By Jon Abernathy
For the Oregon Beer Growler
This past November Deschutes Brewery unveiled its latest project: a new 2.4-hectoliter (approximately 2-barrel) pilot brewery, tucked into a space next door to the tasting room at the production facility in Bend. The system, a state-of-the-art, fully automated brewhouse manufactured by Esau & Hueber, of Germany, came online in May.
Diminutive by production standards — the imposing conical bottoms of the brewery’s ten 1,300-barrel fermenters loom overhead — the pilot brewery, nevertheless, is more advanced than many other similarly sized systems.
It features two kettles and whirlpools, and allows for splitting a batch of wort into two for boiling in order to compare different varieties of hops in an otherwise-identical recipe, for example. In addition, there are 12 single (2.4-hectoliter) fermenters, one double fermenter and six brite tanks.
The software that runs the system is the same that runs the main 150-barrel production brewhouse, so it’s well-suited for training brewers. And the automation reduces the amount of hands-on tinkering with a batch, as well as allowing for precise fermentation temperature control.
Deschutes spared no expense in developing the pilot brewery, according to R&D brewmaster Veronica Vega. “I'm proud to work for a company that invests this much on research,” she said.
Assistant brewmaster Chris Dent oversees operations on the pilot system. By the year’s end he estimated that they had brewed 40 batches on it, and they are brewing four times a week.
The experience has been a valuable learning opportunity. Asked about surprising or unexpected results with test batches: “I’m always amazed by the influence of vessel geometry and design on flavor impact,” Dent said. “We’ve started splitting brews into the two kettles and it’s really driven the impact of system variances home. Even very slight differences in the vessels are creating differences in the brews that we have to account for in our trial design.”
Deschutes has long used its brewpubs in downtown Bend and Portland as pilot breweries to develop recipes and test batches of beer with the drinking public. It makes sense: from a scale perspective, it’s cheaper and more efficient to trial a 10-barrel batch directly at the pub than a 50-plus barrel batch in production.
For instance, the brewery famously made 23 versions of a Cascadian dark ale between its two pubs before finalizing the recipe for Hop In The Dark. More recently, the original Hop Slice, introduced in 2016, went through eight to 10 recipe iterations before Deschutes settled on the final beer.
The pilot brewery, however, won’t just be used for recipe development; there’s a real opportunity for researching technique and the relationship among ingredients. An upcoming project designed by Vega will examine yeast and hops.
“Studies such as this one give us the knowledge as brewers to expand the horizon of what’s possible in beer from a flavor and aroma perspective,” said Dent, “and really pairs well with a lot of the more analytical research on the interaction of yeast with hops that’s being done in the industry.”
Vega has several projects she’s excited about for the pilot system: “Continued native yeast experimentation, hop aroma impact due to yeast selection and continued flavor trials in American sour beers.”
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