Sunday, 16 February 2014

Some thoughts on Bottle Conditioning

Recently there has been some debate regarding bottle conditioned beers in Cape Town. One of the local bloggers approached brewers with a couple of questions.

Here are our answers to them:

Do you bottle condition any/all of your beers?

Yes we bottle condition all of our beers are the moment, but we have our own way of doing it. I am pretty sure techniques vary from brewer to brewer & brewery to brewery. 

What do you see as the pros and cons of bottle conditioning?

Let's start with the cons...
If you don't know what you are doing the results can be pretty awful.
The beer will probably not be crystal clear.
In many cases you will have consumers who do not know what to expect from a bottle conditioned beer and how to correctly treat bottle conditioned beer. People keep, handle & pour bottle conditioned beers incorrectly resulting in a beer ending up in the glass the way it was never intended.
If you have too much yeast in the bottles, stability issues, such as autolysis, and unwanted haze can be a problem.

Now for the pros...
Bottle conditioned beers are alive, unfiltered and unpasteurized. 
When a beer is filtered, it passes through a membrane in order to remove excess particulates, yeast, and remaining trub that is less desired in the finished product. Filtering will also remove positive characteristics that contribute to aroma and flavor. Pasteurization is a common practice at larger breweries. When beer is pasteurized, it is heated to 60ºC for two to three minutes, which basically cooks to death any remaining bacteria or yeast. Finished beer can also be flash pasteurized, which means a 15 to 30 second hit of 74ºC heat that's thought to be a bit nicer to the beer, but it still kills it!
Bottle conditioning, when done properly, can result in beer with a finer + silky carbonation, much better head retention, more complex flavours, longer shelf life, and better aging ability than force carbonated beers.
Bottle conditioned beers change character as they age. Filtered to death, pasteurized beer is simply on a downhill path as soon as it leaves the brewery.

Are there any styles that you think should always be bottle conditioned and any styles that you would never dream of bottle conditioning?

It depends what you want out of a beer. If done correctly you can probably bottle condition anything. Some may say you can’t bottle condition lagers... I do not agree, some of the most interesting lagers we've ever tasted were cask conditioned lagers (for all practical purposes cask conditioning and bottle conditioning is the exact same thing).

Some people have said that a beer cannot be considered a craft beer if it hasn’t been bottle conditioned – any comment on this?

Personally I think that is complete crap...

In addition to these questions and answers I have a few more random thoughts & comments:

Due to some issues with a few bottle conditioned beers a few commentators have proposed using force carbonation in Cornelius style kegs and using counter pressure bottlers or a Blichmann Beer Gun.
In theory this can work, but the following must be noted:
Carbonation without proper carbonation stones to dissolve the CO2 into the beer will most probably result in a distinctive soda-bite flavour in the beer.
Carbonation levels can vary between kegs if the carbonation setup is not properly thought through.
You still need a pretty big cooler to keep the beer at low temperatures to properly carbonate & transfer to bottles.
All the added steps present opportunities to oxidize and add bugs to the beer.
Bottling 100+ liter of carbonated beer with a single Blichmann Beer Gun or crude counter pressure filler is a royal pain in the ass.

In the UK cask conditioned and bottle conditioned beer is very common among small brewers. I would almost go as far as saying it is the norm. Just look at the list of breweries on only a hand full of the ones who offer bottled beers do not bottle condition. (The new London brewers have some of the best beers I have ever tried)

On mainland Europe many new breweries are following in the footsteps of UK, Belgian and US brewers. Consequently bottle conditioned beers from small producers are common.

In the USA it varies between force carbonation, bottle / fermenter / brite tank carbonation and hybrid methods. One of the hybrid methods is to cap fermenters / brite tanks to start building up pressure and naturally carbonate the beers. Once this process is complete the CO2 volumes are measured and the quantity of priming sugar and additional yeast is calculated to bring the beer to the desired carbonation level. With the priming sugar and new yeast added the cold, partially carbonated beer is bottled. 

I think the decision by most small breweries to bottle condition beers come down to two things:
1. Since the majority of our new brewers come from a home brewing background it is a technique they are familiar with.
2. It is a matter of cost. Most new breweries start quite small. Pressure-rated vessels cost more than 50% more than non pressure-rated vessels. Small pressure-rated vessels are also not that freely available. Force carbonation in large vessels require proper glycol cooling systems to crash cool beer and to keep temperatures low for carbonation. Once carbonated you need proper bottling equipment... And proper bottling equipment can easily cost as much, if not more, than the brew house the small brewery can barely afford if they start up. All these costs add up, thus bottle conditioning may be the only viable option to get things going for many start-ups.

The bottom line with bottling condition is my opinion is: It works great. If you know what the results, characteristics and behavior of the beers will be and you treat the beers correctly it will taste far superior to filtered to death, bland, watery industrial lager!

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Decisions, decisions, decisions...

When starting a brewery there are certain decisions you make and routes you take with your product that are made due to the fact that you have very little choice or limited resources to achieve your goal.

The first item we had to decide on was how we will be dealing with consistency... Making consistently good beer is a challenge we are willing to accept and we are trying our very best to keep it that way. However, to make the exact same beer well every time without any noticeable differences between batches is extremely difficult for any startup brewery. On the other hand isn't it just a little bit boring to make the same thing over and over and over.
We decided to embrace "inconsistency" and to make varying beers. If we make the same recipe again it will differ from the previous. To a large extent because we think we will never make the perfect beer. Perfection is something you always strive for, but will never achieve.

Having decided the concept the next group of decisions have to be in connection with ingredients. In general we do not really like South African hops. The majority of the local varieties do not suit what we want to brew at the moment. Local malts, although the choice is limited to a single type of pale malt and a black malt, are good to use if you have some basic knowledge of ingredients. Hops and any speciality malts we use are imports. Some say it is too expensive to import such a large portion of your raw ingredients. We do not agree... The bulk of your cost can actually attributed to packaging, capital costs and labour if you have to pay people to make your beer instead of doing all the hard work yourself.

The following major decisions were related to fermentation.
Firstly we decided against the use of plastic fermenters. Plastic scratches and cleaning them properly is a royal pain in the ass. We use stainless steel only. Even though it costs a little more.
Secondly we decided to control fermentation temperatures the way most small breweries in London do... By using the suitable fermenters in spaces kept at the right temperatures. To do this we have a temperature controlled fermentation room.
There are a couple of decisions many brewers struggle with...
When running small batches, do you need conical fermenters? Actually NO. Unless you want to drop a lot of cash of having them jacketed and using glycol cooling systems. Yeast trapped in the cones may be easier to get out eventually, but due to the pressure and heat they generate yeast autolysis and the accompanying off flavours are a real threat. With fairly wide, flat bottomed fermenters you do not have this problem. There are also quite a number of brewers who swear these flatter fermenters also work better for dry hopping.
Do you need vessels capable of handling pressure? NO... Open fermentation works fine.
Do you need secondary fermenters? NO... Cold crashing and proper conditioning can clear your beer damn well if done correctly.

Lately there seems to be a few people who frown upon bottle conditioned beers... Well, we decided to go this route. Tough shit! It works for us at the moment.
It is probably safe to assume that most of the newer breweries going this route have not perfected the technique yet... Hell, not even quite sure we have, but our bottle re-fermented beers taste way better than any keg carbonated beer we've ever made.
Bottle conditioned beers have finer bubbles with a more silky smooth mouthfeel.
Bottle conditioning scavenges any oxygen in the bottles resulting in a more stable product with a longer shelf life.
Due to the fact that the beers are bottled alive they also develop characteristics with age force carbonated beers cannot.
Bottle conditioning has an old world charm to it... And we are suckers for doing some things old school for the hell of it.
Furthermore, being similar to the carbonation process used for cask beer, bottle conditioned beer can be classified as Real Ale. Force carbonated beers can never be classified as Real Ale.
If breweries like The Kernel, Beavertown and even the monster Sierra Nevada can do it why should the technique be frowned upon?
(A common mistake new brewers make when force carbonating is doing it without proper carbonation stones. This results in a beer with a distinct carbonic acid taste.)