The bubbly water is what got Taylor Woods thinking about carbon dioxide. He saw the same sight on every Montana brewery tour: hoses hooked to fermentation tanks, burping the gas into buckets of water, producing a thick, foamy mass. Why let a greenhouse gas just float away, he thought, when brewers need that same gas for carbonation, packaging and keg-cleaning later on?
“I thought, OK, I need to clean the gas, I need to store the gas. How can I do that from this bucket of bubbly water?’” Woods recalls.
After months of experimentation and testing, Woods hasn’t just figured out how, he’s put it into practice. He calls his invention COBREW (patent pending), a system designed to harvest carbon dioxide from fermenting beer, filter it and store it for later use. Lolo Peak Brewing began working with Woods six months ago, and this week released its first batch of beer—Alpenglow Wheat Ale—carbonated with the recycled CO2. For head brewer Paul Roys, Woods’ approach helps solve a problem he’s recognized for years.
“Really, this is the most wasteful thing a brewer can do, is blow an ingredient into the atmosphere and turn around and buy it from a guy to use it for the rest of the process,” Roys says.
Based on its work so far, Lolo Peak estimates it could capture as much as 70,000 cubic feet of carbon dioxide a year using the new system. Roys adds that after some fine-tuning, he expects the carbon captured by COBREW will meet between 95 and 105 percent of the brewery’s CO2 needs, ultimately saving the brewery money.
Developing the system wasn’t easy. Woods admits he’s never brewed beer, and to even begin experimenting with the process he had to build a scaled-down version of the fermenters used by craft brewers. He conducted his tests using 14-gallon batches of unfermented beer from several local breweries. The trick, he says, was coming up with a system that could be easily tailored to the variable sizes and growth rates of Montana breweries, but be marketed in a way those breweries can afford. He settled on offering the COBREW units through a lease program, and says his company will provide all replacement parts and technical support that breweries might need.
“Right now we’re in negotiations with four other breweries of various sizes here in the state,” Woods says, “and then we will be expanding out of the state starting in December.”
One of Roys’ biggest priorities in providing Woods a pilot space was ensuring the filtered CO2 meets beverage-grade standards. He also says it was important that the COBREW system not require any technical changes to his brewing process, such as fermentation pressures or fermentation rates.
“It really is developed into a plug-and-play unit, which I think is going to help expand this idea throughout all of the small breweries,” Roys says. “There’s no reason not to do this.”