What is it with Bavaria? It is not easy to find another region where tradition and progress go hand in hand so effectively. The Schneider Weisse Brewery in Kelheim on the Danube is a telling example: Master brewer Hans-Peter Drexler and his team are pioneering a modern, holistic hygiene concept for their plant with GEA – just so they can keep brewing their beer specialty according to the original formula from 1872.
With some 100 employees and a fully automated process plant, the Schneider Weisse brewery in Kelheim produces its classic top-fermented “Original Weissbier” and other wheat beer specialties with a total volume of 250,000 hl/year. This is Bavarian beer, “Bairisch” with an old-fashioned “I”, as master brewer Hans-Peter Drexler states with a twinkle in the eye. Like his predecessors, he has remained faithful to the 150-year-old original recipe of founding brewer Georg Schneider, because the authentic processes make a glass of Schneider Weisse a very special treat: In the fermenting cellar, the brewers scoop off the rising yeast in open vats where they can closely observe the fermentation process that much determines the aroma of Bavarian wheat beer. The green beer is then not heat-treated as usual, but instead is mixed with active yeast and unfermented wort for weeks of secondary fermentation in the bottle. Only when the cap is already in place does Schneider Weisse gain its desired alcohol and carbon dioxide content – and its important typical sensory characteristics.
Hygiene as a challenge
As the brewers in Kelheim are well aware, others have abandoned their traditional methods long ago since they make the production process susceptible to potential germ contamination. “Naturally, the demands have changed over time,” as Drexler explains:
In the past, wheat beer was produced and consumed quickly. Today we want to keep the same traditional process, but the beer is exported to all corners of the world and is subject to completely different conditions and requirements.”
For the last three decades, in his function as master brewer and production manager at Schneider Weisse, it has been up to Drexler to meet these challenges. He recognized the advantages of the modular GEA VARIVENT® valve system at an early stage, having heard good things about it while equipping a brewery in Greece. The Kelheim brewers, however, initially held back with far-reaching investments, even though sales markets and production volumes were growing all through the 1990s and logistics were becoming more complex. Around the turn of the millennium, the first additional varieties named “Helle Weisse”, “Kristall Weissbier” and “Leichte Weisse”, were established in the Schneider Weisse portfolio, and the introduction of a dealcoholized variant with a corresponding additional process stage was already being considered. Process modules and pipe connections had grown organically over the decades, while a concept for all this did not yet exist. For Drexler and the process expert Anton Ladenburger, who supported the brewery company as a GEA consultant, the realization was dawning that the Kelheim plant had to be completely rethought in order to meet the increased demands for sterility and safe CIP capability.
The master plan drawn up
“At that time, unusual quality problems were noticed, and that’s where it all began – in the hot wort area, of all places,” reports Drexler. “We always thought that ‘hot’ meant ‘not critical’, and so we first had to learn that contamination can occur there as in all other areas.” GEA expert Ladenburger identified previously unrecognized contamination and migration patterns in the piping, for example during the switching cycle of valves at the beginning and end of process sequences, and he gave important impulses for the product-compatible treatment of the brewing water, as well as of the ambient air. In the years that followed, the team optimized all flow paths to avoid any possibility of standing product and deposits in the piping. All the decisive plant areas from wort boiling to filling were consistently equipped with GEA VARIVENT® valves and valve clusters free of dead spaces. “We drew up a master plan on a sheet of paper and, in cooperation with GEA, specified what was actually needed to ensure that the product remains undamaged,” as Drexler recalls the days of decision. “The crucial question was: Do we continue along this path? We did not want the industrial process with modern fermentation tanks. We wanted the traditional process with the open vat and bottle fermentation – what we call “Bavarian Double Maturing”. Because that‘s our unique selling point, and as I always say – you taste it, too.”
Breakthrough with a zero
Although it was a genuinely pioneering project, the changeover to a consistently hygienic plant concept proceeded without setbacks and paid off at an early stage. GEA consultant Ladenburger explains how the flexibility of GEA VARIVENT® solutions helped to achieve this: “For example, we were able to successively upgrade the standard valves for yeast feed hygienically, up to the exact point where we could be sure that the risk at this station, as at all others, would be permanently zero.” Drexler adds:
The good thing is that with GEA VARIVENT® we were able to implement our concept right down to the very last nut and bolt.”
In recent years, the brewery has continued to invest and added a new yeast propagation unit and a new bottling plant. The suppliers were directed to specifically use CIP systems with GEA VARIVENT® valve clusters for these stations, too. “Our own yeast is particularly important for our beer,” as the brew master points out. However, ensuring a reliable process there is not the only reason for the brewery to favor the valves from GEA’s Büchen manufacturing plant: “Of course, it has by now become a strategy for us to stick to the system and not just use other components. This is a question of cost-efficient service and spare parts management – our maintenance team puts a strong emphasis on this.” GEA technicians carry out maintenance work according to cycles that have been precisely calculated from comprehensive operating data. These are continuously transmitted from the valve control heads to the electronic plant control system – an additional important protection against failures and malfunctions.
Ready for tomorrow
The unlimited flexibility of the GEA VARIVENT® modular system gives the brewers in Kelheim the security of being ideally equipped for any further expansions, so they can look to the future with confidence. With new beer variants and plans for additional bottle formats, the team is taking steps to revive the declining consumer interest in wheat beer.
During his visits to the USA, Hans-Peter Drexler was also inspired early on by the then burgeoning craft beer scene and began to create his own special hop-rich variants, which have since made him a declared role model for young wheat beer brewers.
He and GEA consultant Ladenburger still work together today when further plant innovations are on the agenda at Schneider Weisse or upgrades are required. And they continue to find themselves in their role as pioneers: “I always meet colleagues and visitors who are not at all familiar with such advanced hygienic valve technology in connection with, for example, yeast propagation. But our experience is simply superb, and they all can understand that. Every time it’s a surprise to us to see that we are quite far ahead with our plant equipment after all.”