Low levels of oxygen can really cramp our style (and not just our lungs). Next time you venture up into high elevation, try cooking a few ounces of pasta. What you’ll find is that the stubborn noodles take twice as long to cook. Why? Because at higher elevations, water boils at a lower temperature, requiring a longer cook time. Now, drop the pasta and pretend you’re a brewer. Todd Ashman, brewmaster at FiftyFifty Brewing Co., modestly refers to his set of challenges as “a bit interesting.” According to Ashman, the biggest negative impact of elevated brewing falls on hop utilization. In order to extract all that bitterness we enjoy from hops, Ashman’s required to boil the cones longer than his sea-level colleagues.
Even more, this issue is compounded by the inefficiency of the boiler, which achieves little more than two-thirds its potential energy output.
“It’s rated at 1,000,000 BTU, but we’re only getting 700,000 BTU out of it due to derating,” explains Ashman. “The air is thinner, thus, it has to work harder.”
But energy costs are no excuse for brewers like Ashman. To him, it’s a small price to pay for tasty beer and spectacular vistas.
“At the end of the day, the greater expense is offset by brewing in what has to be one of the most scenic places for a brewery in the country,” he says.
Brewing with thin air: These high-flying American breweries craft some of our favorite drinks above 5,500 feet. The highest brewery in the world? That’s Lhasa Brewery in Tibet, with an elevation of 11,975 feet.
7,854 feet: Aspen Brewing Co., Aspen, Colo.
6,902 feet: Flagstaff Brewing Co., Flagstaff, Ariz.
6,899 feet: Beaver Street Brewery, Flagstaff, Ariz.
5,905 feet: FiftyFifty Brewing, Truckee, Calif.
5,688 feet: Golden City Brewery, Golden, Colo.
5,636 feet: MillerCoors, Golden, Colo.