Microbreweries, now having been successful outlets of palatable, aromatic and distinguished beers, have planted their roots, established their legacy and are ready for some fresh air. Well, these brown bottle pioneers need look no further – their spirited cousins are gaining speed and ready to join forces.
With a slew of microdistilleries popping up throughout the country, this budding industry attracts the envy of breweries in need of a slight change in pace. Many breweries contemplate pursuing the path Arizona’s Mogollon Brewing Company took: opening a distillery side by side with their existing brewery and making beer schnapps and vodka.
“Beer schnapps,” you ask?
Yep, and it’s that simple, too. Take that zesty beer, already brewed, already fermented, and separate the alcohol. (This is where that shiny copper batch still comes in quite handy.) You know that beer that wasn’t brewed just quite right? Don’t throw it out; distill it. And that test batch gone wrong? Distill it, too. Or maybe you’ve got more beer than you can sell? Well, why don’t you distill it and sell them all as beer schnapps.
Once again, your creativity comes into play during distillation. You have the flexibility to adjust the heating and cooling temperatures, which will in turn affect the flavor, aroma and strength of your hoppy firewater. As for all spirits, you will need to separate the heads, heart and tails. The heads include all the lighter alcohols and low-boiling point compounds. These are unfavorable and should be discarded. Following you will get the heart, or center cut. When the alcohol reaches 55-45% by volume the heart of your distilled spirit is done. What then pours out are the heavier alcohols, which include fusel oils and esters. You will notice an unpleasant smell similar to nail polish remover and should make sure to separate these, as well.
Package the schnapps, slap a lable on, and there you have beer schnapps! To test your success, try rubbing a drop of the beer schnapps onto the back of your hand and see if you and your friends can’t detect the essence of the original ingredient of your brew. This is a trivial time investment compared to the actual brewing but, one that opens doors to a whole new market!
Plus, there’s the added convenience breweries have that many newcomers wish were theirs – having a grain silo, a grain mill, mash kettle, fermenters, glycol cooling unit – in short, you’ve got everything you need to start your own niche in the beer schnapps market.
For those of you entirely new to the brewing process, here’s a simplified method that can help get you on your way to that spirited schnapps. First, you will need to crack the grains of your malt so that the starch and its starch-degrading enzymes are exposed to mash water, which will catalyze the conversion of starch and extract any fermentable sugars. When the temperature of the mash water reaches 65.5C (for slight adjustments in flavor, experiment with temperatures between 66-68C), the conversion will take place. To ensure complete conversion, you can try the iodine test: take a drop of liquid from the mash and put it onto a strip of iodine paper; if it turns orange, the conversion is done; if it turns black, there is still more to go. After the conversion is complete, raise the temperature of the mash to 78C to stop the enzymatic reaction.
Next, you will begin draining the wort. You should sparge your wort with treated water at about 78C to wash off excess sugars and maximize your extract. Once you have transferred your wort to a brew kettle, you should bring it to a rolling, or vigorous, boil. This separates the proteins from the wort which, if left in the mixture, will otherwise create a hazy beer, and will convert the alpha acids of hops into iso-alpha-acids, which give beers a majority of their bitterness. With respect to adding bitter and aroma hops, every brewer has their preference. In general, the bitter hops can be added just as the wort comes to a boil or up to 10 to 15 minutes after boiling begins. Aroma hops, on the other hand, can be added anytime during the last 20 minutes of the boil, at the end of the boil or, if you prefer a really strong hop aroma, after the wort has cooled (also known as dry hopping).
Finally, the wort must go through the fermentation process. Brewer’s yeast is added in the fermenter – this will convert the sugars to alcohol and carbon dioxide. Depending on what type of beer you make, the required time can vary between 5 days and several weeks. By checking the pH level and specific gravity, you can decide how to adjust the temperature to create the perfect beer you are looking for. Make sure to lower the temperature of the wort to about 3C to inhibit further yeast activity.
But, it doesn’t end there! Now that you’ve got your beer well-prepared you can pump the beer into a batch still and do some alcohol separation. As mentioned earlier, the balance of your spirit will depend on the temperatures you use for cooling. For example, if you cool at a higher temperature, more aromas (hoppy, in this case) will pass through and you will have a lower %ABV. On the flip side, if you cool at lower temperatures, you will get a higher %ABV, but you will lose some of the flavors. At this point, you can utilize those creative tendencies you used for brewing to produce your own special white beer.