A Sycamore Brew Day
Outside of the countless phone calls, meetings with the city, permitting, and non-stop planning that goes into getting Sycamore Brewing open, we are gladly able to make time to regularly brew on our pilot system. These brew days are without a doubt our favorites, and I thought it might be interesting for some of you to see how one of these days unfolds. I've filled the post with pictures, mostly from our Instagram account. If you aren't following us already, please check us out.
This may get kind of long, and I'll go ahead and congratulate anyone who gets through the whole thing. Maybe getting a beer first is a good idea.
It all begins with deciding upon a recipe. Recently, we have been tweaking a few of our favorites. We may change the grain bill a bit, trial a new yeast, or add a new hopping schedule. With only a few short months before we open our doors, we're working hard to dial in as many recipes as we can. So far, so good!
The core of all good beer is good water. Pure, clean water is a must. From there, we begin to adjust the mineral content and pH. This can get pretty complicated, and I'm not trying to put anyone to sleep with a chemistry lesson. Trust me, though, it's important. We build up our water differently for every beer we brew. Maltiness, hoppiness, clarity, and mouthfeel all come into play.
After the water has been measured and dialed in, we fire up the burners, set the temperature controls on our hot liquor tank and mash kettle, and start measuring out our grains. Nearly every beer we brew has a single, core base malt and the addition of "specialty grains" for character -- think color, sweetness, body, roastiness, etc.
We like to crack our grains the day of brewing for freshness. The key is to crush the kernel enough to expose the starch on the inside without destroying the husk. These husks layer up to become a filter in the grainbed and are the key to a clear mash and better beer.
Usually around the time we finish weighing things out and crushing our grain, the kettles are at the right temperature and the fun really begins. The crushed malt needs to be added slowly enough to hydrate all of it, and when you are standing over the kettle stirring in the grain, the wonderful aroma really hits you. Every beer smells unique, and this gives the first sense of how the recipe will turn out.
The mash step is all about temperature control. When grain sits in water of a certain temperature, enzymes convert the starch to sugar. This is the same sugar that yeast will later turn into alcohol.
On our pilot system, once the grain has all been mashed in, the system itself really takes over the temperature control.
Here's the long version: There are temperature probes in the grainbed that, should the temperature drop, trigger a pump to circulate the mash liquid through a copper coil in the warmer hot liquor tank and then run it back into the mash kettle, through our sparge arm, at an elevated temperature, thus raising the overall mash temperature. Phew!
Here's the short version: The system can regulate temperature itself, and we like this... a lot!
After a set amount of time, the mash is ready to be transferred into the boil kettle. All of the circulation (you did read the long version, right?) will have formed a grain bed that essentially gets washed with hot water to strip all of the remaining sugars out. This is called sparging, and once it is complete and the kettle has been filled to the correct volume, the boil is ready to go.
Time for hops! Basically, the earlier you add hops during the boil, the more bitterness will be extracted. This bitterness is a good thing. Without hops, beer would be overly sweet. Too much at the wrong time; however, and it can be pretty unpalatable. Hopping is all about balance. The later in the boil the hops are added, the more they will contribute flavor and aroma. A beer like our IPA has multiple hops added throughout. This really gives it a robust, "hoppy" character. Simple, right?
Many beers, especially Belgians, have other ingredients added during the boil. Everything from spices, sugars of various sorts, and fruit make great additions. The only limit is really the imagination.
After the boil is finished, it is time to knock the temperature down to a level where the yeast won't be scalded or shocked by cold -- it should be room temperature-ish. We run our wort through a heat exchanger that is cooled by our water supply. It is pretty damn efficient and we cool things down from boiling to the mid 60's in around five minutes.
After the wort is cooled, we pump it into glass carboys where it will ultimately ferment. As it is pumped in, we aerate it with pure oxygen. Aerated wort is needed for yeast health. The little guys use it for their cell walls during their sugar-munching. Happy yeast makes better beer.
After the yeast is pitched, we carry the carboy to a climate controlled fermentation chamber. By keeping the temperature dialed in to the degree, we are able to get the most out of our yeast. A pretty rough rule of thumb for most ale yeasts is that the lower range of temperatures will give a cleaner character and the higher side gives a flavor more filled with esters. These flavors can be spicy or fruity, etc. Even bubblegum can come out in some Belgian yeasts.
It is said that brewers make wort, yeast makes beer. I think this is pretty dead on. We just like to help guide the little guys.
I skipped a lot of details about measurements throughout the process, and I definitely skipped the part about constant cleaning and sanitizing. (Brewing is really 90% cleaning.) The whole day usually runs around 5 hours from start to finish, depending on the mash and boil times. Fermentation is typically around a two week cycle, and we'll often add hops and/or other exciting ingredients during the end of fermentation. This "dry-hopping" takes aromas and flavors to the next level.
I'll open comments on this post. Feel free to ask any questions. I'll try to answer as many as I can. Cheers!