Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Brewing in Belgium

The small brewhouse, with its nice copper metalwork

What a trip this was! I bottled and labeled a few 100 cases, brewed over a thousand gallons of beer, cleaned 5-6 fermentation vats, and sampled plenty of bottles (Some of the American craft brews I brought, the Weyerbacher Simcoe double IPA being a favorite of the brewer). We discussed flavor profiles, the different aromas and flavors of different beers, and the off-flavors that indicate a problem in the brewing process or in the handling. I also presented my plan and vision, which made him quite enthusiastic about the whole project, very encouraging!

The new system

The most important thing I learned during this trip was, I think, seeing and experiencing the difference between ‘artisanal’ brewing and ‘professional/semi-industrial’ brewing. We worked on both his old 6 hectoliters system, and his new 30 hectoliters system (approx. 5, respectively 25 barrels). Brewing on the old, smaller system with 2 copper tuns was a blast. 9 hours for 1 batch, it provided ample time to check, do other things, and set a slow pace. Main reason was the old gas burner heating system, which needs quite some time to heat up large volumes of water or wort. Brewing here relies much more on feeling than on science, and provided a valuable insight in the old brewing ways of our forefathers: tradition handed down from master brewer to apprentice, looking at tell-tale signs, judging the wort, working their magic.

Ready at the Mash Tun

In rather stark contrast stands his new system, a shiny 3 vessel stainless steel system, steam jacketed, able to make 25 barrels at a time, in less than 6 hours (2 consecutive batches would be done in less than 9hrs!). Here, everything is much more precisely controlled; larger volumes are brewed in less time, and with much greater precision: each batch of the same beer will be much more similar then with the older system.

Removing the spent grains

It helps me see the craft scene with a new understanding: we should not judge breweries on the size of their systems or their output, but on the heart they put into making quality beer. With ‘quality beer’ being a term that allows some personal taste and preference to slip into judging that, we should also accept and allow for some difference in opinion about which brewery is a ‘quality brewery’.  Experience the rush of excitement when the hot liquor (the water used for brewing) is ready to have the milled grains put in, going through the several stages of heating in a wink, pumping everything to the lautertun, seeing how a great bed of particles forms that quickly filters the wort from the spent grains, and so on, is just incredible. It is a direct, hands-on experience. Where with the old systems you get the feeling that the system is doing it’s thing, with this new brewhouse you really feel you are a much bigger part of it. If our brewing ancestors would have such brewing equipment, I bet they would not hesitate a second to use it, and make large quantities of their beloved brews.

Second hopping, with Cascade hops

Anyways, what an experience! I will go back a few more times in the coming months, but this has laid an excellent foundation for me personally, and for the cooperation between Saint William Brewery and his brewery. I look forward to keep working with them to ensure that the beers we will be brewing here will display the same balance between the artisanal touch and heart, and the professional scale and quality control options.

So a heartfelt thank you to Chris, the master brewer, Koen, the brewing engineer, Nikolai, the brewing assistant, and Piet, brewing hand for all the knowledge and experience they so openly shared, helping me to get a much deeper understanding of the requirements, needs and possibilities that brewing offers. And a loving thank you to my wife, for putting up with me leaving her during her break, to ‘travel abroad and drink beer’, and encouraging me at every step and turn. Saint William Brewery is looking forward to be able to toast to them and many other great supporters with our own New Jersey brewed beer!

Cheers all!