Wort’s Weird Journey: Beer’s Sometimes Unpredictable Path From Grain to Glass

Feature by | Mar 2017 | Issue #122
Industrial Arts Brewing. | Photo by Matt Coats

New York State’s scenic Hudson Valley has a deep manufacturing background, freckled with relics like the Garnerville Arts and Industrial Complex in Rockland County. The pre–Civil War compound contained a colossal textile firm that uniformed both the Union Army and World War II soldiers, before the clothing trade unraveled and light industry and artists set up shop.

Drop by the repurposed campus and you’ll spot woodworkers and soap makers, photographers and jewelers, set builders and, inside the smokestack-topped structure, a new brewery. The aptly named Industrial Arts Brewing is anointed with tiled floors, brick archways, and ceilings soaring high enough for pigeon racing. Order Tools of the Trade, a grapefruit-y Extra Pale Ale, or the rotating State of the Art IPA and eyeball the gleaming brewhouse, a custom-built looker courtesy of Germany’s BrauKon. It’s the brewery’s centerpiece, overshadowing what’s omitted: fermentation tanks.

“Nearly every brewer I’ve walked around the site with has looked at me and asked me what the fuck I was doing,” founder Jeff “Chief” O’Neil says, laughing. From his 25-hectoliter system, a skinny silver pipeline snakes some 328 feet, crossing the Minisceongo Creek, terminating in a separate building studded with fermentation tanks. The tube conveys wort, beer’s sugar-rich precursor, to the vessels, a roundabout journey that, although unorthodox, works like a liquid dream. “The most common question we face is, ‘Is it going to freeze?’” O’Neil says. “When we pump wort from the brewhouse, it’s room temperature and moving at a barrel a minute. A creek doesn’t freeze as fast as a pond.”

Wort typically follows a humdrum path during its relatively short lifespan. After simmering grains and adding hops, brewers transfer wort to a close-by tank and add yeast, which crunches sugar and creates booze. Sometimes, though, the straightforward journey veers off course. Both The Bruery and Firestone Walker truck wort to, respectively, their Terreux and Barrelworks outposts, where the liquid is laced with souring bacteria and wild yeast. On the other hand, Funk Factory Geuzeria totes a coolship to breweries to spontaneously ferment beer brewed by another company. Revolution Brewing, Burial Beer, and Midnight Sun brew lower-strength second runnings beer, while Notch Brewing is working to perfect decoction mashing, a laborious process that gives lagers fathoms-deep flavor. In a world where many brewers seem fixated on new ways to add hop character to beer, it turns out others must overcome limitations and sometimes establish quarantines to transform wort into their desired ale or lager.

Party On
Modern brewing mostly believes in the power of one. A sole recipe, a solitary grain bill, a single beer. Historically, this hasn’t been the story. Beer makers in 18th- and 19th century Britain practiced parti-gyle brewing, drawing multiple beers from a lone mass of malt. Subsequent runnings created steadily weaker wort, wringing out every iota of sugar. The result is second runnings, or small beers, a resource-savvy form of recycling.

“It’s a shame to throw away a bunch of mash as feed when it’s still holding 60 percent of the sugars,” says Midnight Sun head brewer Lee Ellis. “It’s good to see if you can get a bit more lemonade out of the lemons.” Midnight Sun sits in Anchorage, Alaska, where hearty beers rule the tundra. Ellis combats the cold with molasses-spiked, bourbon barrel-aged Imperial Stouts like Berserker, a high-viscosity behemoth drizzled with maple syrup, and the smoky Barfly, sprinkled with brown sugar.

“Because we run off so little wort on our big beers, there’s enough protein and sugars left behind to produce a full-bodied beer,” Ellis says, noting that the higher the gravity, the less efficient the mash. Over the years he’s brewed a dozen-odd small beers, headlined by Son of Berserker, a “small” Stout that’s still a sturdy 6.9 percent ABV, and Second Hand Smoke—an 8.4 percent wallop of flavor. Ellis finds that high-test Stouts and dark ales produce better second runnings. “The more caramel malts, the more body you’ll have,” he says. That means an elevated ABV isn’t the sole criteria for spawning a second runnings beer. “Our Barley wine has a less complex malt bill. It makes a decent table beer, but that’s not really our thing,” Ellis explains. “People in Alaska, they think the word session starts at 6.5 percent.”

Look around the country, and you’ll notice brewers are increasingly giving grains a second chance. Traipse to Chicago’s Revolution to try the 6.3 percent Rye Lyfe IPA, sired by Ryeway to Heaven Imperial Rye Ale (13.7 percent ABV), or Maine’s Marshall Wharf for Little Mayhem, the half-strength offspring of Chaos Chaos Imperial Stout. Down in Athens, Ohio, though, Little Fish finds it too logistically daunting to brew with second runnings. “It’s very hard on our system to do a full batch of small beer,” says founder Sean White. (Disclosure: We’re friends.) “It ends up being an extremely long brew day.”

White doesn’t want to waste perfectly good wort, so he gives away the second runnings of beers like Double Harvey’s, an Imperial Milk Stout, and The Aecern Old Ale. “At the end of our runoff, we’ll collect 30 gallons of second runnings in a big Rubbermaid trashcan, the same thing we put spent grains in,” White says. “It’s first come, first served.” There’s never a shortage of freebie-seeking homebrewers, and paying it forward has perks. “Sometimes they bring us back beer, which is nice.”

Another old-timey technique finding new disciples is decoction mashing. In layman’s terms, the process involves drawing off a portion of wort and boiling it to create dark polymers dubbed melanoidins. (They also lurk in coffee and bread crust.) The boiled wort is blended back into the beer, contributing a rich, malty depth that’s the signature of classic Czech Pilsners. Stateside, the method has fans at Chicago’s Church Street Brewing and Vermont’s Von Trapp Brewing, as well as Notch in Massachusetts.

“We’re trying to achieve traditional lagers and flavor, so we wanted to use traditional processes as well,” says Notch founder Chris Lohring, who opened his Salem brewery last summer. Finding a permanent home meant the longtime gypsy brewer—session beer’s biggest booster since 2010—could fiddle with more time-consuming lagers. (Connecticut’s Two Roads still produces Notch’s canned offerings and core line.) “Many breweries won’t do a decoction mash, because they’re putting through X beers a day,” Lohring says. “You’re losing utilization time at the brewhouse, and utilization time is money.”

For Lohring, decoction-mashing Tmavy, his Dark Czech Lager, and Slanted & Enchanted Hefeweizen means signing up for up to three hours of extra sweaty labor to get enzymes to activate sugars. “There’s a lot of hurry up and wait for decoction,” he says. “There’s action, then there’s 30 minutes of nothing.” The payoff comes on the palate. “Everyone has had a Pilsner that’s one-dimensional,” Lohring insists. “With a decocted pale lager … you can sense that there are other flavors happening. It’s still subtle and nuanced; it’s not intensity of flavor but depth of flavor.”

Trucking Along
Transferring wort should be a summer breeze. Attach hoses, flip levers, get fluid flowing through pipes—the job is done. Makes sense except if, say, your foeders and some 2,200 oak casks reside far from your brewhouse.

Such is the story of Terreux, The Bruery’s sour and wild spin-off brand. To keep wayward Brettanomyces yeast and bacteria from infiltrating its barrel-aged and Belgian-leaning beers, The Bruery quarantined production in a secondary facility. “Every brewery that does the type of beer that we do probably experiences contamination at one point,” says production manager Jeremy Grinkey. “You may have five really good years, but at some point it will catch up with you.”

So The Bruery settled on a structure 3 miles away, opting not to install another brewhouse. “The labor costs of running two separate brewhouses 24 hours a day, five days a week, didn’t make sense,” Grinkey says. The original brewhouse cranks out wort used to fill square, stackable tote tanks—standard in the wine industry—that are loaded onto box trucks. “We are trucking roughly 4,000 to 5,000 barrels a year this way,” Grinkey says.

Bruery Terreux is hardly the only operation more fixated on microbes than firing up a brew kettle. Most notably, Casey Brewing and Blending in Colorado and the Bay Area’s Rare Barrel source sugary elixir from elsewhere. “Focusing on fermentation (and not actually brewing the wort) has many positive implications for an exclusively sour brewery like ours,” cofounder Jay Goodwin told Serious Eats last year, emphasizing that the practice lets the brewery concentrate on science.

Buying a brewhouse also made zero sense to Funk Factory Geuzeria’s serendipitously named founder, Levi Funk, who specializes in Lambic-style spontaneous ferments. “I’m focused on doing one specific style of beer, and it can only be done four months out of the year,” he says of Lambics, brewed from late fall through early spring. (You need chilly weather for wort to reach the right temperature.) “It doesn’t make sense to have a brewhouse that sits idle.” So instead, the Madison, Wis., blender commissioned a coolship, a massive open-air pan used to cool wort and acquire ambient microflora. He trucks the steel container to area breweries such as O’So and Octopi, loads it with grain broth and lets nature work its magic overnight. “Any host brewer I go to doesn’t have a coolship,” Funk explains. “That means I need to have a coolship and take it to them.”

He then drives the inoculated liquid back to his blendery and lays it down in oak, often along with fruit, creating tart complexities like the purple raspberry-packed Frampaars. At least, that’s how it works ideally. The reality is that brewing the customarily turbid mash of a Lambic—heavy on raw, unmalted wheat and cloudier than a New England IPA—can be challenging. “Every brewery I go to, pretty much the first batch is not going to be Lambic,” Funk says. “It gets dumped or we make different beers.”

While Arizona Wilderness and Prairie Artisan Ales also operate mobile coolships, Funk Factory might be the only American brewery using one to make low-alcohol Meerts, traditionally created from a Lambic’s second runnings. (Funk will instead source low-gravity wort.) “The idea of Meerts is that it’s a March beer,” he says of the young beer, aged for two or three months. “It’s what you drank in the fields and at the table [in Belgium]. It’s a light version of Lambic.”

A pipeline carries Industrial Art’s wort across Minisceongo Creek to be fermented. | Photo by Matt Coats

Pipe Up
Back in New York, the peculiar pipeline at Industrial Arts raises a nagging question: Why? After O’Neil’s favored location for the brewery fell through, he turned to his Garnerville backup, heart set on converting a roomy brick building into his dream facility, the layout contiguous and logical. Then came the cloudy news: A tenant had assumed part of his hoped-for space. On the bright side, the site’s iconic smokestack edifice, surrounded by parking aplenty, was available.

“It was obvious that if you could occupy that building, you’d want to,” O’Neil says. It would serve as the showpiece tasting room, the brewery shoehorned into the rest. “One of my investors said, ‘You’re spending all this money on a brewhouse. You should put it on display,” recalls O’Neil. That meant planting fermentors elsewhere in the complex. “Oh, it would take a 100-meter pipeline to do that,” O’Neil replied. “And then I was like, ‘A 100-meter pipeline!’”

At Peekskill, where he had formerly been head brewer, O’Neil pumped wort from the first-floor brewhouse to the third-floor coolship. Certainly another pipeline was possible. The conduit was designed to minimize bends for liquid to linger and life to take hold, and a heat exchanger would send steamy sterilization water coursing through looped pipes. Perhaps expectedly, the set-up flummoxed the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, which initially nixed Industrial Arts’ license application. “My attorney asked me if I could move the brewhouse to another building. The Germans had just left, and I’d spent hundreds of thousands of dollars,” O’Neil says. “That idea had no traction.”

Instead of altering the brewhouse, Industrial Arts tweaked the narrative. Wort is not beer, in the same manner that crushed grapes or pressed apples are hardly wine or cider. Wort is beer in its infancy, hot grain soup dreaming of one day growing up and evoking a smile at happy hour. Wort is potential. Wort is worthless, as far as Uncle Sam is concerned, untaxable and not something to bother worrying about. “You can spill half your wort and they wouldn’t care. But if you spill and destroy a can of beer, you need to document that,” O’Neil says. “We had to spell out that it was not alcohol.”

The line of reasoning led the government to grant the license, the pipeline now pushing wort through three or four days a week. It’s not a perfect process. Industrial Arts brews more wort than it can ferment, leading to losses. But the system works—the IPAs and Stouts are impeccable, even if everyone isn’t impressed. “I asked one of the German engineers, ‘What do you think about our brewery?’” O’Neil says. “He looked at me very deadpan-like and said, ‘It’s a very nice brewery, but I think you don’t know where to put your cellar.’”