Features
Time in a bottle

Brewing is all about timing; Stan Hieronymus explores how brewers put beer on the clock, and why it matters in the bottle.

The summer Troy Casey was 20, he worked as a tour guide at the mammoth Coors brewery in Golden, Colo. At the first stop, he would point to a display of the basic ingredients used to make beer: hops, malt, water and yeast. A year later, after he decided to pursue a brewing career, he discovered the importance of a fifth ingredient brewers seldom mention but quickly acknowledge: time.

“Unlike our other ingredients, I view time as more of an undeniable force of nature; like gravity. Our other ingredients can vary in quality, availability, price, etcetera,” says Phil Wymore, founder of Perennial Artisan Ales in St. Louis. “Time is just so damn consistent, which from the perspective of this brewer is a blessing. If time were variable, it would be so much more difficult to analyze, measure and learn about the effects of the other variables.”

Not yet 30, Casey works today at AC Golden, an incubator brewery within the MillerCoors complex in Golden. Among other things, he oversees production of beers inspired by Belgium’s spontaneously fermented lambics, which may age in wood barrels for years before they’re sold. “Those are the slow food of beer,” Casey says. “They are the pinnacle of what slow beer can be.”

Casey admits this may not be immediately evident to his contemporaries. “Young people as a whole don’t understand what time is,” he says.

It’s on display in the Polish border town of Cieszyn, where the lagering cellars at Bracki Browar Zamkowy date to 1857. From the air, Cieszyn and the Czech town of Ceský Tešin look like a single one, but the river that runs between them is a border. Today, children skip over a bridge across that river, but that wasn’t always the case. Turn the dial on the car radio and the language changes from Polish to Czech and back to Polish.

These Old World towns and the beers made at the Cieszyn brewery feel pleasantly unstuck in time. Dominik Szczodry manages production of two beers, the pale Brackie and the strong (9.6% ABV) Zywiec Porter. They are both lagers, meaning brewers condition them at near-freezing temperatures, improving the beers for several technical reasons.

Brackie lagers for 30 days—not as long as Budweiser Budvar across the border in the Czech Republic, longer than the well-known Pilsner Urquell, and considerably longer than some pilsners in Berlin these days that are out the door only eight days after brewing commences.

Zywiec Porter, rich and roasty but seamless, lagers 90 days on average, although individual tanks have aged up to 200 days. Everything about the Baltic Porter requires more time. A single batch of wort takes 13 hours to produce, compared to 8 for Brackie. Primary fermentation lasts 12 to 13 days, rather than 7 or 8. And then it goes into the lagering tanks, eliminating hard edges that are evident in samples from tanks that hold beers less than 60 days old.

“You must wait,” Szczodry says.

Back in St. Louis, after Perennial Artisan Ales Abraxas, an imperial stout, ferments, brewers grind cinnamon sticks and cacao nibs, slice vanilla beans, and chop ancho chili peppers into fine pieces. Those soak in the beer for up to a week.

“Determining when the flavor extraction is complete is a subjective process,” Wymore says. “It’s amazing the difference it can make if we give it one more day.”

RIGHT ON TIME: A little bit of time draws out the best of these beers’ ingredients.

The Bruery doesn’t sell half the beer it brews during the year it’s made. Oude Tart, for instance, is a blend of Flemish-style red ales aged in wine barrels for 16 to 20 months, 8 to 16 months and 6 to 8 months. “Young, it’s more medicinal,” says founder Patrick Rue. The oldest is the most sour. “You need to get that complex oxidation and oak flavor,” he says. “It takes a while to develop that bright sourness.” The beer of intermediary age adds fruity character, sometimes wildly so.

Allagash referments all its beers in the bottle, creating a natural, some say finer, carbonation. It would be faster to inject carbonation into Allagash White, which accounts for about three-quarters of sales. Instead, bottle-conditioned beers spend an extra week in the brewery, occupying extra space so they condition uniformly. “We tried that [carbonating at bottling], and the beer was different,” founder Rob Tod says. “It doesn’t have the shelf life or the flavor complexity. Time is a necessary ingredient.”

“The Reinheitsgebot says nothing about temperatures and times,” says Eric Toft, brewmaster at Private Landbrauerei Schönram in Bavaria. By fermenting beer warmer, brewers may shorten the time it takes to make a batch; some Berlin brewers send a pilsner out the door in just over a week. In contrast, lowering the starting temperature for Schönramer Pils lengthens primary fermentation a day or two, and then it lagers for six weeks. It has medaled three times in the European Beer Star Awards, the continent’s most prestigious competition.

Deschutes stamps a “best before” date on most its beers. But before the brewery released The Abyss for the first time in 2006, founder Gary Fish decided to flip that, using a “best after” date and setting it a year out. The beer is already a year old before it goes into the bottle, a blend of parts aged in oak barrels and used bourbon barrels, with other ingredients, or simply lagered in stainless steel. “Aging is such a new thing for beer; the more opportunities we have, the more we learn,” Fish says.

Published July/August 2013
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