My Round - Micro-brewing's tastiest secrets

We discover the secret ingredient of the fastest growing beer manufacturer in the USA.

It's a sweltering summer afternoon in southern California. The outdoor temperature is topping 38°C with boiling cumulus clouds indicating the high humidity. What better time to duck into the local microbrewery and check out one of the best-kept (but decreasingly so) secrets in North America?

Situated in a converted airport hangar, Hangar 24 has gone from scratch to 10,400 barrels in just three years. That's more than 1.2 million litres of beer! The company is poised to double that to more than 20,000 barrels in the coming year, making them the fastest growing beer manufacturer in the whole of the United States.

Brewing is a testament to human ingenuity and mankind's predilection to concoct alcoholic beverages out of whatever extra seeds or fruits one happens to have on hand. Grapes and fruit wines aside, most alcoholic beverages are derived from grasses: barley, wheat and rye in the circa-Mediterranean area, rice in Eastern Asia, and corn in the New World. Early Mesopotamian brew-meisters were making grain-derived beverages as early as 3400 BC. The Pharaohs rationed four or five litres of beer per day to the labourers as part of their daily wages, and what better way to keep the commoners happy and boost productivity? Who knows? Without beer, the pyramids may have never been built.

All beer is basically made from four ingredients: water, grain, hops and yeast. Hangar 24's water is freshly percolated from the deep alluvial sediments of the Santa Ana River – actually a dry wash immediately north of the facility – filtered through hundreds of metres of sand and gravel. The company's basic grain is American-style two-row barley, a lightly-roasted malt yielding a medium-bodied brew, to which one can add various specialty malts or other flavourings to create a range of products, from a toasty German-style Altbier to Hangar's delicious dark Chocolate Porter.

The grain is stored in a large hopper, holding up to 22,000kg, which presides in front of the brewery. The grain is siphoned into the grist mill, where it is ground and measured, together with other specialty malts for different beer styles, into the 'mash' tank, or mash tun. There, the water and grist meal (mash) are mixed and heated to 65°C (150°F), with stops at certain temperatures to extract particular enzymes, such as α- and β-amylase which help break down proteins that would otherwise make the beer look cloudy, and glucanase to break down starches in the grain to simple sugars to make them more readily available to the yeast during fermentation later in the brew-tech process. Large steel rakes rotate in the vessel, mixing the mash with the malty liquor to fully infuse the mash and extract the sugars and proteins from the grain. After the mash has cooked for about an hour, the liquor or sweet wort is removed through a false-bottom screen in the bottom of the mash tank. The mash residue is sparged and rinsed of its last extracts, before being drained and filtered to the boil kettle.

The boil kettle is a large copper-shielded vessel with a hatch on top; and one 'pitches' the hops or other spices into the top of the tank, where it is mixed with the wort and heated to sterilize the liquid. The hops contribute bitterness and complexity to the sweet wort, providing fragrance and other volatile compounds, and help to retain the head of creamy foam that tops such brews.

The now-sterilised wort is rapidly chilled from 90°C to 20°C via a heat exchanger, before moving to a whirlpool that separates the remaining solids. It is here that Hangar 24 adds its 'secret ingredient' for that signature brew – fresh, sweet, locally-grown oranges – to be rendered into their unique and immensely popular Orange Wheat beer. The Orange Wheat is derived of wheat rather than barley, but is darker and more full-bodied than a typical German-style hefeweizen, with a refreshing orange zest finish. Served ice cold on a hot day there is nothing like it!

Fermentation

Fermentation is the conversion of carbohydrates and sugars to ethanol alcohol by yeast, such that sugars are broken down by those amylase enzymes produced in the mash tun into ethanol, releasing carbon dioxide. C6H12O6 + Zymase – 2C2H5OH + 2CO2 Yeasts are naturally-occurring fungi – single-celled organisms more closely related to animals than plants, specialised to break down carbohydrates.

Yeasts have been cultured and propagated for bread-making and brewing for thousands of years, making them one of the earliest 'domesticated' organisms. In beer making, two species of brewers' yeast – Saccharomyces cerevisiae, or top-fermenting, and S. pastorianus, bottom-fermenting – are used to derive different brews. Top-fermenting yeasts create a foamy froth on the top of the tank (given off by the release of CO2) and are used for the production of ales, while bottom-fermenters, which thrive at lower temperatures, are primarily used for lagers.

The yeast is added to the fermentation tank, together with oxygen, to begin the fermentation process. The ales are fermented for about five days at 18°C, while the lagers take 10-12 days at 10°C. A yeast siphon blows off foamy CO2 into a small container and when that stops, it indicates the fermentation is completed and the yeast goes dormant.

The yeast can be re-activated and inoculated into another fermentation tank for as many as 14 generations before needing to be replenished with a new culture. The beer is then removed from the fermenter and run through a filter plate to a finishing tank – the 'bright tank' – where it is chilled to near freezing and recharged with CO2 to create our bubbly end-product. Finally, the chilled beer goes to the packaging unit where it is bottled or kegged, and voila!

With the recent addition of two new 22,680l stainless steel fermenters, Hangar 24 is poised to take their hand-crafted brews to the broader beer-drinking market. So as the bartender pours me a cold Orange Wheat, here's to their success!

Cheers!

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