It’s easy to learn about beer in a community like Colorado Springs. Just visit any of the local breweries here, ask some questions, try some sampling flights and you’re likely to leave with a whole new perspective and appreciation for the crafty, bubbly booze. At many local pubs, you can watch brewers hard at work through windows to the brew room. But I wanted to learn just what the brewing process is like, so I spent a day with Charles McManus, head brewer at Phantom Canyon Brewing Company.
When I meet up with McManus, he tells me today we’re brewing the Alpenglow Hefeweizen. He hands me a clipboard with some basics of the recipe and schedule for the day — all condensed to a single sheet of paper. The hefe is one of the brewpub’s flagship beers, meaning it’s always on tap.
“It’ll be a pretty mellow brew day,” he says. But what’s mellow for McManus nearly makes my head spin. He explains that today’s wort (the liquid extracted from the mashing process to leave sugars behind, eventually turning to alcohol) needs to end at a higher concentration than the previous day’s brew. This needs to happen to level out the alcohol content since both brews will be combined in the fermentation vessel.
We start the brew by adding about 700 pounds of grain to the mash tun, the large stainless steel tank used for mixing. Phantom Canyon has a tall, white grain silo behind the building to feed grain through a channel of pipes into the vessel. We combine a different kind of grain for flavor, which is specific to the beer. There are flavor options, such as honey, malt or chocolate (the latter often used in stouts).
Near-boiling water sprays evenly and gently over the grain in the masher, so as not to disrupt even a single grain. The tank fills until a thin layer of water covers the grain bed, then blender arms inside the tank spin. Next, wort slowly drains from the bottom of the tank and circulates back through pipes to be sprayed over the grain again. This process is called vorlauf, German for recirculation. “We want all that rich liquid brought to the top and filtered through the grain to clarify the wort, leaving only proteins, enzymes and sugars,” McManus explains.
“It’s actually really good for you,” he says and hands me a sample. It’s a reddish-brown, cloudy liquid, but tastes super-sweet.
Mashing is the most important process. “This step will make or break your beer,” McManus says. He takes extra caution and gives much patience because it greatly influences how the beer will taste, look and smell — all important characteristics of craft beer.
Once the wort is filtered enough to turn clear, it’s transferred to the kettle. The next process is lautering, separating liquids and solids. As the kettle fills with wort, steam is used to heat the tank and bring it to a boil.
Thanks to an upgraded system, Phantom Canyon’s masher has a side door where the grain spills out as the arms spin. McManus’ assistant brewer, Tom St. John, collects the spent grain, which is now triple in weight. They leave the grain buckets outside for a local rancher who comes to collect it to feed to his goats.
When the wort is boiling, it’s time to add the hops — my favorite. Most people think hops are used just to make a bitter IPA, but they do so much more. Hops are for flavor and isomerization, McManus explains, which is a scientific process that in brewing describes acids converting to bittering units. “The more isomerization, the more acid and intensity of the hops,” McManus says.
Also, the longer the hops are boiled, the more bitter the beer tastes. Some hops are used for the aromas, and other hops are used for isomerization. The Summit hops we’re using in the hefewiezen are used for both, McManus says.
I lift the lid of the boiling tank and pour in a few cups of frozen hops. Steam rises from the opening, and it smells like fresh herbs and fruits.
The wort boils a while longer after all the ingredients are added, then the whirlpooling begins. McManus explains this process is similar to stirring sugar in tea, creating a mound of trub, a cone-shaped mound of hop debris. The solids from the wort pile up while the beer is ready to be transferred to the fermentor.
During the transfer, the beer is sent through a heat exchanger, allowing it to enter hot and leave cold. The cold water is captured and sent back to a hot liquor tank, which creates a sustainable way to save energy and reuse water. Also during the transfer, oxygen is dissolved into the beer on its way to the fermentor to give the yeast a healthy boost.
The beer is sent to the same fermentor as the previous day’s brew, where we previously matched the sugar content to even out the strength of alcohol. There the beer will ferment, then age for about a week, a relatively short time compared to a lager’s aging time of a couple months.
The entire process of the day has taken about 6 hours, and afterward, McManus pours me a pint of the his experimental imperial red ale, 99 Red Balloons. I’ll be back in a few weeks so to sample the actual beer I helped to create. But for now, McManus’ earlier handiwork is a tasty reward for the brewing work of the day.
Sample for Yourself
Try the hefeweizen or one of the many other beers at Phantom Canyon Brewing Company: phantomcanyon.com
Read more about Phantom Canyon’s head brewer, Charles McManus, in the Winter issue of Springs magazine. Coming soon!