It’s 6:30 in the morning on a cold and dreary Wednesday in February. I pull up to the Atwood Ales Farm Brewery, which is a mere 2 miles south of the U.S.-Canada border, and I see owner/brewer Josh Smith quietly laboring away through the fogged-up windows of the old barn.
After I muscle open the large wooden door, I ask if he always starts brewing this early. “I usually start even earlier so that I’m done early enough in the day to do other things on the farm,” he says. “But I thought I’d go easy on you and start later.”
I appreciate the added sleep he’s afforded me. I also notice that he has pre-heated his hot liquor tank and pre-milled the grains, saving me even more time and effort.
As the coffee finally starts to kick in, we dive straight into brewing. On the docket is a 2-barrel batch of low-ABV table saison made with a variety of grains, estate hops, and herbs and spices from the nearby garden.
Regardless of size, every brewhouse follows the same general brewing process, but each brewhouse is unique. Shapes and dimensions of equipment vary just as much as individual processes and techniques.
Atwood Ales’ modest 2-barrel brewhouse could be described as a nanobrewery. Though small in size, 2017 was a big year for Atwood Ales. The little brewery cranked out 88 barrels of beer last year, which was a 58% increase over 2016, and it released a whopping 29 different beers over the course of the year – in addition to its regular lineup of beers, such as Grange Farmhouse Ale and Dark Harbor Oyster Stout.
Atwood Ales also garnered some accolades. Mo’s Saison was selected as a finalist in “Washington’s Best Saison” in the July issue of Seattle Magazine, and the brewery won an award at the 2018 Good Food Awards for Rhuty, its rhubarb sour ale made with 100% Skagit Valley malt and estate-grown rhubarb and hops.
As I give the brewhouse a closer look, I marvel at the non-traditional equipment that Josh has assembled. Some of it was purchased pre-fabricated, but most of it was either made by hand or repurposed from equipment from other industries. Some pieces came from a dairy farm, others from a nearby food production facility. The mash tun was previously used as a hydrotherapy tank.
“Brand-new equipment is much more expensive and it doesn’t always work for my setup,” Josh says. “In order to fabricate things just the way I need them for my system, I hire a local welder that specializes in food-grade welding.”
Once the hot liquor tank is up to temperature (brewing water is known as “liquor”), we fill the mash tun and slowly add the grains (malted barley, wheat, oats, etc.), stirring the grist constantly to prevent clumping. This is called mashing in or doughing in. Most single-infusion mashes are done around 150F degrees, and thanks to some brewing software, which takes into account the temperature of the grains, the mash tun, and the hot liquor, we hit our target temp.
Over the next hour or so, we wait as the enzymes convert starches to sugars, which the yeast will later feed on.
After the mash is complete, we perform a vorlauf, which is when you recirculate the wort to set the grain bed and filter out grain debris. Then we pump the sugary wort to the kettle, as the grain bed is being sparged/lautered (rinsed/filtered) with hot liquor.
After the mash tun is emptied, I give my guns a good workout by shoveling all the spent grain into buckets. Later in the day, a farmer will pick up the grain and feed it to her livestock.
Monica, Josh’s wife and business partner, joins us in the brewhouse, and Josh pulls a few samples of wort for us to taste. To my surprise, he then adds a splash of whiskey to each glass. “This is the ‘modified’ Jim Parker Brewing Method,” he explains, “which calls for a shot of Scotch with the first runnings from the mash with every hop addition (thankfully, we weren’t brewing an IPA). Since Josh didn’t have any Scotch, we had to settle for Irish whiskey, but it still paired well with the sweet wort.
We then turn our attention to cleaning the fermenter. Because of its size and weight, it can’t be cleaned over a sink like a homebrew kettle, so it is cleaned in place (CIP) using a spray ball that is inserted inside. A cleaning solution is then recirculated through the fermenter for a set amount of time using a pump. Cleaning, as I learn, is based on four variables: concentration (of the cleaning solution), temperature (hotter is usually more effective), time (longer contact time is more effective), and mechanical action (pressurized water, in this case). Most brewing cleaners are either acidic or alkaline, and in accordance with Atwood’s environmental efforts, Josh blends them after use to neutralize them, making them safe to later use for watering some of the plants on the farm.
It takes longer than I expect to pump 60 gallons of wort into the boil kettle, but once it fills past the electric heating elements, Josh cranks on the heat. Then it takes a while longer to bring the 60 gallons of wort up to a boil.
While alternating sips of cold coffee and whiskey-wort elixir, I watch Josh weigh out hops, herbs and spices, in preparation for the boil.
Whenever you see photos or videos of someone brewing, there’s a good chance you’ll see them dumping hops into the kettle. It makes for a sexy photo, but in reality, it’s not that glamorous. It’s no different than adding seasonings into a soup.
At the end of the boil, Josh adds his last addition of hops along with the herbs and spices, and then he starts the whirpool. This is when wort is pumped (and recirculated) into the kettle tangentially, creating a circular current that draws out aromatics and essential oils while leaving behind a neat cone of hop debris and precipitated proteins at the bottom of the kettle.
Now that the “hot side” is complete, we enter the “cold side” of the brewing process. From here on out, anything that touches the wort must have been cleaned and sanitized first. This is also when the process gets a bit more complicated. Josh sets up a complex web of valves and hoses and pumps, with the goal of moving the wort from the kettle to the fermenter, while chilling and oxygenating it along the way.
I understand what’s going on and why, but Josh is making so many attachments and flipping so many switches and valves that I lose track. Even though a control panel provides some automation, the brewhouse is still very hands-on.
Then I see concern on his face. Something is wrong. There’s a blockage in the system, most likely in the kettle’s out valve or somewhere in the plate chiller. Most breweries have more than one brewer, so when a problem like this arises, there are multiple minds to troubleshoot the issue.
Josh keeps a Zen-like calm, though, and he almost seems to relish the challenge. “You really have to be a jack of all trades when you have no one else to immediately turn to when things hit the fan,” he says. “I like problem solving, and I feel prepared for most of the things that can go wrong in our brewery, plus I keep lots of spare parts on hand. I’m also fortunate to have friends nearby that I can turn to, like Ben and Steve at Menace Brewing, and Eric at The North Fork Brewery.”
Josh tells me he is comfortable brewing alone because the vast majority of his brewing experience has been solo. “I enjoy collaborating and brewing with other brewers because there is always something new to learn from one another, but I find that my introverted tendencies translate really well to the tasks and time-frames of brewing. And while it is work, on some level it’s also a form of contemplation, meditation, and relaxation for me.”
I agree, as I view brewing as a mind-calming creative outlet that can be just as rewarding and relaxing as any other hobby, such as painting, gardening, doing yoga, knitting, cooking or baking. Although, in my case it’s just a hobby and I don’t have to worry about running a profitable business.
Being such a small operation with tight margins, Josh is always trying to think of ways to be more efficient or better at what he’s doing, which in turn saves time, money, energy, and/or effort. Over time, he’s come up with lots of creative solutions and workarounds to solve the unique challenges of his brewhouse.
After reversing the pumps and torqueing the valves for a few moments, the clog, whether trub or hop debris, is finally dislodged. We have good flow again, so we’re full thrusters ahead.
With the goal of getting the wort into the fermenter at just the right temperature, Josh spends a good amount of time adjusting and tweaking flow rates of the hot wort going into the fermenter versus the cold tap water running through the chiller (running the wort slower and the cold water faster chills the wort quicker and/or to a lower temperature).
With the fermenter safely filled, Josh pitches a flask of yeast, and now the liquid is called beer. It’s a satisfying, triumphant feeling, but it’s the easiest part of the process (especially since I didn’t have to help propagate the yeast).
“Now it’s the fun part of the brew day – all the janitorial work,” Josh says. And he isn’t kidding. Brewers may be the rock stars of the beer world, but a good amount of their time is filled with unglamorous cleaning duties. There’s also lots of non-brewing work to be done before and after the brew day, including researching and formulating recipes, ingredient buying, scheduling, managing fermentations, packaging, bookkeeping, marketing and distributing, as well as dealing with legal matters, personnel, legislation, insurance, and so much more. The small percentage of time actually spent brewing is probably one of the main reasons why most homebrewers do not go pro.
I’m glad small, quality breweries like Atwood Ales have found a way to stay in business these days. No longer can they ride the coattails of other “craft” breweries, and their survival isn’t based on luck. They exist and succeed thanks to hard-working brewers and owners who are passionate about what they do, and their determination is reflected in the great beers they produce.
Throughout the day that I spend at Atwood Ales, I witness that passion and energy firsthand, and I feel honored to be a part of the process.