On the Coolship CMBC
Humans have been brewing beer for millennia. (Thankfully.) Yet, if you’re lucky enough to take one of our HQ tours, you’ll notice a significant amount of stainless steel, electronics, and enough modern technology to make the average, warm-blooded American go Oooh.
That’s to say, there are a lot of shiny, clanging, intriguing pieces of equipment lying around to keep things interesting.
Yet, it’s apparent that the brewers of old could not possibly have employed a centrifuge or a canner or a stainless steel fermenter or really even yeast, as it wasn’t until sometime in the mid-nineteenth century that good ol’ Louis Pasteur said, “Hey, this is what makes our French bread so awesome.”
So, how did they do… anything at all? How did they make an alcoholic beer if they didn’t know that yeasties excrete alcohol?
Well, dear beer drinker, it’s something called spontaneous fermentation, and we’re gonna be getting into it lock, stock, and… er… barrel.
This past Tuesday, the good folks over at Referend Bier Blendery of Pennington, NJ, stopped by.
Referend doesn’t brew beer. Well, technically speaking, no one brews beer. Everyone brews wort. Those little yeasties turn it into beer.
Nonetheless, Referend doesn’t even brew wort. They rely on the good nature of other New Jersey breweries to do that. What they do is collect the wort from those breweries and ferment it for them.
And, while they ferment, they don’t even use yeast. They use whatever microbes were floating around in the air where the wort was brewed.
“Literally everything about brewing this beer was different,” says Head Brewer Brian Hink.
Essentially, to prepare wort for spontaneous fermentation you want to break just about every rule in the book when it comes to brewing.
Rule-breaking example #1: the grist bill. We used 60% pilsner malt and 40% raw wheat.
“This is the first time we’ve ever used raw wheat,” Brian says. “By raw, I mean unmalted wheat — it’s picked in the field and pretty much ready to go straight into the mill.”
Referend has been using exclusively Rabbit Hill malts, and for good reason — they’re doing unbelievably amazing work in floor malting.
“Rabbit Hill is putting out incredible malt,” Brian says, “and it’s especially well-suited for sours and spontaneous beers.”
Furthermore, as the microflora fermenting the beer are, literally, homegrown, using someone so local makes the beer that much more of a local endeavor.
“South Jersey is a whole different world, full of farms and far away from the hustle and bustle of the urban areas of the northern part of the state,” says Director of Brewing Operations Jimmy Valm. “There’s a reason why New Jersey is The Garden State.”
“It definitely combines with the local microflora to give us a true sense of our terroir,” Brian agrees.
Rule-breaking example #2: the mash. We used a turbid mash.
Believe it or not, as you read this, there are yeasties everywhere. You probably have several crawling on you right now, on your computer, on your phone, on your favorite hat, on your television, on your family portrait. (Be nice to them — they’re harmless and they make beer.)
Nonetheless, as you might imagine, there are far fewer yeasties floating around in the air than there are in the yeast slurry we usually use to ferment our beers. So, since there are exponentially fewer yeasties getting into the wort, those that exist are going to need a lot more food to properly ferment the beer.
So, instead of the relatively gentle mashing process that we usually use, we beat the hell out of this grain. It ends up looking like a very thick milkshake that you’d probably never want to drink.
“With a turbid mash,” Brian tells us, “the food is so complex it allows different organisms to come along at varying points to create the complex depth of flavors you can only find in this style of beer.”
Rule-breaking example #3: the hops. We used old hops.
Generally speaking, you want to use the freshest hops imaginable when you’re brewing beer. The alpha acids — that which give hops their bitterness — are at their highest levels as they’re on the bine. Those acids begin to decline rapidly the longer they’re cut off from sustenance. However, their beta acids — the properties of hops that act as a preservative — stick around for awhile.
We usually use hops within a couple months of harvest. The hops we used for this brew were seven years old. Hops are aged by letting them sit in a dry place for an extended period of time, and during that process they lose nearly all of their hoppy aroma. Luckily, Referend showed up with aged hops — we didn’t want to wait seven years.
Rule-breaking example #4: the boil. We boiled this brew for over three hours.
Ordinarily, when you make beer, the wort boils for an hour, tops. However, we wanted nearly no bitterness at all in the final brew. The hoppy bitterness that’s all the rage these days only detracts from the complex flavor profile in a spontaneously-fermented beer.
Yet, the extra time allowed our brewers some rare downtime. Usually, during an hour-long boil, they’re running around in an attempt to get the next steps set up. However, with a three-hour boil, they ended up with some extra time on their hands.
“Ironically, with this brew we didn’t have to do any of the setup we usually do,” Brian said. “No tank to set up. No yeast to measure out and pitch. No need to heat-kill the line. So, the three-hour boil became a stand-around-and-talk: about processes, philosophies on sours, and beer in general, really a great time to connect and the rare moment to just breathe easy and shoot the shit.
“And then the three hours came up and we realized we didn’t do any of the little bit of setup we actually needed to do and then scrambled to get everything set up.”
Rule-breaking example #5: the coolship, an old-school way of cooling down the wort.
After the boil, you need to cool down the wort before you add the yeast. The wort comes out of the boil at 212° and yeast are living beings. Not only will they fail to create any alcohol at all, they’ll all die.
Normally, we run the wort through a heat exchanger and it cools it from boiling to below room temperature almost immediately. However, this time around we used a coolship.
Referend has a mobile coolship — essentially a gigantic, shallow hot tub in the back of a box truck. We dump the wort in, and, while it cools, the microbes and yeasts floating around in the air find their way into the wort… once it’s cool enough.
“It was freezing cold outside,” Brian tells us. “Literally — it started to snow briefly as we started knock-out! And it was dark as night as it tends to get at 8pm these days, and we only had a few dim lights illuminating the back of the box truck, so it was a pretty special evening. It definitely felt like we should’ve been out in the woods staying in a cabin. Within minutes of starting knock-out, the room completely filled with steam and the aroma was intoxicating. It’s truly an amazing process.”
The next day, James from the Referend came back to the brewery to see how much the wort had cooled. It was down around 80°, which was still a little too warm. We let it go for another few hours, he packed it up into totes, and carted it back to the Referend to be racked into barrels.
We’re thrilled that the Referend asked us to be a part of this.
“We all really dig what they do,” Jimmy says, “they make some fantastic beers, and getting them in here and brewing like this is something we’ve been talking about for years. It’s something very different for us, and I’m excited to learn a whole new way of brewing, the O.G. way!”
But now we wait…. And wait…. And wait….
It may take this beer up to two years to completely ferment. Two years. The suspense is terrible, but now we wait.
This is how beer was made for the first 4,500 years of its existence. Before the science of microbiology became a thing, brewers would brew up some wort and hope for the best. In fact, there are quite a few breweries that still operate this way, particularly in Belgium. This is how traditional lambics are made to this day.
But, that’s what makes this process so beautiful. This is old meets new. Tradition meets innovation. It is the very essence of collaboration.
Once the beer is done, we’ll let you know. Referend keeps most of the brew, but we’ll have some as well. On our end, this will be an extraordinarily limited release, so this will likely be a difficult beer to find, but we’ve got some time to figure all of that out.