It's not Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory, but to a beer aficionado, six 1,700-litre fermentation tanks that each produce enough to fill 34 standard kegs — plus two new 4,000-litre tanks that can fill 80 apiece — evoke the same sort of awe felt by a saucer-eyed child visiting the source of all earthly pleasure.
Only I didn't win any contest to be here, and I'm behind the scenes at Coast Mountain Brewing (CMB) solely to understand the job of making high-quality, small-batch beer. Owner/brewer Kevin Winter begins my education by walking me through the brewing process.
Beer requires a diabolically simple formula: malted barley, water, hops, yeast. Its multitudinous variety lies in the permutation of these four ingredients. It starts with the malt, which provides colour and the sugars on which fermenting yeast dine. To begin any batch of brew here, 300 to 400 kilograms of malt goes into a grinder whose funnel resides in the floor of a loft stacked with sacks of grain.
"We use malts from the geographic area where a beer recipe originates," says Kevin, catching me eyeing the exotic labels. "We also re-create the chemistry of the water from those areas because of its contribution to taste."
Secrets disclosed, great beer clearly doesn't fit a 100-mile diet. "If you're making a Belgian ale you won't find those ingredients around here," says Kevin. "Likewise, I might get a few hops from Lillooet and Squamish, but the juicer hops driving today's craft beers come from sunnier places like Oregon and California."
Hops. It's a magic word. In a walk-in cooler, where full kegs are arranged neatly on pallets, a lone shelf sags under boxes of hops pellets. When Kevin unseals a vacuum bag of aromatic citra hops, I almost faint from the ambrosia. Maybe he is Willy Wonka!
Yet these ingredients seem more gold than confection. Sought-after hops are over $50 USD/kg and come in 20 kg boxes (that'll drive up your overhead), and some of 200 varieties are now sparse because growers can't keep up to exploding demand.
"Unavailability can affect a recipe," notes Kevin. "Thank god for the Internet. The B.C. brewing community on Facebook is very helpful if you're look for something in a pinch."
At the custom-designed brew station, a new lexicon descends. First mashtun — the vessel into which the ground malt goes with water to create the wort. The wort is then boiled in the kettle, where hops and other flavours are added. After the boil, the concoction is piped to a whirlpool to remove debris, and from there to fermentation tanks. Temperatures are adjusted, yeast added, and the real magic begins. All of it carefully monitored by argus-eyed employees Matt and Tanya. Getting schooled on biochemistry and microbes, Tanya counts cells through a microscope. Matt, pointing to a mass of hoses and valves, shares his excitement over a potential social-media post. "One beer going out, another coming in."
Aha. It's the first time they've had this many brews on the go. Production is up, and necessarily so. At any given time, two tanks house the flagship Surveyor IPA, in sky-high demand since CMB's September 2016 opening. The first batch literally evaporated, and though pleased at its reception, it took Kevin a few weeks to get a new one into the taps while juggling production of other beers. Now, 10 months later, Matt notes, they're cooking their 18th different beer; in total they expected to brew 100 batches over the year, but they'll likely reach 130.
While trying to craft a social-media post, Kevin's phone buzzes constantly, the CMB supply chain for 25 Whistler bars and restaurants running through it. "If we have kegs available, I might get two different texts looking for that beer, but the first to show up gets the keg."
Cleaning kegs — and tanks for that matter — is another constant. Each involves a hot rinse, an alkaline rinse, a cold rinse, a rinse with a food grade sanitizer, and finally, a blast of carbon dioxide. While this procedure is undertaken by hand with the tanks, a machine does it automatically for kegs: Tanya hooks up a couple and the unit runs a computerized sequence that cleans them in minutes.
After a week of fermentation, beer undergoes a few weeks of further conditioning in the tanks, concludes Kevin, by way of saying it's time to talk about product. "We're on a flavour exploration with a wide gamut of beers here. I'm always playing with recipes, altering amounts, substituting ingredients — like when one hop isn't available you try combining others to approximate its flavour. So each beer might be a little different every time — just like cooking."
The following day CMB was releasing "First Aid Kit," a sour ale lightly infused with pomegranate. Kevin pulls a couple from the tank and I can barely believe how good it tastes. Light, frothy, cold, crisp, low alcohol. The perfect summer refreshment. "We love what we do and hope the passion shows in our beers, even as they evolve. As we alter each recipe, we take you with us on the journey."
Spoken as a true impresario, just like you-know-who.