On the Road to Berlin: Stone Beer

Hello again and welcome back to the weekly blog of this particular aspiring brewmaster! We are certainly back in the swing of things following the first round of exams at the VLB. The lectures have now moved past grain modification, hops basics, basic chemistry, and brewery arithmetic. Now, the focus is on the brewing process, biochemistry, energy and water conservation, and macro-economics of the worldwide brewing industry. I have to say that it’s pretty exciting to move into, what I would consider, the main show in the theoretical part of the Certified Brewmaster Course. This section will culminate in a mega-exam week at the end of April, just prior to arriving in Berlin for the final, practical chunk of the certification.

One thing that I try to remain conscious of when brewing is the timeline. It’s important for brewers to know brewing history, at least in a general sense. It is a history that stretches back 13,000 years into the past. The collective knowledge that we have accrued along the way was hard-won and passed down from generation to generation of maltsters, brewmasters, and drinkers alike. In fact, I brew at my very best when I am able to rise above the familiar stainless steel surroundings of the brewery and the stress of executing my daily tasks, and recognize that the very moment that I am mashing in or pulling yeast is connected to a much larger story. It is not an isolated incident or menial task, but the perpetuation of an amalgamation of like-minded beer-attendants that have kept a tradition alive for thousands of years despite the rise and fall of empires, world wars, and economic strife. Beer and brewing is a constant. It is an old friend, tried and true.

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This is why I love a good piece of beer history. And in brewmaster school, I sometimes get thrown tidbits of beer history that just make my ears perk up. Usually it will happen when a professor is explaining some kind of modern solution that replaced an early solution that, of course, replaced an even earlier solution. Oftentimes, these juicy little pieces of beer history are only mentioned in passing. But to me they are so intriguing that I just have to research and find out more about the topic. One of these tidbits was thrown out this week by my Brewing Technology professor, who we endearingly refer to as the Captain.

The topic was caramelization and the temperatures above boiling point that activate certain sugars’ caramelization reactions. In general, we can employ caramelization in the brewing process to develop deep and complex flavors in beer. In the modern brewhouse, we do this using large, stainless steel boil kettles with built in internal or external boilers. But, as the Captain explained to us, this modern technology was not always available to us. One solution to encourage caramelization in wort boiling from a bygone era is the making of steinbier, or “stone beer.”

In stone beer, the principle of inducing caramelization is exactly the same as in modern breweries- heat up sugars in the wort to specific temperatures to create a caramelization effect. But stone brewers were mainly low-income, Austrian and Bavarian farmers in the early 20th century. And they could not afford even the relatively rudimentary brewing equipment of the day. These humble farmers made their beer in wooden vessels which, of course, could not be placed on direct fire. Instead, the brewers kept a reserve of hot rocks constantly warming to scalding temperatures in a roaring fire. The brewers carefully lifted the super-heated rocks and placed them directly into the waiting wort. The sugars in the wort would instantly caramelize, imparting both a carmel and smoky flavor in the beer. The result was a very dangerous and imprecise brewing process, but a very uniquely flavored beer. Authentic steinbier is quite difficult to find today due to the dangerous and unconventional methods used to produce it. But, we can recreate it in the aggregate using modern techniques of sugar caramelization combined with quality smoked malt and grist bill balance. That is, in fact, the beauty of brewing- the intersection of the old and the new and the continued innovation of this thing we know as beer the world-over.

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