Originally published at GeekBeer. Please leave any comments there.
The wife and I got a tour of the Redhook Brewery in Woodinville, outside of Seattle, today. It was a private, behind-the-glass tour from Bob the Beer God, father of Dan the Brew Master. I’m writing this from memory, a few iPhone-scribbled notes, and my photos, so bear with me if details are a bit wrong in places.
The first thing you notice in the brewery proper — after getting through the pub and touring room that most of the public sees — is that it smells just like homebrew. Exactly the same. Except instead of all in one place, like your kitchen, the smells are segregated, because the scale of the thing is staggeringly huge. There are four containers involved in the brewing process — mixing, mashing, boiling, and straining/dry hopping. Each container can hold up to 100 barrels of wort. For those following at home, that’s more than 1500 gallons. That’s a lot of beer. And it gets bigger from here on out.
Everything about the brewing process is computer-controlled. It appeared to me as though they literally program their recipes and the machines take care of most of the work, mostly without a lot of human intervention. But they use the same malts we use at home (Briess specialty malts and Great Western for base and caramel 60 in Redhook’s case), and the brewing room smells just like the brewing stage of a homebrew: malty sweet with a hint of hops. It’s pretty fantastic.
They even have a mill where they dump grain. There’s a dude above the mill whose job it is to measure the grains. They buy base malt in bulk (by the truckload) and specialty malts in smaller quantities. There’s a guy who dumps the bulk grain through the mill, which is two giant rollers that crush the malt, just like your local homebrew supply store probably has. They feed specialty malts through the same way, but they do so by hand, from bags.
The next stop for the beer is the same place it is for homebrewers: Fermentation vessels. After chilling the wort over the course of about 40 minutes, they pump it over to the fermentation room, pitch the yeast, and wait. Redhook’s fermentation vessels hold between one and four brews — up to 400 barrels per tank. It can take 4 brews to fill one tank. Redhook uses a lot of yeast, but they mostly grow it all in-house. They start with a few liters and grow up about a keg worth, and then they harvest and reuse it ten times before moving on to another batch.
This is the only place where Redhook’s process differs from the normal homebrew process in a way that is more than just the scope and size of the operation: After fermentation, the beer is extensively filtered before it heads to the “bright tanks” to await bottling. The bright tanks are so called because the beer that goes into them is freshly fermented and filtered: it’s crystal-clear and bright. Filtration is a big part of a commercial brewing operation. The general public wants to see beautiful beers, and Redhook takes a lot of pride in being able to show off the color and clarity of their flagship brews. It tends to cost them a lot of beer, though. They can lose as much as 25 barrels during filtration, just from the unrecoverable beer left in the pipes. In fact, as Bob said, as much as 15% of a small batch of beer can be lost during the various brewing operations. It’s to their benefit to continuously work on a single beer to minimize this relative loss.
The concerns during fermentation for a homebrewer are pretty minimal. Pitch and wait. But when you’re fermenting thousands of gallons of wort, you have some pretty major concerns. For instance, carbon dioxide becomes a major pressure hazard in closed tanks, and a potential health hazard for workers. And that much yeast produces a lot of heat — enough that if left unchecked, the yeast will kill themselves with it and leave the beer quite funky. Redhook solves these problems with giant industrial fans, huge sets of tubes and valves, cooled fermentation vessels, and a host of smaller inventions. The fermentation room, as you might expect, smells strongly of yeast: like a fresh beer out of the primary in the garage. But, you know, a thousand (or more) times larger.
After fermentation and filtration, the beer moves to the previously mentioned bright tanks, which sit right on the bottling room floor. The bottling room is a beer lover’s dream come true: Dozens of pallets piled high with fresh beer in every variety. Thousands of fresh empties. Huge tanks filled with fresh beer. And a line that produces a new bottle of beer every quarter of a second or so.
Redhook uses a lot of bottles. Serious numbers of bottles. They come fresh from the factory in boxes. You’d think this wouldn’t be a problem, but it is. They have a special machine that de-cases the new bottles.
The bottles are then cleaned with hot water and filled with fresh beer from the bright tanks. Through some further magic locked away in the machines on the line (which Bob explained but I missed), the bottles are filled and carbonated, given a small head of CO2 to prevent oxidation, and capped. Then they are washed, dried, labeled, boxed, and put on a pallet for shipping. And again, this room smells just like the floor of your garage after a session of bottling — a bit like fresh beer.
That’s it, from beginning to end. Pretty much the same as any homebrewed beer, but much, much larger.
This is probably a good time to mention that Bob was a pretty outstanding tour guide. He answered every question we asked and was very forthcoming with his knowledge about beer in general and Redhook in particular. He showed us how Redhook’s tastings are done, how they measure color and bitterness, how they grow yeast, how they do general quality-control… But that’s all going to have to wait for the next article, since this one is getting on near a thousand words.
He sent me packing with three pounds of hops from the stash they keep there. It’s a pittance for them, but it’s easily 40 gallons of beer to me — even if I hop like I’m working at Dogfish Head.
Bob also hinted that he’s a good guy to ask about brewing careers. I’m thinking about how I can take him up on the implied offer.