May 9, 2015

Back at it in Oregon -- 2015 Part 3

In this final post I'll chat about my time at Ale Apothecary and the Deschutes production brewery. I'll hit off Deschutes first.

Our friends at Deschutes suggested we take the tour to see the new bottling line that spits out a six pack of beer in half a second (twice as fast as the old system). The tour begins at the original 50 BBL brewhouse at the production facility. It's still used to make a few of the beers, particularly the darker beers. I spied some interesting notes on a nearby whiteboard. The tour guide said they weren't trying to hide anything so I promptly took this picture.

These notes contain the mash and kettle additions used to create Obsidian Stout, Black Butte Porter, Abyss and Dissident. Thanks to the neutral water profile of Bend water, these dark beers are sufficiently acidified by the dark grains and as you can see only gypsum is added to adjust the water to hit appropriate mash ph with kettle additions on the two bigger beers. I thought I would take a minute to convert this picture into useful brewing information for people attempting to clone Deschutes beers or just trying to dial in a good water profile.

Bend's water supply is:

Calcium 7.8
Magnesium 6.7
Sodium 10.67
Sulfate 1.12
Chloride 2.6
Bicarbonate 85
Ph 8

(This data came from the most recent source I could find:

To adjust the water profile to match these beers on a five gallon batch you will need to add gypsum in the following amounts to the mash:

Obsidian Stout: 1.74g
Black Butte Porter: 1.29g
Abyss: 2.58g
Dissident: 1.93g

Plus Abyss has a 0.38g kettle addition and dissident has a 0.26g addition.

What's maybe most interesting is the notes for Dissident that discuss "sour wort." It appears that Dissident is soured in the mash and then again in the kettle. The brewery's website only mentions fermentation by brett so the combination of this information suggests Dissident gets all its sourness pre-boil with additions, scaled to a five gallon batch, of 5.36 ounces in the mash and 12.39 ounces in the kettle. That doesn't seem like much but keep in mind that this sour wort is going to concentrate through the boil (lactic acid boils above 212F) and it is already some sour stuff. Ale Apothecary, whose head brewer came from Deschutes, also uses a sour wort that is down around 3 ph so if Deschutes is using a similar sour wort then they are probably seeing a moderate sourness (the beer also receives cherries which add additional acidity). Something to consider, particularly as Dissident is a 100% Brett fermented beer.

The Ale Apothecary

The only two ways to visit the magical palace of Ale Apothecary is to either join a tour of breweries that goes out there or schedule a personal visit which Paul Arney, owner of Ale Apothecary, consistently refers to as a "quick show and tell." With CBC occurring the prior week I was concerned he might be behind on brewing chores and unable to make time for us. I invoked all sorts of despicable tactics to beg into a visit while we were in Bend. We exchanged some emails and texts but as the week went on it seemed like it just wasn't in the cards. Then the text came Thursday morning, asking if we could arrive at noon. Yes, obviously. But I was more like:

So we made the drive out to Ale Apothecary, which is located at his house a little ways outside of Bend. There are no street signs and we lost both GPS and cell service so figuring out where to go turned out to be a challenge. Eventually we found it on one of the side streets. There is a weather worn sign that quietly reads: "Apoth?" I guess so.

We pulled in to the gravel driveway and took a peak inside a barn door to a small building and found Paul at work using two pallet jacks to stack barrels in a very tight space. This building was actually the detached garage to the house. It's maybe 600 square feet. Everything is on wheels so he can maximize use of the space. It's tightly packed with upright barrels, barrel racks, the brewhouse, a rack of carboys, bottling space and blending tanks. The pictures on the brewery's website make it seem like there is a lot more space and that the sign is easier to read. Don't be fooled, he has this place filled with equipment like a game of Tetris. There is another warehouse hidden somewhere in town with more barrels where most of the aging occurs.

The brewhouse is an unusual set up. The kettle is custom-built equipment of the most unusual combination.  The metal work on the bottom was crafted by an actual blacksmith. The brickwork was provided by a guy who makes pizza ovens and the top copper component was made by a still fabricator. Truly an unusual system.

Paul Arney is an incredibly nice guy who oozes passion about what he does and why he does it. He's a former brewer for Deschutes who turned down a promotion and decided to divert his knowledge and talents to his own business. It is readily apparent that he has all the technical knowledge of a pro brewer but the experimental mind and a willingness to trust his processes to produce the right beer. I've never heard a brewer talk about "magic" in his brewing process with such reverence and casualness. It seems at ease not knowing every detail of the biological processes going on in his beer (referring to it several times as "magic") but also understanding that those same processes are incredibly important. His processes, like his brewhouse, is unusual to commercial brewing.

His beers begin life in two upright barrels used as mash tuns. Previously he used Briess two row as the base for his beers (in his words, because it's the closest he could get to a small malting business) but has recently began purchasing grain from a local malting operation. The beers are mashed overnight. The mash targets the low 150s and overnight cools into the 140s. Paul says the mash works like sort of a reverse step mash with alpha-amylase activated first and beta-amylase as the beer cools. There is also a grey layer on top in the morning, which he attributes to microbial activity (or part of the magic) during the mash. There is no adjustment to the water profile. He just uses Bend's naturally soft water.

The long mash is an important component of the brewing process both for its scientific and magical properties. Part of it is a technical necessity because the deep and narrow mash tun design makes for poor sugar extraction. A longer mash helps the enzymes do their work. The long mash also allows greater color extraction and some oxidation, which adds to the sensory attributes of the final product. This effect is part of the magic. The wort is then drawn off and boiled as in any other brewhouse.

Overall the brewday is about forty hours from mash-in to transfer to the fermentors. (This includes the overnight rest.) There are a few reasons for this. The limited production space limits how much wort can be produced in the mash tuns or kettle at a given time. He also has to align bottling with brewing so there is fresh yeast available for reyeasting beers at bottling which means there has to be some transfers into his bottling tanks and/or barrels contemporaneously with brewing. His operations consist of himself plus two part-time employees so the work can be done only so fast.

Freshly boiled wort for most of the beers is fermented in two puncheons (84 gallon barrels) turned upright with the heads removed. The open top is covered by nylon netting and then later covered with the barrel head to limit oxygen exposure. The mixed fermentation culture in these barrels is a combination of yeast and bacteria that span homebrewing strains, strains from Deschutes and whatever has blown in from the ambient environment through open windows. It took approximately four months to develop this culture, which is balanced between sourness and funk. After primary fermentation the beer is transferred to barrels where it will age for around a year.

Some of the beers, like El Cuatro, are fermented in their own upright barrels. El Cuatro is fermented in a brandy barrel with lacto and brett. No hops are added to the wort so lacto has free range to acidify the beer. The beer comes out of the barrel with quite a bit of alcohol heat but full of a really great plum and cherry flavor. Newer batches of El Cuatro are blended with Sahalie to temper some of the heat. We were treated to samples of both the blended and unblended portions. The blended beer is a completely transformed beer. It is less acidic and Sahalie's citrus/herbal/pine notes blend with the plum and cherry flavors of the base beer to create an incredibly complex beer. I agree with Paul, it's impossible to say which version is the better beer. They are both just great beers in their own right.

Some of the beers are dry hopped. Those that are dry hopped, such as Sahalie, are dry hopped in the barrel. Ale Apothecary only uses cascade hops from a local farm and the hops are left in contact with the beer for a month. Brewing lore says hops in contact with beer for that length of time produces grassy and vegetal notes. Here, there is some truth. The Ale Apothecary beers with more hop character, particularly Sahalie, have a slightly grassy character but it is really more herbal like saaz hops than vegetal. The cascade grapefruit flavor is still there. It's pleasant and unusual.

When it is time to bottle, the beer is transferred into blending tanks where they are blended with the final components before delivered into bottles. Among the barrels of beer there are barrels of wort soured exclusively by lactobacillus. Paul was clear that this isn't beer--it's sour wort. The language was very similar to the sour wort mentioned on that Deschutes white board so I have to wonder about his connection to that process as Deschutes. The barrel aged sour wort on hand was about eighteen months old and down to a tart 3 ph. We were also given samples of the sour wort, which had the unmistakable cheesy aroma of lactic acid. It was incredibly complex for something fermented only with lactobacillus. I've had sour beers with less character.

The sour wort is boiled with various sugars and added to the bottling tanks at a rate of five gallons to 2BBL. The sugars prime the beer and the sour wort adds structure to the beer. I mentioned the sour wort addition as a ph adjustment and Paul was quick to clarify that he is not concerned with ph, just with the structure the added acidity provides. However, he did point out that he targets around 3.7 ph for most of the beers with a few going lower, like El Cuatro around 3.5. Many consider 3.7 a high target for sour beer, which can drift down to 3 (and occasionally a little lower), but balance and complexity are the goals for The Ale Apothecary. The tanks are then reyeasted and the beer is bottled. Paul isn't concerned with blending batches, aside from El Cuatro, for consistency. He is happy to let each release have its own distinct and evolving character.

The beers produced through this process are among the most complex I've ever come across, if not outright the most complex. They are not the most sour or the most brett-forward but the overall character of the beer is deep and unique. Unfortunately there is no desire to expand The Ale Apothecary so wider distribution is improbable and the prices will likely remain at the wallet-punishing price of $30/750ml. I'm glad I bit the bullet and enjoyed a couple bottles while in Bend and brought home the dregs in a mix of a few sour bottles picked up along the way.


  1. The sour wort ideas at Deschutes were initially developed by Paul during this time there. He got the idea from German brewers who keep sour wort on hand to adjust pH. I think Paul's (and probably Deschutes) strain comes from Distelhauser.

  2. Any idea if the gravity of the sour wort if high (similar to his beers) or normal strength? I'm think about the dilution factor.