Fat Lizard Brewing: from a garage to a national success
Fat Lizard Brewing quickly captured the hearts and minds of beer lovers in the Helsinki area with their iconic West Coast–style Indian pale ale (IPA). Some seven years later, the craft brewery has conquered a nation, bringing Finns across the country great tasting IPA, lager, porter and non-alcoholic beer. Their craft brewery journey has been fast and furious – from 23,000 litres of beer in 2015 to nearly a million litres of artisanal ales in 2021 and an expansion to a new location with 20 employees. What started it all? An undying love for West Coast-style IPAs. Alfa Laval caught up with Heikki Ylinen, now Chairman at Fat Lizard, to find out how he and his buddies are tackling whatever challenges come their way – and how the Alfa Laval Brew 250 centrifuge helped them to expand operations and boost yield.DATE 2021-12-07
Hessu Ylinen, chairman of Fat Lizard Brewing Company
Heikku, tell us about the team at Fat Lizard, what brought you together and how did you start the brewery?
I am one of the four founders at Fat Lizard. None of us has any background in the bar, restaurant or beverage industries. Our only real expertise in brewing is that we drink a lot of beer! I come from the IT world and have worked as a coder. Eero has a sales background. Topo is a forester with degree in forest economy – he’s our handyman. And Topi is our graphic designer and social media manager. He’ s a high-school drop-out and illustrating is his passion. Back in 2013, I found I was longing to do something other than work nine to five at the office. As a hobby brewer, I had a dream to run a real brewery. So, I reached out to these friends, and we built a 20-litre microbrewery in a garage from scratch. A year later we started looking for space to set up a brewery and expand. By December 2014, we got the permit to start brewing and set up our first 300-litre system that we also built from scratch.
Weren’t you scared to give up your office job for the unknown?
Of course! I was the only one stopped working full time to go all in on the brewery. The others kept their day jobs. But I was confident that we were going to make our brewery business work. Everyone said it was impossible to build a profitable brewery at this scale in Finland. But we did the math, tried to figure out the problems people usually ran into, and prepared to tackle these issues before they arose. We also figured out what kind of brewery to set up to be able to produce beer in profitable quantities. It’s a great location near our homes in Espoo, which was important since we all grew up there. There had never been a brewery in Espoo, and we wanted to be the first, the first to make beer that everyone would want to drink. That meant producing the beers we know and love – and could pour our hearts into. Those were American beers, especially those crisp, clear West Coast-style IPAs.
Why did you decide to focus on West Coast-style?
I’ve travelled to California for work, mainly around the Bay Area, and fell in love with the craft brewery scene there. The same was true for Topo. We fell in love with West Coast IPAs but couldn't find any good ones here in Finland. All beers imported from the US lost their taste in transit. We knew what a proper West Coast IPA should taste like, and we wanted to replicate that here. West Coast IPAs were gaining in popularity in Finland, so it helped get us started. We were the first ones in Finland to brew it properly and serve it super fresh, which is key to West Coast IPAs.
Was your initial plan to rely on local sales in Espoo or did you have plans to expand, maybe even abroad?
At first, we wanted to stay local because we knew that the market in Espoo was big enough to satisfy the volume that we could produce at our first location. We also knew that the beer had to be fresh so it was easiest to only sell it locally. That way we could ensure that the beer was never more than one week old. Once we started planning brewing on a larger scale we knew that we had to expand to the entire country. Back then, we decided not to expand abroad because of logistical issues and the risk of not being able to fulfil our quality promise, which is central to our brand.
How did your brewery develop over time as a business in terms of production volumes?
Our first year, we brewed roughly 23,000 litres. We only sold kegs at that time because we couldn’t afford a canning or bottling line. We decided very early on not to invest in a bottling line because we believe cans are the future of fresh beer. Back in 2014, beer drinkers in Finland weren’t ready to embrace quality canned beer, so we started a campaign to promote selling good beer in cans at beer festivals and collaborated with brewers already canning by marketing their beers. So, when we started canning our own beer, we already had a presence in that space and had changed customers’ mindsets. History shows that only the big breweries can afford a canning line, and they usually produce cheap beer that doesn’t taste very good. We wanted to change customer perception of canned beer and sell quality canned beer at the right price. Over the past five years this has changed, and now everyone pretty much knows that the best package for beer is cans.
From the day one at the old brewery, we were always sold out our batches. Our weekly batches sold by Friday and the bars usually ran out of beer over the weekend – and we didn’t have any more beer to sell. That was the pattern until 2017 when we moved to our current location. We got a new brewhouse and expanded our fermentation capacity. At the old brewery, we had two 600-litre tanks or two 6-hectolitre tanks. At the new place, we installed four 60-hectolitre tanks and a 30-hectolitre brewhouse. Our brewing capacity increased tenfold and production capacity twenty-fold. We contacted a lot of retailers and sent them samples so they knew that we were coming out with our canned beer. We also knew we could start selling to supermarkets. Word spread quickly. Within weeks, the cans were flying out the door and we constantly sold out – again. That year our production was somewhere near 100,000 litres. By 2018 we were producing 400,000 litres a year. Sales then were mainly confined to the Helsinki area. There were, and still are, a lot of thirsty customers living in and around the city, so we expanded slowly. Last year we extended our reach up to northwestern Finland, and today you can find Fat Lizard throughout the country. We gradually upped our annual production targets. In 2020 we produced roughly 800,000 litres, and this year we’re at the one-million-litre marker.
Did you do anything special to attract customers and spread the word about Fat Lizard?
We had – and have – a very aggressive social media presence. It’s cost-effective marketing. We couldn’t afford any other kind of marketing campaigns. We relied on being real and letting our quirky personalities shine, in a way. That was – and still is – our philosophy.
That's impressive. So when you planned to expand in 2019, you realized you might need a centrifuge?
That’s right. We wanted to buy a centrifuge to boost beer yield as well as improve beer aesthetics and quality. West Coast IPAs need to be clear, and the centrifuge helps make sure they are. Another reason is sediment. We did not want to filter our beer; we wanted the freshness to be preserved in the can. Unlike centrifuging, filtering strips more flavor from the beer. When shipping beyond our local area, a can may not be bought in a week or two; it might sit on a shelf for a month or more. Centrifuging ensures the can won’t restart the fermentation process and explode, so the centrifuge provides quality assurance. We knew we needed a centrifuge to solve these issues. The centrifuge also helped us plan production better. When we expanded, we had a lot of employees and we needed a schedule that allowed people to have the freedom to enjoy life outside of work. It’s important to meet the goals set for production timelines, to know how many cans you can pull from a batch, and how long the work shift to pull those cans is going to last. That was a big motivating factor in investing in the centrifuge, as it allowed us to schedule a reliable production timeline. It also gave us confidence, knowing that everything in our tanks down to the last drop would be canned.
Why did you choose Alfa Laval? Did you do any market research and consider other brands before buying the Brew 250?
A couple of factors influenced our decision. First, Alfa Laval has a reputation for quality; when I hear Alfa Laval, I think of good quality. Plus, the availability of local service after installation was also important to us. We wanted to invest in a robust, high-quality centrifuge and in service and support we can rely on. After testing a couple of Alfa Laval centrifuges, we saw firsthand how the Alfa Laval centrifuges were effective in clarifying beer and could conduct our own trials. At the nearby Salama Brewing, we tested the Brew 20. We also tried the Brew 80 at the Pyynikin Brewing Company and took a 500-litre batch there to see what the centrifuge could do for a beer we had issues clarifying. Later we borrowed the Salama Brewery’s Brew 20 centrifuge and played around with it, trying different measurements like oxygen pickup and other parameters we were not sure how to handle. After seeing the Brew 20 and Brew 80 in action, we were confident that investing in the Alfa Laval Brew 250 would serve our needs best. If we hadn’t been able to try out different models before buying, we would have ended up buying a centrifuge that was too small for our needs.
What flow rate do you usually run your Brew 250 set?
We’re now around 6 cubes, or 60 hl/h depending on the beer. If it’s a complex bright lager, we may slow it down because some yeast causes more problems than others. But we rarely have a flow rate below 30 hl/h. With some hazy beers that behave well in the centrifuge, we might push it to 90 to 100 hl/h per hour. And we use an Alfa Laval feed pump before the centrifuge.
Was the cost of the centrifuge ever an issue? What was your rationale for buying it?
Early on, it was obvious to us that the centrifuge would provide good return on investment. We weren’t sure what the extra yield would be, but we managed to get some numbers to calculate what it could be. The trials at Salama and Pyynikin helped because then we knew buying a centrifuge would be a sound investment. Without the trials, I would have been hesitant to calculate an extra 5-10% yield. After a run we now only have 20 litres of yeast and hop slurry left behind from our 60 hectolitre tanks. So thanks to the centrifuge, our annual yields have been increased by around 40,000 litres. Which means the centrifuge contributes the equivalent of an additional 80,000 euro of annual profit to our company. Plus payback was fast, about 18 months.
You mentioned your centrifuge contributes to more consistent quality and predictable batches, to be able to plan production better – a huge challenge to overcome. What other challenges lie ahead?
Right now, the pandemic is the biggest obstacle. We don’t know whether the bars will be open and customers will be there next week or not, which means bar owners are reluctant to buy anything. We’ve also been running into supply issues sourcing certain sizes of cans because 440-ml cans have become more popular than four years ago when we decided to use with them, so that’s a bit tricky. But we’re optimistic about the future. We’ve come so far, so fast and look forward to continuing our journey!
Fat Lizard at a glance
Concept: West Coast–style Indian pale ale
Capacity: reached 800 000 litres 2020
Slogan: Drink more, drink better!
Heikku Ylinen, co-founder of Fat Lizard:
Thanks to Brew 250 centrifuge, our annual yields have been increased by around 40,000 litres. Which means the centrifuge contributes the equivalent of an additional 80,000 euro of annual profit to our company. Plus payback was fast, about 18 months.
The centrifuge also helped us plan production better. It’s important to meet the goals set for production timelines, to know how many cans you can pull from a batch, and how long the work shift to pull those cans is going to last. That was a big motivating factor in investing in the centrifuge, as it allowed us to schedule a reliable production timeline. It also gave us confidence, knowing that everything in our tanks down to the last drop would be canned.
Polisher for small breweries and сraft brewers
- Up to 180 hl/h
- Hermetic design means practically zero risk of oxygen pick-up
- Low power consumption
- Basic and easy to operate
- Skid-mounted separator and system
- Turbidity triggering of solids discharge
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