Elevating their craft: BrewBilt Manufacturing’s evolution in the world of craft breweries | TheUnion.com
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Elevating their craft: BrewBilt Manufacturing’s evolution in the world of craft breweries

Brewbilt Company president and owner Jef Lewis stands at the entrance of the warehouse off Spring Hill Drive, where over a dozen employees fulfill stainless steel tank orders from around the world. Lewis started out assembling tanks during the 1990’s beer brewing boom in Portland.
Photo: Elias Funez
BrewBilt Manufacturing, Inc.

110 Spring Hill Drive, Suite 10, Grass Valley

530-802-5023

http://www.brewbilt.com

Jef Lewis developed an appreciation for craft beer at an early age. When he was 20 — still too young to get into bars — his girlfriend bought him a home brew kit, and he quickly got to work rearranging his Portland garage.

“Making beer was fun and adventurous,” he said. “The process would take a couple of weeks. There was always the anticipation of the final product. Sometimes it would turn out horrible, but we’d drink it anyway.”

Lewis quickly discovered that quality home brewing equipment was hard to come by in the late 1990s. Having worked as a welder, he realized that instead of buying expensive pots at a department store, he could build his own. Eventually friends who were also home brewers began to ask him to make their pots and word of Lewis’ welding skills began to spread. That’s when his first big job materialized: a local brewery. From that point on, making brewery equipment became a solid side job while he continued to work full time at a Portland welding shop.



Brewbilt employees finish up stainless steel tank orders this week in Grass Valley. The company plans to expand with a brewing business of its own, complete with a local taproom.
Photo: Elias Funez

Then, the economic crash of 2008 happened. Lewis, along with 21 of his fellow employees, were all laid off in a single day.

“My wife and I had a 1-month-old baby, a 2-year-old boy, and I had no job,” he said. “No one was hiring.”



Suddenly forced to work exclusively out of his garage, Lewis tried to scrape up more welding jobs where he could. Advertising on Craigslist, he’d take on any project, such as fixing an old lamp, as well as maintaining sporadic small local brewery jobs — as he tried to make enough to pay the mounting bills.

“But piecing together the small jobs wasn’t cutting it — then I had a vision,” he said. “What if I started a business focusing exclusively on building brewery equipment — putting all of my energy into this one thing?”

NECESSITY, THE MOTHER OF INVENTION

Despite the fact that breweries were rapidly multiplying in Portland, Lewis knew he was a relative unknown and would have to hustle. He got in his car and began knocking on brewery doors. He knew he had the expertise — he just needed a foot in the door. His efforts slowly began to pay off.

Brewbilt employees gather for a photo during a break this week at their warehouse off Spring Hill Drive in Grass Valley.
Photo: Elias Funez

“It was just me in my shop taking in small jobs,” he said. “Then a couple of larger welding shops gave me overflow work from larger commercial breweries and that really got the ball rolling.”

Lewis and his wife, Erin, finally had a more steady income, but eventually they grew tired of the relentless rain of the Pacific Northwest. Both native Californians, they felt as if their children were spending the bulk of their lives indoors. Having spent much of his youth in Nevada County, Lewis was eager to bring his family back home.

RELOCATION, STARTING OVER

In 2012, the couple rented a too-small home on North Bloomfield in Nevada City with one key ingredient: a 2,400-foot shop. Lewis took a temporary job with a local welding company while simultaneously getting his own new brewery business, BrewBilt Manufacturing, Inc., off the ground in an unfamiliar business territory.

“I hit the road, again started knocking on doors, cold calling, hustling and picking up small jobs — anything I could,” he said. “It was like starting all over again.”

Brewbilt employees work on a stainless steel tank order this week in Grass Valley. Brewbilt fulfills orders from around the world.

Then, he landed first large job: Ol’ Republic Brewery in Nevada City ordered 12 BrewBilt fermenters. It was a $150,000 job. Although the brewery is now closed, one of Ol’ Republic’s craft brews went on to win the winner-take-all Best of Show competition at the California State Fair. Their brewing process attracted the attention of other brewers. BrewBilt was off and running.

Today, BrewBilt builds equipment for high-end breweries all over the United States from its 8,000-square-foot Spring Hill Drive warehouse in Grass Valley. This year, the crew of 18 employees is building a system for a brewery in Finland, their first international job. Average orders fall between $350,000 and $500,000, but Lewis says orders can range from “a $1,500 part to a million-dollar invoice.”

With breweries rapidly multiplying and expanding around the country, more companies are doing what BrewBilt does. So why do high end establishments continue to seek them out? Lewis thinks it all stems from his welding skills and aesthetic (“They’re not just utilitarian parts,” he says. “They’re beautiful”). But it also extends to his obsession with designing and building the finest craft brewing equipment on the market. His equipment is made in the U.S., only with American-made 304 stainless steel. And the manufacturing takes place right in his home town. They also offer a six-year warranty, the longest in the business, said Lewis, who is confident equipment will last much longer.

“We know from experience that realizing a brewer’s dream takes passion, determination, and a good partner,” said Lewis. “We can be with the customer every step of the way — from concept to opening. We’ll work with bankers on financing solutions and with architects and contractors on equipment layout — all the way through to scheduling, logistics and ongoing project management.”

The BrewBilt crew is there when the equipment is loaded onto semi-trucks and they accompany the load to its destination, where they help with installation, working with construction crews, contractors, electricians, plumbers and of course, the brewers themselves.

Brewbilt beer brewer Bennet Buchanan works on brewing a batch of beer this week.
Photo: Courtesy photo

“We do a lot of custom work,” said Lewis. “These aren’t cookie-cutter parts. We take into consideration a customer’s needs, wants, location, temperature and the building itself. Once it’s up and running, we are also a part of ongoing maintenance.”

Locally, BrewBilt’s equipment can be found at Three Forks Bakery & Brewing Co. in Nevada City, the Bullmastiff Brewery in Penn Valley, as well as the Grass Valley Brewing Co. and the 1849 Brewing Co., both in Grass Valley.

BREWING THEIR OWN

So if BrewBilt knows so much about beer, why aren’t they brewing their own? As it turns out, they are. “BrewBilt Brewing Company” is now in its preliminary stages, brewing test batches from its Spring Hill Drive location and filing permits for construction.

“We decided it was time to do something we’ve always wanted to do,” said Lewis. “We’ll have our own IPA, lagers and stouts. We’ll do contract brewing with other breweries and beers for local hotels and restaurants that want their own private label. It’s exciting.”

Under the supervision of Bennett Buchanan, the company’s head of sales and marketing, the brewery is expected to “fire up” in February, along with the hiring of new staff. And if that isn’t exciting enough, plans are also in the works for the opening of their very own pub, said Lewis, who is exploring various locations and recently met with the city of Grass Valley about the expansion.

Brewbilt founder Jef Lewis shows off the elements of a finished tank ready to be shipped to a customer.
Photo: Elias Funez

Lewis’ sons are now 12 and 14 — so much has changed since the day he first learned he was laid off from that Portland welding shop and was unsure of his next paycheck.

“There’s so much to be grateful for — I’ve been doing this long enough that I feel as though I have a lot of knowledge to share,” said Lewis. “I’m extremely proud of our crew and the business culture we’ve built. I’d rather train a good person than hire an expert who’s not a good team member. I live there everyday, so we like to make it fun. We barbecue on Fridays. It feels good to be bringing in new money to our community from around the world. Working with brewers and seeing them win awards is also a high point. They tend to be very down-to-earth people. Oh, and the best part? I get a lot of free beer.”

To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email her at Cory@theunion.com


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