Co-hoperation

Making a fresh-hopped beer is in many ways like performing an organ transplant (except lower stakes). It’s all about timing and coordination. The whole object is to get the hops harvested and into a beer in as short a time as possible, while handling them ever so gently. We decided to make an IPA featuring Centennial hops freshly harvested from nearby Four Star Farms.

The hops are rolling in!

The hops are rolling in!

Four Star awesomely invited us, along with a bunch of local brewers, to check out the farm and observe the hop harvest. They’ve got this crazy wolf harvester machine that pulls the cones off of the bines ever so gently.

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Most IPAs are made with dried, sometimes pelletized hops. The opportunity to use freshly picked, moist hop flowers comes but once a year, so we decided to have 30 pounds of hops sent to us directly after harvesting. The folks at Four Star were awesome about getting the hops to us on time. We had to choose a day to brew the beer so that a fermentation tank was available, our other ingredients could be purchased ahead of time, and most importantly, so that the hop harvest would occur then.

Liz, packing up the hops.

Liz, packing up the hops.

So, while our hops were being packaged and sent super-express mail, we were getting ready to begin our brew. The next morning, the grain was prepped and the mash awaited the arrival of hops. Fortunately, around 7:20am, the hops arrived in two mesh sacks.

Hop bags

 

We used the hops in the mash to add a fresh hop aroma to the beer. Later, the remaining fresh hops were placed in a vessel to be used as a hopback. We ran the freshly brewed wort through this hopback to extract more hoppy, fresh and ‘green’ flavors.

Hopback

Total time from harvest to brew: 22 hours. Next year we’ll try to shave it down to 21. Three weeks later, the beer is ready to drink! Taste the Massachusetts-grown freshness!

 

Even more hops!

Myrcene’s in the air

It’s that time of year! Hops are getting heavy on the bine and need to be cut loose. Hops are widely known to be one of the four classic beer ingredients (along with yeast, barley malt and water), but are still probably the most mysterious to many beer drinkers. I believe the reason is that hops do not typically appear in other everyday items (except maybe my all-natural deodorant). In contrast, everyone deals with water, most people have used yeast for bread, and many have probably eaten barley as a whole grain. Hops are kind of odd, but also wonderful. Hops give beer its aroma, bitterness, and they add interesting flavors. They also provide antimicrobial properties that help beer stay fresh.

Hops grow on these climbing vine-like plants called “bines” (unlike vines they don’t have tendrils to latch on, but wrap around a support). Each plant flowers in the late summer, and it is these flowers usually called hop “cones” that we harvest and use in beer. As flowers, it should be no surprise that they are very aromatic. The explosion of American IPAs and session IPAs in the past decade or so has certainly led to wider appreciation of hops and all that they add to beer.

This year, we are eagerly awaiting some freshly harvested hops from local farms as well as an assortment of wonderful varieties from around the world. As those of you who went to our demo at the American Craft Beer Fest will attest to, hop flavor and aroma not only varies by type, but also by where they are grown.

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Showcasing hop terroir in cask ales at ACBF.

So, since there are only a few weeks per year when the hops are ripe for the picking (and not yet picked), I decided to head out to our local New England hop farms to roam through the fields and get up close with these important plants. My first stop of the year was Four Star farms in Northfield, MA. When I arrived, knowing that this was a relatively new operation, I was quite stunned and impressed to find acre upon acre of towering hop bines. It’s quite a site to see and it’s also really cool to walk among the rows of hops.

The hops fields at Four Star. Sunset.

The hop fields at Four Star.

Rows of hops.

Rows of hops at Four Star.

Unlike most crops, hops are extremely tall and require a fair bit of infrastructure to maintain (think telephone poles with aircraft cable). Because the full-grown plants can weigh 20 pounds each, the cables and poles that hold up the bines have to be pretty heavy-duty.

Right before harvest, you can pluck the hop cones from the plant and get a whiff of the fresh aroma. This year, the cones were looking really nice and quite dense. In the New England area, it is said that  hop plants need to be in the ground for three years before they build a dense enough root system to support a substantial crop.

Cones and stems.

Cones and stems.

A freshly picked centennial cone. Big!

A freshly picked centennial cone. Big!

Many of the hops at Four Star are past the 3-year mark and it shows. Of course, there are always new ones being planted. As Liz from Four Star gave us a tour of the crop rows and showed us around, we marveled at the sites and contemplated how much effort it was to plant the hops, and also how much more work it would be to harvest them.

Liz regales us with stories of hops gone by.

Liz answers our questions and regales us with stories of hops gone by.

As we made our way back to the car, Liz invited us to check out the spelt harvest–one of the perks of getting to know your local hop farmers! I got to ride on the combine and watch as acres of spelt were gathered. Our Saison of the Western Ghats bears this ancient grain in its grist, so it was exciting to think that some of those spelt grains could make their way into one of our next batches.

Checking out the combine!

Checking out the combine!

Collecting spelt.

Collecting spelt.

After a fun journey through the spelt fields, we made our way across the farm and back home.

The next trip would be to the Hop Yard in Maine. After Sierra Nevada’s Beer Camp, I made a trip up to this newly established farm not far from Portland. They were having a morning kegs and eggs event right in the hop yard! I got to meet the farmers, check out the plants in their second year and taste some excellent local beer. Peter gave me a walk-through of the hop plants as I enjoyed my eggwich. I think that the steadily increasing hop growth in the New England area will benefit farmers and brewers alike, since they can share not only beer and ingredients, but resources and knowledge about hops. The guys at the Hop Yard have been great about keeping us in the loop with all kinds of info about harvesting and packaging of hops.

Me and Peter at the Hop Yard.

Peter and me at the Hop Yard.

Even more hops!

Even more hops at Hop Yard!

Hop farms like Four Star and the Hop Yard are pioneering a new era in East Coast hops. We are very excited to be working with them and learning about what makes local hops unique as well as how to best use them. It’s easy to see that every year, our locally grown hops get even better. Hop growing used to be centered around New York State back in the 1800’s and early 1900’s. Since then, much of it has moved out west. Now, hops are returning to the region and we are happy to be able to enjoy and experiment with locally grown varieties.

This week, we are looking forward to making our first wet-hopped beer (which uses hops that are plump and freshly picked). This is the only time of the year when this is possible! Stay tuned to hear about the short journey from the hop plant to the tap.

-Ronn

Building Aeronaut: Our mobile beer dispenser

As many new breweries are wont to do, we at Aeronaut have taken a page from the homebrewing world and incorporated it into our brewery. I’m talking about a movable draft fridge that had its beginnings as a sort of kegerator (or ‘keezer’ as they are sometimes called).

Back when we were prototyping around 12 recipes per month, we started to need lots of space for storage and dispense of those homebrews. This led to us building a cool fridge that would double as a bar. It was a modest amount of woodworking ,  but it came out really nice.

Frame for the beer fridge

Frame for the beer fridge

We started out with four taps, but that quickly increased to eight. The interior needed lots of organization, since we had eight draft lines, a CO2 tank and up to 12 gas lines installed.  The beer was flowing smoothly and it was excellent to have this all figured out.

Taps installed and flowing!

Taps installed and flowing!

The inner workings

The inner workings

Of course, maintaining 8 tap lines is no simple task, and aside from keeping the keg inventory moving, we needed to have a system in place for keeping the lines clean. That led to our home-grown line cleaning system! We used a nice centrifugal pump and split it up over the draft lines so that we could flush and clean four lines at a time (see our instructional post on draft line cleaning for more info).

Now that we are building out our tasting room, we are going to have a more permanent beer faucet setup. But what is to come of our loyal draft fridge? We are keeping it in the brewery and will take advantage of its size and mobility so that we can dispense beers for growler fills away from the main tasting bar. Also, as the Aeronaut Foods Hub fills out, we will often find reasons to tote the fridge 100 feet to the other side of the space so beer can flow right in the market.

Bringing the beer to the people!

Bringing the beer to the people!

The only thing missing now is a name for our good old draft fridge. We’re open to suggestions!

 

Make your own beer line cleaner!

As a brewery with a taproom, we have lots of draft lines and they need to stay clean for the beer to taste right. We have spent some time putting together a simple line cleaning system and we figured we’d share our efforts for the homebrewers among you who are wishing to maintain a similar level of quality on draft lines.

The basic idea here is to have caustic line cleaning solutions running through the draft lines continuously for 15 minutes or so,  in order to clean out any sticky stuff in the tubing or faucets. Then, a quick sanitary rinse leaves the lines good to go! To avoid having to clean each line separately (and take up several hours), we start with a decent centrifugal pump and use that to push the solutions through the lines.

The pump

The pump

For hardware, you’ll want to have a way to connect the pump outlet to a line splitter for as many draft lines as you’d like to hit (we chose 4).

Line splitter configuration

Line splitter configuration

Each line can then be attached to the end of the tubing you are using to carry beer from the kegs to the faucets. You’ll also need a tray to collect the liquid from the faucets, and return it back to your bucket of line cleaner (we poked a hole in ours so it drains into the bucket).

The setup

The setup

Once you’ve got this all in place, check that the pump flows through your lines without leaking (use water). The pump should be primed with water so it doesn’t cavitate, then pull into the pump from a bucket, run through all four lines (faucets open), and drain back into the bucket  in a loop. If this is getting stressful and complicated, relax and have a homebrew (props to Charlie Papazian)!

Getting the lines attached

Getting the lines attached

It’s a good idea to flush with hot water first, then move on to caustic. After a five minute flush, switch to a bucket of caustic solution and run for 15 minutes to clean the lines. I’d recommend using gloves and safety goggles for this, as these line cleaners can be dangerous.

Caustic is flowing

Water is flowing!

While this is happening, it’s a good idea to soak all of your fittings (e.g. keg connectors and accessories in contact with beer) in a cleaner such as PBW. For the line cleaner, we use BLC, which works very well.  Everything should be rinsed with water afterward. We do two thorough flushes with water for the lines and fittings before using them. A five minute run per water flush should do. Once you’re done, just reassemble and enjoy your clean, sparkling beer!

A collaborative Somerville maple beer

As maple season draws to a close, Aeronaut has teamed up with Groundwork Somerville to make a hyper-local beer using maple sap! We have been tapping trees for a few years now, and are very excited to have a beer to share with our community.

Ronn hammers in our maple taps

Ronn hammers in our maple taps

A few years ago, we started tapping trees in our front and backyards to make some homemade maple syrup. Of course, that was a small operation and we were so happy with the result that last year, we scaled up a  bit. Since we had already purchased some very large kettles for brewing, we figured we’d expand their use for making maple syrup.

Brew kettles on the way!

Brew kettles on the way!

Maple sap boils down at a ratio of 40:1, so even with these 60-gallon vessels, we could make about 1.5 gallons at a time. Still, that’s quite a bit of syrup for us and our friends.

The 2013 harvest

The 2013 harvest

This year, we had a different idea.  We teamed up with Groundwork Somerville to build a collaborative beer using maple sap collected from Tufts University.  First, we used our kettles to help with Groundwork’s annual maple boil.

Chris from Groundwork adds some sap to the kettles

Chris from Groundwork adds some sap to the kettles

Afterward, we used the late-season sap directly in our hoppy maple brown ale! No water was used in this beer–only sap. It smelled really good in the brewery as it was boiling. We liked the idea of using sap rather than maple syrup, because we wanted to keep more of the woody, maple-y volatile compounds in our beer and not lose them during the prolonged and vigorous maple boil.

Now, it’s fermenting in our tanks and we are all eagerly awaiting its debut.

The Aeronaut Team: Dan

This is the third post in a five-part series on the people who make up Aeronaut Brewing Company. Here, we introduce the quirky characters who envisioned this brewery and urban farmhouse, and are now making it a reality.

Many of my formative beer experiences took place in Seattle, where I interned as a software developer for a period during my college years. There, I was happily surprised to find myself immersed in a huge variety of exciting West Coast ales unlike anything I had tried at home in New York. I spent a copious amount of time frequenting Elysian, The Pike, Pyramid, Mac & Jack’s and other strongholds of brewing in the area. Colorado and California beers flowed plentiful, Fat Tire became my go-to sixpack, and I started becoming exposed to Belgian beers then too. Well, once I returned back east, I promptly started homebrewing with friends to try and relive a bit of the joy that came with trying freshly hopped beer right out of the…plastic bucket (I suppose, in our case). Little did I know how deep the rabbit hole goes.

Boadie and Dan are pals

Boadie and Dan are pals

I’ve always had a passion for beverages and try not to be caught without one in hand, as anyone who knows me could attest. The eternal question for me is, beer or tea? They can both lay claim to an important role in societies from ancient times to modern, and have been important in my life too to delve deeper into ideas and projects or simply to relax into their delicious qualities and spirited effects. Beer wins out today—and haven’t most people switched from tea to coffee anyway?

I moved from NYC to Somerville a couple years ago, partially on a hunch that exciting things were afoot. Now as a founder at Aeronaut, I’m the official clerk but take on a variety of roles beyond recordkeeping, including licensing, driving, shipping logistics, equipment acquisition, prototype brewing, title-holding in bowling and ping-pong, and turning the wireless router off and on again. While not brewing, you may find me climbing on the neighboring bouldering walls at BKBS, hacking on fun software projects, or somewhere out on a long-distance drive or short-distance run.

Dan stirs a heady brew

Dan stirs a heady brew

I’m excited that we’re finally making the transition to an operational brewery after more than a year of non-stop prep work. It’s been an awful lot of fun meeting our new neighbors and larger community here, and we hope that you’ll get to visit for a better look at what we’re up to, and for some of the exciting Spring events we have in the works!

-Dan Rassi