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
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
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