Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Computerised Craft

Being the second Tuesday of the month, last night was the monthly meeting of the homebrew club I go to. One unscheduled presentation was a description of one of our member's trip to New Belgium Brewing in Fort Collins, Colorado. The facility really looks impressive, lots of shiny stainless steel and so on and so forth, but it got me thinking, in particular it got me thinking about the nature of "craft" brewing.

Something you will quite often hear amongst a certain section of the beer geek world is that one of the differences between "craft" beer and "macro" beer is that it is made by people not machines. If that is a defining characteristic of "craft" beer then I struggle to understand how a brewery like New Belgium can be considered "craft". As a quick disclaimer here, I am not picking on New Belgium in any way, shape or form, it was just that the pictures I saw last night were from there. Particularly impressive were the kettles, made in Germany by Krones, under the Steinecker brand, they are the latest in boiling technology.

When Devils Backbone built their new enlarged brewing facility they had their brewhouse custom built in Germany and talking to the brewer there I learnt that it was the very latest in brewing kit. Included in the brewhouse were hop dosers, which you fill with the hops and at pre-determined times in the boil they get dumped in. All of this controlled, as was the kit at New Belgium, by computer, or to put it another way, it is an entirely automated process.

Personally I have absolutely no problem with entirely automated brewing systems. They, regardless of scale, are not a determiner in whether or not I will like the beer being produced, for example I am occasionally partial to some Michelob AmberBock. One thing though is clear to me, we are getting to the stage in the development of the non-BMC brewing industry where the economies of scale and technology that once were the sole domain of the big boys are available to the bigger "craft" breweries.

At the moment it seems pretty much every regional brewery in the States is expanding, investing in new equipment and extra fermentation space or introducing the latest brewing equipment to replace their beat up boilers. Of course this recycling of brewing equipment allows start up breweries to get off the ground, and there are at least 2 more coming to Charlottesville in the near future. One thing though is evident, with the leading non-BMC breweries adopting similar technology and processes as the likes of Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors, the term "craft brewery" is becoming an anachronism at the very highest levels of the industry.

In my own head I think of Sierra Nevada, Samuel Adams, New Belgium and other large companies with plans for multiple brewing facilities as "mini-macros", and while I am not interested in prescribing a given moniker for these companies I think some honesty on the part of the "craft" beer drinking community would not go amiss. Once brewing companies get to a certain size, they can and should adopt the latest technologies and practices, it is how industries evolve. The key will always be what is in the glass, not the equipment the beer was made with.

6 comments:

  1. Anyone who says that "craft beer" is "handmade" is a twat. Talk to any really, really micro brewer and, if they are honest, they will all admit they'd love to be able to afford some nice computerised equipment for the sole reason that it'll make their jobs a lot easier (some will go as far as to add that it would also help them have a better control of the quality of the end product).

    The funniest thing is that all throughout history, brewing has gone hand in hand with the most modern techologies, so why wouldn't it be doing the same now?

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  2. I was amazed when visiting a tiny brewery in rural Franconia to find it 100% computer controlled. The beer was some of the best on the trip.

    It's how you use the equipment that counts.

    On the other hand, Derek Prentice at Fullers would prefer it if their brewery weren't so computerised. He's a real old-school brewer.

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  3. I think "hand crafted" and "artisanal" are useful terms just as is "farmhouse" or "estate" but the definitions put forward by the Brewers Association in the USA are self serving marketing terms.

    I remember at the grand opening of Pyramid in Berkeley hearing Bruce from Anchor laugh because the computer system wouldn't let them brew. Anchor had made a deliberate decision to stay with the 100 barrel brewhouse, open fermentation, manual valves and whole hops because that was how they defined hand made. They also had an upper limit on their production.

    I think a very good point has been made that it's just beer we are making; and it should be recognized we can distinguish differences in flavor, body & aroma based on the ingredients or yeast, but there are sometimes less differences the technology has on what finally goes in the glass.

    I did detect a difference in NBB beers since they switched brewhouses. The type of fermentor can influence yeast performance and thus flavor. Steam vs. direct fired kettles affects color & flavor as does decoction vs. upward infusion. Dispense, storage or packaging can make an even bigger difference.

    The truth is that people will buy a story or a relationship as much as they will the flavor of the beer.
    How we make the beer is part of all three of these.

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    1. But isn't there where a true master brewer shows their craft? That they can adapt the recipe to the new environment in order to make it as close as humanly possible as it was when things were "handmade"?

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  4. The closed conical tanks called unitanks, almost ubiquitous at modern 'craft' breweries, were devised as 'Nathan' tanks for, what we now would call, macro mega, or mainstream breweries, in the early 20th century. 'Craft' in the brewing world is used not to necessarily imply quality but to emphatically denote small size. Data for proof? Success in 'craft' brewing, when too great, is decried: brewers, like artists, should be suffering.

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  5. I think you hit the main point at the end. To me, I separate development from production. I think a pilot system is fundamental to being considered a craft brewery. If you regular develop original recipes to experiment/grow/develop as a brewery, then you are a craft brewer. Once you have a finalized product, it becomes a matter of maximizing efficiency of production without trading off in quality. Automation serves both of these goals.

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