Manufacturing a cocktail
Dan Batliner earned his bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from Mizzou in 1992, then spent the bulk of his career as a consultant in the water treatment industry. When an opportunity arose to become the co-owner of his own ethanol production plant, he took it.
Actually, “ethanol production plant” isn’t 100 percent accurate. Much of the biology and many of the processes are the same. It’s just the products that come from those processes are spirits — whiskey, bourbon, rum and vodka.
Batliner is co-owner of Dogmaster Distillery, a craft spirits company in Columbia. As a craft operation, there’s a lot more work that goes into each spirit than pressing a button to start an assembly line. But there are plenty of aspects of the process that lend themselves to someone with an engineering background.
“In the end, we distill, which then becomes a chemical-mechanical engineering process,” Batliner said. “I probably thought when I went to school that I might work in a refinery or some sort of chemical plant. At one level, that’s what I am right now is a plant engineer at a production plant. The other side of it, though, is it’s a craft distillery. … The craft part is what makes it completely different. We make ethanol, but we’re not optimized for ethanol production. We optimize it for a craft spirit production, for a much more tasty ethanol.”
Engineering is in pretty much every part of our lives, and alcoholic beverages are no exception. Two bioengineering capstone groups had the opportunity to learn that firsthand, partnering with Dogmaster as part of their coursework. The goal was to create actionable plans for a pair of challenges facing the distillery — optimizing facility space and streamlining production.
The partnership came about through a budding friendship between Dogmaster’s owners and Steve Borgelt, an associate professor of bioengineering at Mizzou. Borgelt suggested using a partnership with the capstone program as a way to generate ideas for needed solutions.
“We actually needed to do both — get more out of our space and get more out of our production process,” Batliner explained. “It was fun. My hope was that while I’m sitting there every day running our processes, just trying to get some work done and trying to think about things, people with a different viewpoint might look at it and throw out some ideas that would make me think more about it.”
“What definitely happened is over a couple of months, the questions that they asked me a lot of times made me go, ‘Oh, wow. I should know that. Now I need to sit down and do a day’s work to answer that question for them.’”
Perhaps the most enjoyable part from Batliner’s point of view was the dual benefit the experience had both for the students and for Dogmaster. The company received ideas on potential methods for improving operations and optimizing space, while Batliner shared industry expertise with the students.
“It was also neat from my perspective as someone who’s got 25 years’ experience to try and help them understand how something works in industry vs. in the classroom,” he said. “I could help them see how you roll all of the different aspects — not just core engineering concepts of the unit operations, biochemistry, heat balance — but the fact that you have to do things that make monetary sense and also things that make personnel sense.”