Beer Boffins: Brewery Design

Heavy metal and brewery design, with Sam Cabell of 6ixFabdec


At 15, Sam Cabell was banned from all schools in Cornwall. At 18, he started a stainless steel fabrication business in Somerset, which he grew to an annual turnover of £1.2 million in 2018. Today, he is co-director of stainless steel engineering specialists 6ixFabdec, and along the way has found the perfect niche for his work: craft breweries. Tiny Rebel, Siren, Gipsy Hill and The Drop Project Brewing Co. are just some of the customers who have benefitted from his drive, determination and innovation. “Once I’ve got my teeth into a project, I can’t get it out of my head until it’s been commissioned and installed, signed off by the customer,” he says.

Sam had not always dreamed of steel. Once upon a time, having been kicked out of school, he wanted to be a farmer, working outdoors, as his grandfather had done before him. He moved to live with his father who, having little patience with Sam’s lack of employment, called a friend who owned a stainless steel fabrication company. The very next day, Sam was off to work. 

“I really enjoyed it, worked late, always picking metal out of the scrap bin to weld and fabricate,” he recalls. An apprenticeship with Sycamore Process Engineering followed, before Sam struck out on his own as a sole trader. “It’s the only two weeks that I’ve been out of work for the last ten years,” notes Sam, a very anxious time. “I was crapping my pants!” Success soon followed. Three years later he joined forces with his brother Scott, who had previously worked in the waste industry, to establish the company 6ix Engineering, which doubled in size three successive years. The first brewery they worked with, in 2015, was Starwing brewery in Suffolk. “They were really kind to us, willing to help, encouraged us to work further with the craft beer industry and sent us on with a couple of crates.”

Sam’s early work mostly focused on the cheese industry, developing equipment for big, multi-national cheese manufacturing plants – big companies turning over billions – installing manufactured equipment for the likes of Tetra Pak, where he soaked up information “like a sponge”. His first tank, to hold used crisp fat, was such a success that he posted a picture on eBay, which caught the notice of Lewis Russell, now his sales manager, who asked if he could make three fermentation vessels for the brewing industry. Sam used his expertise and high standards to make these tanks on a par with the quality of the dairy industry; at this stage, the brewing industry had much lower standards. 

Sam used his expertise and high standards to make these tanks on a par with the quality of the dairy industry

To continue the growth of his company, money became key, and Fabdec, with its 60,000 square foot manufacturing facility and an established 60 years of building tanks, knew 6ix Engineering would be a wise investment. 6ixFabdec was launched in 2018, with its main manufacturing plant in Ellesmere and 6ix Engineering’s 3,000 square foot site in Templecombe.

In the case of stainless steel, fabrication can involve rolling sheet metal and welding on ends, or ornate work when combined with copper and brass. With computer aided design (CAD), all of the maths involved in working out a 3D shape from a 2D sheet is calculated by machine, saving a lot of time compared to the older method of drawing it all out by hand. 6ixFabdec’s draughtsman Dave Cannon is the man who brings the ideas to life. “Once it’s designed by CAD, we then know we can build it.” There are always challenges, but with ex-Tetra Pak project engineer Andy Davis’s help and brewing consultant John Taylor’s process and engineering knowledge, they always succeed. All of 6ixFabdec’s tanks come with a 10 year warranty and minimum 25 year shelf life guarantee, with a capacity of between 500 and 80,000 litres.

Within six months, Sam had preliminary drawings for a skid-mounted brewery system, a product that he could not get off the ground at 6ix Engineering due to the financials involved. “Skid-mounted means anything stand alone that can be manufactured in a workshop to 90-95% completion, then craned or forklifted into site. From there you hook up the services (water, steam condensate, air, etc.) and within a matter of days, it’s up and running”. This is a big, cost-saving development from when tanks were assembled on site over days and weeks, incurring hotel costs and expenses. Skid-mounted systems can be used for brewing, cleaning in-place systems, reverse osmosis, inline carbonation, keg and cask washing.

The new skid mounted brewing system launched in January 2020 and appeared at Liverpool’s BeerX exhibition in March, just before lockdown. “It was very well received in the show, as there are not many British manufacturers at all in the brewing industry, none offering anything quite like this system.” Most stainless steel equipment is imported from China and Europe. 6ixFabdec installed their very first semi-automated brewing system at Buxton Brewery, followed by a second unit in December for Drop Project, Wimbledon. Brew York are down to receive the third kit in 2021, a massive project for a 50HL twin brewhouse. “The design engineer and brewing consultant within the company, John Taylor (aka JT), is a brewer himself, so he understands everything, and taught us the language of brewers. Straight away we’re on the same page as another brewer, so we can come up with an adequate design and a great solution.” This work is completely bespoke, with nothing off the shelf, so 6ixFabdec can supply for a brewery in a London railway arch, or a brown field site in Manchester.

Future projects for the company include inventing many more energy efficient products. “We are actively thinking of ways to recuperate wastewater that can be re-used for washing down again.” Fabdec are pioneers of stainless steel water heaters, and their expertise will be well used here.

Has Sam always been interested in craft beer? “I didn’t know much about craft beer to begin with, as I was predominantly in the food and dairy industry, I knew real ale locally but was not a specific fan. Starwing introduced me to craft beer and now I rarely drink anything else.” His favourites include Utopian’s unfiltered British lager, a DDH NEPA from Drop Project called Shifty, Tiny Rebel’s sour, Rhubarb & Custard, and for easy drinking, the Hepcat IPA by Gipsy Hill, one of the first craft beers he got to try and fell in love with straight away.

“I live for work, I’ve sacrificed my social life and somewhat of my family life, but I know that it won’t be forever. Being out on my own chucked me into the deep end, gave me experience like no other. I’m still in touch with a lot of the guys I’ve learnt my trade from and without their knowledge I wouldn’t be in the position I am today, but the work has been a massive learning curve, and when I struck out on my own, there was no one to fall back on.” 

Getting involved with the craft beer industry in 2015 was a gamble, but it paid off when the industry grew and grew

Getting involved with the craft beer industry in 2015 was a gamble for Sam, but it paid off when the industry grew and grew. With increased demands for efficiency, bigger vessels and shorter lead times, 6ixFabdec had their work cut out for them, producing heat exchangers, dimple jackets, clean-in-place systems, reverse osmosis systems and in-line carbonation machines. This latter work comes off the heels of the UK government pushing for more climate friendly solutions, and in-line carbonation saves on use of the greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide (CO2). Heat exchangers have become more efficient as process engineers design them with more plates and more passes. Sam supplied Tiny Rebel with a heat exchanger for each of their two kits, which shaved an hour off each brew. With two kits brewing twice a day, that’s 20 hours saved every working week. “If enough breweries knew about this, they’d want a free survey. We don’t charge for quotes!”

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