Beer School 4.0

Craft beer provides a wonderful array of styles for every palate. We all enjoy a cold pint of an aromatic IPA, the tart pucker of a good sour, the complexity of a Belgian, or the satisfaction of cracking the cap on that big, boozy barrel aged stout that’s been aging in the beer fridge but how often do we stop and talk about the craft in craft beer? Sure, it’s common to hear the enthusiasts talk about different hops, aromas, and mouth feel but what about the process behind the finished product? Where does that body come from? Why in the world does a beer smell like banana? How does a beer turn sour and still be drinkable? Last Sunday, Helton Brewing Co. brought together 12 West, The Beer Research Institute, and Hangar 24 to host Beer School 4.0 and give us a peek into the process of craft.

First off, I love the beer school idea and this event was exactly what I was hoping for from the experience. How could I pass up the opportunity to get this kind of access to some great local brewers and a peak behind the curtain at their brewing process all while expending my own knowledge on the subject? Plus, you know, get to drink delicious beers at the same time. So I joined the rest of the students gathered in the beer garden, at Helton, where each brewery had their own station set up to highlight a different style of beer. After a quick introduction, and dividing the crowd into four groups, we headed to our respective starting points to let the education begin!

Our first stop, in the rotation, was with Brian Helton who presented their very first sour beer, a cherry sour, which they’re releasing to the public this weekend. As glasses were passed around and we took our first sips, Brian began his presentation with a brief history of sours, the types of yeasts used in the souring process, and the difference between a “real sour” vs. a kettle sour. He walked us through the brew process for a kettle sour, with his brewery as the backdrop, and as an added bonus gave us a tour of their full operation from grain sourcing and milling through fermentation to serving tanks. It was fun to see this process at scale and Brain’s knowledge was sharply accented by his fun presentation style. He has some feelings about making beer and no hesitations in sharing them. He was engaging, clearly knows his stuff and was excited to share with all of us.

The beer is a solid sour; the right amount of tart accented by the cherries. What really stood out, to me, was the slightly malty finish which gave it a good body to balance out the sour.

Stop number two was the Beer Research Institute station where Matt Trethewey had brought two different Belgian brews, Lollie and Double Negative. He regaled us with the story of how they started as home brewers, what lead them to brewing Belgian style ales, and what it is that makes a Belgian. While we sipped on Lollie, he went into detail about the roots of the Belgian style and how discovering Saison beers was his gateway to the beers we had in our hands. He explained how yeast is the key to a Belgain and how the right yeast will produce completely different finished product despite the exact same grain build. Matt clearly loves the brewing and loves sharing the fruits of that process even more.

Lollie and Double Negative were an excellent representation of the diversity within the style. The former being a blonde ale, it showcases the slightly sweet, banana, and clove aroma you’d expect while being a deceptively smooth to drink for an 8.2% brew. Double Negative, a Belgian Dubbel, is a big, roasty, dark treat with notes of rich malts and dark fruit.

Next up was Hangar 24 where Orlando Martinez gave us a brief history of the brewery while we sipped on Bravo Zulu, their brand new Imperial Porter, and Pugachev’s Cobra, their barrel aged Russian Imperial Stout brewed with maple syrup. He handed the presentation over to their director of brewing, Eric Wickler, whose name I admit I had to look up (I blame the Pugachev’s). Eric talked about their barrel aging program and quality control. While dumping ten barrels of Pugachev’s before it ever went to bottle feels like a travesty, it shows just how important a focus quality and consistency needs to be in the overall process.  He also shared the lessons he learned while working in the macro brewing world and how they translate to craft which I found to be an enlightening insight. Both Orlando and Eric were enthusiastic brand ambassadors and getting to hear Eric’s take on beer making after having a foot in both macro and craft was a unique opportunity.

Bravo Zulu is a quality porter. Rich, but not heavy, body with just the right amount of smokey goodness. Pugachev’s is a boozy monster to be sipped and contemplated while it’s beauty unfolds on your palate. It’s easy to see why Orlando said this was the beer which put Hangar 24 on the map.

Last, but not least, was 12 West Brewing with Noel Garcia, Jay Mead, and Jayelynn Willman talking about IPAs. They brought along K-Lax and Frontside to talk about the process and differences in East Coast vs. West Coast style IPAs. This was the last rotation of the event so, as you can imagine, the crowd was getting pretty, shall we say… loose. However, the 12 West gang handled it well and were very engaging. Given the current huge popularity of the East Coast style, it was fun to have these brews side by side to experience their differences while learning about how they’re made. Noel and Jay were gracious presenters while Jayelynn did an excellent job wrangling our group and even though they all had a concert to get to, they didn’t rush and made time to answer lots of questions. Plus, delicious beer aside, they’re huge Rick and Morty fans which is an automatic win in my book.

K-Lax and Frontside are solid representations of their respective styles. K-Lax hits the hazy, juicy East Coast IPA hallmark without being an over the top juice bomb and Frontside nails the West Cost piney and hop forward notes. They’re both smooth and a little too easy to crush for their respective 7.2% and 7.5% ABV.

In addition to the brewers station, our man, Eric, was there recording audio and video for Tap That AZ. Keep an eye… or ear out for the upcoming episode from the event to get interviews with the brewers and some of the attendees including yours truly!

After getting to spend time with each of these brewers, I have a few main takeaways:

  1. Good water is the foundation for good beer. While this is probably intuitive to most beer drinkers, it was impressive to hear the brewers talk about their process creating the best possible water profile for their brews. It’s clearly no easy task when you’re starting with the water from Phoenix pipes.
  2. Yeast is the key to the different styles. We all know yeast is turns sugar into ethanol but it’s also the key to flavor profiles. Each of the brewers touched on the importance of choosing the right strain for the right beer and creating the best environment for the yeast to do it’s work.
  3. Consistency in product is a must. Eric, from Hangar 24, really brought this point home when he stated it was the most lesson he learned from his time with the Macros. Say what we will about Bud, Coors, etc., (and we all have a lot to say) the fact that you can go from the Mid-West to the U.K. to China and get the same beer you experience is an important lesson for all brewers.
  4. Brewing is a science and unless you respect the chemistry you will not have a good product.

I had a blast at Beer School 4.0 and feel safe in saying all of us who attended felt it was a success. It was well organized, informative, and fun. After our trip through all four stations and all the common themes we heard from each of the brewers, the one thing which really stood out was the obvious passion they all hold for the process. These people love what they do and maybe, after all the science and process, it’s the passion that’s the true craft in craft.

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Chris Dodson

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