Monday, November 13, 2017

☸️ Wort Hog Brewing, Rye Not?

That’s a pun, there. It’s also my favorite beer at Wort Hog Brewing.

Wort Hog opened its doors in a refurbished auto repair garage in Warrenton, at the dawn of 2017. One of the most anticipated new businesses in a long while, and later voted Best Of Warrenton New Business for 2017, Wort Hog became my local beer hang-out. During the brewpub’s year-plus build-out the building was thoroughly gutted, extended upward to a second floor and a load-bearing roof, expanded outward to a new concrete patio, and fitted with a modern, three-vessel brewing system.

I’ll write about the three-vessel system shortly – it involves about half of the beer-making process and save the rest for another article. Understanding how the beer is made is half the fun.

Many Saturdays find me occupying a stool at the downstairs bar. I like chatting up the bar and wait staff, and one of the owners is usually on-site managing and serving. You can learn a lot about how a bar or restaurant operates by just watching the people who run it.

Opening at noon, the place doesn’t begin crowding up until after 2, giving me a quiet respite after a long walk and time to ponder what I’m drinking. Sometimes it’s a pint of something I haven’t had in a while, others it’s a five-ounce sample of something new. Most Saturdays end with a growler fill to take home.

Every now and then I’ll bump into Jeremy, brewmaster and head brewer at Wort Hog. His resume is long on experience, so he’s a terrific source of beer knowledge. He also makes good beer – and continues tweaking his recipes to make the good better.

A pint of beer against a backgraound of beer taps

Wort Hog’s Rye Not? Helles lager is a good example. Rye malt adds just enough spiciness before barley malt takes over for a long finish. There’s only enough hopping to balance out the flavor, making this a palatable, accessible (good starter for non-beer fans) beer that single-handedly re-ignited my interest in lagers. What began as a middling beer became my house brew in version 2 with a wee tweak.

The facility’s downstairs is utilitarian, split about one-third for the brewhouse (where the beer is made, behind a glass wall) and two thirds for the bar, seating, and bathrooms. Decor is tasteful, if sparse. One unique feature is the poured concrete bar, with electric outlets, USB power, and coat hooks tucked underneath. Since concrete can be downright chilly in cold weather, an embedded heating element keeps the surface mildly warm to the touch. Wooden coasters are employed when the bar heat is on.

On the other hand, concrete is a reliably cool armrest in summertime, when the room's back wall of fan-fold glass panel doors are opened to patio seating and the warm breeze. It’s my favorite time for a visit.

The mezzanine is a comfortable spot for groups and overflow seating. There may be some redesign in the offing for this under-used space. Across the main staircase at the same level are six 15-barrel stainless steel brite tanks. Their combined 2800 gallons of beer sit directly over the downstairs bar, and feed six taps down and six up. Brite tanks are the final stop for finished beer. I’ll describe them in the next article.

The facility’s highlight is the rooftop bar and seating area. Soft plastic panels can be rolled down for wet days, but otherwise it’s open-air seating, with a lovely view Warrenton all around.

Adjoining buildings will be used to build out a kitchen and dining area, and parts are already in use for keg storage. Expect the build-out in 2018.


Beer-making can appear complex. So much apparatus, so many hoses, pumps, and heating and cooling equipment resides in a small space. The tanks are huge. It’s important to keep in mind the simplicity of the actual operation. Brewers have been performing this art for centuries, some with meager resources. What makes a brewery operation appear complex is the volume of beer being made.

Recent trade publication articles indicate that smallish craft beer operations have reached the point of saturation, so small brewers have to grow or die. Other local brewery operations, notably Tin Cannon Brewing, Bad Wolf Brewing, and Heritage Brewing have expanded from their original footprint or have gone on record with plans to do so.

To the beer-making. In simplest terms, there are five steps:

  • Find a sugar source, usually a grain, and grind it down to a powder.
  • Boil the sugar source in water, throwing in bittering hops for balanced flavor.
  • Cool, and throw in some yeast.
  • When the yeast has completed fermenting the sugary liquid, siphon off the liquid, leaving the yeast behind, and optionally add carbonation.
  • Drink.

Commercial craft brewers often use a three-vessel system to accomplish this at scale. A three-vessel system, like Wort Hog’s, refers to the number of tanks actively used in the first part of beer-making, called the boil. They’re the mash tun, the boil kettle, and the hot liquor tank. Contrary to its name, the hot liquor tank holds nothing but hot water, usually heated in the boil kettle and pumped over for later use. Both the mash tun and boil kettle are self-heated, often by a stainless steel steam jacket. Steam is produced by a steam generator.

Beer-making most often begins with barley, or more specifically, partly germinated (or malted) barley. Brewers may also employ other sugar sources, called adjuncts. Rye Not? Helles includes rye as an adjunct, which provides a distinctive spiciness to the finished product. It’s the same grain used for making rye whiskey, among other things.

The barley is wetted and allowed to begin sprouting (germinating). This causes release of enzymes that help break down sugars into a form yeast can digest. As soon as germination begins, the barley is kiln-dried, bringing the process to a halt.

Some brewers simply buy malted, pre-ground barley, while others buy kiln-dried barley by the (large) bagful, and grind just before using.

This is akin to making coffee. You can buy pre-ground coffee beans, or buy the beans whole and grind them just prior to use. The sooner the grind happens before use, the fresher the resulting flavor. It’s the same with beer.

Grinding before use is straightforward. Bags of malted barley are emptied into a hopper, or conveyed there from a silo. Larger brewers use a silo filled by a delivery truck. Smaller operations use bags. As the barley falls into the hopper, a grinder below its funnel-shaped bottom grinds it to the right consistency. The resulting flour-like malt falls into the mash tun. This is vessel number one of three.

A tun is just a large, heated stainless steel tank, into which fresh water has been pumped. Water is the second of four ingredients.

A set of metal “rakes” continuously turns on a center shaft inside the tun as the malt falls in, preventing clumping and mixing the malt into suspension. A metal grid resides at the bottom of the mash tun for filtering out spent grain later.

The tun is pre-heated to begin the mashing process right away. As the malt is mixed with hot water, the afore-mentioned enzymes begin breaking down the sugars. The entire tun-ful of malt will, after appropriate time and temperature, resemble a mucky, sweet soup.

During the mash process some of the water resides under the metal mesh, at the bottom of the tun. A recirculation pump brings it up to the top of the tun, sending it through outlets at the top of the rakes. It’s like a rain storm going on inside the tun, with hot, sweet water mixing back down through the grain. The goal, toward the end of recirculation, is to accumulate the spent grains on top of the metal mesh, allowing the hot, sugary water, now referred to as wort, pass through and escape through a valve.

The second vessel in a three-vessel system is the hot liquor tank, on standby with hot water. It’ll be put to use after the wort of moved to the boil kettle.

There’s a lot of plumbing surrounding these tanks. Valves allow shunting the pumped wort out of the mash tun and over to the third vessel, the boil kettle.The end result is a mash tun left with a thick layer of mucky, spent grain, suitable for use as livestock feed, and a boil kettle full of wort.

The final phase of the mash process involves pumping the hot liquor tank’s fresh, hot water into the top of the mash tun, further rinsing sugars out of the grain. Rinsing with fresh water ensures the brewer isn’t simply re-depositing sugar into the grain, but rather fully extracting that sugar into the wort. This is known as sparging.

The boil kettle is similar to the mash tun, a heated stainless steel tank for boiling the wort. At the right temperature, hops are added.

Hops are the third ingredient, an oily resinous bud in the same family as marijuana, but without the psychoactive effect of THC. There are hundreds of hop varieties, but a dozen or two are most common in beer-making. Some are earthy, some citrusy, some spicy. Flavoring hops are added early in the boil, while others are added later for aroma.

Recall that wort is basically sweet sugar-water. Hops, on the other hand, are bitter. Each variety has unique flavor and aroma qualities, but all provide needed counterbalance to wort.

Balancing malty sweetness with hop bitterness is the brewer’s art. After an hour or more of boiling, the resulting liquid is ready to begin making beer. We’ve used three vessels and three ingredients to get here. The rest involves the fourth ingredient, yeast, and the other tanks in the brewhouse.

Some say brewers make wort, but yeast makes beer. I’ll leave the details of the second part of beer-making for the next article.


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