Day 8

As my son would say, “w00t!” A week after classes started, it’s brewing day! Jon Downing has split our class of 36 into three 3-hour “shifts”.  I’m in the first shift, so at 8:30 am, resplendent in new steel-toed Wellies, I arrive at the Teaching Brewery ready to make beer! And who doesn’t love making beer?

First up is another lecture on safety–the small brewery can be crowded with 12 students and two instructors, so we have to be thinking ahead all the time–letting people know when we are passing behind them with hazardous goods, keeping the floor clear of obstructions, and so on. One student who arrived in running shoes is sent back home–a 30-minute trip each way–to retrieve safety boots.

Jon further divides us into three teams of 4–one team will be starting a batch of the college’s First Draft lager on the large  system, the second will be starting another beer on the much smaller pilot system, and the third team will be cleaning and preparing fermenting tanks for both the large and small systems. I’m on the second team, and since my name happens to be first on the list of team members, I’m handed the clipboard with the recipe and brewing sheet–I’ve just become the lead brewer. Apparently there’s no change in pay, though.

The small pilot system brews about 50 litres of beer. This may not seem like much, but it is large enough to try out new recipe ideas. If the recipe works, the ingredients can be increased proportionally (using the math we reviewed earlier in the week) for the large system. If the recipe sucks, meh, what have you wasted? Less than half a bag of malt, 60 litres of water and 2 hours of your life.

The pilot system consists of three pieces of equipment–the mash tun, where the malted barley is soaked in hot water for a while; the boiling kettle, where the run-off from the mash tun–the wort–is brought to a boil for a while; and a heat exchanger, where the boiled wort is rapidly cooled before being transferred to a fermenting tank.

Jon Downing was helping the first team on the big system, but we on Team 2 weren’t doing this on our own–Sam, the Teaching Brewery’s assistant, and a brewer at Mill St. Brewery in Toronto, was there to guide our novice fingers.

We add 20 litres of hot water to the mash tun, then we open a 25-kilo bag of Ontario Select pre-milled malted barley from Canada Malting. Let me try decode that sentence. Canada Malting is the largest manufacturer of malted barley in Canada. They receive raw barley from across Canada, and usually just mix it together as a general Canadian blend. Recently however they have started to keep some of the Ontario malt separate, and a bag of this “Ontario Select” has found its way to Niagara College. Canada Malting has also premilled the barley–run it through steel rollers that de-husk the kernel, exposing the starchy interior. If the barley had been unmilled, we would have had to mill it ourselves using a crank-operated mill.

We are going to be making an all-Ontario ale using Canada Malting’s Ontario Select barley as well as freshly-picked Bertwell hops–known as “wet hops”, since they haven’t been dried yet–from Mike Driscoll’s organic farm. (See Day 4.) The recipe calls for 16 kilos of malt, so we carry the 25-kilo bag to a scale and measure out what we need. (I use the phrase “we carry the 25-kilo bag” chiefly in the sense that  someone else carried it.)

While one team member slowly pours the malt into the hot water in the mash tun, another team member uses a paddle to ensure that all the grain gets evenly soaked. The mixture is more solid than liquid, and pushing the grain around with the paddle is hard work. (I use the term “is hard work” chiefly in the sense someone else yielded the paddle.)  Eventually, with the addition of another 10 litres of water, all the grain is soaking at about 67C.

Brewers yeast doesn’t eat starch, which is what the kernels of barley are currently filled with. But this is where the first bit of magic happens. The warm bath causes enzymes in the barley to rapaciouly convert all the starch in the barley kernels to complex sugars. Some of the background chemistry also drops the pH of the water from 7.0 to about 5.2, perfect for brewing. After 30 minutes or so, we test this first with a pH meter, which confirms that we have achieved a good pH. We then test for residual starch by dropping some iodine into a sample drawn from the mash tun. If it turns purple, the water still contains starch. If it remains yellowish, there’s no starch left. In our case, the sample taken from the bottom of the mash tun indicates complete conversion, but the mash at the top of the tun still needs some time. After another 15 minutes, we try the iodine test with water from the top of the mash tun, and the iodine remains yellow–no starch left.

Alas, it’s 11:30 am, and the second shift has arrived. No one on the first shift wants to leave–we’d all like to stay just to watch what next happens to “our” brew, but there just is not enough room in the brewery for us.

The morning was fascinating work–we’re already counting down the days until next Wednesday. And if our “all-Ontario” ale goes on sale in the campus beer store, I’ll be sure to buy a growler.

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2 Comments on “Day 8”

  1. Sammy Says:

    Quick question, are you able to apply and enter the program under “mature student” status? I assume you’d know! I’m 20 years old now and seriously considering applying for this program.

    • Alan Brown Says:

      Niagara College does not have a “mature student” status. Assuming you have a high school diploma, you are considered a high school graduate regardless of your age. Even though I graduated from high school in 1976, I was considered a high school graduate, not a mature student, and had to provide a transcript of my marks with my application. Those who don’t have a high school diploma can apply on the basis of work and other related experience.

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