Seattle Beer Week, which kicks off today, will be awash with beer. There will be barrel-aged imperials, featherlight kettle sours, shitloads of malty NWIPAs, and everything else in between. It’s going to be a wonderful time for beer lovers. But if you’re anything like me—which is to say insufferably nerdy—you don’t just want to drink the beer and revel in its exquisite flavor, you want to know how it was made and why that flavor is so exquisite.
For a long time I found beer to be as inscrutable as it was delicious. While I had a decent understanding of how wine becomes wine and what factors affect its flavor, even when I worked in a brewery, all I really understood was that the big steel tanks were where it goes to ferment. Prior to that, I kind of just imagined our head brewer sporting a very long beard, clad in a robe, and standing over a boiling cauldron uttering different incantations to make different beers. Which is a bit ironic because Schooner Exact’s Matt McClung is one of the few brewers I’ve met who doesn’t have an epic beard.
Anyway, the fine folks at Pike Brewing Co. proposed that I come in and shadow their head brewer for a day, to better illuminate the sorcery that goes into your favorite concoction. There was also a promise of free beer, which is inarguably the best style of beer ever invented, so naturally I accepted.
The day of, I strolled down past the gum wall to the underground workshop where Pike’s magic happens, and was received by brewmaster Art Dixon. After a whirlwind tour of the basement facilities and a hasty introduction to the crew (they were pretty busy doing actual work), we headed up to the mash tun to begin the day’s brew.
We were doing a 30 barrel (bbl) batch of their popular Pike Place Ale, a superlatively balanced, medium bodied pale ale, and the very first beer to grace Pike’s original 4 bbl brew kettle back in 1989. The key difference between now and then (besides 26 bbls and a brewpub teeming with tourists) is the malt. In ’89, this beer was based primarily on imported Maris Otter, an English 2-row barley revered in brewing. Now, it’s made with local Alba malt, courtesy of Skagit Valley Malting. Skagit Valley Malting is a relatively recent addition to the local brewing scene, one that exists to connect Washington’s craft brewing industry with the state’s barley farmers in a mutually beneficial way.
This is important because, even though hops tend to get top billing, malt matters, and a shitload more malt goes into a single batch of beer than hops. To wit, Art loaded—by hand and by forklift—about 1,400 pounds of grain into the brewery’s mill, whereas we added a mere 10 pounds of hops to the boil. That grain was then moved via elevator from the mill to the silo that sits above the mash tun. The particular mixture of grain used has a major effect on the flavor and color of the resulting beer, and is often the delineator between various styles. A porter, for example, is going to be made with lots of dark, toasted grain in order to achieve the proper color, whereas a pilsner would (unsurprisingly) have a lot of pilsner malt. As he loaded the grain mill, Art passed me kernels of the different barleys to munch on, which really drove home the vast diversity of flavor one can get out of the mash tun. The mash tun is where the malt is extruded from the grain.
Pike’s mash tun sits in the open air space behind the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory, so you can actually watch this part of the process first hand. Many of Pike Place's tourists do, Art said, and they love to heckle him. The most common question he gets is, “What are you making?” (“Chocolate!”), but he’s even been propositioned before.
Anyway, the location of the mash tun is significant, because it’s three stories above the rest of the brewhouse. This is because Pike is one of the city’s only two gravity-operated brewhouses (Hale’s Ales being the other). After extruding the malt, the “sparge”—a malty, not-yet-beer liquid—flows down into the brew kettle, which sits squarely in the middle of Pike’s busy brewpub. As you can imagine, more gawking ensues. In the kettle, the sparge is boiled down and spiked with various hop additions, creating the “wort” that will, through the magic of fermentation, become beer.
Hops go into the boil in stages, with the initial addition being the “bittering” hops. The longer they’re boiled, the more they affect the body and bitterness of a beer, so the earliest addition is largely to control that. We threw in Magnum hops at this stage. Subsequent additions add more aroma, and we added Citra hops later in the boil, with a very late stage addition of Simcoe and more Citra following that. Dry-hopping—adding hops to the beer while it ferments—can be used to add an extra punch of aromatic goodness to a beer, though we did not do that for the PPA.
After the boil, the beer follows gravity’s alluring call all the way down into the whirlpool, which spins it rapidly to isolate the remaining solids. From there, it’s run through a cooling system that Dixon described as overpowered for their purposes (good problem to have!), and then piped into one of their 60 gallon fermenting tanks, "pitched" with yeast, and left to do its thing for however long. The PPA we brewed takes about three weeks to condition, resulting in a final gravity of about 5-5.5 percent.
Just like you do when barrel tasting wine, you can taste beer that's still in the middle of its fermentation process, which I was lucky enough to do. Art and Meg poured me a taster of the Morning After Pale, the brewery's contribution to the annual Women in Beer event. Each pint sold raises $1 for Planned Parenthood, and, not to shill for it too hard, it's really quite good, even uncarbonated.
Speaking of carbonation, after its time in the fermenter, the beer is transferred to the brewery’s “brite tanks,” carbonated, and then piped into bottles or kegs. Though you might think a brewer’s work is done at this point, you’d be wrong. There is one last, absolutely crucial step: Drinking a shift beer. We definitely didn't forget this step.