Tips for maintaining brewery equipment – An interview with Rhinegeist Brewery Facilities and Maintenance Manager, Justin Farmer

Justin Farmer has worked in food and beverage processing more than half his life. As a teenager, he learned from his father. Farmer started at the bottom, but quickly earned the experience and knowledge to work his way into a leadership role, where he is transforming the maintenance and reliability programs of a historic brewery. By Michelle Segrest
Justin Farmer has seen maintenance and reliability from every angle. While working with his father in the maintenance department at a tortilla plant in Northeast Georgia when he was 16-years-old, Farmer had the opportunity to learn all about maintaining pumps and valves made from all different materials from senior mechanics.

“They taught me the basics like motor replacement, gear replacement, and how to repair failed transfer systems,” the 35-year-old Facilities and Maintenance Manager said. “There was a great amount of knowledge to be learned. Of course, I was one of the young ones, so I did not get a lot of the good jobs. I started at the bottom working in the water treatment pit. Most of my friends were out having fun, and I was working my tail off. But this was how I could spend time with my father.”

Farmer spent the next 16 years working primarily in the bakery industry. After graduating from high school, he studied for three years at the Military College of Georgia in Dahlonega, GA. Then he went to Arizona State to complete his electrical engineering degree. While there, he worked at Papa John’s Pizza as an industrial maintenance technician. “I was one of the few there who had a controls background, so they worked with my crazy school schedule for three years,” he said.

He left the industrial maintenance field for about a year and did industrial layout and design for a large engineering firm. “I hated it,” Farmer said. “I cannot sit behind a computer every day doing load calculations. It was mind-numbing for me. I transferred back into the maintenance field working for bakeries. After four years, I went back to Papa John’s as a maintenance manager for three and a half years.”

His experience includes working in multiple tortilla plants across the U.S.— La Fronteriza in Toledo Ohio, Tia Rosa in Compton California, and Don Julio Foods in Clearfield Utah. While at Papa John’s, Farmer’s primary task was to build the maintenance department from the ground up. “I had a lot of leeway. I was able to decrease the downtime and set up some solid procedures.

Then I went to Café Valley making croissants and cakes and pastries. I spent two years building that maintenance department – contributing to improvements in inventory control, PM management, scheduling, automation, and capital projects. When we began to get efficient, the company went through a management change, so I went to Schwan’s pizza in Kentucky for a year and a half. Then I found Rhinegeist Brewery.”

This was different than a bakery, and Farmer was excited about the opportunity. When he arrived, there was no maintenance department. “They had one technician working around the clock to maintain the growing production plant,” he said. “This company has grown on average 50% to 60% each year, so there have been many opportunities to manage more maintenance with this growth.”

Justin Farmer, Rhinegeist Brewery Facilities and Maintenance Manager.
Justin Farmer, Rhinegeist Brewery Facilities and Maintenance Manager.

Facility and maintenance team

Rhinegeist translates to “Ghost of the Rhine” and refers to its building in the historic Over-the- Rhine Brewery District in Cincinnati. Built within the skeleton of the old Moerlein bottling plant that was built in 1895, Rhinegeist now brews many different varieties of beer. Rhinegeist pulled its name from the fact that the original settlers were of German descent and said that the Ohio River reminded them of the Rhine River in Germany, and “Geist” is German for “ghost,” which shows the reflection to the past history of beer production in the area.

At the turn of the 19th century, Over-the-Rhine was home to nearly 45,000 inhabitants — most of them of German descent — and 38 breweries. Leading this vibrant brewing scene was Christian Moerlein Brewing Company, the city’s largest brewery, which extended over three city blocks and produced more than 300,000 bbl annually.

The company’s old bottling plant, located at 1916 Elm Street, is home to its modern-day brewery. The facility holds about 30 fermenting vessels, eight bright tanks (where beer is stored before it is processed), and a small JV deck (which is like a micro-brewery).

The main brew house runs 60-barrel batches. Farmer makes the most of his six-member maintenance team. It includes an inventory/parts/CMMS specialist (who handles PM planning, inventory management), a fabrication technician, one universal technician, an experienced pump and boiler specialist, and Farmer.

The building is old, which presents many maintenance challenges, however, most of the processing equipment is less than two decades old. The oldest equipment includes some processing tanks, a kettle, and whirlpool that are 20 years old.

The company invests in stainless steel piping, which is ideal for beverage processing because it does not expand and contract, creates less wear on joints, has fewer leaks, and does not stress as easily.

Valve transfer back, used to transfer the mashed in grain to the lauter tun.
Valve transfer back, used to transfer the mashed in grain to the lauter tun.

Challenging maintenance

Farmer and his team are responsible for maintaining various types of valves and pumps. The hardest part about maintaining the brewery’s valves, Farmer said, is there is no way to see the wear until it fails. “All of a sudden, it just does not actuate. Then we must drop it off and use a replacement valve. Sometimes it is a control issue since everything is moving over to centralized controlled CPUs. It is difficult to find maintenance technicians with controls experience, even when it comes to basic troubleshooting.”

Preventive maintenance has become the name of the game when maintaining the many valves and pumps at Rhinegeist Brewery. Farmer’s team ensures there are functional pressure and flow switches in place. “In a typical brewery, when you start up you do not have all the fancy bells and whistles,” he explained. “We are starting to implement new systems that have flow sensors that help to ensure that the pump will not run dry. This is a nice safety net. Amperage alarms on the drives will throw an alarm. If the top drive motor starts to fail or have heavy binding, it will alert us as to an amperage fault or an over current.”

Farmer also believes in the advantages of having a solid CMMS system. “We must manage our critical spare parts inventory carefully,” he said. “If you do not have the right parts, you will experience extreme downtime, especially since most of our parts come from Europe with long lead times. This puts you at the mercy of having to hold a lot more parts in stock. We went through an asset identification process and now we are writing work orders within the system. Anything we may have to work on is now labeled with an asset number. We are starting to input standardized PMs. This will be a growing and constantly evolving entity because we have identified the PMs from the manufacturer, but we will add in other things we identify on a daily basis. We are trying to switch from being firefighters to a preventive maintenance mindset.”

One leg of a new transfer pipe bank that allows for all liquid movement in the BrauKon brewhouse. This drop goes to one of four transfer panels.
One leg of a new transfer pipe bank that allows for all liquid movement in the BrauKon brewhouse. This drop goes to one of four transfer panels.

Food and beverage processing challenges

In brewing, there are not many contamination points thanks to a facility that operates on a closed loop system. “With bakeries, you have to do a lot more heavy-cleaning on the contact areas to make sure you control bacterial growth or anything that could affect the end-user,” he said. “Here in the brewery, everything from grain transfer to enclosed tubing all the way through the mill, everything is fully enclosed in sealed vessels. When everything is transferred, we run a CIP (clean-in-place) loop.”

On a daily basis, the team opens the vessels and swabs the ports for quality assurance to ensure there is no bacterial growth or contamination. This is performed on the canning and keg lines, as well. “We will run a CIP loop on every changeover depending on grains. We do not have to worry about too many allergens, but we do have to worry about some. We also monitor temperatures with alarms for caustic levels and flow rates.”

All the stainless steel piping includes full sanitary welds in CIP loop. Rhinegeist also has a deaerated water system that runs at 30 to 34 degrees to flush the lines on each changeover. This removes any residual caustic.

Learning from experience

In addition to learning from his father, a corporate engineer for Papa John’s in Louisville, Farmer said he feels lucky to have begun his career at a time when there were still a lot of experienced skilled laborers in the workforce. “The biggest thing my dad taught me is that you can never ask anyone to do something you would not do yourself,” Farmer said. “Coming up as a maintenance technician, getting engineering degree, then becoming a team leader, I can understand the other guy’s point of view. It is important to me to be sure they have the tools they need to do their job. I want to give these guys a work environment that makes them excited about coming to work. I want to give them the tools they need so that a 30-minute job does not become a two-hour job.”

Even with his father’s influence, Farmer was able to discover his own path. But the lessons learned along the way have stuck with him. “He always said you should be fair and consistent and consistently fair across the board in everything you do. I have lived by that every day of my life.”

Finding good quality technicians can be challenging, Farmer said. “A lot of people are brought into facilities to be maintenance technicians, but they do not receive the proper training. I am a big advocate for pushing people to have an education. Every company should make an investment in the people they hire.”

At Rhinegeist, Farmer continues to work on major improvements. “We are working on safety standards, proper operating procedures, etc. We build large binders for new hires with training SOPs. It includes the top 10 failures on each piece of equipment. New technicians can learn how to change a piece of equipment with pictures and graphics to easily explain procedures. When you have a new hire you can just hand him the book and then be available for questions. This gives them the opportunity to become independent very quickly.”


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