Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Blink of an eye

310 gallons....

Every batch of beer. Every batch of soda. That's the goal.

I am always striving to produce 310 gallons of beer. For those of you who have not been through our brewhouse, we have a ten-barrel brewing system with five fermenters and five "brite" tanks. One barrel is equal to 31 gallons so ten barrels equals....yup, 310 gallons. Our fermenters and brite tanks can both hold at least ten barrels. The brite tanks are so named because by the time the beer enters these tanks, it has been fermented and filtered so it is clear and BRITE!

310 gallons is a strange goal to go to work with everyday but it is the one that drives me. I don't always reach it. Sometimes I exceed it. There are several factors that directly affect this outcome.
These include; the quality of the malted grain, the temperature of the brewing water, the speed of the sparge (showering water over the grain to leech out the malt sugar), and the attitude of the brewer. Perhaps the last is the most volatile and can have the biggest impact. Whenever I brew, I strive to repeat my actions from the previous successful brew. I use the same water temperature, I set the grain mill to the same crushing gap, I place my feet in the same place on the brewing platform as I stir the mash. I strive for redundancy.
Being mostly human, I am susceptible to the same idiosyncrasies that haunt us all: inattention, rushing through projects, tiredness, arrogance. Recently, I was reminded how quickly things can go flying off track. How fast a brew can go from producing a fantastic yield to producing something else entirely.

During a recent brew, I was called away. I received a call from my twelve-year-old daughter, whose after school plans had radically and unexpectedly  changed and she required to be picked up, now Dad NOW, in a teen-age minute! This call came in the middle of the extremely important knock-out! During the knock-out, the recently boiled and hopped malt sugar (wort) is pumped out of the brew kettle, through the heat exchanger (to drop the temperature from 208°F to 70°F), and into the fermenting vessel (FV). It is in the FV that the yeast is added to initiate the conversion of the malt sugar to alcohol. When I returned to the restart the knock-out, I caught myself pressing the wrong button on the brew control panel. I was about to shut off the cooling to the heat exchanger. This would send the temperature of the FV skyrocketing and kill the yeast! Our fermenters are designed to cool using jackets filled with propylene glycol that has been chilled to 28°F. If the FV is filled with hot wort, the glycol-jackets can cool the tanks but they would take about two days to do it. The "quick fix" would be to disconnect the glycol piping from the tank, drain the glycol, and pump cold water through the jackets for the next eight hours! Ask any profession cook how important it is to quickly cool down a stew or soup so bacteria doesn't get a foothold. We have to ensure the wort is cooled as quickly as possible.
This misstep could cost the brewery several dozen hours of lost labor time, lost raw materials used, and, worst of all, a lost 310 gallons of potential beer! Being a small business, these types of losses hit very hard. Unfortunately, unlike JP Morgan, we cannot absorb losses like this easily.
Back in the days when I was a professional carpenter, doing residential and commercial remodel and construction, the lead carpenter would tell me that "the really good carpenters don't make mistakes and the really great ones know how to fix their mistakes!". Pretty much the same in the brewing world. If you screw up in the brewhouse, you had better by God be able to fix it!
So these thoughts were racing through my skull at light speed as I watched my fingers press the button (in slow motion) that turns off the cooling to the heat exchanger. Of course, I quickly restarted the cooling and breathed a well-deserved sigh of relief. The rest of the wort was pumped successfully in the FV and the yeast fermented the tank, alive and thriving to work another day!

Until next time,
Your humble brewer.

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