Tall, shiny metal bins line the wall. It’s mostly quiet, but every now and then loud banging shatters the normal sounds of our surroundings. “It’s the steam hammer,” answered Voyageur Brewing Company’s Head Brewer, Stuart Long. “It’s steam going through the pipes and hitting the 90 degree angles,” Long added.
Concrete floors, plus the tall shiny fermentors and a neat, clean setting gives this area of Grand Marais’ Voyageur Brewing Company an industrial feel. It’s definitely the heart and main arteries of this restaurant and brewery. “The brewery is very much a living animal,” Long explained. “We're dealing with a single-celled organism and we try to steer it in the direction we want it to go. But, it’s gonna do what it wants to do,” said Long.
The single-celled organism Long refers to is the yeast. It reminds us it’s there with its thick odor; that has a touch of barley wafting in and out of it. Long says yeast is what makes the beer.
But it wasn’t the yeast that caught my attention one day as I walked to the back of the brewing company. It was a pick-up load of steaming something, being raked by a Voyageur Brewing Company employee. As I peered closer, I was told it was the mashed out grain from a recent brew. You can get an idea from the picture that accompanies this article what it looked like that day. This picture shows the grain coming directly from its torture chamber, a device called the mash tun. Life in the mash tun is hot (170°) and is part of the mashing-in process of brewing beer. The mash tun is where the grain has been steeped and starches have been converted to sugar, 170-degree water runs through the grain bed and gets pumped into a really large kettle. This process is called sparging.
One part farmer, one part artist, one part scientist, Long and his assistant brewer, Drew Price, oversee Voyageur’s beer brewing from brain to pint. When asked which part of the process he likes best, Long says the entire thing. “The art form of what’s in your head to the glass in someone’s hand. The enjoyment of seeing people smile when they like what you’ve given them,” reflected Long.
And quite the art form beer brewing is. Long says from concocting the recipe in his mind to getting you that glass of relaxation you’ve been wanting all week can take years. He says it took three to four years of mulling over Voyageur’s Lost Compass Imperial Stout recipe before he actually brewed the first batch.
The physical brewing process itself takes patience. For a lager, from start to finish, it’s about a one to three month process before you get to sip it from your glass. An India Pale Ale (IPA) takes about 16 to 20 days before you get to savor it.
Here comes the artistry. You have to have just the right temperature in all the aspects of the brew process, because temperature changes the profile of a beer. Be mindful of your yeast. Different yeasts yield different flavors. And how long a brew ferments has to be timed carefully. For instance, a lager needs 24 days of fermentation, where as an ale might only take 10 to 14 days to ferment. “There’s a lot of chemistry in beer making, a lot of microbiology,” said Long.
At the Voyageur Brewing company, in order to get this fine piece of “art work” into your glass this is what has already happened behind the scenes:
- The barley or wheat has been milled in. A thousand pounds of grain makes a usual batch of beer. The grain goes through an auger then off to the mash tun.
- Mashing-in lasts roughly 40 minutes. The grain is spun and then sparged in this step. Remember that 170°? Sparging is the process of extracting sugars from the grain, creating a liquid called wort.
- The wort gets piped over to a large kettle and gets boiled. This is where the beer gets sanitized and the hops get added.
- This liquid gets cooled.
- And off to those tall, shiny metal fermentors it goes. Yeast is then pitched into the liquid where it will convert the wort into alcohol and carbon dioxide. Remember it stays here for days.
- Finally reaching attenuation, the liquid goes to the brite. The brite is where the beer gets carbonated and cleared.
- Then into the keg/bottle
- Then into the restaurant
- Then into your glass
- Then onto your tastebuds!
It was after a mash-in that I happened across that steaming pile of grain being raked at Voyageur Brewing Company. I wondered why they were raking it and where the leftovers were headed. I’m told some of the leftovers find their way to a local farmer. Some of it gets put into Voyageur’s fresh baked spent grain bread. A local gal uses it to make healthy dog treats. Some people use it to make soap or granola. In other words, very little waste in a day of brewing beer at Voyageur.
The good news is, you can see and hear this information all for yourself. On any given Saturday (as well as Sundays in the summer), you can sign up on The Voyageur Brewing Company website http://www.voyageurbrewing.com/ for a tour. And if you pay the brewery a visit, you’ll get the bread and the beer. A visit to the farmer will be a separate trip.