So there I was the other night, freeing some Boss Tom’s to return to the sea, as they say, and the whole circle of life thing struck me (cue the “Lion King” theme).
My shrinking bladder was part of the big picture.
Of course! It’s all about water. It’s in the ocean, it rises in evaporation, the clouds drift over the mainland, it rains, the river carries away the precip, the city captures it, Boulevard Brewing Co. puts it into a bottle, I do my part by buying and emptying said bottle, my bladder doth protest too much, and the cycle starts over again.
At blogs like Ratebeer or Guys Drinking Beer, they ramble on endlessly about exotic, flavorful ingredients. And Boulevard is generous with its nearly 20 different hops, with names like Zesus, Styian Golding and Amarillo, puts to work nearly as many malts, from roasted barley to honey naked oats, and tosses in stuff from orange peels and coriander to brown sugar and dark candi syrup.
To Boulevard’s fabled Tank 7, the alchemists add cornflakes. I had heard beer described in college as the “breakfast of champions,” but I never believed it until now.
Then there is the pour, the lace, the color, the nose, the mouth feel, the yada yada.
One blog review from a guy who calls himself Bubbleflubber had this to say about one of Boulevard’s Smokestack Series, the Double Wide IPA.
“Pours a murky, muddy brown with a wispy head that leaves thick soapy lacing. Nice resinous nose with dark esters. Toffee and pine resin to the tongue, with a hint of fruits that finish in a slathering pepper bitter (that plays off the alcohol warmth well). Nicely balanced, full-bodied and well-integrated, this bold and bitter complex Impy IPA hits the spot.”
But does anyone hail the water? No.
Take away the alcohol (this would be a very bad idea), and you’re left with from 89 to 95.5 percent water!
That’s a hugely significant number. Think about it. Water covers 71 percent of the planet. Even with a couple o’ Boss Tom’s Golden Bock sloshing inside, I’ll wager I never reach more than 65 percent myself.
In journalism school, we heard how the medium, in this case water, is the message. And how better to find more enlightenment on that message than wandering down to Boulevard, where 5,474,479 gallons of its potions flowed out the door last year. I’m thinking that would fill Arrowhead Stadium a good 10 feet, which suggests all kinds of new sports in the off-season.
Boulevard’s medium, of course, is the murky Missouri River — once described as so full of prairie dust that the catfish must surface to sneeze — which provides a tiny, though distinguishing, part of its taste profile.
I have seen with my own eyes the incoming pipe from the city main, strangely rusted, pitted and almost medieval in a hidden corner of the brewery’s acres of shiny stainless steel.
No sky blue waters, no Rocky Mountain springs here. Just the same H2O from the same Kansas City treatment plant that supplies the tap water with which we might refresh ourselves — assuming, of course, no beer were at hand.
Uh, what’s that? Mike Utz, plant engineer at Boulevard, wishes to add a clarifying fact or two?
He probably wants to talk about those sand filters that trap any particulates that escaped the city process or the tanks of active carbon that clutches at the chlorine. (But not fluoride, so I’m pretty sure four out of five dentists still recommend brushing your teeth with Amber Ale.)
So he would say this is not typical Kansas City water, which, by the way, can come in a bit musty from inversions, mud-hugging water layers deciding to move up in life.
But Utz is not stopping with filters. Next comes the stuff that makes the head hurt if chemistry were not your thing in high school (other than sitting next to Margaret S., a cheerleader squad leader).
So we’ll just stick to the table of elements — I’m guessing that was that big chart on the wall with a bunch of blocks on it — and you will be spared the part about ion strengths and charges.
Boulevard also lists two kinds of specific gravity for each brew, but we’re not going there, either. The only one that matters is the one that holds you to the barroom floor.
“We use nitrogen to strip the oxygen out of the beer. Oxygen is one of the enemies of beer,” Utz says, “and will make it taste bad.” Shortens the shelf life, don’t you know, not that time on the shelf is much of a problem during a Kansas City summer.
But wouldn’t H2O be just a lot of H’s without the O? Just how much oxygen is removed?
“A bunch,” interjects Joe Palausky, Boulevard’s chemist in charge of quality consistency. “Bunch” is one of those scientific measurements the Europeans are trying to shove on us.
Anyway, the oxygen goes from 10 parts per million to 10 parts per billion or less, he says. This water does not go into basic beer-making, however, but is used in the finishing process and to push the beer batches through the system.
Palausky says Kansas City’s water is moderately hard, imbued with traces of calcium, sulfites and magnesium. This affects the amount of foam in the glass and how long it hangs onto your mustache.
And while your tongue buds might have trouble pinning this down, a brewery’s taste comes from the local water supply and “generates a flavor profile that their area is used to.” Same formula, but different rivers? The taste will vary.
In England, the pale ale from Burton-on-Trent is flavored by the gypsum leaching from the local hillsides that makes for a really hard water that pops out the hops. But in Plzen, Czech Republic, the natural aquifers mean few minerals and thus the softness of a Bohemian pilsner lager.
Palausky and Utz say this is an issue for that downstream giant, Anheuser-Busch, which has 13 operations across the country using different sources. Some of its breweries use something called reverse osmosis, which takes everything out of the water — “except the wet,” Utz says — then puts back in exactly everything that makes a Bud a Bud.
But Boulevard has the one plant, where we have now tracked our water to a shiny silo where it’s heated short of boiling so the grain mash can be introduced and its starches broken down to fermentable sugars. When the spent grain solids are lautered, that is, removed, the hops are next in the pool for their bitterness, flavor and aroma. Boiling, evaporation and a whirlpool are involved in the six-hour actual brewing process.
Our water is now “wort” — a great name for a “Game of Thrones” character — the sweet liquid ready for the sugar-eating, alcohol-producing yeast. The sugars and malts from the ancient process determine the brew densities, from a clear pilsner to a dark stout.
Then our friend Wort must go off to sit in the dark and reflect in a grove of steel tanks (41, and they’re adding two more) that hold 70 to 600 barrels each. For most of the products, Utz says, “in two weeks, we cool everything down and we have beer, almost by magic.”
Shazam! But it’s cloudy beer, so a centrifuge and a sheet filter (not used on the Unfiltered Wheat) are two of the next stops before the “bright beer” tank. Just before bottling, a bit more oxygen-consuming yeast and sugar are added (conditioning, actually a mini re-fermentation to produce carbon dioxide) and off it goes to the warehouse.
Whatever is not water and not alcohol makes up less than 1 percent of what ends up in the bottle, Palausky says. “The aroma compounds, the mouth-feel compounds, basically what makes beer taste like beer instead of water. We’re looking at parts per million, parts per billion.”
If you want to see brewmeisters inwardly and collectively cringe, merely suggest that, setting aside that little matter of alcohol content, beer is flavored water, not unlike Kool-Aid.
It was only the power of the press and my hosts’ insistent civility that kept them from heaving me into the street.
I would have been grabbed, necklaced with hemp and hauled to a light pole by guys from href=”http://beeradvocate.com/”>Beeradvocate.com, where they write things like this about a recent limited release of Boulevard’s Saison-Brett: “The farmhouse ale, based on the Kansas City brewery’s popular Tank 7, is dry hopped and bottle conditioned with various yeasts, including a wild strain called Brettanomyces, which gives the beer an earthy quality that pairs well with portobello mushroom, nutty Gruyere and English Stilton, a blue cheese.”
As for me, I like to pair a Saison-Brett with a brownie. (For the last time, put down that rope!)
What you may not realize is that it takes Boulevard about 4.5 jugs of water for every jug of beer. No, they don’t spill a lot, it goes into the cleaning and bottling processes, mostly. They’ve been working hard on this — the industry average has been 6 gallons to make a gallon — and hope to trim the ratio even more.
“We used less water last year than the year before, but we made more beer,” Utz says. Specifically, that’s water consumption down about 30 percent; beer production up 11 percent. That seems a formula for counting out a few extra shekels at the end of the year.
Utz says it’s their corporate responsibility. You might be interested to know that Hallmark and the Royals use far more water than Boulevard.
Most of the water that doesn’t go into kegs or bottles is used to scrub the tanks, lines and floors. “We don’t pasteurize our beer, so we have to clean like mad dogs,” Utz says. At one point, they UV the beer, passing the water through a vessel that has the light tubes encased in glass. The ultraviolet light kills any living organisms in the brew.
It’s also important to water down the conveyer lines, lubricating the system and cushioning the bottles to prevent breakage.
So if around 27 million gallons come into the brewery through that rusty pipe, then that means a pretty good annual water bill, half of which is the fee on the discharge of all the “high-strength” waste that “bugs” must eat and break down. Not hazardous, but still it’s a load on the city system and means a lot of surcharges on the bill, Utz says.
“It’s a big budget line item,” Utz says. “We spend a lot of money on water.”
Well spent, though.
To contact Darryl Levings, call 816.234.4689 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.