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The Sounds of Heavy Metal

May 19, 2011 2 comments

A funny thing has happened since I began working at The Bruery: I’ve developed a strong preference for silence over listening to music. With my Bruery weeks and Manzanita weekends I average 4-6 hours of driving every Friday to Sunday, yet still I traverse those miles with the sound system off. It seems that this is a natural response to the brewing environment, which tends to be quite loud. We are, after all, talking about industrial production here. Dickensian working conditions these may not be, but when you’re nestled between air compressors and propane burners things get overwhelming pretty quickly. It’s not unusual to find myself screaming at Garry during the course of an otherwise pleasant conversation because of all the noise.

While brewing does cause auditory fatigue, an attentive ear is a surprisingly useful asset in a production environment. Machines speak volumes if you listen. Mills and pumps that have run dry protest loudly and with reduced bass. The keg washer hisses and splashes in various combinations as it moves through its cycle, which allows you to track its progress from anywhere in the brewery. While filling kegs you can hear the last of the carbon dioxide get ejected before the full keg begins to spray foamy beer on the floor. You also know that if you hear something out of the ordinary you should probably try to figure out the sound’s origin immediately. Just this morning my supervisor, Victor, and I were talking when he suddenly asked if I heard water running. I could only hear the decidedly unsubtle sound of wine barrels being pressure washed, but soon thereafter we realized that he had indeed heard the miniature waterfall created by sparging too hastily.

Yet the din of the machines is hardly the only culprit behind my tired ears: we also have ourselves to blame. The Bruery has an awesome sound system. The average age of the six brewery staff is 25. We listen to music and we listen LOUD; not that we have much choice if we want to hear over the aforementioned racket. You might think this somewhat masochistic but I promise it’s essential for morale. Try quickly removing 2500 lbs of spent grain from the mash tun or bottling for 8 hours straight and you too would need the boost afforded by music with a quick tempo. Some days it sounds like a nightclub in there. Sometimes a mosh pit. No matter the genre, between the music and the machinery it’s no surprise that I relish a silent drive from brewery to brewery.

…And now, the best and worst of The Bruery’s various playlists:

Worst Offenders New Favorites
An entire album of Taylor Swift Foals – Antidotes
An entire album of Linkin Park Big Business – Here Comes the Waterworks
An entire album of P.O.D. Jay-Z – The Blueprint 3
“The Reason” by Hoobastank Deadmau5
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Brewer’s Little Helper: Initial Thoughts on Yeast

——Update 5/1: I’ve added this fancy-schmancy glossary page in the hopes of making this blog accessible to newer, or even non-, brewers. If there’s anything I’ve missed that demands definition, let me know!——

Two weekends ago I caught my first glimpse of individual yeast cells at Manzanita. While I was thrilled to dive into some lab work, the impetus that compelled us to do so was not exactly joyful. It was getting towards the end of the brew day and we were finishing up a batch of Riverwalk Blonde. Garry harvested yeast from a finished batch intending to re-pitch into the latest brew, but life intervened and he ended up with a sample that resembled yeast soup rather than the viscous slurry he was expecting. Knowing that this didn’t look appropriate, he brought out the microscope to take a cell count. What we found was that we had nowhere near enough yeast. With no other yeast on hand that day’s batch would have to wait. Two or three days later he was finally able to introduce yeast into the wannabe beer, but it was too late. I had a taste of that batch last weekend and the flavor bore a remarkable resemblance to hot dogs. Unpleasant. We had little recourse but to dump that particular batch down the tubes. While it’s never fun to lose a batch, this experience served as my introduction to yeast quality control and as a powerful reminder of what “beer” becomes without the assistance of billions of yeast cells.

A Sample Cell Count

Sample Cell Count: The outlined cells are yeast, the dark blue cells are dead, the amorphous blobs are hops and protein.

Every good brewer, whether at home or in a production brewery, recognizes the importance of yeast. When it comes down to it yeast is what makes beer; brewers merely create the conditions for that process to happen. In fact, the chosen yeast and fermentation conditions have a greater flavor impact than any other single ingredient in the recipe. At a commercial level the key is consistency. Once Garry knew that the wort would have to sit overnight (we didn’t realize it would have to be several nights) we knew it would be problematic. Significant procedural changes made it impossible to produce a Blonde that was true to the brand Manzanita had established. The flavors produced by yeast largely depend on the temperatures employed and fermentation timeline. Wort is a perfect medium for growing yeast or bacteria, depending on what is introduced first, so brewers encourage yeast to gain a foothold as early as possible. When we failed to pitch at the appropriate moment we left a window that unwanted bacteria took advantage of. And that’s the recipe for hot dog beer.

I hope to make the microscope a more frequent part of the Manzanita brew day. It’s a standard industry practice to take a cell count, which notes not only the number of cells but also their health, before every pitch. Breweries harvest yeast from finished beer to re-pitch into their next batch. As they do this the amount of yeast and its viability varies from generation to generation. Knowing our cell concentration would help us come closer to pitching the same amount each time, which would in turn improve our batch consistency. I’m starting to gloss over all of this far too quickly, so I’ll cut myself off here for now. There are volumes that could be written about yeast and I promise to revisit the topic as we ramp up our lab program at Manzanita.

Vegan and Non-Vegan Beers: Ingredients and Procedures

March 17, 2011 1 comment
Tyler Grilling

Tyler grilling a Friday lunch

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I adhere to a vegetarian diet and this makes me somewhat unusual amongst the brewing crowd. Beer culture and meat culture go hand and hand and I don’t expect the “haha, how do you even survive” jokes to end anytime soon. Some ribbing isn’t so bad, though I do occasionally miss out on delicious meals when the bacon-themed food truck comes around or Tyler breaks out the grill in mid-January to serve up Carne Asada tacos.

— On a related note, big thanks to Seabirds and the Lime Truck for being vegan and vegetarian-friendly, respectively. Sooo delicious. —

I obviously have no right to complain, though, as I’ve subjected myself to this bacon-less torture. I merely hope to provide the context for a conversation I had with Tyler awhile back in which he asked me if I buy only vegan-friendly beers. I’ve never tried to maintain a coherent vegan diet (i.e. no animal byproducts as ingredients) so I hadn’t ever considered the matter, but the subject did pique my interest.

Some non-vegan beers are pretty hard to miss: oyster stouts have… you guessed it, oyster; braggots or other meads rely heavily on honey for their sugar content, as do many beers such as Honey Blondes. I say “most” because of the existence of honey malt. I hadn’t encountered this ingredient until the maltster from Gambrinus Malting paid us a visit at Manzanita Brewing Company. Honey malt was one of his specialties that he was showing to Garry that day, so we spent a while tasting and discussing it. He explained that there is no actual honey involved in creating said malt and claimed that it tastes and smells so distinctly of it’s namesake that some brewers use it in lieu of the real thing in their so-called “honey” beers. I’m not sure I believe that, but it’s worth considering. Another confusing case is the sweet stout, otherwise known as the “milk” or “cream” stout. Many traditional examples of this beer included lactose, a sugar culled from whey. However, these days there are plenty of sweet stouts that get their unfermentable sugars from other, vegan-friendly, sources.

Aside from those more obvious ingredients, many beers are non-vegan because they include animal products as fining or filtration agents. Isinglass, a gelatin made from fish bladders, is one of the more common non-vegan fining agents. Additionally, some brewers may use animal byproducts to assist with head retention. Procedural ingredients such as these are unlikely to be listed on a label; if you want to play it safe, unfiltered beers are the most likely to be vegan-friendly. However, at the end of the day the only way to be sure is contact the brewery and ask. Luckily, these fine folks there have compiled what seems to be the most complete list of vegan and non-vegan breweries on the ‘net. While I still refuse to limit myself to vegan-friendly beers, it is interesting to see who uses what processes and how each company has fielded these inquiries. Enjoy!

Volunteering at a Brewery

February 13, 2011 Leave a comment

One of my aspirations for this blog is to help others become professional brewers. Sometimes I’ll be posting information about specific techniques or equipment, but I think it’s equally important to supplement that with tips on how to make yourself a more attractive candidate for breweries to hire. To that end, one of the best ways to increase your chances is to volunteer at an up and coming brewery.

If you’re like me you might have assumed that, with the industry’s ever-increasing profile and size, the days of breweries opening their doors to volunteers were long gone. While that’s true for larger outfits, newer breweries are often in need of help and short on cash. Perfect volunteering opportunity. In general, the best way to find out if a brewery needs an extra set of hands is to go ask in person — try a flight while you’re at it!

Volunteering is the single best way to experience the realities of professional brewing. You’ll likely cover yourself in beer, hot water and grain dust. You’ll understand the physicality of brewing on a larger-scale. At the end of the day you’ll either be tired and joyful or tired and irritable. That may lead you to realize that you don’t actually want to do this every day, but even if that’s the case you’ll have an enduring, informed appreciation for the work of craft brewers. Or you’ll love every second of it, in which case you’ll learn some invaluable information on the job.

There are the little things: how to handle chemicals or flip and tighten a tri-clamp with one hand. Then there are fundamentals of brewing theory: what different mash temperatures are trying to achieve or goals for cleaning and sanitizing. Most important of all is that you’ll learn to think like a brewer. You need to hone your abilities to multi-task and organize logistics of space and time. If you’re already an all-grain homebrewer you’ll recognize procedural similarities, though some of the techniques and technologies used will be new to you. You’ll learn vocabulary of the trade that will translate no matter what brewery you end up working for.

Brewery owners will respect volunteer experience if for no other reason than that it demonstrates real interest in the craft. They know that you’ve traded time in order to learn: if you’ll do it for free, you must truly enjoy brewing. They can also be certain that your experience elsewhere will make it easier to teach you their operating procedures and, who knows, maybe you’ll be able to teach them a trick or two that they didn’t know.

If you’re going to volunteer, it’s up to you to ensure that you’re getting a good deal out of the exchange. I hate to see members of my generation working for nothing. As long as you’re enjoying yourself, learning everyday and building your resume it’s probably a fair deal. In the end you have to decide if you’re getting enough out of it. Sure, they’ll likely give you beer and merchandise, which is always fun, but you need to be proactive about your education. Get them to train you in all aspects of their process from milling to packaging. Learn everything you can and don’t be afraid to move on if your arrangement ever becomes uneven. As long as you’re driven to learn I’m sure you’ll find it was worth the time you invested.

That said, it’s time for me to go work at Manzanita in exchange for beer and an education.

Our Story So Far…

February 6, 2011 Leave a comment

So there’s a bit of backstory that needs to be told in order to get this blog up to speed. I intend to keep it nice and short.

I first encountered homebrewing back in college. My friend Paul made his own beer and kept in on tap in our friends’ dormroom closet. This bent a number of dorm rules and the authorities soon intervened, but my interest had already been piqued. In the fall of 2008 I found some used brewing equipment for forty bucks on Craig’s List and I was officially on my way. I brewed off and on for the next two years; mostly extract with steeping. It was a transient period for me so I repeatedly found myself needing to start collecting equipment all over again. One notable batch of mead was left to fend for itself in Hawai’i while I moved back to the East Coast to tour with a band. This sort of thing doesn’t make for good beer.

Things started to settle down and six months ago I decided I was ready to get serious about trying to brew professionally. Though I was a bit of an off-an-on brewer I had always loved the process. I’d like to think that I made some good beers and the more I learned, the more I wanted to learn. I love that brewing is both art and science; it’s your prerogative to take it as far as you’d like in either of those directions.

I had just come out to San Diego — again with the band — and started brewing more frequently. I joined the local homebrew club and started trolling sites like ProBrewer for job possibilities. In December I saw a job posting for a Packaging Team Member at The Bruery in Orange County and applied. During my interview with them I realized that I should be volunteering at a local brewery if I could find one that needed the help. At the time I was living out in East County so I knocked on the door of Manzanita Brewing Company, a small-batch brewery that had just opened in July 2010. I started volunteering with them on brewdays, a couple weeks went by, and then came the call from The Bruery. I had the job.

Since I do two very different sets of activities at each brewery I have continued volunteering at Manzanita while working at The Bruery. So that’s the current state of affairs: M-F I work at The Bruery filling & washing kegs, bottling, and other assorted tasks; on the weekends I volunteer with Manzanita assisting with Brewer and Cellarman’s duties. I work all the time, but I love it. I’m learning something new everyday and am going to attempt to share that knowledge with all of you.

Cheers,

Matt