Cottonwood Brews: How Key City Brewing Co. Makes Great-Tasting Beer.
When you first step into Cottonwood, you’ll see a warm bar and be hit with the aroma of pizza baking. Turn to the left, and you’ll see the brewery standing silver and silent, working away making the some of the best beer on the Mississippi River.
What you will find isn’t unlike what you will find at other craft breweries. The methodology is thousands of years old. We aren’t re-inventing the wheel, and we aren’t revolutionizing the art of beer making.
We are more technological than our forefathers at the beer-making craft. However, technology is not what makes the beer; it just helps make our lives a little easier. What we can produce is great-tasting beer by putting our spin on classic recipes to make them decidedly “Key City.”
Brewing starts with selecting what grain to use. Different grains will result in slightly different flavors. Wheat and barley are similar in structure, but they aren’t interchangeable.
We mostly use barley for our brews. These are grains that have been rolled out between two hot rollers to create a product that is easy to prepare. For us, that preparation is milling it into usable material for brewing.
We don’t pulverize it and turn it into flour because that would just create a dough. The grains are milled to crack the husk to open it up while it still retains some of its structure. Inside the grains is one of the most important ingredients to the brewing process: starch.
Grain is a husk, starch, and some smaller components. That starch is sugar. Cracking the grains opens up the sugar and retains the husk which is still an important part of the brewing process.
Mash It Up
Brew day starts with hot water - really hot water. This is the job of the mash tun. We add the crushed, cracked, milled grain to the hot water in the mash tun and mix it up well.
When you add super dry grain to water it clumps all together, so we have to mix it up homogenize it, and make sure there’s no bulk. For that, we have a “stupidly large” specialized paddle. It’s Zack’s favorite.
Once it’s mixed and no longer lumpy, we let it sit for about 30 minutes. It’s glorified steeping, but instead of tea, we are making starchy sugar water with the cracked grains.
The hot water will permeate the milled material and draw out the starch. The temperature of the water will create a different mash. Hotter water will draw out more of the sugars creating a sweeter beer, while lower temperatures will create a drier end product due to less sugar in the mash.
It all depends on the recipe and the beer you are trying to make.
After we complete this process, what we are left with is a sugary liquid we call wort.
Boil Baby, Boil
Wort in the mash tun is drained into a boil kettle. The mash is filtered through the remaining husks which is one of the reasons they were left in the mix in the first place. Hot water is sprayed over the husks to wash off any remaining starch. It’s important to get as much of that sugar out as possible.
Now, we boil the mix for an hour in a kettle. This serves to kill off any bacteria that could spoil the beer, or spoil your evening. We leave the lid open to drive off a flavor called DMS (Dimethyl Sulfide) during the boil which is a gross cooked vegetable or cooked corn flavor.
During the process, the starch in the grain is converted into sugar during the mash through enzymatic activity that is controlled by the temperature at which we mash at.
Hops are added at different times in the boil depending on the type of beer we are making.
Hops are in every beer and are what gives it the earthy, floral, and bitter tastes. It serves as flavor and aroma; both are critical in making a great tasting beer.
Adding them at the start will extract more bitterness. Adding them at the end or straight into the whirlpool will extract more aroma and flavor. Only a few styles beers don't have hops until the end of the boil (an hour in). Hops range in flavor profiles from earth or floral to extremely fruity or tropical and even spicy.
Different recipes call for differing amounts of hops. An IPA will take more hops than other brews, and they will be added throughout the mixing process.
During the boil, you can add other ingredients based on the style. Sugar, honey, molasses, cocoa nibs, lactose; whatever you want to make it your own. Only sugars that have distinct character will add character to the beer. Just regular table sugar will not add any distinct flavor, but molasses sure as hell will add to the brew.
Adding the sugar will give additional food for the yeast to flourish and create a unique and distinguished flavor profile to the brew.
After the hops mingle, we whirlpool the mixture by pumping it out the bottom of the kettle and into a pot on the side to create the vortex. This process will finish drawing out the last of the aromas and sugars while forcing the solids to the center for easy extraction later. For now, the boiled kettle needs to rest.
Like the long boil, it is important to cool the beer down from about 200 degrees to room temperature as quickly as possible, preventing any contaminating factors from taking hold in the wort. Plus, yeast prefers a cooler environment.
For this process, we use a heat exchanger connected to a cold water line. We aren’t trying to chill it, just drop its temperature to a range that the yeast will thrive in.
During the cooling process, we inject oxygen into the liquid. This gas is critical for the life of the yeast as it converts the sugars into ethanol and carbon dioxide.
The yeast we use is Saccharomyces cerevisiae. Once added to our conical, cylindrical fermentation tanks, it is left to do its thing.
Yeast takes anywhere from 2 weeks to 2 months to fully ferment the brew. During this time, we have to monitor and adjust the temperature of the mixture carefully based on the recipe we are developing. Lagers are brewed at colder temperatures around 45 to 55 degrees. Ales are brewed in warmer temperatures from 65 all the way to 100 degrees.
Yeast in Belgian ales likes it hot whereas a West Coast IPA or a Blond sticks to colder, more tightly controlled temperatures. It all comes down to time and temperature when fermenting a brew.
The First Pour
Now that fermentation is done, it's time to get things flowing.
We chill the beer down to a cold 33 degrees once the brew has completed the fermentation process.
Moving it to the Bright Tank, we inject it with CO2 to carbonate it before moving it to kegs for storage.
We are looking to sell canned growlers to anyone who wants to take some of our beer home to enjoy. These Crowlers are the optimal storage solution. Light is one enemy to the finished beer.
While glass bottles are ok for storage, the transparent material will allow light to break down the beer. No matter what color the glass is, light can still permeate the brew and degrade the flavor.
There is a reason kegs are made of non-transparent metal.
We want to take that same philosophy to our more portable options. Plus, our Crowlers have the added benefit of looking awesome.
A bigger enemy to finished beer is oxygen.which is unavoidable in packaging, but we do purge our Crowlers with C02 before filling them up to ensure they last longer
You can come to pick up these freshly filled 32oz cans from the bar filled with any beer you want.
Are you ready to take a sip? Come into Cottonwood Public House, and ask the bartender for the newest beers Key City Brewing Co. has on tap.
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