal crevices that are hard to clean. For this reason, many brewers and distillers look for valves that are easily removed, which is aided by the tri-clamp design.

Valve choice can affect flavor

Cleanliness is essential for the success of a brewery or distillery, and the valves used on the process equipment play an important role. While their primary job is flow control, it's critical that they be easily cleaned to keep the product tasting its best. Wise brewers and distillers choose their valves carefully!

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