The math adds up over at Pi Brewing

Posted: April 21, 2014 by cjax33 in New Brewery Preview, News

Amid all the recent news and rumors about new breweries springing up around Albuquerque, all of us in the Crew were surprised when one place we had never heard about suddenly sent us a message on Facebook. That was all by design, as Franz Solo and I found out when we trekked over to the as-yet-unopened Pi Brewing Company. Located on Coors Blvd. just north of Irving on the east side of the street, Pi Brewing is the brainchild of the folks at Nicky V’s Pizzeria, which just happens to be located right next door. And when we say brainchild, we’re not just using a figure of speech. Though small in size, Pi Brewing befits its name in that it might be the most high-tech small brewery we have ever visited.

These stainless steel beauties just await the first batches of Pi Brewing's beers.

These stainless steel beauties just wait to be filled with the first batches of Pi Brewing’s beers.

Franz and I were greeted by Nicole Villarreal, her husband Greg, and their friend Charlie Sandoval. While Nicole runs the business, Greg is the resident engineer and construction expert, and Charlie handles the actual brewing and recipe creation. They have kept a lid on Pi’s opening until now, when they’re actually getting close to opening, in part because no brewery likes to announce itself and then find out it is going to take a lot longer to open than anyone planned.

Pi Brewing will use a 3.5-barrel system, but it’s not quite like any system we have seen before. While Pi’s technology is awesome, the Crew’s is not. Specifically, my wonderful digital recorder actually recorded over itself, so we lost about 15 minutes of interview. Much of that portion of the interview dealt with the technical specifics of the brewhouse, which left two liberal arts majors just nodding along, wondering how many terms we would have to Google later.

From what we did save on the recorder, plus memory (fuzzed out somewhat by Franz Solo and E-Rock’s Friday recording session, plus my being at a friend’s wedding until the wee hours of Saturday-into-Sunday), we can say that an engineering degree/background would have been useful to understand the specifics of Pi’s system. It is a steam-powered system, which lends itself to some very specific temperature control. As anyone who brews knows, temperature control is huge when it comes to getting your beer just right. Greg used his background as an engineer and contractor to design the system. Let’s just say he’s a really, really smart person and this is a really smart system.

How smart? “We found out this weekend that 202.2 (degrees) is our number,” Greg said. “We go to 202.4 it slowly starts to build bubbles. If we get to 202 even it starts to lose that rolling boil.”

Yes, this is some high-tech stuff if two-tenths of a degree can make all the difference in the world. It will require Greg and Charlie to both be present during the initial brewing attempts, but they both said once they start to get a firm grasp of everything, eventually the process will become faster and easier.

Here’s some more on the high-tech nature of Pi’s system.

The temperature control system looks like it could work to cool the warp core on the Enterprise.

The temperature control system looks like it could work to cool the warp core on the U.S.S. Enterprise. Right, Scotty?

“We’ve got this heat exchanger here,” Greg said. “It’s a three-square-meter heat exchanger. I’d done some water testing outside of Charlie just to make sure that our stuff was going to be ready for brew day. It was really impressive that we could crash a hundred-gallon batch at a rate of six gallons per minute down to 65 degrees through here. We can get through this whole thing in 15 minutes.”

Charlie said the faster the better when it comes to cooling the beer down.

“The beauty of that is now you get that nice cold crash to get protein separation,” Charlie said. “That’s where you get clarity in your beers. If it takes too long, you run the risk of hot-side iteration and you don’t get that nice cold break, so you end up with a lot of chill haze that small brewers suffer from.”

The secret behind the ability to crash cool the beer comes from the system Greg assembled inside the walk-in cooler. Pi will be using a two-ton compressor that sits up on the roof — so the heat is not packed into the brewery — that works with a 50-gallon glycol chiller.

“Another novel thing we have in here that most small guys don’t have is that glycol chillers for small brewers are very expensive,” Greg said. “With my background in contracting, I was like you know what, we can’t spend 15 grand on a two-ton chiller. We just can’t do it. I got to thinking, a chiller is nothing more than a condenser that sits on a roof and an evaporator like this.

“So what I did was I got in touch with my used equipment guy. I put a two-ton compressor on the roof for the freezer. I had him get me a heat exchanger. I brought the heat exchanger in here with this 50-gallon batch of glycol and we did our own internal control system on it. It’s beautiful. It holds it down to 25 degrees. Most small guys like us don’t have two tons of glycol capacity. I put maybe 2,000 bucks in it.”

It’s this kind of innovative thinking that will help Pi put its money into the beer, rather than always worrying about the equipment and the space. With a strong, efficient system Pi will be able to quickly establish consistency in their brewing, which tends to be the biggest issue for new breweries when they open.

So of course that leads to what is often the biggest question for a new brewery: What will they have on tap? The plan is to have five or six beers on tap regularly. They will be sold at the brewery itself, plus at Nicky V’s right next door, and then in Rio Rancho at Fat Squirrel, which Nicole and Greg also own.

Looking deep inside one of the tanks at Pi Brewing. Like we said, it's high tech.

Looking deep inside one of the tanks at Pi Brewing. Like we said, it’s high tech.

Charlie’s initial lineup will include a golden ale, an English-style ale, a robust porter, a West Coast-style red ale, and of course an IPA.

“We’re going to start with like a golden ale,” Charlie said. “It’s not going to be Belgian style. We just don’t dare put any Belgian yeast in this house yet. We just don’t have the capacity to dedicate a fermenter and then controlling the (yeast). Cleaning is going to be a nightmare to try to do the Belgians, try to keep the wild yeast under control. It doesn’t make sense for us. A nice golden ale will be kind of be the startup (beer).”

The English-style, he said, will either be a pale ale, special bitter, or an ESB. They probably will not call it a bitter, just due to the bias that some people have towards the name without understanding that traditional English-style bitters are actually more sweet than bitter.

“Third in that lineup will probably be the robust porter,” Charlie said. “English-style yeast again in that one. Some English-style malts. We’re hoping to get that nice, robust taste. I’ve been known to brew a bourbon vanilla porter with that base. I’ll have that as a special offering. Here’s your Friday special guys, our bourbon vanilla porter is coming out. We introduce vanilla and Maker’s Mark and of course we’re going to soak it an a barrel. It goes great at Thanksgiving, at Christmas time.”

The Crew, not surprisingly, will be by to try that special version of the porter whenever it is released. As for the red ale, Charlie compared it to Pizza Port’s Red Ale, which lies somewhere in between Marble’s regular Red and Imperial Red in terms of its potency and strength of flavor.

“And of course, what brewhouse would be without a competitive IPA? We can’t be in the IPA game where we’re going to fall short,” Charlie said. “We’re becoming San Diego of the southwest. If you can’t take command of a good IPA, you’ll suffer.

“The beauty is, as Greg was saying, we’re not constrained by (distribution). We’re not trying to sell anything on the wholesale level. We can afford maybe to make a special IPA and hold it. I love a good, bitter strike, but there’s nothing better than to have the flavor and aroma in a nice concert.”

The Pi staff has done their homework, hitting up a number of breweries in California, Utah, and Oregon, big and small, in addition to visiting breweries throughout New Mexico. They have checked off what works and what does not work at breweries both big and small.

They have a solid business plan, a great combination of talent, a ridiculously efficient and high-tech system. Add it all up and if the beers come out as they hope, Pi will quickly establish itself as one of the best small breweries in the state.

But there was still one question that we had: Why Pi? Why not Pie, considering it will open next to a popular pizza/Italian restaurant? That all lies in the licensing, Nicole told us. Essentially the City of Albuquerque said Pi cannot brew any more than 100 gallons per batch. So what does 99 gallons of beer equal? Try 3.1415 barrels. Hence, Pi Brewing! (Oh, come on, you at least smirked at that story. It’s OK to smile at something so wonderfully silly and fun.)

While an exact opening date has not been set — a smart thing in the world of brewing and having to deal with state and federal licensing and permitting — they do know what time the doors to Pi Brewing will open every day.

“We’re going to open at 3:14,” Nicole said with a smile.

Thanks to Nicole, Greg, and Charlie for the tour, the beer, and the good times. We’ll see you all at your grand opening.

* * * *

A few programming notes before I trek over to cover the Lobo baseball game versus Texas Tech …

  • Today (Monday) is the Father Nelson Triple IPA release party at La Cumbre. Head on over this afternoon/evening to drink it on tap, buy a bomber (or two), listen to some music, and have a great time. C’mon, hopheads, you know you want to go.
  • Tuesday is Marble’s Sixth Anniversary Party at the downtown pub. Le Chat Lunatique will be playing on the outdoor stage starting at 6 p.m. There will be lots of deals for mug club members, including the special release of the Triple and Barleywine.
  • Prior to that on Tuesday, I will be heading up to Santa Fe to interview Blue Corn’s new brewer, James Warren. Look for the story either late Tuesday afternoon or later in the week.
  • We still hope to have a story on the Los Alamos Beer Co-op later in the week, plus plans are still afoot to visit Second Street for a sit-down with brewer Rod Tweet on Saturday afternoon.
  • The Crew did not brew this weekend (we blame Easter, and a lack of sleep), but we still plan to brew with Porter Pounder’s collection of wild hops that his boss brought him while they were filming up around Glorietta last week.
  • Many have asked when we will be rolling out stories on ABQ Beer Week. Be patient, everyone. It’s still a month away, and things could always change between now and then. We would rather do stories with the most up-to-date information possible.
  • If anyone has panicked because the “coming soon” sign for Bosque’s second location in Nob Hill has disappeared, calm down. The sign was stolen, probably by some drunk idiot, over the weekend. Nothing has changed; you will still be able to enjoy Bosque beers at the taproom later this year.

That’s all for now (I hope). It’s a busy beer time in New Mexico, that’s for sure. And we wouldn’t have it any other way.


— Stoutmeister

  1. This is awesome! I love supporting our local breweries, and thanks to you guys and your in depth research and time spent searching them out..I am in the know!!!!!!! You guys ROCK!

  2. John says:

    WOW!!! That’s a lot of science and chemistry…. don’t they still make the ones where you just pull a tab? 🙂 Congrats on the business and good luck!

  3. […] to go, but must pass the final inspections before it can open. Darn, right? Except, as we explained during our first visit, Pi is owned by the same people as Nicky V’s Pizzeria, which is right next door. So, as luck […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s