Natural Perspectives: The steps of making beer

Since Vic and I acquired our three hens, our composting operation has changed. More of our kitchen scraps go the chickens, who love vegetable and fruit peelings, than go into the composter. Instead of vegetable peels, we now put straw bedding and chicken poop into the composter. As the ratio of brown to green waste changed, our composter didn't heat up enough for rapid decomposition.

Luckily, Huntington Beach gardener John Manning had a solution for us — beer. He picks up spent brewers grain from the Huntington Beach Beer Company at 201 Main St. and swears by its positive effect on his compost piles. I stopped by his house last week and was awed by the quality of the compost that he produces.

Manning sends out a weekly email notice about when the spent brewers grain is going to be available next. But before getting onto his list, I wanted to try some of this grain myself. I went downtown Saturday and got more than I bargained for. Besides grain, I also got a fascinating lesson from brew-masters Greg and Barbara Gerovac about how to make beer. Greg's great-grandfather, and Vic's as well, were both Wisconsin brew-masters, but I knew nothing about how beer is made.

I parked next to the police substation about 9:30 a.m., being sure to put quarters in the meter. Although the sign on the brewery door said that it didn't open until 11, the door was unlocked. I walked in like I knew what I was doing, and went upstairs with my clean, 5-gallon utility bucket.

Greg and Barbara were just finishing the cooking step where the grain is heated with purified water to make a barley broth. While we were waiting, Greg walked me through the steps of making beer.

Beer is generally made from malted barley, although sometimes wheat is used. Malted in this case means sprouted and roasted. Because the sprouting and roasting of the grain is a specialized field, Greg gets his malted barley from a supplier in the state of Washington. The barley itself comes from the northwestern United States or Canada. For more authenticity, Greg buys malted barley from Germany if he's making a particular German recipe of beer.

The dry malted barley is stored in a 10,000-pound storage container. An auger moves the grain from storage to a grinder for precision grinding to 0.8 millimeters. That's pretty tiny, about the width of a pencil lead.

The ground grain falls into a huge stainless steel tank called a mash tun. Depending on whether they are making dark or light beer, they add about 500 to 790 pounds of grain to the mash tun. Next, they add purified water — mere tap water isn't good enough for their beer — and heat the barley/water mixture to boiling. A lot of the sugars and protein leach out of the cracked grain and into the water, forming the base for what will become beer. The fresh, unfermented liquid at this stage is called wort.

Barbara and Greg measure the sugar content of each batch of wort with a refractometer and record the value in their recipe book. I was familiar with Brix readings for wine, but brew-masters take their readings in degrees Plato. With fermentation, the sugar content decreases as the alcohol content rises. At the end of fermentation, the beer has about only about 20% of the sugar that it started with. The rest of the sugar was converted to alcohol and carbon dioxide.

Barbara hooked up a big hose and began to drain the sweet wort out of the mash tun by gravity feed through a metal mesh screen and into a smaller holding tank. The spent brewers grain remained above the mesh in the mash tun. I tasted some of the warm amber-colored wort as it drained from the mash tun, and it was great: sweet, nutty and surprisingly refreshing.

The wort next goes to a brew kettle where it is heated to boiling for about 90 minutes. At this point, hops are added. Hops are flower heads that give beer its distinctive flavor. The amount and type of hops will affect the flavor of the beer. Next, the wort goes through a heat exchanger where it is cooled from boiling to 60 degrees Fahrenheit over a specified period of time — rapid cooling for dark beer and slow cooling for pale beer.

The next step is the fermentation tank, where brewers yeast is added. The wort then sits for three weeks to ferment. Barbara and Greg take refractometer readings to determine when the beer is ready. At just the right time, they drain the beer from the fermentation tank to the holding tanks in their enormous, walk-in cooler. From there, the draft beer goes to a tap in the bar.

"This minimum of transfer means a higher quality beer," said Greg. "Bottled beer is pasteurized, handled more and exposed to light." Not their beer.

Back to the mash. After all the sweet wort had been drained from the mash tun, Greg scooped out the warm, wet mash. Whatever isn't picked up by the public goes into the trash. Greg would like to see all of his spent brewers grain used by home composters. When the folks at Shipley Nature Center stop by, they take several trash barrels full for Shipley's large composting operation. That reminds me, if you don't have a thermometer for your compost pile, you can buy one from the Friends of Shipley Nature Center. You can also buy composting bins from them at a 50% discount, thanks to a grant from Rainbow Disposal.

Naturally, Vic and I didn't consider our research for this article complete until we had tasted their products. We had lunch at the brewery, along with a 6-glass sampler of their fine, micro-brewed beers. We hope you appreciate the effort that we go to in order to bring you the finest in reporting. (Hic.)

If you'd like to get some spent brewers grain for your compost pile, or some to dig directly into your garden, send an e-mail to Manning at hbpapajohn@gmail.com. He'll notify you by email when the next batch of spent brewers grain is ready for pickup. I've already had notice that the next batch of beer will be made July 20. Bring a clean bucket upstairs to the brewery around 9:45 am, and be prepared to wait until the wort is drained off.

I feed handfuls of the warm, wet grain to my chickens on the days that it's available. I layer the rest in my compost bin with leaves or chicken bedding. My compost pile is now cooking along at about 105 degrees F. I love this stuff, and so do our hens. Cheers!

VIC LEIPZIG and LOU MURRAY are Huntington Beach residents and environmentalists. They can be reached at LMurrayPhD@gmail.com.

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