As a dedicated beer drinker, and sometime home brewer, visiting a brewery and actually learning how it’s done on a larger scale has always been on my bucket list. So when a local brewer and friend ‘Texas’ Steve Saldana gave me the thumbs up to come and visit, well I couldn’t let that opportunity go by!
Steve warned me to wear clothes I didn’t mind getting dirty – and if I had a pair of wellies, I should have taken them. He’d also said if was going along, he’d put me to work – no point going along and not getting my hands dirty. The Bexar County brewery is currently using 7 barrel kit, which is a good size – we’re going to making enough beer for quite a few firkin barrels – so I better not drop anything into the mix by mistake!
Bexar County are based in an industrial estate in Peterborough, not a long walk from the town centre. So I shared a taxi with my wife to her work, then walked the 20 odd minutes to the brewery, actually arriving a few minutes before Steve. It doesn’t look much from the outside – as per normal for an industrial unit – with only a small Bexar sticker giving away I’m in the right place. The door slid open to review the wonder of brewing… large stainless steel vessels, loads of stacked barrels, lots of scary looking plumbing, and the unmistakable smell of malt and hops.
Steve had actually had a brew day the day before, as he wanted to create a duo of low alcohol beers ready in time for the local Hand & Heart beer festival. When I say low, the target was 2.8%, which compared to many of Steve’s American style beers, is very low! Yesterday was a golden hoppy ale; which I did get to try after a single day in the fermentor, and even I could tell it was going to be pretty good! Today was time for a ‘small stout’ – Steve’s recipe called for very little hop, as he didn’t want any hop profile in the beer. The plan also didn’t want the beer to be over ‘roasty’ and bitter – so if the beer comes out to plan, it should be a very easy drinking smooth stout, with some additions to try and improve the mouth feel. Beers at this strength often are too ‘watery’, so the plan is to help bulk out the body of the beer so that isn’t the case.
So after writing out the recipe for me, it was time to start work; and work meant carrying sacks of malt (3x 25kg bags), then weighing out a further 40+ kgs of specialist malts, including some lovely smelling chocolate/dark roasted wheat – something a little different. I won’t give away the full recipe of course, trade secrets and all that!
(Un)fortunately due to my crap head for heights, Steve had to do the heavy duty cleaning work – gutted I missed out on having to get into the boiler to clean out the previous day’s boiled hops… not! I can see that on a hot summers day, that would be very hot and humid work.
Steve showed me how he has to hot liquor tanks (that’s hot water for non beer brewers), at two different temperatures so he could mix them to hopefully get close to the 69c you need for steeping the grains in the mash tun. The water and the malts were mixed up with a big paddle in the wood clad mash tun – and we knew we had at least an hour to wait. So time for more cleaning – preparing the boiler, and sterilising some the joints and tubing used to carry the liquids between vessels.
Once the grains had been steeping in the hot water for over an hour, it was time to drain the now black wort into a large filter container, then as that filled, I used a remote control to turn the pump on, which then moved the wort into the boiler. Steve normally brews on his own, so has had to rig up some clever remote control devices on pumps to help him control the flow. When I’ve read up on brewing, I often wondered if the ‘sparging’ (washing hot water over the grains after steeping to wash out more sugars) was really needed, as I didn’t know how much extra sugar comes out. Steve told me its about 30% – and no brewer could afford to lose 30% of the sugar in each batch of grain. So a hand made device connected to the hot water pump washed through the grain mix in the mash tun for some time – we used a refractor device to measure how much sugar was left in the wort coming through… also measuring what the wort in the boiler was at – so Steve knew exactly what sort of original gravity he will achieve.
When all the wort is in the boiler, Steve turns on the two big heaters – the boiler chews up electric, and can take 1-2 hours to get to a rolling boil, even with the wort starting off hot. It’s important to have a strong boil, to help boil out all the impurities, and get all the oxygen out (good at this point). Once boiling, our small amount of hops are added (compared to many of Steve’s brews, this is hardly any hops). I make the decision we’ll only boil for 60 minutes, not the 90 often used. We aren’t looking for lots of additions of hops, nor want to boil in much bitterness – that will come from some of the malts we are using, so we don’t need a long boil.
While we leave that going, it’s time for… more cleaning. Steve runs cleaner through the heat exchanger, which is like a very clever two way radiator – cold water in at pressure travelling through one set of metal tubes, hot wort going through another, and the heat transfers from beer to water. The fermentor also gets cleaner pushed through it – making sure it’s ready for the beer.
With a couple of hours to wait, Steve cracks open a few of his bottled beers, and the appearance may surprise some of those who have tried his cask beer before – they are clear and bright! Bexar county beers do not have finings added (so are fine for vegans), so are usually a little ‘hazy’ – which can put some people off. BUT the bottles do clear with time – so these beers are as bright as any you’ll find. Very tasty there were too – especially the flagship ‘Papa Steve’ 9% BIG stout, 2013 edition. We also try a collaboration beer which is sitting in a big oak whisky barrel, ageing until it will be ready in April 2015. It tastes fantastic already – it will be very interesting to see what it finishes like!
The brewery is set-up to not waste water – there is a HUGE water tank which Steve fills from the mains – so he can then control the flow of cold water and isn’t reliant on water main pressure. The now hot water coming out of the exchanger is pumped straight into the two hot water tanks – which is then used to in the mash, which becomes the beer. Clever green stuff – the water which cools one beer becomes the base of the next brew!
The dark black wort coming out of the exchanger is pumped straight into the tall fermentor, allowing it to drop the entire height allows it to oxygenate, the only time during the process when you want oxygen added back into the beer is now when the temperature is down to about 25c, as the yeast needs oxygen to properly ferment. The electronic read-outs show the temperature in the fermentor, about 26c as the wort goes in, a little too warm, but the fermentors have built in cooling jackets, and are attached to big electric coolers, which are circulating cold water around the beer, automatically keeping the temp at 23c ensuring the fermentation runs smoothly without getting to warm, which can impart off flavours into the beer as the yeast gets too active.