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As you browse distillery filtration equipment, you’ll notice that there are a wealth of options available to you. The equipment you choose will depend on a number of factors, including: price, productivity, maintenance efficiency, and the specific properties of your product or products. It’s not easy to make a decision given all the possible options, but consider the following:
Filtration is common in a majority of spirit, beer, and wine production for the commercial market. Historically filters such as sand, charcoal, felt and animal skins, were used to remove sediment.
Temperature is an important consideration in the filtration of spirits. For some products, particularly white spirits, filtration at ambient temperature is sufficient. Most brown spirits, however, require filtration at low temperatures. At ambient temperature, most components are in a dissolved state, while at low temperatures the components can come out of solution and appear as milky-white, wax-like flakes in the final product. Therefore, these substances can be more easily removed in a chilled state.
The specific spirit you are distilling will dictate which filtration method is best for you.
Whisky: Whisky that is 46% ABV or lower will go cloudy when water or ice is added and when the whisky is cooled. For this reason, chill filtration is used to remove the fatty acids, esters, and proteins in the whisky that cause this cloudiness.
Gin: Since gin is produced using a neutral spirit that has already been processed, the filtration stage generally occurs before gin production begins. If you are producing your own neutral spirit for gin production, carbon filtering will give you a clean, ready to use spirit with which to begin.
Tequila: Activated charcoal filtration(also called carbon filtration) is a common process in tequila production, since the laws for tequila production specify the amount of impurities like esters and furfural that may be present in tequila. Since these numbers of difficult to hit through distillation alone, activated charcoal filtration is used to clean up the impurities.
Vodka: Carbon filtering is an integral step in vodka production. Filtration speed is regulated for each category of vodka and controlled by flow meters.
Sake: When sake is made, rice starch is converted into sugar, while yeast simultaneously converts that sugar to alcohol. When fermentation is complete, remaining rice solids must be filtered out. To do so, the mash is passed through a mesh filter allowing the sake to pass through, while catching the solids. In the sake-brewing industry this process is referred to as squeezing or pressing, rather than filtering. After this first filtration, sake undergoes a second filtration during its maturation period. In this stage, it is mixed with a fine charcoal powder that absorbs elements and bacteria that affect the color, flavor, and stability of the final product.
Moonshine: Polishing moonshine with activated carbon removes odors, colors, organic pollutants, toxic compounds, and fusel oils from your moonshine. Keep in mind, however, that this process will remove moonshine’s unique flavor.
Spirits filtration presents many challenging tasks in beverage filtration. Simply put, the filtered final product must be free from visible particles and have a clear and bright appearance.
Spirits are delicate beverages. The conditions for quality-influencing and turbidity-causing components are dependent on factors including raw materials, alcohol concentration, water quality, and temperature. It is essential to remove as specifically as possible only those substances or constituents which may cause turbidity. All quality-enhancing substances must remain in the spirit. Maintaining this balance underlies the difficult nature of filtering spirits.
The two major methods of filtration used in the distilling industry are chill filtration and carbon filtration.
Chill filtering is a method used primarily in whiskey making for removing residue. Brown spirits, like whiskey, contain substances like fusel oils, proteins, terpenes, essential oils, polysaccharides, and pectin, as well as fatty acids and their esters that cause turbidity when the distillates are chilled. To most effectively eliminate these substances, distillates are cooled prior to filtration, making the substances less soluble and easier to remove.
While fatty acid esters will cause haze, they also have an important effect on the sensory characteristics of the spirits. For this reason, it is important to filter in a way that removes offending substances, while leaving behind those that improve flavor and aroma.
Absorption is the primary mechanism used in chill filtering, and can be most effectively achieved through the use of depth filtration. Depth filtration uses a porous filtration medium to retain particles throughout the medium, rather than just on the surface. These filters, unlike surface filters, are capable of retaining a much larger number of particles before becoming clogged. Depth filtration is a sheet-based filtration method most commonly achieved through the use of a plate filter.
Factors affecting the chill filtering process include the temperature, number of filters used, and speed at which the whiskey is passed through the filters. The slower the process and the more filters used, the more impurities will be collected, but at increasing cost.
For all other spirits, activated charcoal filtration is the basic method of choice for removing unwanted particles. This filtration method employs a bed of activated carbon to remove contaminants and impurities, using chemical adsorption. This is the most common form of filtration in the production of spirits. Charcoal (carbon) acts on the spirit by first absorbing volatile flavors and aromas, and then releasing them. Charcoal filtration or polishing can be achieved both through filtration systems and through a loose carbon treatment. Loose carboning is often achieved when spirits are aged in carbon treated barrels.
As an alternative to plate and frame filtration systems, some distilleries choose lenticular filter housings. These systems are completely enclosed, and utilize filter cartridges or modules rather than sheets. Lenticular system produce the same end result as a plate and frame system, while taking up less space and eliminating oxidation and drip loss with their enclosed design.
While filtering or polishing is almost always conducted using carbon based products like charcoal, many distillers will also choose to clear their wash of remaining yeast particles using fining agents. Fining agents are generally protein-based, derived from animals or fish, and include substances such as gelatin or isinglass. Traditionalists often still employ egg whites to complete the fining process. These agents are added directly to the wash and either neutralized through the fining process or removed through subsequent filtering.
Your distillery's capacity will play a large role in selecting the best filter system for your operation. A small microdistillery will generally maximize its annual output at no more than 50,000 proof gallons per year, or just over 68 ½ 9-liter case a day. Larger players such as Smirnoff and Absolut sell about 29-46,000 a day.
For larger distilleries, filter sheet technology is the most common form of filtration currently used. Filter sheets provide an excellent combination of adsorption and depth filtration, making them the ideal solution. Sheets are available in multiple grades and configurations including sheets with low extractable ions or those impregnated with activated carbon to cover a wide range of applications. Because plate and frame filters can be built to such a wide range of specifications - handling filter sheets from 12 to 36 inches - they can fit into almost any larger distillery set up.
Smaller craft distillers need filter assemblies that are easy to use and cost effective for smaller batches while providing similar filtration characteristics as sheet filters. Because of their versatility of design, plate filters can also get the job done well at a low cost for smaller operations. As an alternative to plate filters, though, some smaller distilleries are choosing lenticular filter housings. While the upfront cost for this system can be prohibitive for large distilleries due to the higher cost of cartridges over sheets, smaller operations will get a great deal of use from each cartridge, making them much for cost effective in lower production environments. Lenticular filters are also easier to use, make more efficient use of labor, and lower product loss, making them an excellent choice for smaller distilleries.
Cartridge filtration systems like these also allow distillers to change filters depending on the application, batch size, or flow rate. Additionally, with simple changes in hardware, the housing can be fitted to hold from 1 up to 4 modules to allow room for future expansion of smaller scale distilleries.
Further questions on your distilling business? Visit our distillery research page for more articles on distilling and Q&A!