Art and technology in brewing beer

My friend, a professional photographer living in Portland, Oregon, worked for many years in the "backstage" side of the industry - shooting covers for annual reports and making industrial and high-tech images for commercial clients. Nowadays, facing increased competition, he has expanded his clientele to include the general public with a line of prints and card that he sells at fairs and festivals throughout the Pacific Northwest. And so he has become used to the inevitable question, which he swears to have heard at least a million times: "What kind of camera do you use?"

There is a direct parallel between such a query and those made so often in the craft brewing scene today. One need only change the equipment referred to: "What kind of brewhouse do you have? or "What kind of bottling line do you use?" These are important questions, to be sure, for any professional. The quality of one's apparatus, be it camera or brewing system, definitely effects the quality of what can be accomplished with it, from the exacting details of a 4 X 5 Hasselblad negative to a perfect, controlled boil in a Vendome copper kettle.

Yet I'd like to point out (somewhat paradoxically, I suppose, in this very technical publication), that the art of brewing , like photography, depends on far more than the possession of the finest or most state-of -the art equipment. Besides "basic training" in his craft, a brewer must have a strong sense of style, a feeling for the nuances of his ingredients, and good work habits to produce exceptional beers. And some of the most sophisticated brewing equipment in the world is currently being used to make incredibly boring beer, much like driving a Ferrari only for the daily commute.

But we know all this, you say. Craft brewers are often quick to point out that they have produced excellent beer from home-made equipment, dairy tanks and the like. So they have. And still in Europe, all is not stainless steel and computer controls. A Northwest brewer, who did his apprenticeship in Bavaria in the recent past, told me of working for a major brewery in Germany that had no refrigeration equipment, but lagered its beer in traditional underground cellars. "Talk about hand-crafted beer!" he laughed." We had to shovel ice into the caves, and work all day at a temperature of 32 degrees Fahrenheit!" The brewery also used oak vats, which had to be laboriously hand-cleaned and re-pitched. "But the beer was great," he recalled.

And the use of modern brewing technology must be put into a business context. The constraints of the marketplace, like traffic congestion and speed limits on our bright new machines, have their controlling effects on alcoholic beverage production. I once worked at a winery that produced a ten-barrel lot of Cabernet one year that was truly exceptional; yet the winery could not afford to create a special label, package, and sell what amounted to only about 250 cases of wine. " Anything less than a thousand cases is really not practical," the winery manager told me. So we blended the wine away into the standard 30,000 - case product (but not before I drank some first.)

Consistency and product stability are also important considerations in brewing. and advancing technology has made great strides in improving both in the last century. We can control the milling of grist, the mash temperatures, the clarity of wort from lautering, the fermentation and condition of beer as never before. All this is no guarantee, however, that we are making better beers.

I think that the new technology introduces new challenges to the brewer as well, such as holding on to proven, but antiquated, brewing traditions. Sierra Nevada still practices open fermentation and the addition of flower hops by hand, for example, even though this is hardly practical with their new 800-barrel uni-tanks. And any brewer with the latest "right stuff" wants to open that baby up and see what she can do. It could be that a willingness to push the envelope is even more important in today's world of automated brewhouses. We need more creative and innovative brewers these days who are willing to take (hopefully calculated) risks to make great beer.

So what kind of camera do you use? A Brownie Star Flash or a Kodak Disposable, my friend is tempted to say - whatever he needed to get the shot he wanted. After all, HE made the photograph, not the camera or the lens or the film. You make the beer. What kind of tanks do you use? What kind of pumps? Or even: How many hours did it take? How long was the boil? How cold was the conditioning temperature?

Sometimes in the throes of the contemporary obsession with brewery technology, I also think of the culinary arts, another repository of the latest gadgets and techniques. Maybe Escoffier took the right approach in his famous cookbook: "Cook until done."

© 1997 Alan Moen