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The Nuance of Open Fermentation

Modern Conical Fermenter

Modern Conical Fermenter

Commercialism has won yet again. Hundreds of years of knowledge, tradition and craftsmanship has been replaced by economic sensibility. Originality, uniqueness and integrity have been pushed aside by bean counters and their bottom lines. They are all betting that YOU can’t tell the difference, and are laughing all the way to the bank.

Sadly, they are right. You probably can’t even tell the difference. Perhaps you are not even worthy to read further. Perhaps you should go drink a Rickard’s Red or some other mediocre beer and forget you even heard of open fermentation. Cut your losses while you’re ahead. Ignorance is bliss. Click the home button on your browser now. I am not kidding, do it now.

You still here? Great. Fasten your set belt and lets talk about the nuances of open fermentation. No other word can strike fear and awe at the same time in the heart of a brew master. Search the web and you will not read anywhere about its endangerment in any of the headlines. It is a silent battle seemingly without opposition. Or so they thought…

First, let us get some of the tech details out of the way. In the brewing process, traditional open fermentation takes place in relatively shallow vessels which naturally encourage the yeast to fall to the bottom at just the right time. The fermenting wort (pronounced wert, don’t ask me why) or beer is not under any head pressure as the yeast faithfully does its work, which allows the resulting carbon dioxide and other non-quantifiable agents to freely and happily dissipate into the surrounding environment. This delicate process preserves the full flavors and complexity of the beer and lends a softness or silkiness to the mouth feel and overall flavor profile. In the modern tall brewing vessel (called conical fermenters) preferred by accountants and business advisers (as they take up less floor space) are many times taller. Thus, the carbon dioxide developed during fermentation rises in greater distances, in effect purging the flavors as it goes up and out. In addition the yeast is very slow to drop which alters the flavor profile. Ok, enough with the tech talk.

Open Fermentation at Ommegang Brewery

Open Fermentation at Ommegang Brewery

Why should you care about all of this? Great beer. Don’t like beer, OK, fine, nobody is perfect, but it still involves you. Please read on. It is about integrity, nuance, originality and the quality of life. It’s about the little things. You know, the things that at the end of a day make a difference. It’s about not letting commercialism continue it rampant destruction with total disregard to tradition and craftsmanship. Take heart, not all is lost, for the battle is not over yet.

It is of great interest that the famous British Bass brewery whom not too long ago replaced their traditional open fermenters with the new shiny closed conical ones, (and thus became the infamous Bass brewery) now seems to be suffering remorse. They are now attempting to preserve the open fermenters that produce the wonderfully soft, delicate and malty Czech Staropramen lager. A true lager at its finest. The other more famous Czeh brewery Budvar began replacing its open fermenters with stainless steel, but happily stopped. Another victory. Sadly the once great Pilsner Urquell has abandoned completely its famous wooden fermenters and reduced its yeast from five strains to two. I know, I know, oh the horror of it all! The much revered beer and scotch expert (at least by me anyway) Michael Jackson sadly reports on his Beer Hunter web site that, it has lost some of its complexity and its malty fullness of flavour.

Open Fermentation Room at Camerons Brewery

Open Fermentation Room at Camerons Brewery

Some adventurous American micro- breweries and brewpubs are now taking up the cause by embracing open fermentation. These beers are notably more complex and intriguing than their new fan dangled conical fermenter brewed counter parts. (I have always wanted to use fan dangled in a sentence.) You too can join the cause, How?

Try spicing up drab and mundane conversation about HD TV with random references to open fermentation accompanied with an increased heart rate and a glazed look in your eyes. When someone expresses concern about the environment, you may kindly add: “Perhaps you should be just as concerned with the extinction of open fermentation.” Or, “Excuse me, where were you when Bass killed open fermentation?” We could make up bumper stickers that say: “Friends don’t let friends play with conical fermenters.” Ok, may by we need to work on that last one, but you get the picture. Hey maybe we could get the esteemed filmmaker Michael Moore to make a heart-wrenching documentary about the subject. I am sure we can find a brewer in Cuba that practices open fermentation. I could even shed a few tears for the camera while nursing my 100% open fermented home brewed euphoric Imperial India Pale Ale.

Plus, just think of how you can become an instant beer snob and impress your friends by asking the brew master or server at your local brewpub if they practice open fermentation. Stay original… drink original beer.

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