Author Archives: Thomas Vincent

Brewing in Mexico

A rooster crows next door, the rhythmic thumping of truck air brakes slowing for speed bumps roar on the highway outside, and the room is filled with the aroma of mash just doughed in and converting. The morning air is cool and fills the room. The traffic is just a constant background noise. It’s just another morning brewing in Salvatierra Mexico.

Whenever I tell Americans I am going to Mexico to work they laugh and say enjoy the beach. But the truth is in central Mexico we are about as far from the beach as possible, smack in the middle of the country. The state of Guanajuato which is one of the more industrial states in the country. Familiar names like GM, Mazda, and Honda all have production facilities just down the road, plus a very active agricultural sector. While I see lower income areas, I have also been to a malls that rival any in the US and restaurants that could compete for a James Beard award.

So what is making beer like? Different. Okay that is a cop out, the brewhouse is a Speidel Brewhouse 200L system. While some liken it to a boil in bag system large scale, it reminds me of an old school coffee percolator system. The mash tun is the percolator and the wort is recirculated through a pump through it. After mashing we hand crank the mash tun up allowing to drain and we do a light sparge, I’d like it with 80C water but for the moment it’s just tap water.

Then naturally we come to a boil. But it isn’t quite the rapid boil as brewers like to normally think of, Guanajuato is around Denver elevation and the electric heating element works okay, but between the two factors a fierce boil isn’t a reality. So we cover with a lid until we hit our first hop addition and then uncover just a bit to allow steam and DMS (the cooked corn flavor) escape but keep as active as possible boil. Another brewery in the region made a beer and it was obvious they had the lid on the whole time, all I could smell and taste was DMS in it.

We ferment in just over 3 barrel fermenters so we double batch to fill them. I am trying to talk the owners into a Hot Liquor tank (HLT) or even a home hot water heater so that we could double batch in a single time. Currently the brew kettle is our only large scale hot water device so doing a double batch in a day is a 14-16 hour day is my rough guess.

So how is brewing in Mexico? It’s more work and things are at a slower pace. It is frustrating to someone who is used to busier pace for breweries. I have been told ingredients would be here when I arrive and they weren’t. So we grabbed a truck then went and bought enough ingredients to get our first batch running. In the middle of brewing that batch the ingredients I was told would not arrive until next Monday showed up. We didn’t have a sanitary pump when I was first here, so I rigged our Premier Stainless manual keg cleaner pump to be our CIP pump, we use it for transferring wort to the fermenter too. It doesn’t have a speed regulator so we control that with the valve at the kettle, it can’t be good for the pump but it works for now. Finding access to simple things like washers, faucet wrench, and other parts can be a few days shipping to near impossible to find locally.

Air conditioning is opening the roll up door to the highway outside so even though my assistant I am training here is good on his cleaning there always seems to be a fine layer of dust on everything.

Speaking on the assistant, why spend the money to send a brewer from the US? They had a brewer nice guy initial part owner but after a few years he decided to move on, brewing wasn’t in his blood. Then they hired another fellow who supposedly had professional experience, he got drunk crashed the company vehicle and filed a false police report on the crash, so I don’t know where he is but the authorities down here would like to know if you have any tips. That left them without a brewer. So I have come down to help get production going and train the assistant, nice kid good heart, he has lived in the US, but his English skills are poor but he is learning. Being my second trip to train I have him doing most of the work, supervise and make suggestions but leave him to do it himself and try to protect him from doing something stupid.

The test will be in a weeks after I leave when he will brew without any supervision. The first one is a recipe we have done before, a beer he likes, he has progressed to the point he seems to understand the steps well enough and he has SOPs in English and Spanish (thanks google translate) so hopefully he will do a good job. Time will tell.

Ultimately my work in Mexico has demonstrated I could probably make just about anything work for making beer anywhere, which is satisfying. I have made some new friends and had some interesting experiences, so it has been quite the adventure.

Session #119 – Discomfortable Beer

Haven’t written a Session post in 17 months, but figure it’s good practice to get back in the saddle.

For Session 119 I’d like you to write about which/what kind of beers took you out of your comfort zones. Beers you weren’t sure whether you didn’t like, or whether you just needed to adjust to. Also, this can’t include beers that were compromised, defective, flat, off etc because this is about deliberate styles. It would be interesting to see if these experiences are similar in different countries.

My love of beer started with German beers, among them a good Bock beer, but years ago I first heard about this variant called Maibock. Not having any produced in my area at the time I decided to brew one. I studied the style, looked up some recipes online and at the homebrew shop I worked occasionally, until I had every detail down. I brewed the beer and it hit all the specifications. Okay honestly I doubt that I can say with certainty as when I was a homebrewer I didn’t often take gravity readings I figured, it converted sugars and fermented, it will be beer and that was my biggest concern at the time.

So after fermentation, then aging, I kegged and carbonated the beer and poured a glass of it. The weeks built my anticipation. Finally I got to taste my brew. My face fell flat, it tasted horrid, to me at least, my friends thought I did a decent job, but it had a certain character I disliked and couldn’t put my finger on.

That next weekend I was already traveling to San Francisco, I decided I would go to the Gordon Biersch brewpub and taste their example to find out how I compared. So I did exactly that. I brought that large Golden vessel of liquid bread to my lips drank deeply and realized my error.

My homebrew was a reasonable example of the style, clean, crisp, a bit of bready note. The problem was, I don’t like Maibocks. Their flavor is unappealing to me, much in the same way Irish Red Ale doesn’t appeal to me. I’d like to say I have learned to love them, I appreciate what it takes to brew both styles, but they simply aren’t what I like to drink. And that is perfectly fine.

The Session 102: Beer Landscape

Our topic this month is, “The Landscape of Beer“. How do you see that landscape now? What about in 5, 10, or even 20 years? A current goal in the American Craft Beer Industry is 20% market share by the year 2020. How can we get there? Can we get there?

When I think about the current beer landscape, I want to focus more locally and start with a look back. August 13th is an important day, at least for the North Carolina beer. It was on that day 10 years ago that North Carolina entered the modern beer world, with the maximum ABV changed from 6% to a far more reasonable 15%. I wasn’t in North Carolina then, but I arrived soon after and saw the impact the change made on the industry.

People that got excited by this Popping the Cap had gathered business plans and investors and started opening brewery after brewery in the months after our (me and now wife) arrival. At first I wasn’t sure that the craft scene would be here would be as vibrant as my hometown, sure there was a brewery in my town and a few others around the Triangle (population just over 2 million). But nothing like the town of 60,000 that had 4 breweries and numerous bottle shops and beer bars I came from.

Thankfully, I couldn’t have been more wrong.

What I came to discover was a state on the cusp of becoming a craft beer destination. The number of brewers exploded from a handful to over 30 within an hour of me. The state will have 150 by the end of the year. One good bottle shop has turned into so many I can’t count them all. Numerous coworkers from homebrew shop I worked have become a generation of brewers for these fledgling breweries, myself included. I have made so many friends through this community and am thankful for it.

So I’d like to think that the future of this beer landscape is just as promising a future as the last 10 years. Companies like Sierra Nevada, Oskar Blues, and New Belgium seem to think we are heading in the right direction and have joined us. I teach a class locally to help keep the industry staffed, but it’s not just Wake Tech, across the state from Asheville to Rocky Mount educators are helping the cause. National recognized beer bars can be found from Raleigh to Asheville. While we have work to do in some areas like taxes, the legislature has noticed the positive impact we bring to the state and are slowly making reforms like the growler law update.

When it comes to the future of North Carolina beer I believe the future is bright and best is yet to come.

The Session #96 Festivals: Geek Gathering or Beer Dissemination?

I haven’t done one of these in a while, but I like the topic this month so why not?

The February 2015 Session topic is “Festivals: Geek Gathering or Beer Dissemination?

Much of the answer depends on where the festival is and how it is held. For instance events now held in North Carolina, because we have a started to develop a more mature market for beer are often a Geek Gathering. Take for instance Raleigh Rare and Vintage Beer Tasting that was recently held. At $70 a ticket you won’t likely attract someone who has never had a ‘craft’ beer to the event but beer geeks buy all the tickets in a matter of hours. The same goes for events like SAVOR, Fobab, or Beer Advocate’s Extreme Beer Festival. So we have reached a point where many are Geek Gatherings.

That said there is still a market for Beer Dissemination and much of that is based on the structure of the event in question. The last few years locally Brewgaloo has been held downtown Raleigh. This event attracts thousands of people, but for all those folks you can get to beers in general, fairly easily. There is a low barrier to entry, an id check then you buy as many or few tickets as you like, so if you want just to have a few tasters then go on about your day you can. The low level of commitment required opens the door to people who haven’t had ‘craft’ beer before but want to see what it is all about.

This becomes a far more important component as we get to less developed markets as All About Beer’s World Beer Festival have been doing in South Carolina or in the past in Florida. Last year I was in Mexico to help a brewery and it reminded me of what the US market was like 30 years ago. One of the marketing components I recommended to the brewer there was to start an educational outreach program and launch a local beer festival as a component of that program.

Festivals whether geek gathering or beer dissemination need to incorporate education as a key component to their design. This helps newer customers better understand and enjoy their beer. It takes away some of the mystery or fear that people seem to have when faced with the array of choices festival often offer. Festivals are one of the brewers best outreach methods when properly run that help spread the word, okay the flavor, no the awareness of ‘craft’ beer.

PS – I used the term ‘craft’ refer to the more flavorful beers, but it’s a term I tend like All About Beer and other places tend to be stepping away from using, but I needed a modifier on the word beer so I went with what we have got.