This craft brewery is using a chatbot to make better beer

Key Points
  • Shelby is created with the natural language processing of Microsoft and the industrial automation of Rockwell.
  • Great Lakes Brewing Company has a graphical interface to track progress and can also get quick updates while typing to Shelby.
  • Rockwell has also worked on solutions for other breweries.
Great Lakes Brewing Company factory floor in Cleveland, Ohio.
Great Lakes Brewing Company

Great Lakes Brewing Company's head engineer, John Blystone, said one of the most complicated processes of making craft beer is managing the lauter tun.

The machine, one of many that helps transform grain into liquid, traditionally requires a tedious 17-step process, Blystone said. It's one of the mission-critical processes that helps the Cleveland-based brewery make its beers, which include porters, pilsners and IPAs.

But with the help of Shelby, that's all changed.

Shelby is not a brewmaster — at least in the traditional sense. She's a chatbot, created with the natural language processing of Microsoft and the industrial automation of Rockwell.

Shelby represents two different forces that are squeezing the craft brewing industry. On one hand, many microbreweries hope to preserve and promote the personality of their individual blends. But on the other, mounting competition has strained the resources of tiny, artisanal set-ups, forcing them to prioritize efficiency.

Staying ahead in the drinking game

The ancient art of brewing has faced unprecedented pressure in the past few years, as small batch suds have gained popularity.

This has pushed more breweries to look to automate some of their more tedious tasks to lower prices, according to Ryan Stockinger, an engineer-turned-brewer-turned-entrepreneur. As director of Craft Automation, he works with smaller breweries that compete with Great Lakes.

"What [brewers] want to do is automate the mundane: watching the temperature, recording data, checking timers. There's a lot in the brewing process that can be easily automated," Stockinger said. "That allows brewers to focus on recipes, malt quality, hop quality. That's where their creativity can actually help their business."

Great Lakes Brewing Company in Cleveland, Ohio.
Great Lakes Brewing Company

The Brewers Association estimates that in 2016 the number of operating breweries in the U.S. grew 16.6 percent. Ninety-nine percent of breweries in operation are small, independent shops, and the market share by volume of craft brewers has grown each year since 2011.

Meanwhile, the big guys keep getting bigger. Anheuser-Busch InBev joined up with SABMiller last year, creating a monolith that will "have operations in virtually every major beer market."

"I really do think [automation]'s going to increase over time," Stockinger said. "A lot of people talk about a craft brewing bubble. Once the competition starts to increase, you can't really raise prices. You can't make money by going over your competition. You have to sell your beer at the same price.

"The competition is going really, really fierce," he said. "I don't know that brewers will like it. Owning a brewery is still a business, you gotta do what you have to do."

Hacking the hops

For Great Lakes Brewing Company, meeting growing demand means running its processes all day and all night. The company, established in 1986, has one of each major machine, and is in an area of town with little room for expansion. That means if one machine goes down, the whole operation screeches to a halt, Blystone said.

And the real bottleneck, so to speak, is the lauter tun.

While Great Lakes had been moving some processes toward automation since Blystone started four years ago, the systems were not connected in a single interface — and that meant multi-tasking, overworked engineers had to flit from sensor to sensor to check each one, often in the middle of the night.

A hackathon with Microsoft and Rockwell came up with the idea to layer analytics and natural language processing on top of the automation process, and in less than two years, Shelby was born. Now, Blystone has a graphical interface to track progress and can also get quick updates while typing to Shelby.

The system has already saved Blystone two middle-of-the-night trips to fix batteries, he said.

Mike Pantaleano, Rockwell Automation's global business manager, said the firms also have an integration with Microsoft's voice-activated assistant, Cortana, on tap. Rockwell has also worked on solutions for other breweries, such as Lakefront Brewery and Full Sail Brewing.

"This craft brewing scene has been growing gangbusters for quite some time," Pantaleano said. "When craft brewers start out, they typically start out in a manual setting. As opposed to the megabreweries that have tons of staff, the craft brewing market has a lot less folks in the individual plants. So we wanted to make it as easy to use as possible."

A personalized assistant — one that could withstand the loud, wet environment of breweries — could be advantageous for a brewer to share notes, look up recipes and ingredients, Stockinger said.

Still, Stockinger said that small-scale breweries don't always have the money to invest in large, corporate systems from Rockwell and Siemens. Despite the competitive advantage that might come from automation, many brewers don't want their craft reduced to pushing a button, Stockinger said.

"It's a pretty close-knit industry, and if you can't sit back and have a beer, they'll kind of push you out," Stockinger said. "They also kind of adamantly don't want to be the guy that pushes a button and the beer comes out. We still get a lot of pushback from brewers that they want to be involved each batch. .... Big companies are trying to get in, they see all these dollar signs. It's not as profitable as everybody thinks."