A glass of beer sitting on a wooden table next to an overflowing bag of grains.
by Blake Sandnes

Distillery vs. Brewery: What’s the Difference?

The brewing and distilling processes are very similar in their initial steps, so overall breweries and distilleries have a lot in common. However, they also have significant differences, and understanding these differences is key to optimizing the processes that go into making beer and spirits.

Let’s take a closer look at the differences between a distillery vs. brewery, including the processes behind brewing and distilling, the necessary equipment, and how RMS Roller-Grinder can help.

How the Brewing and Distilling Processes Differ

Hands holding grains out of a sack.During the brewing process, malted grains are first crushed to expose the starches. Distilling typically uses unmalted grains. The crushed grains are mixed with hot water in a process known as mashing. During the mashing process, enzymes from the grain convert the starches to sugar. The resulting mixture is a sugary liquid of malt and other grains called wort. For beer, hops is typically added at this stage as well, though this is far less common for spirits.

Next, the wort is boiled to sterilize it, then cooled to a workable temperature. The cooled liquid is placed into a fermentation vessel with the brewer’s preferred yeast. The yeast consumes the sugar in the wort, and as a by-product creates the low levels of alcohol common to beer.

Distilling begins with a nearly identical process to brewing. However, distillation goes one step further. After fermenting, the liquid is boiled to extract the alcohol. The steam from the boiling is condensed into a product with a far higher alcohol concentration than the starting liquid–this is how spirits are made.

Another significant difference between a distillery vs. brewery is the grain and grain crushing process. With brewing, a malted barley is used, and the milling step only involves an initial crush. The husk is also kept intact to create a good filter when it’s time to strain the liquid off.

With distilling, typically unmalted corn, rye, wheat, or barley is used, depending on the type of spirit being made. Malted corn or barley can be used for distilling, but this is not as common.

There are also two very different methods of distillation. One is grain-in fermentation, where the grain is milled as finely as possible and then put into the fermenter. The other is grain-out fermentation. There, like in the brewing process, wort is drained (or lautered) from the grains.

Each method of fermentation creates different particle sizes. Grain-in fermentation is used when the entire batch of malt is put into the fermentation process, and grain-out fermentation is used if lautering is planned before fermentation.

What Is the Difference Between the Equipment Needed for a Distillery vs. Brewery?

The equipment for a distillery vs. brewery is also different. In brewing, the initial crush on the grain is only a coarse grind, where the husk is kept intact. As a result, the roller mill will be set up with a wider gap between the rolls. A two-roll mill is adequate, but a four-roll mill can help achieve a more efficient crush.

Like for brewing, a four-roll mill is the best option for distilling, typically in a grain-out process. Not only does it provide a finer grind, but it also works better with the harder grains that are used, such as unmalted corn, rye, and wheat. In the grain-in fermentation process, a six-roll or eight-roll is recommended to create the finest and most consistent possible milling.

What Are the Steps in the Brewing Process, and How Is Distilling Different?

A group of glasses filled with alcohol.If you’ve ever wondered how to make beer, here’s your answer! The first step, even before brewing, is receiving the malted grain. The malting process essentially consists of getting the barley wet and letting it stay wet for long enough that it starts to germinate. Once that is completed, the water is heated, or hot air is added to the barley to stop fermentation. This provides a jumpstart on converting those starches over into sugars.

The next step in brewing is milling the whole grain. This separates the husk from the endosperm, and provides an initial crush. This coarsely crushed malt is then put into the mash tun, where the malt and water are combined. This starts converting the starches into sugars. The temperature that the mash is set at will change the sugar enzymes coming from the malt. After the mash process, the mixture is left to sit for an hour.

The next step is lautering, where the wort is strained from the solids. This involves a process known as sparging, where clean water is added to the mash, and the wort is separated from the grain. From there, the hot, sugary wort is converted over to a kettle and boiled for 60 to 90 minutes. When brewing beer, adding hops in at different points of the boil will give different flavor profiles, and change the bitterness of the beer.

After boiling, whirlpooling is done. The hot wort is either pumped into another vessel called a “whirlpool” or is recirculated into the boil kettle. This separates the solids, and helps extract some of the visual matter from liquids. Then, this hot wort goes to the fermenter, passing through a heat exchanger. The heat exchanger brings the temperature down as quickly as possible to fermentation temperatures so the yeast doesn’t die.

In some instances, that is the final process before bottling. However, depending on the style of the beer, more yeast may be added in the fermenter. In those cases, the yeast feeds on the wort and creates both CO2 and alcohol. Once this is complete, the beer is ready to be packaged in cans, bottles, or kegs. The beer is put into what’s called a bright tank, where it’s going to either be packaged or poured directly into a serving vessel.

Distilling takes things a step further. After fermentation, distillers put the liquid into either a pot still or a column still and it is boiled again. The still recaptures the evaporated alcohol that comes off of that liquid. This alcohol is then condensed and either put into barrels for aging or containers for serving spirits.

How Can RMS Roller-Grinder Help?

Large tanks at a brewery.The team at RMS Roller-Grinder is experienced in brewing distilling processes and the equipment required for them. We also have a large network of partners we work with at different levels and aspects of the process. This allows us to offer comprehensive service for the entire brewing and distilling process.

RMS believes in partnering with customers for long-lasting partnerships. Whether it is providing equipment, giving guidance on what direction makes the most sense, or putting you in contact with experts who can answer industry-specific questions, RMS is here for you.

We’re not just equipment manufacturers trying to sell you a piece of equipment. We are here for continued growth, whether you’re established or just starting out. From a startup brewery to a large distillery looking for an expansion, we have a wide variety of solutions. RMS can help you get going in the right direction, or direct you to someone who can help.

If you’re ready to level up your brewing or distilling process, or if you have questions about brewing and distilling equipment, contact us today.

Check Out Our Case Study on Distilling

Interested in learning more about how RMS supports distilleries and breweries? Read about how a historic distillery saw better throughput, more consistent grinds, and a superior yield by optimizing its RMS roller mill in our case study!

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