The Glamorous Life of an Engineer-Brewer: Jeff Moriarty of Tin Whiskers Brewing Company

Founder and head brewer of Tin Whiskers Brewing Company, Jeff Moriarty // Photo by Tj Turner

Jeff Moriarty, founder and head brewer of Tin Whiskers Brewing Company in downtown St. Paul, has been fascinated with outer space since middle school. That’s when he discovered “Star Trek,” and quickly became enamored with the mechanical allure of deep space technology.

“I’d imagine, if I were in the ‘Star Trek’ age, what would I be?” he recalls. “I liked the name ‘engineer,’ and they’re down there troubleshooting, making the engines run. It looked pretty glamorous.” 

While most kids dreamt of being Captain Kirk, Moriarty fancied himself a young Scotty—called on to be the hero behind the scenes, keeping the ship operational through asteroid fields and Klingon attacks.

Moriarty grew up in North Branch, Minnesota, and attended the University of Minnesota. It was while pursuing a B.S. in computer engineering that he realized he preferred the hands-on engagement of electrical engineering. He went on to get his masters in electrical engineering, which is when he met his future business partners, George Kellerman and Jake Johnson.

The trio had worked at the same engineering firm in downtown Minneapolis and would frequently overhear coworkers mention homebrewing. “When they talked about the process it was really intriguing,” Moriarty recalls. “I’m the kind of engineer that reads the user manuals, so I went out and bought John Palmer’s ‘How to Brew’ book.”

Moriarty and Johnson brewed their first batch at Johnson’s parents’ house. It didn’t go according to plan, but Moriarty loved everything about it. For them, troubleshooting was the best way to learn more about brewing—to find the root cause, investigate potential solutions, understand the ‘why,’ and delve deeper into deciphering brewing science. He saw it as a natural fit for an engineer. “You have very concrete ideas and assumptions, but you can’t model everything,” he explains of engineering. “Beer is the same way—you have some concepts of how this ingredient is going to come through, but you really have no idea.” 

Johnson’s mom put up with the pair’s troubleshooting for one summer before putting a stop to  brewing at her house. But Moriarty kept making beer, and a few years and many batches later decided he’d rather endure the rigors of entrepreneurship than the exhaustion of building circuit boards full time. So, he thought, why not open a brewery?

The Tin Whiskers taproom // Photo by Tj Turner

The Tin Whiskers taproom in St. Paul, Minnesota, is the product development laboratory for beers // Photo by Tj Turner

Tin Whiskers opened in May 2014 after four years spent tinkering with recipes and searching for the ideal brewery space. Moriarty tackles every beer he makes at Tin Whiskers in the same way he would an engineering project. Recipes start as a series of pilot batches, each of which undergo multiple rounds of prototyping, sampling, tweaking, and evaluation by consumers.

While some new recipes, like Daisy Chain Saison, can be ready for production in as few as three pilot batches, the team runs others through as many as eight or nine iterations, scrapping any that don’t meet their desired specs. Daisy Chain’s three iterations were all in the alpha phase of development (prototypes are designated as “alpha” or “beta” depending on the maturity of the recipe). The first round included three batches, each with identical hops and yeast but a different malt bill. Variables for the second and third iteration were hops and yeast, respectively. After six months of prototyping, the beer was in production and among the brewery’s core lineup.

As of September 2018, Tin Whiskers has 16 tap lines, giving customers plenty of opportunities to taste beers and provide feedback, and giving Moriarty plenty of opportunity to channel his enthusiasm for engineering via brewing. “You’re making a product for a consumer; you’re not just making it for yourself, so you need to get consumer buy-in to know it’ll be successful,” he says. “[You might] love the beer and think it’s awesome, but if no one is willing to buy it, you just wasted a lot of money.”

Once a recipe moves into production, Tin Whiskers’ lead brewer, Tony Kocon, and brewer, Jeff Milleson, usually take over in the brewhouse. They employ a custom-built control panel to dial in the details of a given recipe. Located against the back wall and flanked on either side by brewing vessels, the control panel is about the size of a refrigerator door, its stainless steel face a grid of buttons and controllers with red and green lights. 

A batch of Tin Whiskers Brewing Company's Flip Switch IPA // Photo by Tj Turner

A batch of Tin Whiskers Brewing Company’s Flip Switch IPA // Photo by Tj Turner

Moriarty can describe the entire system down to the function of the circuit boards. Even though it sounds techy and looks automated to the untrained eye, he explains that it’s actually much more hands-on than a lot of breweries.

In a fully automated brewery, a computer called a programmable logic controller (PLC) makes all the control adjustments that the brewer would normally make. Step one: the brewer programs a recipe into the PLC. Step two: the PLC executes each brew day task through a hyper-connected system of sensors and smart devices. Basically, it’s a set-it-and-forget-it approach—more “2001: A Space Odyssey” with computer captain HAL 9000 controlling and maintaining the systems required to run and repair the ship than the all-hands-on-deck USS Enterprise of “Star Trek.”

 At Tin Whiskers, the target temperatures and mash-rake speeds are manually programmed into separate units on the control panel for every brew session. The brewers must adjust measurements, calibrate variable frequency drives to run the mash rake and pump motors, and configure tank set points, all while keeping the vessels operating at maximum efficiency. 

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In addition to incorporating customer feedback during recipe development, the brewery posts lists of ingredients (minus the specific measurements), gravities, and the brewing schedule of its production beers on its website. Sharing the details of your brewing process and openly incorporating customer feedback into recipe development is far from the norm in the craft beer world. But Moriarty says it’s second nature for an engineer. 

“You have the whole open source movement with software, so for us, it was a natural fit. We provide as much info as possible without compromising our competitiveness. It’s part of our ethos: sharing information.” 

They are completely unfazed by sharing details of their process—for their Fourier series, they went so far as to detail the entire development process online, including customer feedback for every iteration of every recipe. 

Moriarty documents as many of these details as possible with brewing management software so he can model the data and analyze trends. This also helps with quality control, a pillar of engineering that Moriarty gets particularly riled up about. 

Morairty with one of the beers available on tap // Photo by Tj Turner

Moriarty with one of the beers available on tap // Photo by Tj Turner

“Step one is date codes. That’s one of my biggest pet peeves of beer makers,” he says emphatically. “Like, you make a food product, it has an expiration date. At least put some date on the can. If you can’t track the product, how do you know when to pull it?”

It’s geeking out over the small details—from date codes, to individual tasting data points, down to the conductive tracks and transistors of a circuit board—where Moriarty is most at home. And he feels strongly that everyone else should engage in their own weird, too. 

“I believe everyone is nerdy about something. What does it mean to be a nerd? You’re just super passionate,” he says. “Whether that’s beer or engineering or sports, we want to celebrate that.”

By embracing his nerdiness at Tin Whiskers, Moriarty encourages the rest of us to geek out publicly.