How innovation and attention to detail led Beaker & Wrench to the forefront of extraction and distillation technology
Coming out of college, Lilibel de la Puente got a gig as a technician at the first cannabis lab licensed in the Berkeley, California, area. The Navy veteran had started school as a horticulture major, but switched to chemistry after doing tissue cultures as part of her research and she was excited to combine her passions for science and plant medicine.
But the distillation machinery at her lab left her doing more maintenance than science.
“It was clogged a lot. It was unreliable,” de la Puente says. “I spent almost half my time maintaining the equipment.”
One night, she was discussing the lab issue with her partner, Ace Shelander, a mechanical engineer working in San Francisco, and he immediately diagnosed the problem: a pump on the machine was designed with a manual valve that did not allow for the constant dosing rate of an oil that was nearly solid at room temperature.
“I knew we needed a pump that could deal with something really, really, really sticky and high viscosity, like worse than honey,” Shelander says. “And I didn’t see anything that I could buy off the shelf that I would trust to do that.”
So he built one. His peristaltic dosing pump used rollers to squeeze a rigid tube and force a continuous flow of oil.
“We used the pump, and it tripled our output overnight,” de la Puente says.
Her lab eventually bought two more pumps and the couple began selling them a la carte through Instagram and then a website. With de la Puente’s chemistry degree and knowledge of the cannabis business and Shelander’s engineering background and love of solving problems, they had the right combination of skills to revolutionize the extraction and distillation side of the cannabis industry.
“People had these systems that weren’t outfitted correctly,” Shelander says. “We were feeling like, ‘Hey, we can fix that problem for you.’”
Beaker & Wrench was born.
Since those first days in the couple’s Oakland guest bedroom, Beaker & Wrench — with de la Puente as President and Shelander as “CEO, or engineer” — has grown through two other office spaces and into a 13,000-square-foot building in Commerce, California.
Today, the company builds and sells dozens of custom-designed products, from the original peristaltic pump, as well as other pumps and parts like vacuums and temperature controllers, all the way up through wiped-film evaporators and its own decarboxylation reactor, all manufactured with the same innovative eye and attention to detail that made the original so popular and effective.
Attention to detail
Beaker & Wrench’s future success was rooted in the very first pump Shelander designed. Like that first pump — which the company still proudly sells — every piece of Beaker & Wrench hardware is designed specifically for use in the cannabis industry with a meticulous attention to every part of the design and the most innovative technology in the industry.
The pair followed up the pump with a general purpose digital temperature controller for wiped film machines, then gear pumps for the output discharge to allow it to run continuously, instead of flasks that require breaking vacuum and losing an hour of productivity. But for the company to really take off, Beaker &Wrench had to stop making add-ons for other people’s equipment.
“They had to get the system, run it, realize something was wrong, find us on the internet, and then fix it, instead of getting the right system from the first place,” Shelander says. “We realized we shouldn’t be buying other people’s wiped films, we should be making our own from scratch.”
So they did, beginning with the basic science and working from the start to engineer out the problems they found while working with other wiped film evaporators. They used a lower profile bearing at the top to allow the machine to sit higher to create space for a tray at counter height. They added electric heaters with digital controls to assure precision temperature control through the whole system. There’s a bigger, colder cold trap and a bigger vacuum pump. They even used the most reliable seals they could find so that after cleaning it holds a vacuum again easily.
“It’s not that there’s one thing that makes it better, there’s a hundred little things,” Shelander says. “And I don’t think that’s an exaggeration.”
The result was a turn-key system that included not only the dosing pump and the digital temperature controls, but a brand new, patent-pending technology designed to increase the fractioning surface of the wiped-film evaporator, called SinterTek. The sintered mesh baffle acts as a column-packing medium and repeated interaction with it increases efficiency and prevents “splashing” onto the internal condenser while acting as a filter to increase the purity of a distillate by up to 10% on a single run.
Plus, the evaporator is on wheels, fits on a lift gate, has a single plug and single shut-off switch and can be producing oil on day one. The company also promises a quick lead time and best-in-class customer service to help operators get running as fast as possible.
“It rolls off the lift gate and into your lab. Everything is ready to go. There’s no putting anything together,” de la Puente says. “None of our competitors have that.”
Having solved the problems for distillation, Beaker & Wrench set its sights on the problems operators dealt with in other parts of the industry.
“We want to not just solve the problems of distillation,” Shelander says. “We want to solve all the problems for the entire extraction process.”
He says the next thing in the pipeline is solvent recovery and falling film evaporators, another form of distillation with a different optimization. The new machines are being engineered to use about 25% of the power of a traditional system.
“We’re applying all the same principles: make it easy to use, make it easy to service, make it efficient,” he says.
The company also has a 12-inch wiped film evaporator that does five times the throughput of the smaller version, but “through the magic of engineering” is the same size machine, instead of two stories tall like its competitors.
“We really put in the time and asked, ‘How can we make this smaller?’” says de la Puente. “It’s possible. I think nobody’s really taking the time to do that.”
Shelander says his time working on a competitive race team in college at UC Davis taught him the importance of lightweight equipment.
“That philosophy of make it as minimal as possible and as compact as possible, I just can’t help myself,” he says. “And it ends up being really good because now we have bigger systems that fit in smaller spaces than anyone else.”
The company has also built a decarboxylation reactor that will decarb 40 liters of crude extract in three hours, includes an overflow sensor/blowoff valve to allow for users to “set it and forget it” and a clean-in-place process as part of the hardware design.
But while the hardware design is key, the company is built on de la Puente’s experience and science background — the Beaker — as much as Shelander’s engineering — the Wrench.
It’s that kind of deep knowledge of both the science and engineering as well as actual industry experience that gives Beaker & Wrench a leg up over its competitors in the extraction and distillation equipment side of the business and keeps it at the forefront of technical innovation.
“We’ve pre-solved all of the problems because we already know what the problems are,” de la Puente says. “We’ve dealt with them.”