Learn how to homebrew

On Monday, March 1, 2009 I got out of bed at 6am. I proceeded to dig my car out of more than a foot of snow, with more still falling, so that I could drive an hour from downtown Boston to Plymouth, MA… only the drive took me two hours as I inched along at 25 mph on a 65 mph highway. You may ask, “Why the early morning? Why drive through a dangerous blizzard when the governor has told all non-essential workers to stay home?” Well, on this day I was going to Mayflower Brewing Company to brew with Matthew Steinberg, Director of Brewing Operations, so that I could see what a day in the life of a professional brewer is really like. The first thing I learned is that brewers can’t work from home. Also, in most cases, nobody can fill in for you. Beer has to be brewed and packaged, so you have to brave the elements and get to work. Have you ever had to drive two hours in a blizzard because you HAD to get a batch of homebrew done?

To go back to the beginning for a second, this is a story I’ve been toying with for a few months now. I love to homebrew and have definitely thought, “Wouldn’t it be great to brew for a living?” I know a lot of my homebrewing friends have had the same thought as well. I mean, think about it… what do you do when you homebrew? Sit around in the backyard with some friends. Drink a few beers, either homebrewed or craft brewed. Maybe barbecue? Enjoy the weather while you mash, sparge, boil and cool. There’s a lot of downtime and it’s a great way to spend a relaxing weekend day. Imagine doing that 5 days per week AND getting paid for it?! I figured this vision was way too good to be true, so I asked Matt Steinberg if I could come spend a day at Mayflower and shadow him. I wanted to get the real story. You know what I learned? If it sounds too good to be true, it is. For ease of reading, and to prove my point, I’ve broken the story down into the normal steps of homebrewing.


9:30am: Brew Day Begins – The Mash


Mashing In at Mayflower BrewingAfter arriving at 9:30am (an hour late), I walked in to find Matthew standing on the control deck mashing in for his Golden Ale (picture right). Darn, you mean I missed milling 900 lbs of grain?! While not a good start to my professional brewing career, I was sure my back would appreciate this tardiness. Great, time to brew! After talking for a while, I realized this really isn’t that different from homebrewing, it’s just on a different scale and better organized. Matt calculates the volume of water we’ll need for mashing 900 lbs of grain (about 300 gallons) and turns on the water valve. Normally I’d measure out my water from the tap using a measuring cup, he has a flow meter and a water valve that pumps water straight into the mash tun. Also, inside the tank are two rakes that mix the mash for us. This is so much easier than homebrewing! Now that we’ve mashed in and hit our mash temperature, we get to chill for an hour or so, right?


Measuring hops by the pound

No, we get to go measure out hops to add to the boil. Of course, they’re stored in a walk in refrigerator. Again, a different scale but the same idea as homebrewing.  I usually measure my hop additions in ounces or even fractions of an ounce. Today we measure in pounds (picture left). I don’t want to give away Matt’s secrets, but we measured out almost 10 pounds of hops for this lightly hopped Golden Ale. Let me tell you, that much hops smells great this early in the morning! OK, now we get to rest for a little bit while we wait for the mash to finish, right?


Harvested Yeast

Wrong, one of the glycol-chilled fermenters has been acting up a little bit lately, so we (meaning Assistant Brewer Ryan Gwozdz) have to transfer 20 barrels (that’s 620 gallons) of Porter to another tank. This means we have to clean and sanitize a tank and hoses first. Then we have to harvest the yeast that is at the bottom of the conical fermenter (picture right). Then we have to filter the Porter. Then, once we start transferring, I figure we’ll get some down time. I mean, what more can we be doing? It takes a while to move 620 gallons of beer, even with industrial brewing hoses, and the mash is still converting (you can’t rush enzymatic reactions). Aaahhh, time to rest…


And by “rest,” I mean it’s time to meet with the owner, Drew Brosseau, the sales director, Jeff Nardone, Ryan and the delivery man, Thomas. It’s the beginning of the month, so time to go over February’s numbers as well as other business.. Obviously, I can’t report on most of the details of this meeting. Highlights:

- The Massachusetts Brewers Guild dinner went off very well. The beer was great from all the breweries.

- Mayflower Brewing Company sales are up 450% over this time last year.


One of the biggest differences between homebrewing and commercial brewing is that this is a business and the brewer has to answer to the owner. He has to make sure enough of each beer is being brewed and that there’s no excess inventory of anything. He has to make sure that sales and shipping are sending the right beer and the stock is getting rotated so that the beer stays fresh and all the customers get product that is at the peak of quality. Basically, sales, production, shipping and the owner all have to be on the same page. And this is all done while Matt and I run back and forth between the meeting and the brew house to check on the mash.


SpargingOnce the meeting is done, we head back to the brew house. Before the mash is done, we have to clean the chute that leads from the grain hopper to the mash tun. The mixture of grain and moisture that gets in here will get dirty real quick, so you have to make sure to keep it clean. Then, it’s time to mash out and sparge (picture left). Just like in homebrewing, we raise the temperature to about 170 degrees F and begin to vorlauf. Once the wort is running clear, it’s time to sparge and start collecting wort in the brew kettle. Again, same as in homebrewing. One interesting, and quite handy difference, is that because a real brew house doesn’t use the same vessel for mashing and boiling, Matt can heat up the wort as it enters his kettle, so it reaches a boil much faster. Also, having independent bottom, middle and top burners for the kettle helps to not waste energy while the kettle is only partially filled. Once this is all set, we leave the spent grain to cool and add the first hop addition to the already boiling wort.


11:30am - The Boil


Now we have about an hour until the next hop addition. Well, I know at home what I’d do right now… I’d crack a beer and hang out with my friends. Maybe we’d throw some burgers on the grill and make lunch. After all, it’s nearly noon and we’ve been working for two hours.


Making a cask of Mayflower Porter for NERAXUnfortunately, we’re not at my house. We’re in a commercial brewery where there is never a dull moment. NERAX (New England Real Ale Exhibition, it’s a great cask beer event) is coming up and Mayflower is sending two firkins (a “firkin” is about 10.8 US gallons while a “pin” is about 5.4 gallons). That means these two firkins have to be prepped so that they’re carbonated and ready to drop bright at the fest (picture right). Ryan sanitizes both firkins, then adds sugar (so it will carbonate), isinglass (added to beer to help yeast flocculate out of solution or “drop bright), dry hops and dark toast wood chips. Lastly, and most importantly, he racks some fresh porter into the firkin. Now just let it rest in a warm area until it’s time to ship it to NERAX in Somerville. While it seems like a lot, this whole process took about 5 minutes. Now, I’d try to make you believe it’s time to rest, but you must have caught on that that’s not how things work at a commercial brewery.


What’s next you may ask?


Do you remember that fermenting vessel we moved the Porter out of earlier? Well that won’t clean itself! Ryan had left it alone for a little while to let the carbon dioxide vent (safety first), but now it’s time to rinse, clean, sanitize, and do a caustic cleaning on the fermenting vessel to make sure all the remnants of the last beer is gone and the tank is clean. Also, the plate filter from earlier has to be cleaned of yeast and diatomaceous earth (DE)(which is used to filter out yeast and other sediment from the fermented beer). The yeast, DE and a little bit of moisture make this job like cleaning up soggy and smelly wet mud that’s been compacted into several flat Frisbees. Ryan uses a spatula and a giant Rubbermaid container (picture below left). Matt threatens to throw a balled up bit of this brewery waste at Ryan. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a great work environment here and the guys are great… it’s just work!


Cleaning a Plate FilterAs you may recall, I walked in at 9:30am today and was relieved to hear that I had missed the milling process. I thought I was safe until Matt says, “Jeff, you know how to use a mill, right?” It turns out that tomorrow Matt will be brewing Pale Ale and he wants the grain milled, in the hopper and ready to go first thing in the morning. There’s a little over 1,000 lbs of grain that needs to be milled for this recipe… and it looks like I’m going to be the one to mill it, one 55 lb bag at a time. The hopper for the mill is at about head height, so there’s a small little step stool to climb up so that I can dump in the grain. After opening all 18 bags of grain, I set forth to mill half a ton of malted barley (picture below right). Including specialty grains, that’s 20 bags. So much for this being more “automated” than homebrewing. This is more heavy lifting than I’ve ever had to do! Not to mention, more grain than I’ve used in all my homebrews combined!


Milling Grain

After 40 minutes of milling, I finish and take a much deserved breather… at least I thought I deserved it! Matt informs me, though, that the farmers who take the spent grain are coming any minute so we need to clean out the mash tun quickly. When you have 10 lbs of spent grain from a 5 gallon batch, you can just dump it in the woods. When you have over 1,000 lbs it’s considered industrial waste and costs money to have removed. The farmers use it for free feed or fertilizer, however, so it’s a mutually beneficial situation. We remove it by the trash barrel Mashing Outand get about 6 full barrels to give to the farmers (picture left). Just as they’re leaving it’s time for the second hop addition.

While we’re waiting 10 minutes for the next addition, Ryan is cleaning the keg filler and the draft lines. Matt is on the phone setting up sales orders and ordering raw materials for next week’s brews. There is literally never a moment of rest here! It’s 2:20pm, I’m adding the third hop addition, Matt is still on the phone and Ryan is setting up the keg filler. I’ve been here for 5 hours and nobody has stopped moving for more than 30 seconds. While Matt is on the phone, I go help Ryan clean and fill kegs. We’re filling ¼ barrels (7.75 gallons) and ½ barrels (15.5 gallons, a standard keg) with Porter for Mayflower’s draft accounts.

2:30pm – The Whirlpool

Filling Kegs with PorterPart way through kegging, Matt grabs me for the last hop addition. This is the whirlpool addition, so the burners are turned off and the pump is started to get the boiled wort spinning. This collects all the trub at the bottom of the kettle into a pile. We add the hops, and let the beer whirl for about a half hour. While we wait, Matt does some more sales calls and I go back to helping Ryan with the kegs (picture right).

At 3pm, the whirlpool is done and we wait for everything to settle. I’m still helping Ryan with the kegging and Matt is still doing sales calls. It’s a new brewery, only a little over a year into operations and growth is very important right now.


3:30pm – Chill the Wort, Transfer to Fermenting Vessel & Pitch Yeast

Chilling and Aerating the WortAt 3:30pm we start running the wort through the chiller to cool it to a temperature we can pitch yeast and we aerate it so the yeast can do its job (picture left). As I mentioned earlier, moving 620 gallons of liquid takes a while, even using industrial grade hose, but at 3:45pm we have enough in the fermenter that we can pitch yeast… a lot of yeast. One of the things about commercial breweries is that they don’t underpitch like many homebrewers (including myself) do. This was a lot of yeast! Just to make sure we hit our numbers, we take an original gravity reading (picture below right), just like in homebrewing. Also, since we quickly chilled the wort, we got a great cold break!



4:00pm – Clean-up

Original Gravity ReadingJust like in homebrewing, you have to clean your equipment right after you use it. It’s probably even more important here. This is a closed system so if you get any mold or if an infection takes root you’ll have to pull the entire system apart. Trust me, this is much more complicated than replacing a plastic homebrew tube. We rinse and clean the boil kettle and back flush the system, running water through the whole thing to ensure that there’s nothing left in there.



4:30pm – The Conclusion


Finally, it’s 4:30pm. The beer is brewed, the yeast is pitched, the equipment is cleaned and it’s time to head home! In 7½ hours we brewed 620 gallons of beer. That’s the same amount of time it normally takes me to brew 5 gallons. I’ve realized the general process of brewing is strikingly similar whether it’s on a homebrew scale or a commercial scale. Sure, Mayflower Brewing Company has a hard-piped system with central controls and a master hook-up for all the hoses to pump beer anywhere in the brewery, while I just use a bucket and a tube to move stuff. And Mayflower uses a commercial CIP cleaning system and all sorts of chemicals to clean their brewery while I just use Iodophor. But the actual brewing of the beer isn’t that much different between what I do at home and what Matt does at Mayflower.


Conversely, the day is quite different. I’ve realized there are huge differences between being a homebrewer and a professional brewer:


1) Homebrewing is relaxing. You sit around and chill out with friends while probably barbecuing and having a few beers. Professional brewing is a job. There is always work to be done or something to fix. Also, you don’t drink while you do it except for possibly very small samples to ensure quality.


2) In homebrewing you can make whatever you want, whenever you want. In professional brewing you are accountable to an owner and possibly investors. You have to make sure you have enough of every beer to fill demand, but not too much or inventory will get old and past its prime. Plus you have to brew the same recipes the same way to make them as consistent as possible every day.


Buffalo Trace Bourbon Barrels

3) In homebrewing you can experiment. If something isn’t great, you only lost $50-$60… $100 tops. In professional brewing thousands of dollars are wrapped up in each brew. And infection or a batch that tastes off is expensive. An experimental brew that doesn’t sell is expensive. A beer that is too expensive to produce will not get you your needed return on investment. Not to even mention the hit to your reputation that this will cause. Many craft beer drinkers will loyally drink your beer until they have one bad experience with it, and gaining those people back is nearly impossible. That definitely doesn't stop Mayflower from experimenting with Buffalo Trace Bourbon Barrels, though (picture left)!


All that said being a professional brewer is a pretty cool job! I had a blast and want to thank Matt Steinberg and everyone over at Mayflower Brewing Company (Ryan, Drew, Jeff and Tom) for letting me come by and work with them for a day. But, while I had fun, I’m going to leave the commercial brewing to the professionals. I had fun for a day, but my back hurt for 3 days after milling a half a ton of grain. Plus, in 15 batches or so of homebrewing, I’ve never brewed the same thing twice and I’d like to keep it that way.


Pale Ale with Wild Yeast in Wine BarrelOne last thing for those of you who have read this far. I know I said there isn’t any beer drinking in professional brewing, but I think they made an exception for me. Matt pulled a sample of his Pale Ale that he is aging in an old wine barrel that was intentionally infected with wild yeast. The light hopping, tartness and barely-there left-over wine flavors played amazingly together! Wow this was a great beer! And it was still uncarbonated. Matt says they top it off to make up for evaporation with whatever they’re brewing, but so far no porter has gone in yet. This will be a super-interesting beer down the line! [Editor's Note: Months after this article was written, we got a chance to try this beer at Armsby Abbey in Worcester, MA during a Mayflower Brewing Tap Takeover...it was delicious!)