Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Pals Brewing Company Brewers Day

I’ve officially designated today, August 17th, as Pals Brewing Company Brewers Day which means every August 17th me and any other brewers get to do whatever we want. Personally I think it should also be a National Holiday. Today I've decided to buy some brewing ingredients and enjoy the incredible Rocky Mountain views.

A quick update on brewery progress for Pals. Our Federal application for a brewers permit has been submitted! Unfortunately the review by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau can take 3-4 months to complete. Brewery planning and construction activities are ramping up as anyone who has driven by the brewery site recently has seen. The building  pad is staked out and the parking lot area is shaping up. We’re waiting for our final stamped engineering drawings to be completed so we can get approval to proceed with pouring the building footers. Concrete work will commence shortly thereafter. Amy, Paul, Jack and Daisy Duke have also completed our move from Sun Prairie to North Platte. We’re officially Nebraskans (but fortunately still Badger fans). Amy is absolutely loving the weather and our new covered patio at the little rental house we found. On our first morning in town I rode my bike down to the brewery site. That 15 minute bike ride over the Platte River and down the Buffalo Bill bike path on my baby blue Trek bicycle is quite a refreshing change from my former car commute of 40 minutes each way. The birds and crickets aren’t nearly as obnoxious as the Madison beltline drivers.

On the brewing side I spent the past 6 days at the World Brewing Congress in Denver trying to learn how to scale up from homebrewer to pro brewer. Some of it is let’s just say complicated. Who knew there was so much science behind the art of brewing? On the surface it’s always seemed pretty simple. Convert the starch in the malted barley to sugar, strain and rinse the grains to collect the sweet liquid, boil with hops, and pitch the yeast. Add a little carbonation and you have beer. People have been doing it for thousands of years without fancy stainless steel vessels or expensive analytical toys. My homebrewing reference shelf contains at least 30 books and I’ve read all of them. Still none of those books prepared me for how complex the science of malting, hopping, and fermenting has become.

Warning: The rest of this post is pretty geeky. You’ve been warned….

On the recipe side it’s no sweat. There are a few differences between 20 gallons and 330 gallons (as an example hops extract better at larger scale so you have to cut back a bit to keep from making grapefruit cactus juice) but all in all it’s the same. It is consistency and quality that really separates the successful professional brewer from the home brewer. As a homebrewer, I only care if the finished beer tastes delicious. That’s it. On to the next batch and if it tastes a little different so what. As a pro brewer, it also has to be the same style of delicious as the last batch and free of competing microorganisms. Imagine if every time you picked up your favorite six-pack from the store it tasted different or it tasted funny. You would probably pick a new brand and never go back.

One major variable that impacts this consistency is the amount of yeast pitched. As pro brewers, we can’t afford to buy new yeast for every batch as yeast is very expensive so we collect clean yeast from a previous fermentation and repitch it into new batches. This can be done for 5 to 10 batches. That’s why every batch has to be kept free of contamination by wild yeast and bacteria. To be consistent, we not only need immaculate cleaning and sanitization procedures but we also need a method to calculate the amount of yeast to pitch. Homebrewers don’t do this. One of the courses I took this past weekend was about counting yeast and determining their viability. Essentially you put a defined amount of diluted yeast slurry containing a blue dye on a microscope slide which has intersecting lines on it. You count the live yeast cells which don’t take up the dye under the microscope within the lines and multiply times the dilution factor to obtain the live cell count. Then you can pitch the appropriate volume of yeast based on the strength of beer you are brewing. Stronger beer requires more yeast to get the job done efficiently. Not that complicated right?

Contrast that with the aroma compounds that hops add to beer. These compounds consist of various terpenes and polyphenol compounds that are highly volatile meaning they are easily boiled away at high temperatures. These compounds are generally thought to reside in the oils of the lupulin glands of the hop cone.

These hop aroma compounds have flavor thresholds in the parts per billion range and there are likely more than 1,000 of these compounds in the hop cone! With names like myrcene, linalool, α-humulene, and β-damascenone the science of hop aroma basically reads like a doctorate course in organic chemistry. These compounds have been isolated by scientists using very sophisticated analytical chemistry methods with alphabet soup acronyms like GC-MS (Gas Chromatography- Mass Spec), GC-FID, and HS-SPME (Head Space-Solid Phase Micro Extraction). Each hop variety has its own aroma fingerprint of these compounds at various concentrations and it is the various combinations of these molecules in the finished beer that make one India Pale Ale taste different from another. Talk about complicated. And that’s just hop aroma. The bittering properties of hops are a completely different organic chemistry textbook.

It was a great conference and I met so many other helpful brewers and quality professionals who were happy to offer assistance and answer my never-ending questions. And there was always some kind of beer being served which didn’t hurt the proceedings any.

Enough theory! Now it’s time to put some of that new knowledge to work with a few test batches. Look for some beer on tap in North Platte in 3-4 weeks! Sorry but that’s how long it takes. Thanks for the support on this incredible journey.