Better Tech, Better Beer

Last week’s article about black mash and technology got me thinking about other inventions and innovations that have made an impact in brewing. Not long ago, brewers weren’t even sure what was causing their brew to ferment, and trusted recipes were handed down for generations. That led to some pretty great beer, but since most brewers would only experiment out of necessity, it also meant a dearth of beer varieties. It was the advent of new tools and technology that freed brewers to explore and experiment more confidently—giving us Black IPAs and well-behaved Saisons.


BrewMometer with brew stage temps marked

The Thermometer

Almost every step of the brewing process—and so the final product—is influenced by temperature. During the brewing process, the temperature of water used during the mash will play a role in the sweetness of the final product. Once brewing is complete, the liquid (wort) must be cooled to a safe temperature that won’t kill the yeast. Different yeasts also like to ferment at different temperatures, so being able to optimize their environment will yield better beers.

The Hydrometer

Brewers use the hydrometer to determine the gravity, or amount of sugars, in their brew. Higher sugars will provide not only a sweeter taste, but also more fuel for the yeast to turn into alcohol, and brewers will choose grains partially based on their estimated sugar yield. According to Tasting Beer author Randy Mosher, the hydrometer “more than any other technology changed the way beer actually tasted by forcing brewers to formulate their recipes with yield in mind.”


Old-style hydrometer

The Growler

The screwtop beer bottle—the first modern growler—was invented in 1879. It eliminated the need for corks and made it easier and more affordable for people to transport beer from the brewery to their homes.

Steam Power and Apps

Other inventions or innovations that have significantly influenced beer and brewing techniques include the beer can, steam power and malt kilning. As technology continues to evolve, people have created an array of home brewing apps, smartphone-connected equipment monitoring systems, and self-serve taps.

Brewing Innovations – The Brewer’s View

I asked Ben Wilkinson, Mendocino Brewing’s brewing supervisor, to share his top brewing innovations.

Refrigerated beer trucks keep beer fresher longer

Refrigerated beer trucks keep beer fresher longer

Ben: I would say that refrigeration plays a huge role in the brewing industry.  First and foremost, it is key in controlling fermentation temperatures, especially for lagers.  Even if pitched at the correct temperature, the yeast activity alone can raise the temperature of a tank not being chilled by as much as 20 degrees!  Higher fermentation temperatures can make the yeast produce excess esters, causing off flavors in the beer.  Refrigeration helps us maintain precise fermentation temperatures, which makes the yeast ferment the beer in the way we want.  In addition to controlling fermentation, refrigeration helps extend the beer’s shelf life.  Warmer temperatures on packaged beer make it oxidize and spoil more quickly.  Also, who doesn’t like a nice, cold beer on a hot day?

Studies on Fermentation

Studies on Fermentation

 I also think the isolation and study of individual yeast strains has been a tremendous help to the beer industry.  In the 1880s, scientists were first able to separate individual yeast strains and identify the characteristics of ale and lager yeasts.  Up until that time, brewers were for the most part dependent on the yeast that was in their air.  Today, you are able to order literally hundreds of different yeast strains with information about taste profile, attenuation, flocculation, alcohol tolerance, and optimal fermentation temperature.  Although most breweries tend to stick to their preferred lager and ale strains, you could order a different, specific yeast strain for just about every style of beer

From Stone to Steam

What invention do you think has most impacted brewing? Any un-sung heroes you’d like to celebrate? Let us know in the comments below!

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