I WOULD like to think that after 16 years of legal consumption, three of which have included writing reviews every Saturday for Weekender, that I know a thing or two about beer. The brewing process, however, has always eluded me. Mash this, extract that, boil this, add that, pump this to there and so on. It seems a heck of lot more complicated than wine-making; you know – pick it, crush it, wait, bottle it, drink it.
“Brewing is basically lots of trial and error, especially early on,” FogHorn Brewhouse head brewer Shawn Sherlock says. “But the more experience you have with the process and your ingredients, the more positive your outcomes will be, as you go.”
Today is a brew day at FogHorn. The plan is to watch, listen and learn all about the complex process of brewing beer with one of Australia’s best brewers.
“I have a clear concept in my head about how the beer is going to look and smell and taste by the end of the brewing process,” Sherlock explains. “Basically, I then try and reverse engineer the process to get to my initial idea.”
Arriving at FogHorn, my senses are immediately overpowered by the cavernous space and shiny glow of stainless steel, the sound of an auger conveying grain, a pump pumping water, and the grainy fragrance of malted barley and malted wheat pouring into the first of three tanks that are to be used to brew today’s beer: summer ale, an easy-drinking, thirst-slaking, lager-esque, gateway type of beer for people who don’t drink craft beer, but should.
“Good morning,” I call out to Sherlock, who’s standing up on a steel tread platform next to the mash tun.
The loud sound of grain and warm water gushing into the tank, hitting stainless steel and reverberating around inside dulls my initial greeting.
“Shawn!” I shout until he turns around. “Good morning,” I say again.
THE MASH UP
Standing up on the platform with Sherlock, you can see the entire FogHorn brewpub. It’s empty at this time of the morning, so it looks even more spacious than normal. Two Knights commemorative premiership flags (’97 and ’01) hang from the rafters silently reminding the room of better times, while the Jets flag from ’07 has me stinging for the new season to begin.
“This is technically the Brewhouse,” Sherlock says. “All the brewing of the beer is done here using the mash tun, the kettle and the whirlpool to make the base of the beer, called wort. Once that’s made, we transfer to one of six fermenting tanks before conditioning it for a couple of weeks. Then we serve it as fresh as possible. Right there, in the restaurant.”
Constant noise is a feature of the brewhouse. The steel clang of a lid being opened, pumps moving water and wort from tank to tank, the hiss of steam rising, hoses being dragged and re-positioned, the spray of water, and the sound of an auger motor running grain into the mash tun.
Mashing is a brewing term used to describe the steeping process that hydrates the grain, activating the malt enzymes, which convert starch into fermentable sugars so that the yeast can do their thing.
To explain the process, Sherlock lifts the lid of the mash tun, like a hatch on a submarine. Heat and steam, another constant feature of brewing, billows out before I can properly peer inside.
“This is the basis of our wort. It’s basically malt sugar that we extract from the grain so that the yeast can ferment it to make beer,” he says. “The grain and the water go in at around the same time and are heated up and mixed together using the rake inside the mash tun.”
As the water and the malted barley pours in and gets heated up, a specially-designed rake moves slowly through the mash, mixing horizontally and vertically at the same time, breaking up any clumps that may form, ensuring an even temperature is maintained throughout.
“It looks and smells like a giant steel bowl of warm porridge, or Weet-Bix,” I say.
“Pretty much,” Sherlock says. “As the enzymes in the mash get released, you’ll start to find that it smells sweeter and richer when it warms up. Over the course of the day your nose will adjust and you’ll stop smelling it after a while.
“We’re using four different malts in our brew today. Pilsner and Munich malts from Germany and flaked wheat and wheat malts from Australia.”
Mixing in each addition of grain can give the final beer a completely different colour, aroma and flavour, and that’s well before we start talking about adding hops and yeast.
“Brewing is a bit like being a chef, in a way,” Sherlock says. “It’s all about balance. You need to understand your ingredients, know what each one is going to give you and how one will combine with the other. A good brewer has the ability to use each ingredient and process them to achieve ultimate balance in the final beer.”
Once the warm, slightly cloudy, sugary maltose-filled liquid known as wort has been extracted and rinsed from the grain, it’s slowly transferred over to the shiny stainless steel tank right next to the mash tun. This is called the kettle.
“The kettle heats up the wort until it reaches a full rolling boil where it’s held there for about 90 minutes. It’s like a strong simmer that helps to break protein chains, clarify the wort and make it stable, and also boil off any unwanted aromas and flavours,” he says.
“Do you mean, like that boiled vegetable smell?” I ask, tentatively.
“That’s really perceptive, and actually, some of that you’re smelling is dimethyl sulphide,” Sherlock replies.
“You can smell it quite strongly in over-boiled cabbage, broccoli and things like that. That’s one of the reasons we boil the wort, to get rid of aromas like that from the finished beer.”
We’re lucky, as beer lovers, to be able to claim Shawn Sherlock – one of the most revered brewers in Australia. Arguably, he is responsible for getting many ardent drinkers of mainstream staples like Toohey’s and VB, to try craft beer; Murray’s Angry Man Pale Ale, anyone? Yes, that was Sherlock.
“Back in the day, during my very first brew on the Murray’s system, I knocked the key for the brewing panel off and into the kettle while it was filling with wort,” he says.
“The key was just the right size to fit into a hole at the bottom of the kettle that leads to a pump. If it found its way down that hole it would have destroyed the pump. I had to stop the transfer of wort into the kettle and then jump into the tank to try and retrieve the key. This meant that now the whole brew was contaminated. I had to dump the whole thing and start again.
“Obviously, it wasn’t the best start to my brewing career, although it did teach me a very good lesson.”
Dials on temp gauges begin to spike, while steam continues to hiss and rise. It’s during the kettle-boiling process that beer’s most famous ingredient – hops – makes its first appearance. Most beer drinkers have never actually seen a hop. They’re strange, alien-looking things that grow out in a field; strung up like some tall, green flowering bush.
“Adding hops during the rolling boil adds bitterness, which helps to balance out the sweet flavours of the wort,” Sherlock says. “The earlier you add hops in the boil, the more hop flavour and aroma boils off leaving behind bitterness.”
A surprisingly small amount of hops, relative to the brew itself, are used; 500 grams of New Zealand Green Bullet bittering hops for approximately 1800 litres of beer are added to the boil for today’s summer ale brew.
“Beer has been made for thousands of years, but hops have only become common in beer from the 1500s onwards,” Sherlock says. “They were used, but so was just about anything else brewers could get their hands on to add a bitter flavour. Things like nettles and briars.”
Bitterness in beer comes from the alpha acids in the hops which become isomerised during the boiling stage of brewing. You can taste it in almost every beer you drink. By contrast, the actual hop aroma and flavour characters that people find so alluring when tasting a beer – particularly a beer with a high hop expression, like an IPA – comes from the next hop addition, called late hopping.
Once the wort has boiled for about 90 minutes – a process that sees around 100 litres of water evaporate out – the liquid is pumped into the next stainless steel tank, known as the whirlpool.
“This is basically a specially designed tank that allows the liquid to be poured in on a tangent, so that it starts to rotate around and around forming a centrifuge and concentrating any sediment, which we call trub, towards the bottom of the tank,” Sherlock says.
The whirlpool helps to clarify the wort even further and, crucially, allows the brewer to add any other additional ingredients that help define the aroma and flavour profile of the finished beer.
“Is this where brewers add things like fruits or chocolate, corn chips, seaweed, fried-chicken or rabbits to beer?,” I ask.
“There’s a bit of a trend of having big, dumb flavours in beer, where drinkability and balance is forgotten about,” he says. “I reckon there’s no point brewing a beer that people won’t want a second glass of. However, yes, this is where you can add those sorts of things to get certain smells and flavours into beer.
“We’re making the summer ale, so we’ll be only adding hops today. This will give the beer its light citrus and fruity aromas. But in something like our Young American IPA, a late addition of a lot of hops would also give the beer a resinous, hoppy mouthfeel and texture.”
The wort spins around and around, like a record baby, for around an hour, before it begins to slow down, eventually coming to a complete stop. Then, finally, it’s time for the wort to be transferred, via a heat-exchanger, into a fermentation tank.
“We pump the wort through the heat-exchanger which drops the temperature from 98˚C to 20˚C almost instantly,” Sherlock says.
“Is that so that the yeast won’t be burned in the fiery temperatures of the wort?,” I ask.
“Yep, exactly, so we’ll add the yeast once all the wort is transferred, which kicks off the fermentation of all those sugars we extracted from the malt earlier today,” Sherlock answers.
The final phase in today’s operation is left up to the microscopically-little yeast cells.
Over the next week, they will furiously eat on all the extracted sugars in the wort, converting them to ethyl alcohol and carbon dioxide, thus creating, for Sherlock, for me, and for you, a fresh, cold pint of wonderful complexity, expressed simply as beer.