Archive for May 2012

Day 262

May 28, 2012

Once beer has finished fermenting and maturing, it is most often filtered as it is moved from the fermenter to the bright tank, then carbonated before being kegged or bottled. Kegging the beer like this is a highly efficient way of making money, since it  takes less than an hour to clean a skid of of 58.6 L (15 US gal) kegs using the automated keg washer, then another hour to fill them. That’s almost 500 litres (240 US gal) of beer ready to be delivered in less than two hours.

Compare that to ale presented in a firkin (a 45 L metal cask). Efficiency is not the name of the game here. There is no auto-cask washer (at least not at this brewery), so each cask has to be rinsed by hand, washed with caustic, rinsed again, inspected with a flashlight, sanitized, and a wooden plug called a “keystone” hammered into the small hole in the end of the cask. Often a cheesecloth or nylon sack filled with hops is added to give some added hop aroma to the beer before the cask is filled with freshly fermented beer from the fermenter.

Carbon dioxide is not injected into the cask, so in order to generate some CO2, we add some yeast or perhaps some actively fermenting wort as well as some glucose. (Skip this step if you’re looking to emulate a southern English ale, which is “flat” compared to the livelier northern English variety.)

Hammer home a large wooden plug called a “shive” into the hole in the side of the cask, and you’re finished. Only a couple of hours of work, and you’ve got one cask of ale. Oh wait, before you send it to the bar, you have to leave it for a few days to settle.

So that’s two hours for 500 L of kegged beer versus 3-4 days for 45 L of casked beer.

Needless to say, casks are not a high-revenue item for a brewery. Nevertheless, there’s nothing like an unfiltered, dry-hopped ale refermented in the cask to generate buzz and good will with the beer geek crowd.

Day 261

May 24, 2012

If the labeller on the bottling line was cranky yesterday, it was downright apoplectic today. We attempted to feed it foil labels, which brought on a monumental temper tantrum. We nearly had to provide a human sacrifice to assuage it.

In the end, the labeller subsided into a petulant sulk, dispensing labels while muttering dark threats.

Day 260

May 22, 2012

At a small brewery, there’s always lots to do, so generally you have your tasks to perform, and everyone else has their tasks to do.

But not on bottling days. Bottling requires all hands on deck.

For an hour, we prep the heart of the bottling line, a snorting, hissing beast called a Meheen. Then, with all in readiness, and everyone at their stations, we’re off!

Empty bottles enter Meheen

Empty bottles enter Meheen

The person at one end uses a neat doohickey to pick up 24 empty bottles at a time and flip them upside down on the sanitizer station. Once sanitized and drained, the person picks them up again, flips them right side up and slides them into the loading chute of the Meheen. From there, the bottles advance six at a time into the mouth of the beast, and emerge from the other side filled, crowned, and washed.

They then enter the labeller, where they elegantly spin around as a label is glued on.

From the labeller, the bottles head to a turntable, where they go round and round until picked up by the glue monkey, who packs them into cartons and glues the cartons shut.

Sounds easy, right? Let’s go back and take a closer look at each operation.

With the Meheen devouring six bottles every ten seconds or so, the person feeding it bottles has only 30 seconds or so to retrieve 24 empty bottles from a nearby skid, assemble the bottles into a 4×6 grid, move the bottles on the sanitizer to the infeed, and move the new bottles to the sanitizer. But wait, there’s more! This person also has to keep an eye on the hopper holding bottle crowns and refill it from time to time, and watch the bottles as they get filled and crowned to make sure there are no problems.

Then there’s the true instrument of the Devil, the labeller. Yes, if anything can go wrong, it’s probably the labeller’s fault. Too much glue. Too little glue. Labels that refuse to enter the labeller. Labels that enter the labeller three at a time. A sticky bearing that requires disassembly and reassembly. An empty label magazine. Ninety percent of shutdowns are the result of the labeller.

Filled and crowned bottles emerge from the Meheen on their way to the labeller

Filled and crowned bottles emerge from the Meheen on their way to the labeller

And finally, the glue monkey. With six bottles heading his way every ten seconds, he barely has enough time to grab a couple of empty cartons, then pick up bottles four at a time (or even six at a time), stuff them into cartons, glue the cartons shut and move the cartons to a skid–but the glue monkey is also the last person to see the beer before it moves to the consumer, so has to watch for and sequester low-fills, unlabelled bottles, bottles with too many labels, and any other problems revealed by a visual inspection.

It takes about an hour and a quarter of continuous work at top speed to fill a skid with 2,016 bottles. Once you’ve finished a complete skid of bottles, grab a bottle of water, disappear into the walk-in cooler for a few minutes to take a breather–then it’s time to fill another skid.

Repeat until the brewmaster says whoa.

Day 256

May 18, 2012
A partial skid of popped boxes

A partial skid of popped boxes

Yesterday, I talked about “popping boxes”. Here’s what a partial skid of popped boxes looks like, with five of seven layers complete.

Another brewery task I was quickly introduced to was washing kegs, identical to washing kegs at the college, except that this keg washer only washes one keg at a time instead of two.

With a 6-minute cleaning cycle, that leaves a lot of time on one’s hands, so I was also introduced to filling 58.6L (15 gal) kegs with fresh yummy beer at the same time.

As we learned in Doug Pengelly’s class this past semester, packaging is all about the relationship of CO2 and beer temperature. Flood cold beer into a room temperature keg at a high flow rate, and you’ll get about 3 litres of beer and 55.6 litres of foam–hardly the way to win the hearts and minds of your clients, who have paid for 58.6 L of beer, not foam.

Keg being filled (Double skid of full kegs in background.)

Keg being filled (Double skid of full kegs in background.)

No, filling a keg requires patience, so take your time. Open the valve just enough so that the keg takes 6-7 minutes to fill.

As the keg is filling, head back to the keg washer and exchange the now-cleaned keg for a dirty keg and hit the Start button. Rinse off the outside of the cleaned keg and stack it up. Head back to the keg being filled and wait for it to finish. Move the beer hose to the next empty keg on the skid and crack open the valve, rinse off the just-filled keg, sanitize its sankey valve and cap it, and add an identifying label.

Whoops, time to get back to the keg washer. Then back to the filling keg. Keg washer. Keg filler. Keg washer. Keg filler. Every once in a while, haul a double skid of 16 full kegs to the cooler. Keg washer. Keg filler. Keg washer. Keg filler.

Repeat this process until the brewmaster says whoa.

Day 255

May 18, 2012

Like all college students, I needed a summer job. Luckily I happened to be in the right place at the  right time, and found work in an Ontario craft brewery.

It’s hard physical work. It’s long hours. It’s way better than working at the mall: fun, educational and, hey, you’re making beer!

If you plan to work in a brewery, you are going to sleep well at night, because, as mentioned, it is a lot of work. You are on your feet all day, hauling, lifting, stacking, unstacking, filtering, filling, emptying, cleaning, sanitizing, hauling and lifting. (I repeated “hauling and lifting” because there is a tremendous amount of what I would characterize as hauling and lifting.)

However, my first task at the brewery, some five minutes after I arrived, was a little less physically rigorous: “popping boxes”.

Beer sold in six-packs in Ontario generally is packaged in boxboard cartons, which arrive from the printer flattened. When you take a flattened carton and press the opposite corners, the flattened shape suddenly springs into a 3-D box and the two leaves that form the bottom of the carton lock together with an audible “pop”.  Four of these six-pack cartons fit into a cardboard “flat”, for the benefit of the consumer who likes to buy beer 24 bottles at a time. Those flats also arrive from the printer flattened, but they don’t pop open, they have to be folded into shape, which requires five separate folds.

So the first step is to haul a skid over to your work area. Next, fold enough flats to fill the  skid. (A skid holds seven layers x 12 flats per layer = 84 flats per skid.)

Once you’ve completed your flats, it’s time to pop some boxes. Hold the bottling date stamp in your right hand. With your left hand, take a flattened box by one corner, and press the other corner against your tummy until the box pops. Stamp the bottling date on the bottom of the box, then put the box in a flat. Repeat 335 more times, which should fill the skid. Use a manual forklift to haul the filled skid over to the end of the bottling line. Get an empty skid and start all over again. Repeat process until the brewmaster says whoa.

And that, my friends, is popping boxes, a long but necessary process, for without popped boxes, bottles of beer have no place to call home.

Day 251

May 14, 2012

Someone asked about first-year textbooks for Niagara College’s Brewmaster course, so here’s a summary of what I bought and what I actually used.

First of all, a couple of caveat emptors:

  1. Textbooks can change from year to year–for example, the Language and Communications textbook that we used this year was different from the previous year. So don’t run out and buy these until they have been confirmed.
  2. Also, most important for your wallet, don’t buy books in the school bookstore if you can avoid it. The college runs the bookstore as a profit-making enterprise, and prices are substantially higher than off-campus. That being said, some texts are only available through the bookstore.

First semester textbooks:

  • Handbook of Brewing, 2nd edition. (ed. Priest & Stewart). This was the textbook for several courses, including Ingredients, Introduction to Brewing, and Brewing Equipment. It is actually a compilation of scholarly articles, most of which are not an easy read. Nevertheless, a valuable book once you’ve read each page three or four times for meaning. (Note: The campus bookstore was charging $315 for this, but you can find it for substantially less just about everywhere else. Last fall, amazon.com–the American site, not the Canadian one–was the cheapest, at $165 + delivery, but your mileage may vary.)
  • Helpful for Ingredients class but not compulsory was Malts & Malting (Briggs). Expensive, but a PDF torrent is known to exist, if that’s the way you roll.
  • Workplace Communications, Canadian edition (Searles & Moran). Don’t know how effective the textbook was, since I got a workplace exemption from Language & Communication (right after I bought the textbook of course).
  • Evaluating Beer (Brewers Publications). Another compilation of articles, this one for Sensory Evaluation. Some of the chapters were interesting and useful. However we only read the first two chapters for this class, and did not refer to this book again after the second week of the semester. On the other hand, at $15, at least it’s cheap.
  • Business Mathematics in Canada, Selected Material from Jerome, 7th edition. As the title suggests, this Mathematics of Finance textbook is a condensed version of a much larger text, created especially for this math course, so it is only available from the campus bookstore.
  • Not a textbook,  but for the Math of Finance class, a Texas Instruments BA II Plus financial calculator is necessary. Watch business supply store flyers for sales, especially in September–Staples put this model on half-price just before classes started last year.
  • Steel-toed, rubber-soled, water-proof or water-resistant boots for the Teaching Brewery. The steel toes are for dropsies, the rubber soles are for keeping a grip on slippery wet floors, the water-proofness is because your feet get sprayed by water, wort, beer and everything else. I went the “Wellie” route–Baffin-brand steel-toed Wellington rubber boots, available from Mark’s Work Wearhouse. There is a less expensive $35 model, but I went for the $65 model (yellow stripe around the sole): more arch support and a cushioned insole for those long days on your feet. (Avoid the green-stripe model–those are insulated for warmth, the last thing your feet need on hot days.) Some other students bought work boots with grippy soles, those seemed to work too.

Total cost of for first semester: ~$500

Second semester textbooks:

  • There were no specific textbooks for any classes, but the two-volume Malting & Brewing Science (Briggs, Hough, Stevens, Young) was recommended although not compulsory for both the Chemistry and Microbiology courses. (The likely reason it was only recommended is that each volume costs $300 and has to be ordered from Europe. Again, PDF torrents are known to exist.)
  • In second semester, we did need a lab coat and safety glasses for labs. Both of these are available for a fairly reasonable price in the campus store. However, the safety glasses do not fit well over prescription eyewear. If you wear glasses, search for a pair of Pyramex OTS (Over the Spectacle) safety glasses. I found mine at McMaster University’s campus store for only $5.

Total cost for second semester: $20

Hint for commuters: If you store your boots in your car trunk, be prepared for cold toes on frosty January mornings–those steel toes can really suck the heat out of your feet. To avoid this, on the first day of school, slap a combination lock on one of the student lockers in the Hospitality & Tourism (HT) building right beside the Teaching Brewery, then store your boots in the nice warm locker all winter.

Day 239: Looking back at the first year of Brewmaster school

May 10, 2012

After eight months of school, it’s taken me a few days to reorganize my brain and my life so that working and blogging both fit in. Yes, I have landed a summer job in the brewing industry–more about that later. Today, it’s time for my thoughts about the first year of the two-year Brewmaster program at Niagara College.

First of all, what a great group of students! Bright, ambitious, curious, and always ready for a beer.

But what of the program?

In tech parlance, I am an “early adopter”. Commodore 64, PalmPilot, smartphone–I love being at the front of the tech wave.

The problem with being an early adopter is that the first model is always released before the bugs have been ironed out.

(The Commodore 64’s power adapter inevitably heated up until it melted. The PalmPilot’s alarm volume control was almost inaudible. My original smartphone did everything well except make phone calls.)

So to be an early adopter, you have to be relentlessly optimistic that the fun of having the latest toy outweighs the inevitable glitches.

(Note: Over the past three years, my Palm Pre cellphone has certainly tested the limits of my early adopter optimism.)

In a similar vein, I knew when I applied for the new Brewmaster program at Niagara College that there were bound to be a few glitches. I therefore entered the program with the full knowledge that we, the students, were going to be laboratory rats–as we made our way through the maze, our successes and failures would shape the future of the program.

Of course the first reaction of every student is to go postal on the teachers, but I’m going to resist that temptation–I see that criticism as low-hanging fruit. I am much more interested in the overall structure of the program and how that might be improved.

In examining my expectations and how they juxtaposed with reality, I am struck by one major theme: I had expected that the Teaching Brewery would be the focus of the program–that all Brewmaster classes would spend time in the Teaching Brewery making theory turn into practice. In fact, the opposite was true–practical work in the Teaching Brewery was almost completely divorced from the theory taught in the classroom.

So this is my primary suggestion: In the future, all Brewmaster classes should connect in some way to the Teaching Brewery. For instance:

  • In Packaging, we were shown a Zaum & Nagel CO2 tester and an air tester, and we were told how to use them. In the future, I hope students will go to the Teaching Brewery and actually use the testers on fermenting beer. Similarly, we learned in theory how to carbonate a bright tank of beer, but wouldn’t it be great if, the very next week, students met at the Teaching Brewery to actually carbonate a bright tank of beer?
  • In Microbiology, we learned the theory of how to crop yeast from the fermenter, how to propagate a new batch from a single colony, and how to count yeast, test for viability and check for bacterial infection. Wouldn’t it be great if students were actually be doing these activities using yeast from the Teaching Brewery?
  • In Sensory Evaluation, we learned how important it is to have a regular Quality Control tasting program for each step of the brewing process. Shouldn’t there be a daily QC program in the Teaching Brewery?

I was also concerned that the theoretical classes were–ironically–interfering with opportunities to brew. Brewmaster Jon Downing would let us know that there was an extra opportunity to brew, but we would be so busy studying for a test or working on a project that no one could take the time to brew.

My final concern is the first-year students’ disconnect to the entire beer-making process. Yes, it’s all a lot of fun on brew days, but there is much more to making finished beer than just brewing it. At the moment, once the students have finished brewing the beer, they lose touch with it: they don’t check to see how “their” fermentation is progressing, they don’t filter “their” batch on its way to the bright tank, they don’t carbonate “their” beer, they don’t package “their” beer, and they do not taste “their” finished beer.

The end result is that first-year students do not see–and taste–the effect that their brewing decisions (and mistakes) have on the final product.

This will change in second year, of course, as we work on our individual beers, and necessarily follow them from mash tun right through to keg; but it should be a mindset that is inculcated into Brewmaster students from Day One.

So, ’nuff said about first year. Up next is the four-month gap until the start of second year–and that means a summer job in a brewery…


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