By Anthony St. Clair
For the Oregon Beer Growler
Wrangling yeast can be as easy as moving it from one fermenter to another. Unless you have four yeast strains in regular use and a tight production schedule that can’t always wait for the yeast to be ready. That’s why, earlier this year, Eugene-based Ninkasi Brewing Company brought online a dedicated system of yeast propagation and storage tanks.
“Yeast is the only raw ingredient we supply ourselves,” says Dr. Daniel Sharp, director of brewing process development. “In addition to beer, we also make yeast, so having dedicated vessels for making and storing yeast is no-brainer, especially due to the amount of beer we make and how many yeast strains we use.”
Originally championed by Ninkasi’s in-house lab and quality control teams, the propagation system (“prop” for short) arrived earlier this year. “Before having this system, we were all doing this with our current brewing and tank setup, trying to fit it in and make it work,” says Sharp, “but that’s challenging when you have all your fermentation vessels full. But you need vessels to make yeast to make more beer. It was an easy ROI, and it makes yeast production easier for the whole team.”
The custom-made system was fabricated by W.M. Sprinkman, a dairy, food and beverage equipment manufacturer in Wisconsin. The system is comprised of three 10-barrel brinks and one 5-barrel brink for storage as well as 20- and 30-barrel props. Controls include gravity, gas composition (vessel atmosphere), agitators to aid cooling and homogeneity, and temperature. For oxygen, “we used to use a standard dosing rate, like most brewers, added at the beginning of fermentation,” says Sharp. “Now we can add oxygen based solely on how much the yeast needs to grow, instead of how much it needs to ferment. We’re still working with it to figure out the optimal amounts, but playing with the oxygen levels for the yeast is helping us grow healthy yeast faster.”
A positive displacement pump, great for moving thick liquids while being gentle on the yeasts, is used for transfers. After yeast is grown in the lab, it’s added to the prop and then pitched into wort during knockout. One 30-barrel batch of yeast can pitch a full 550-barrel fermenter. Instead of pitching by volume, the tanks are connected to load cells, so Ninkasi’s brewers know how much yeast is being pitched down to the pound. “We also don’t like to waste things, especially yeast,” says Sharp. “Nailing in exactly the amount we need when we need it, that’s the goal.”
Installed and tested during March and April, Ninkasi uses the system for the full yeast propagation process. The benefits have been immediate. Yeast propagation used to take 14–21 days. Now it can be done in 10–12 days.
“The shorter time helps us be flexible and work with the yeast while it’s in a happy state,” explains Sharp, “while also working with the other needs of the production schedule. We look out weeks in advance, and the shorter time is a big win.”
Parallel environments ensure optimal conditions for both beer and yeast. “Fermentations are great for making alcohol but aren’t good conditions for yeast growth,” says Sharp. “The conditions for growing yeast are bad for beer, such as needing oxygen. With the props we can grow a healthy supply of our own yeast without compromising beer flavor. Also, by controlling the conditions of our yeast growth and health, we can better control the subsequent fermentation profiles.”
Depending on the schedule, now yeast can be taken straight from one fermenter to another, or it can be stored in a brink and used for up to 10 fermentations. With four strains in regular use (Helles Lager, English Ale, Chico Ale and German Ale), plus a house yeast library for special projects, it’s also easier to maintain the “yeast pipeline” so that yeast is at an optimal state for pitching. For example, the English Ale strain — used in flagship beers such as Total Domination IPA — is a “juggernaut” that has adapted well to Ninkasi’s brewery and higher-IBU and ABV beers, while providing softer blending aromas and flavors.
“We don’t do delicate yeasts that need coddling,” says Sharp. “We need tough yeasts.”
On the flipside, for a beer such as Hop Cooler IPA, the Chico Ale accentuates individual characteristics, and the German Ale yeast used in Sleigh’r Dark Double Alt Ale is less flocculent, so some residual yeast remains for a thicker mouthfeel.
“We are a yeast farming facility that makes good beer,” says Sharp. “Our job is to make good yeast, or we can’t make good beer.”
By Ben Waterhouse
For the Oregon Beer Growler
Our long, hot summer of sipping ice-cold radlers and macro tallboys in between wildfires has finally come an end, and I could not be happier to be returning to the big beers of winter. Fall is a time of rising ABVs and darkening malts as the temperature drops. The days grow shorter and we gather at the bar to salute the harvest. Here are eight season-appropriate beers to enjoy from the hop harvest through Oktoberfest and beyond — and not a one of them contains pumpkin.
Baerlic Brewing Company: Hellsner Helles Fresh Hop
5.0% ABV, 20 IBUs
As of this writing, the hop harvest was still in full swing, and few fresh-hopped beers had made it to bars. Baerlic, a 10-barrel brewery with a design-heavy taproom in Southeast Portland, was ahead of most, dropping three fresh-hopped beers in early September. The Pioneer Bitter, a gold medal winner from the 2017 Oregon Beer Awards, might be the most eagerly awaited, but my favorite of the bunch is this juiced-up Munich-style lager, which pours golden yellow. Flavors of mango and papaya mingle with floral aromas from a big dose of Santiam hops. It tastes like a bakery full of proofing bread with hints of apple juice. There’s no telling how long this one will stick around, but Baerlic’s lagers have been consistently strong of late, so if you can’t find Hellsner on tap one of its less-seasonal counterparts will likely suffice.
Hopworks Urban Brewery: Mt. Angel Volksbier Bavarian Session Ale
5.0% ABV, 40 IBUs
Hopworks released this limited-edition homage to Oregon’s largest Oktoberfest just in time for the event’s 52nd birthday in mid-September, when the Portland brewery’s beers were the only non-German offerings in the Biergarten. The mild, straw-colored brew owes its lightly spicy aroma to Hallertau hops sourced all the way from Bavaria — a radical allegiance to the Reinheitsgebot if ever there was one. The bready bitterness gains some floral and citrus notes as it warms, but overall it’s a pleasant ale to pound while you polka. It may not capture the imagination as well as Mount Angel’s own Benedictine brews, but it’s far more appropriate for all-day drinking.
StormBreaker Brewing: Stormtoberfest Marzen-Style Lager
5.1% ABV, 27 IBUs
The label for this Märzenbier features an anthropomorphized fermenter tank sporting a feathered cap, four-legged lederhosen and a single, baleful eye: an unsettling vision for a comforting beer. The latest lager from North Portland’s StormBreaker pours clear copper with no head and strong aromas of anise and bubblegum. Although the marketing copy brags of putting “heart, soul and lederhosen into every batch,” I taste no leather here. Despite the low IBU, this isn’t a barley bomb. It’s clean and classic, with a creamy texture and enough bite on the finish to offset its sweetness. It’s a beer for an Oregon autumn, inspiring visions of grey skies and damp denim. It would make a good companion to a plate of brats, but is even better suited for braising them.
Occidental Brewing: Festbier
6.3% ABV, [Unavailable] IBUs
North Portland’s Occidental brewing is dedicated to classic German styles, and this very classic Marzen has long been a feature of its annual Oktoberfest party. Now that it’s available in bottles for the first time, it can become a fixture at yours, too. Festbier pours a clear Pre-Raphaelite red with unusually bright, fizzy carbonation. It smells Negra Modelo and tastes like fresh-baked biscuits. There’s no clever tricks or new concepts here — Occidental takes on the style and nails it. This beer is fresh, clean, mild and dangerously drinkable. Stay safe by downing it alongside an abundance of pork products.
Deschutes Brewery: Hopzeit Autumn IPA
7% ABV, 60 IBUs
Deschutes’ newest autumn seasonal is “Marzenbier-inspired,” which I take to mean that it’s an Oktoberfest beer for those who don’t much care for Oktoberfest beers. Hopzeit pours a rich coppery amber, the color of fresh apple cider, with abundant fruit-salad aromas. It’s got the sweet booziness of a classic Oktoberfest ale, but it’s balanced with a hefty dose of Herkules, Sterling and Hull Melon hops that lend a bitter bite and lingering peppery finish. It reminds me of nothing so much as Sierra Nevada’s Celebration Ale. I’m not sure who the target consumer might be for this hybrid, but it makes for a pleasant pint. Just make sure you serve it straight from the fridge — as Hopzeit approaches room temperature, it becomes unpleasantly syrupy.
Ninkasi Brewing Company: First Rule IPA
7.5% ABV, 60 IBUs
According to Ninkasi, the first rule of this new IPA is “Do not talk about this IPA.” Rules are made to be broken. This bright, fruity special release is the star of the brewery’s 2017 IPA variety pack and hardly seems like it could be the product of the same brewery that brought us Total Domination and Tricerahops. A clear golden ale with strong aromas of passionfruit and nightshades, it packs a huge tropical wallop of mango and papaya giving way to a smooth finish that leaves you wanting more. With a hop bill including El Dorado, Mosaic and Calypso, it reminds me a little of tropical punch. I want to sip it from a tiki mug with a tiny umbrella while basking under a sun lamp, but I’m more likely to schlep a couple of six-packs to the next neighborhood house party.
Wolves & People Farmhouse Brewery: Tractor Pull Tawny Old Ale
8.5% ABV, 32 IBUs
This hefty English-style old ale has been kicking around in bottles since early 2017, but there’s something distinctly autumnal about the vanilla and cinnamon that give this tawny brew its kick. Sold in sturdy 500-milliliter bottles with cheery yellow labels, Tractor Pull pours a deep nut brown and smells like an orchard after harvest, with hints of cocoa and coffee. It’s brightly fizzy and tastes of rye bread, molasses, cinnamon and subtle vanilla. It reminds me of pain d’epices and Dr. Pepper, and should probably be sipped alongside a plate of fresh-baked spice cookies. Looking for even more autumn? Watch for Trolley Pull, a version aged in Eagle Rare barrels made in collaboration with North Portland bar Interurban, coming out soon in 750-milliliter bottles.
Claim 52 Brewing: Bird Up Milkshake IPA With Strawberry
7.3% ABV, 30 IBUs
Strawberries don’t exactly scream “fall,” but, thanks to a late harvest, this strange beast of a beer dropped in September. Bird Up is the latest in a series of “milkshake” IPAs from this small Eugene brewery in recent months, brewed with lactose in the manner of creamy, fruity brews from Pennsylvania’s Tired Hands and Seattle’s Urban Family. This one, available only in cans, was made with strawberries and vanilla and pours an enticing peachy-pink with thick haze. Its enormously hoppy nose is heavy on grapefruit. The strawberries contribute tart acidity and a lingering floral sensation. It reminds me of an Orange Julius, or maybe a scoop of strawberry sherbet floated in a pint of Claim 52’s coveted Fluffy IPA. Stout floats are common enough — why not other ales? Bird Up is a limited release, but if you can’t get your hands on a can I bet there’s another milky fruit concoction coming our way soon enough.
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