I’ve been home brewing – off and on – for roughly 20 years, but I’m always eager to see how things are done at commercial breweries. I recently had the opportunity to help brew a batch of beer at Menace Brewing in Bellingham, and it was yet another learning experience.
While the brewing process is essentially the same whether you’re making a 5-gallon batch at home or a 50-barrel batch at a large brewery, pro brewers do things a bit differently than home brewers. Aside from the obvious differences in scale, I’ve decided that the main distinction between the two is that pro brewers spend much more time moving large amounts of fluids from one place to another. What may take a home brewer a few minutes can take a pro brewer up to an hour or longer. Sometimes multiple fluids are moving simultaneously; other times, one fluid is recirculating (e.g., vorlaufing, whirlpooling, or cleaning/sanitizing) or being transferred from one vessel to another.
It’s a well-choreographed dance that Menace’s head brewer Steve DeMoney does well. Throughout the day, he constantly moves around while pressing buttons, turning valves, attaching or removing fittings, and carrying hoses from one place to another. He’s always doing one thing while either cleaning the previous thing or prepping the next thing. It reminds me of when I was a line cook, and I had to multitask 13 different things at a time. Forgetting just one step can hold up the entire train and set everything back.
Menace’s 7-barrel brewhouse is smaller and a bit more manual than the breweries where DeMoney has worked before, such as Wander and Chuckanut, but he seems to relish the hands-on work. “Sometimes I feel like I’m working in a submarine,” he jokes. Though it makes sense to me, as we’re surrounded by a network of valves and pipes and various stainless-steel tanks. Adding to the scene, floor-to-ceiling windows and glass garage doors give us a panoramic view of the windy rainstorm raging outside, making me feel like we’re on the open sea.
As our brew day progresses, I’m impressed by DeMoney’s ability to stay on top of all the tasks – even as I pepper him with questions. When mashing in, he has to nail the specified mash temperature. When sparging/lautering, he must set the grain bed, control the sparge water’s flow rate, and appropriately set the pump speed to move the wort into the kettle. From the kettle to the fermenter, he has to adjust the plate chiller flow rates (i.e., the rate of cold tap water versus hot wort) so that the wort enters the fermenter at just the right temperature for the yeast. Ambient temps of everything (e.g., grains, tap water, tanks, and other equipment) also must be factored into the equation, and they change drastically from season to season.
Because there are so many things to do throughout the day, DeMoney says he’s always trying to be more efficient in everything that he does. On one brew day he calculated that he walked 9,000 steps, so it’s clear that any inefficiencies could add up to lots of wasted time and energy.
Sometimes it just means keeping certain tools in logical places. As one example, DeMoney often uses a screwdriver to remove floor grates, and after he realized he was having to walk all the way to the tool box in the back room to retrieve it (and then put it back), he decided to just leave a dedicated screwdriver near the grates. It’s a simple solution (though it could easily be overlooked) that saves many unnecessary steps over the course of a day.
Even though there are always things to repair or add to a brewhouse to make things easier, faster, or more efficient, DeMoney and Menace co-owner Ben Buccarelli seem to have their system pretty dialed in, and their creativity shows. When I ask about the coded numbers on the wall, DeMoney explains that they refer to time when filling tanks, and they’re based on known flow rates and how long it takes to fill certain volumes in different tanks. “It’s easier to look at a clock than to keep running up the stairs and standing over the kettle to watch the level,” DeMoney says. “I can see the clock from anywhere, so I can be doing other things while the tank is filling.”
Another efficiency they employ is capturing natural carbon dioxide during fermentation, which saves a bit of time and money. I get the feeling, however, that improved quality is the main reason they take on the added challenge, as many believe that natural carbonation improves mouthfeel and head retention, compared to solely force carbonating.
Cleaning and sanitizing aren’t the sexiest parts of brewing, but they are extremely important. On a small home brew scale, you can easily clean equipment with your hands, just as you do with pots and pans in your kitchen sink. When you’re dealing with 200-gallon tanks, however, you have to clean them in place (CIP). To do this, a spray ball is mounted inside the tank and cycles of hot water followed by caustic (sodium hydroxide) are recirculated with a pump for periods of time to clean, and then a no-rinse acid solution (such as peracetic acid) is recirculated to sanitize. Appropriately adjusted variables such as time, temperature, concentration (of the cleaning/sanitizing solutions), and mechanical action (pressurized liquid from the spray ball, in this case) result in sparkling clean and microbe-free vessels, hoses, pipes, and fittings.
There are so many nuances to brewing, and I’m always fascinated by the solutions, tricks, and workarounds different brewers come up with for their unique brewhouses and the many different challenges they encounter. Sometimes they’re big problems, but often they’re just little things that are only solved through experience. Like when DeMoney fills a bowl of cold water at one point, making me think it’s for some brew dog in the area, but then he pours it over a tri-clamp, and I realize it’s a simple yet genius solution to keep his hands from burning when detaching the fitting, as it was still piping hot from transferring the boiling wort from the kettle.
Having brewed in multiple brewhouses now, including Atwood Ales in Blaine, my respect for brewers only increases with each experience. Not only is the work filled with physical labor, but it also requires lots of education, experience, creativity, and the ability to continually problem solve. Brewers like DeMoney and Buccarelli do it all very well, and they should be proud of the beers they produce. I know I do.