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Tin Whiskers: Engineering Craft Beer

Electrical engineering students Jake Johnson, Jeff Moriarty and George Kellerman started tinkering with home brewing kits in 2006. After spending a summer making a mess experimenting in Johnson’s mother’s kitchen, they fell in love with craft beer. They have since founded Tin Whiskers Brewing Company and opened a tap room in Minnesota last May. Today their beer can be found in 50 bars and restaurants and 40 liquor stores in the St. Paul area. That’s quite a wide reach for their first year, and they plan to expand production soon, with a goal of growing from a 1,500 barrel brewery to a 20,000 brewery.

President Jeff Moriarty told In Compliance what it’s like to launch a craft brewery while maintaining a full-time job designing medical devices. In his day job, Moriarty recently found copies of In Compliance Magazine while he was at a lab testing for IEC 60601-1-2. All three founders started their engineering careers with strong RF backgrounds, working together on circuit board design at a company that specializes in wireless devices. They have since moved on to designing medical devices, electrical appliances, and antennas, but they will always have two things in common: electrical engineering backgrounds and a passion for craft beer.

Tin Whiskers foundersWhile the founders were in school, they started to enjoy craft beers at happy hours. Typical engineers, they weren’t satisfied with simply enjoying the beer—they had to know exactly how it was created. The more they learned about brewing the more fascinated they became. “We just kind of fell in love with the whole process and the science behind it,” Moriarty says. “Like any good experimenter, we did some design experiments.” They tested three different yeast strains and discovered that the resulting beer didn’t taste anything alike. “That was really eye opening to us, it was really quite fascinating,” he says. Their inquisitive engineering perspectives helped them create uniquely flavored beer. While many brewers use just one kind of yeast, Tin Whiskers uses eight, so each beer has its own identity and flavor.

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When they decided to turn their craft brewing hobby into a business, three founders set out to find a name that kept electrical engineering at the forefront of the brand identity. With this in mind, they brought an engineering glossary to happy hours and tested potential names with friends and family. Logic Gate Ale and Ohms Brewing were among the finalists, but they ultimately chose Tin Whiskers because it was the most memorable.

Tin WhiskersTin whiskers describes a physical phenomenon that occurs when pure tin metal grows tiny hairs on its surface. In the circuit board industry, if pure tin is used to solder, it can grow tin hairs that cause short circuits and arcing in electrical equipment. Moriarty says that naming the company after such a unique phenomenon has led to some interesting opportunities. Just three weeks after the brewery’s soft opening, the engineer who runs the NASA tin whiskers website happened to be in St. Paul for a work conference. He visited the brewery and delivered a gift—a tin whiskered guard rail from the Space Shuttle Endeavour. The NASA engineer explained that back in the 90s, $4 million was spent to replace tin-coated guard rails in the entire shuttle fleet due to tin whiskers.
Moriarty keeps the guard rail in a light box on the bar and uses it to demonstrate real-life tin whiskers to curious customers.

robot muralThe three founders enjoy conversations at the brewery that allow them to educate the public and get people excited about electrical engineering. The theme is carried beyond just the company name. The taproom includes a giant mural of the company logo—a robot toasting with a frothy pint glass. As Moriarty put it, “What’s the coolest engineering thing people like to think of? People love robots.” There aren’t any actual robots in the brewery yet, but Tin Whiskers is looking into sponsoring local school robotics teams and maybe someday adding robotic elements to the brewery.

Each beer name includes a nod to an electrical engineering term or historical figure. Patrons can order Short Circuit Stout, Flip-Switch IPA, Wheatstone Bridge, Ampere Amber, Schottky Pumpkin Ale, and Barrel Shifter Porter. Beer flights are even served on custom-designed circuit board flight holders.

It’s no surprise that three electrical engineers have been so successful in creating craft beer. An engineer’s skill set easily transfers to the world of micro brewing. Moriarty says, “Engineering, to me anyway, has always been taking science and combining it with art to design something useful. Well, we just change the medium from circuit boards to beer.”

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circuit board beer flightA brewer, like an engineer, must be process-oriented, curious, analytical, creative, and meticulous with details. Moriarty believes that the founders’ shared background in circuit board design has helped them ensure a consistent, high-quality product. He also says that the ability to analyze data to make decisions has given them the business sense to succeed where other start-ups have failed. Mostly, in both engineering and brewing, he says, the devil is in the details. Just like an electrical engineer has to worry about how raw materials are handled on a manufacturing line, brewers must ensure their tanks are cleaned in a particular way. Put simply, Moriarty says that engineering and brewing both require “the ability to apply science to art.”

The creative side of brewing includes designing a new beer recipe or tweaking a recipe to improve an existing beer. Moriarty described the exploration phase of brewing. “Pretty much you walk into a malt room and just start munching on malt to see what flavors you’re getting from the malt. And then you have a bunch of different kinds of hops, and you see what kind of smell and aroma the hops are giving you, so you have to really collect what all your raw materials are and you get a sense for the flavors and how you impart them.”

The process of trial and error is a bit more enjoyable in brewing than engineering. Instead of spending thousands of company dollars on failed electrical components, if the flavor of a beer isn’t quite right, the Tin Whiskers team just has a bunch of excess beer to drink. “Especially when you’re being more innovative,” Moriarty says, “that’s the fun part, just the experiments that you do with recipes to design the beer. And then you share it with people and get their feedback and you get to gauge their excitement.”

In addition to juggling 90 working hours at two full-time jobs each week, Moriarty stays busy with his eight-month-old son. When asked if he wants to continue his day job as an electrical engineer at a medical device company, he laughed. “I’m tired and drained. I plan to start cutting down on engineering hours sometime in the next six months or so. My dream and passion is to move on to working in the brewery full time.” He has a good point: “You know, no one ever comes up and says ‘Oh, great product design,’ but people always come up and tell you ‘great beer.’”

 Source and Images via Tin Whiskers Brewing Company


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