The Age of Steam refers to a period in the industrial revolution of parts of Europe and North America, where steam was used as an energy source for production purposes. It started around the year 1770 and ended around 1914.
Yeah, the Age of Steam ended for the rest of the world, but close to 60% of the distilleries are still pushed into using steam to power their stills! That’s craft distillers using a technology that died out a century ago! Is it time to carry steam heating to its grave in the distilling industry? Hell, yeah! Long overdue! So let’s start going.
Two types of steam heating
There’s indirect and direct steam heating. An indirectly heated steam still uses steam to condense in the Au bain Mary / double walled section of the boiler. As the steam condenses back into water, it gives off energy that heats the inner boiler. It heats the boiler indirectly, because there is no direct contact between the heat source (steam) and the wash.
Directly heated steam stills inject the steam into the mash and thus heat it up. A steam generator is purchased that generates steam. The steam is bubbled into the wash that sits in a boiler. As the steam collapses back to liquid state, it heats up the wash, and brings it to a boil.
What steam heating really produces: problems for the craft distiller
Steam works under pressure and asks for rigorous certification. An additional tool is needed (the steam generator). Additional piping is needed (all certified to the extreme). It doubles or triples costs for the craft distiller. It doubles or triples the time it takes to build-up the distillery and go from plan to production. But that’s just the beginning of the issues.
Direct steam heating adds water to the wash, thus lowering ABV, where the goal (or at least one important goal) of distilling is to raise proof! You see the conflict of watering down flavor? Not a procedure that really benefits craft distillers in their fight with Big Alcohol via the production of more flavorful drinks.
Indirect steam prevents the craft distiller to take advantage of the Maillard Reaction. The Maillard Reaction adds up to 25% of flavor to craft distilled products. If craft distillers are to compete on flavor, well, you better make sure you have a still that allows you to Maillardize your boiler contents. Indirect steam heating prevents that, so it’s a no go for the craft distiller that wants to both optimize and maximize flavor profiles of their spirits.
“But steam allows you to warm up your boiler so quickly!” some say. Yeah, well, that’s complete BS. To heat up a certain amount of wash, a certain amount of energy is needed. Via steam or via electricity or via burning wood. But if you outsource a steam boiler, sure, buy a bigger one. The people that build traditional stills don’t mind. It is not their problem. If they knew what they were talking about, though, or had your market conditions in mind, they could have told you energy is energy. Here at iStill, we go above and beyond by asking an additional question: “Is a faster heat-up time in the boiler a pro?” Since taste formation benefits from longer heat-up times, why not heat up overnight, slowly, in order to create a more flavorful product? The craft distiller does not compete on yield or per liter costs with Big Alcohol. It competes on flavor!
Here’s the real reasons why steam stills are pushed onto the craft distilling industry
As a still builder, iStill wants to optimize heating (gas creation), gas manipulation, and liquefaction. Heating is an integral part to the distillation process that we do not outsource.
Other still builders love to outsource heating. First of all, it sorta lowers their still price. Their stills appear to be more affordable, because heating is not included. You still have to purchase it and it will be expensive, but that’s not their problem, but your problem. They simply build a shell still and you (or your architect or engineer) can go figure out the rest.
The other, more important reason why steam stills are still being sold, has to do with certification. As a still manufacturer that integrates heating in its solutions, iStill certifies for CE, UL, ULC, NZS, AS, ATEx, and IECEx. It costs a tremendous amount of effort and money to obtain and maintain these certifications. Our competitors (sic) don’t want the hassle and do not want to spend the money and effort. Instead, they point at the steam generator manufacturer. Or at you.
There you have the real reason why so much of the distilling industry is still residing in the Age of Steam, where it was terminated in other industries over a century ago: it helps the interest of traditional still manufacturers at the expense of your interests as a craft distiller!
Steam belongs in a museum, not on the work floor …