Christmastime at the Horseheads Brewery : an audio postcard

Monica Sandreczki
December 26, 2013

‘Tis the season for full bellies, warm hearts and holiday. . .beer? It’s Christmastime at the Horseheads Brewery in Horseheads, NY and that means test-tasting the Belgian-style Christmas Ale and brewing the blend released the week after Christmas.

“I’m Ed, masterbrewer here at Horseheads brewing. The reason we came up with a Christmas ale, a Belgian beer brewed with orange peel. My wife, actually would get oranges in her stockings. So she said, "Why don't we add a bunch of orange peel to a beer? And I said, 'A Belgian-style beer would be really cool with orange peel in it. And that's what we do and it turns out pretty good. Okay, we gotta come over here cause we’re just about ready to...”

...start brewing a Belgian beer. Ed walks across the cement floor to check the temperature of the water filling one of the 600-gallon stainless steel tanks. He’s using five of them for this batch, but this warehouse could fit hundreds of them. This first vat heats water to about 150 degrees.

“Yeah this isn't so fun in the summertime when it’s 95 degrees in here," says Ed. "But in the winter, it's nice and cool in here. You’ve got the steam coming up and it’s almost like a sauna.”

Then its spat into the second tank, called a mashtun.

“Okay Ryan, now what we’re going to do is start feeding grain in. Then I’m going to start mashing in...Right now, hear the water going in? He's going to start feeding the grain in so the water mixes with the graint. Then, I stand up there and break up any chunks that might be floating around in there.”

“I’m Ryan and I’m the assistant brewer here.”

Ryan’s hoisting up 50lb white bags of barley malt and dumping them into the metal holding bin, called a hopper.

“I just sit here and dump these in. Sorry about the dust. It’s milled really fine. I don’t think it’ll kill you though. You just get grainy boogers," he says.

Not mixed with the barley, though.

“We use the malts to bring out different flavors," says Ryan. "So, it’s kind of like baking a cake or making oatmeal or something. That’s how you get the different colors in beer. So this one, this darker one's been roasted longer.”

He runs his hand through the grain, sifting the beige and dark brown malt bits in the hopper. It connects to a pipe that carries the barley up to the mashtun.

Inside, the hot water is raked through the barley to sap all the sugars from the grain.

“Can you see the grain and the water feeding in? (Yeah, over there on the side?) You can see the paddle going around. It’s mixing the grain and the water as it's feeding in. (It kind of has a strong smell) Smells like bread doesn’t it? Fresh baked bread?" says Ed.

The barley’s just right and ready for filtering before the water pours into a third tank, the kettle.

“We get started circulating, which is a process kind of like brewing coffee with the filter. We put the water on top and it soaks down and that’s how we get the lovely flavors,” says Ryan.

That drains the extra sugars out of the grain. Where there’s barley there’s sugar. And where there’s sugar, there’s alcohol – the name of the game. All the sugary water, or wort – think of it like pre-beer – is pumped into the kettle and set to boil.

“I love hoppy beers and I'm a brewmaster,” says Ed.

Ed says the last ingredient added to the kettle is “some yeast food, kettle coagulant. Gotta make sure the yeast is happy."

Ryan says “then after that, we transfer it from the kettle to the fermenter."

“What I’m going to do is pitch some yeast," says Ed. "Add it to the fermenter right now."

“So that’s what creates all those lovely chemical reactions that turns it into beer.”

Then it’s filtered again.

“Yeast kinda looks like peanut butter so you definitely want to separate those two,” Ryan says.

Into the final tank to sit while Ed and Ryan stick Christmas Ale labels onto bottles.

“I’m loading the bottles onto the conveyor belt," says Ryan. "There’s a little laser sensor that can tell when something crosses its beam and tells the computer to shoot another label through.

Of the Christmas Ale, Ryan says, "the spiciness gives it a winter-warmer feel. It’s just a nice beer to curl up next to the yule log and spend Christmas with.”

“It’s a Belgian beer brewed with orange peel," says Ed. "It’s nice and crisp and it’s a fairly big beer like 7.3%. (Now that’s a beer) Yeah, that’s a beer. You don’t need to drink too many of ‘em.”

Ed picks up each dark glass beer bottle in his hand. Levels the label with his eye. They’re loaded by the dozen onto a cart and wheeled over to be bottled with Christmas Ale.

“It only comes around once a year just like Christmas," says Ryan. "You’ll be the first non-Horseheads employee to try the Christmas this season. Cheers! I love beer.”