Brew School: It’s Not Rocket Science

Posted on August 12th, 2010

For the past month I’ve been in charge of Saturday brewery tours at the Chelsea Brewing Company. Four months ago, I never would have though myself capable of giving an informative and in-depth brewery tour. However, the hands on education I’ve been receiving has really beefed up my beer knowledge and more importantly, it has giving me a real, physical understanding of the beverage I’ve spent the last several years studying while enjoying the occasional pint.

One of my favorite parts of giving tours is hanging around after giving my spiel and chatting. More than once, I’ve had the opportunity to educate curious beer drinkers about the suds in their glass and introduce them to new flavors. A few people have told me that they had no idea how complex brewing was and were amazed to discover the wide spectrum of flavors an accomplished brewer can achieve with just water, malt, hops and yeast.

When I first began brewing commercially, the process of achieving those various tastes overwhelmed me. Unlike many of the folks on my tours, I was fully aware of the variety of flavors that the basic beer ingredients could create and even knew a bit of the science behind it. However, the more I observed and experienced first hand, the more I felt lost in the process: I constantly fretted about variances in temperatures and time differentials; The threat of a boil-over stressed me out; I worried that I would never be able to operate the brew house alone would spent my off time pouring over brewing manuals and beer books.

As time wore on and I participated in the brewing process more often I learned to relax. I gradually began to understand the little nuances of brewing and things slowly started to click for me. Recently, I’ve found myself correctly identifying certain flavors and even brewing techniques found within the glass in my hand.

One event that really helped me put all of this in perspective occurred while I was running the hopback during an IPA brew. Basically, a hopback is a vessel that brewers use to stream hot wort (i.e. unfermented beer) through whole leaf hops. This process occurs at the end of the brewing process and allows the wort to take on a lot of the flavor and, more importantly, the aroma of whatever hop variety the brewer chooses to highlight in that particular beer.

As is the norm at the brewery, I was asking thousands of questions about the hopback. After about ten minutes I asked our head brewer how to tell whether or not the process was going smoothly. He took the paddle I was using to stir the hops from my hands and gave a quick stroke throughout the bud-filled hopback in front of us.

“Feels good,” he told me. “You don’t want it to thick, but you don’t want the wort running to thin.”

“So it’s all a feel thing,” I asked in reply.

“Of course it is. It’s not rocket science. It’s beer.”