The art of crafting fine beer

Holding a plastic spoon in his fingers, Steve Fletcher carefully tipped a few drops of a brownish liquid onto the back of his hand.

Too warm. He resumed stirring a tall metal container. It was like checking whether the milk in a baby bottle was just the right temperature – not too hot, not too cold – for junior.

“This is our baby today,” joked Fletcher.

He was, indeed, babying this youngster. Only Fletcher, a brewer, was nurturing this “baby” to develop into a full-fledged, German-style lager. The man was making beer.

Fletcher is part of MillerCoors’ new bid to tap into the rapidly growing market for craft-style beer.

A year ago, Coors Brewing – before its new joint venture with Miller Brewing – unveiled the creation of tiny AC Golden Brewing Co. The upstart brewery would operate as a stand- alone brewer, with its own budget.

The aim: Brew small-batch, handcrafted beers that would mimic the success of the parent company’s popular Blue Moon Belgian White, a craft-style wheat ale.

Fast-forward one year.

The clock was nearing 7 on a recent Wednesday morning at the MillerCoors brewery here.

Two brewers were preparing to make the fourth batch – roughly 30 barrels – of AC Golden’s debut brew: Herman Joseph’s Private Reserve. It honors Coors Brewing founder Adolph Herman Joseph Coors.

Fletcher and brewer Troy Casey worked inside a tiny brewery tucked within the MillerCoors brewery, the world’s largest. Until recently, the small brewery had served as Coors Brewing’s pilot brewery. Now it serves as AC Golden’s brewery.

The brewers waited for the malted barley, or malt, and water to be pumped into a vessel known as a mash tun. There, the malt would be mixed, or mashed, into a liquid aptly named . . . mash.

“In about two minutes we’ll start bringing our water into the mash tun,” said Casey.

The water began filling the large vessel. A big propellerlike device, an agitator, began to spin at the bottom to mash the malt.

“It’s very gentle. It doesn’t hurt the grain,” said Casey.

The water inside the mash tun turned a frothy brown as it mixed with the malt.

Fletcher poured a small metal vessel containing brewing salt into the mash tun. The salt would make the “enzymes work better” while they broke down the malted barley into sugar.

Later on, yeast would break down the sugar into alcohol and the carbon dioxide that gives beer its fizz.

The time: 7:10 a.m.

“We’re in the cooking process,” said Fletcher.

Cooking, yes. But it’s also a lot of chemistry: proper pH, gravity and temperature levels, to name just a few requirements for brewing beer.

MillerCoors rolled out its first barrel of Herman Joseph’s Private Reserve in July. Nearly 30 upscale restaurants in the Denver area are serving the beer. You can’t buy it at liquor stores or outside Colorado.

As with Blue Moon, AC Golden officials plan a slow rollout. No marketing hoopla. No splashy national advertising campaign. MillerCoors CEO Leo Kiely, in fact, likes to call Blue Moon “our 13-year overnight success story.” Word-of-mouth was key.

So far, Herman Joseph’s Private Reserve appears to be getting thumbs up from beer drinkers at local eateries.

“Everyone really likes it,” said Nathan Dant, bartender at Strings in Denver. He also likes the beer.

“It’s my favorite one that we have now,” said Dant. “I like that it isn’t really hoppy. It’s more on the malty side.”

Chris Murray, beverage manager at the Buckhorn Exchange in Denver, echoed the positive customer sentiment.

“They seem to be loving it,” he said. “And they usually have another one.”

Murray, too, likes the beer: “This is more of a nice, mellow old-type beer taste.”

Those reviews of the beer are surely music to the ears of Glenn Knippenberg, president of AC Golden Brewing.

“We worked on it close to a year,” said Knippenberg. “We had many, many test brews.”

AC Golden is the “baby,” so to speak, of Pete Coors, chairman of MillerCoors and great-grandson of the company founder. “He has a passion for brewing world- class beer,” said Knippenberg.

While it’s a stand-alone brewery, AC Golden is a subsidiary of MillerCoors, the nation’s No. 2 brewer behind Anheuser-Busch.

According to Knippenberg, the upstart brewery has clear orders from MillerCoors corporate: “You guys run it like entrepreneurs.”

The staff numbers about a half-dozen, including four brewers, a sales representative and a president.

AC Golden officials are crossing their fingers that Herman Joseph’s Private Reserve will catch on in the same way that Blue Moon has. The Belgian-style beer has enjoyed double-digit sales growth.

MillerCoors executives also have a clear interest in the tiny brewery belting a home run.

“There wasn’t anything in the pipeline coming behind Blue Moon,” said Knippenberg.

Back at the AC Golden brewery, the time was 7:56 a.m.

Brewers Fletcher and Casey readied the big filter that would strain the mash that was mixing in the mash tun.

At this point, the mash tasted like a hot breakfast cereal: Malt-O-Meal.

Before sending the mash through the filter, Fletcher and Casey checked the filter cloth by hand to ensure it was attached properly. It would strain out solids such as grain husks.

The brewers then used a plastic spoon to drip a few drops of mash into a ceramic sample tray where individual pockets caught the liquid. They readied an eyedropper full of iodine, dripping a little bit into each sample of mash. The mixed solution turned a darker brown.

“This tells us there are a lot of long-chained carbohydrates in there,” explained Casey.

The mash wasn’t quite ready to be transferred to the filter. About nine more minutes.

The iodine test was repeated. There was little color change this time. The mash was ready to be filtered.

“We’re filling the press,” alerted Casey.

The time: 8:19 a.m. “Pretty soon we’re going to have liquid coming out of here,” he said, motioning to a pipe that would help pump the strained mash into the nearby brew kettle.

By 8:24 a.m., the brew kettle was filling. Fletcher tested the liquid’s gravity after it had cooled, using a long metal measuring rod and performing the necessary math manually.

“It’s a crude way to measure sugar content,” he said of the calculation. An electronic measuring device was used as a backup to check the gravity.

The goal: a gravity reading of about 20 degrees.

By 8:55 a.m., the boiling process had begun. The liquid would be boiled for about two hours. Hops, which provide taste, would be added four times during the boil.

Fast-forward one week.

The unfermented beer – or wort – has since been piped one floor up from the brew kettle into a whirlpool tank, and then into a fermentation vessel.
The brewers added yeast, which breaks down the sugars further into alcohol and carbon dioxide.

“We’re at the initial start of brewing beer,” said Jeff Cornell, senior technical brewr at MillerCoors, who assists in AC Golden’s brewing. “We’re turning the wort into beer.”
Batch No. 4 of Herman Joseph’s Private Reserve had begun its journey toward the bottle. or 303-954-2467

AC Golden Brewing Co.
* What: New MillerCoors stand-alone craft brewery
* Headquarters: Golden
* Debut beer: Herman Joseph’s Private Reserve
* Style: German lager
* Beer details: Produced in small batches of roughly 30 barrels each
* Key ingredients: European and North American hops; Moravian two-row barley
* Availability: Select Denver metro-area restaurants
© Rocky Mountain News