Friday, April 24, 2009

Hey Barkeep! Have You Heard Of This High-Gravity Brewing Thing?

Last week, I wrote a review of Ravinder Minhas' book "Brewing Up A Damn Good Story." In that review, I said the following:
The beer is diluted with water. Not blended with lower-alcohol beer. Not brewed to a lower alcohol level. The beer is diluted with water to bring down the alcohol level. Maybe this is more common than I know, but in speaking with craft brewers all over the country, I am unfamiliar with this technique. Maybe Dogfish Head actually brews the 120 IPA to 30% ABV and dilutes it down to 18% by adding water? Maybe New Glarus dilutes the Spotted Cow with water? I don't know for sure. I doubt it, though.
Clearly, a dismissive and derogatory condemnation of the brewery and the beer there. It was at once a condemnation of their own practices and a mocking derision of their own delusions of being a "craft" brewery.

It turns out, maybe I'm the delusional one.

I freely admit, I don't know everything there is to know about beer and the brewing process. I'm learning though, and I want to learn. And every time I think I know more than I do, something like this comes along and reminds me that sometimes I don't know what I'm talking about.

This is interesting to me because my initial reaction on this is one that I think even a lot of knowledgeable beer geeks would have as well: shock and abhorance. The very idea of diluting beer is, on its face, pretty shocking. There's the age old college-isms about the local bars diluting their craptaps for the Thirsty Thursday $.25 plastic cups. There's the colloquialisms of macros tasting watery. In general, the whole idea of diluting beer with water seems, somehow, abhorrent to those of us who like beer.

But, it turns out, diluting beer isn't really all that unusual. In fact there are a number of benefits. I was surprised at this, so I sent out an email to every brewer in the state of Wisconsin that I know with a brief survey about the practice of high-gravity brewing. I'll turn the rest of this post over to them.

Real quick: it was an anonymous survey because I wanted to get some thoughtful answers and not marketing positioning.

Collection of Anonymous Brewers' Comments:

-Miller wants to brew 500 gallons of beer with an OG of 12 Plato (about 1.049 in SG).
     -The last I heard, wort for high-gravity brewing was around 18 Plato (about 1.074 in SG). That would result in a fermentation volume of 284 gallons.
     -To produce a high gravity wort, last runnings must be reduced. In other words, the reduction in volume comes primarily from sparging less. That reduces lautering efficiency (think homebrewed barleywine), so slightly more malt will be needed for a batch of high-gravity wort. An upside is that the wort will have a lower concentration of last-runnings undesirables, such as barley tannins.
     -Yeast will be more stressed out than they would in a normal-gravity fermentation, so more fermentation flavors will be produced.

-I suspect that dilution would expose the beer to more oxygen, but not by much. Maybe it's offset by having to aerate a smaller quantity of wort before fermentation.

-The big breweries employ both highly-trained tasters and lab equipment to determine the chemical makeup of their beers, and they probably wouldn't change the processes for producing an established brand unless they were able to keep the "major factors" the same. I doubt that a consumer would be able to tell the difference between Miller Lite brewed before and after the high-gravity switch.

-If my late-runnings pH rose above 6, which should only be a concern for session beers, I'd stop the lauter and top up the kettle with water to reduce the extraction of grain husk tannins. The traditional British practice of repeating the mash/lauter process several times (also known as batch sparging), instead of continuous sparging, eliminates this problem altogether.

-I'd never brew a high-gravity wort and add the remaining water between boiling and fermentation. It would result in lower lautering efficiency, poor hop isomerization and additional kettle caramelization (something I forgot to mention before) without the benefit of using less fermenter space.

-This is really a consistency issue, not a watering down issue. Watering down would be taking a beer that gains a reputation for fitting into a particular category of body, mouth feel, or flavor, and then cutting back on ingredients (or adding water for increased volume) and thus weakening the umph of the final product. If the packaged product is always consistent, then the consumer has not been given a "watered down" product.

-In order for a brewer to give the consumer what they expect with consistency, it is far easier to choose to err on the side of adding water rather than removing it. So, if your Spotted Cow was found to be far thinner at packaging time due to process variability, it would be very difficult to beef it up. For the brewery to ensure that thinner, weaker beer is not to be an issue, they would always brew the beer to be bigger, then dilute.

-All that being said, if the issue is not one of beer quality but of craft versus liquid widget manufacturing, then a strong lean toward volume efficiencies might indicate a slight lean away from a craft mentality. If it seems that a brewery is trying to capitalize on a consumer trend rather than create a consumer turn-on, then "crafty" is probably a more accurate descriptor. I think that can be said even for those with rickety equipment and less than efficient processes.

Start Ed Note:
So, those are some comments about the process of High-Gravity Brewing. Basically, the arguments in favor are two-fold: 1) it saves fermenter space - you can ferment 258 gallons of wort in far fewer fermenters than 500 gallons of wort; 2) it results in a more consistent product - if you desire a final product of, say, 5% ABV in a variable process, then it is easier to brew to 8% knowing that the process will result in anything from 7.5% to 8.5% and then calculate how much you need to dilute it to get a consistent 5% than to have the problem that you brew to 5% and end up with 4.5%.

The disadvantages as I see them are: 1) it is less efficient - in other words, it takes a lot more grain and you get less efficiency out of the grain in high-gravity brewing, so the commercial advantage of fewer fermenters has to outweigh the commercial disadvantage of inefficiency and this simply doesn't work out mathematically until you get to high enough volumes; 2) product inconsistency is, in some respects, a desired component of craft beer - I like that not every batch tastes exactly the same, I like that I can taste differences from year to year in the bottled product; I can taste the brewer getting better at his skill or playing with the art of brewing; of course, this doesn't apply to quality inconsistency, I expect quality to not be a problem, but rather the subtle differences you get between a beer that turns out at 5.5% or 4.5% ABV instead of 5%; by using high-gravity brewing, you get rid a lot of this interestingness inherent the very idea of craft brewing.

As a consumer of craft beer, I don't expect that every single batch will taste exactly the same. In fact, I expect the exact opposite. I expect that this year's bourbon barrel stout might turn out a little different from last year's. It's why I get excited to try this year's and to age last year's. It's why I try both Tyranena and Central Waters' IPAs. It is craft and it is art and it is expression. Conversely, the practice of high gravity brewing results in a product that is indistinguishable and uninteresting.

The Survey
Finally, here's the results of my survey. I think the broad range in the responses is probably representative of the perception and practice of high gravity brewing among craft brewers. The survey I sent out was a simple 3.5 question survey:

1) Do you approve of the practice? A simple yes/no is fine - no explanation is needed.
2) Do you practice high-gravity brewing? Why/Why not?
3) Does the practice result in a significant, or even insignificant, change in the beer flavor profile?

The following is the response.

Question 1: 16.67% said "no" they do not approve of the practice. 83.33% said "yes" they approve of the practice. Although one of the brewers qualified his response: "If other brewers want to do it, it's fine with me. So Yes", which is sort of a yes, with a strong negative implication.

Question 2: 0% of the respondents actually practice high gravity brewing.
- "No. Laziness, mostly. Doing it at [my brewery] would require a lot of effort for a relatively small return. I'd save way more money by improving water consumption."
- "No, Makes the beer thinner and more flavorless. Got to go with the Germans here, made correctly the first time not watered down to make extra money."
- "I do a variation of this on the hot hot side, dialing in wort collection to give a higher than intended gravity so that target gravity can be reached by topping up with water. If water volume is overshot (wort is more dilute than intended), then the only solution is to boil longer (reduce rather than dilute) the beer. That is a shitty waste of time and energy. If I wished to avoid adding water to the kettle, I would have to instead add the same water to the mash tun and let it slowly trickle through the bed of (what is at this point) spent grain, babysitting the kettle and its preboil gravity while hoping that at the end of the day, I do not incur fees for late pick-up at daycare."
- "No, it doesn't work with my system."
- "No - it is tough to do without getting oxygen in the beer so I don't allow it here"

Question 3: Some variables in the response, so it can't be quantitatively analyzed, but here's a sample of responses.
- "Probably, but adjustments can be made to counteract changes in the beer flavor (alpha acid absorption is lower at a higher gravity (but probably not much different in the gravity ranges they are producing at), etc.)"
- "Beer is a cold, carbonated consomme. It is mostly water, and the complete water volume is added through a dozen or more times through out the process. Sometimes the volumes are insignificant, like the Southern Wisconsin brewery's use of a water jet at the end of the bottling line to cause foaming which in turn purges oxygen from the bottle prior to capping, or the frequent hose sprays to keep a raging boil from topping its kettle. Other times the added volume is material, such as a Central Wisconsin breweries method of adding dry hops by soaking hops in water then pumping the hops (along with the water) into the fermenter. It seems that the how and when of water addition is quite varied."
- "It can, if you want it to."
- "Yes. If nothing else in the process is changed, I think the difference would be significant. However, I think the brewers who dilute high-gravity worts have figured out how to make the changes either insignificant or nonexistent."
- "Yes, Done incorrectly it can add oxygen and chlorine (local water), but most of all it will reduce the mouthfeel. Makes it real easy to drink but I would rather water down vodka if I just wanted a buzz."
- "If you get oxygen in the beer, it will change the flavor. This process will only hurt the beer flavor, not make it better."

Finally, I want to end with a comment from the post that started all of this and the reason why I sent out this survey and looked into it - unfortunately the poster is Anonymous, but I want to thank him or her for making it because it's a constant reminder against the snobbery that we, craft beer consumers, can inadvertantly adopt:
The craft beer culture seems to me to be mostly about keeping an open mind to innovation. If we turn into a culture of process Nazi's, we will end up like Germany, stuck in a rut that started in 1516 and continues to this day. Rheinheitsgebot was put in place as essentially a protectionist act posing as a "purity" law and the Germans make great beer under it, but Germany has essentially no presence in modern craft brewing. They have been making fundamentally the same beer for half a millennium. To riff on your closing sentence. If brewing style rigidity is so important, why are we drinking any style except German?

I think that "if it's such a great idea, why doesn't everyone do it?" is intellectually lazy. Take the evidence (as any good lawyer would) and then draw the conclusions. Go get some high-gravity brewed all malt beer and see how you like it. See if you can actually discern a flaw that was caused by the process.

Every good idea starts with nobody doing it. Popularity of a brewing process is not at all wedded to it's worth. If that were the case, brewpubs would have never come on the scene as an alternative brewing process to regional and national brewers.
So, there you go. Everything you wanted to know about high gravity brewing in the Wisconsin craft brewing industry.

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