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Saturday, August 2, 2014

Wachusett Brewing Company Tour

We arrived at a very non-descript building located off a rural road in Westminster, MA. This 
building is home to Wachusett Brewing Company. Parked in front was a vintage fire truck emblazoned with the logo and Wachusett Brewing Company name.
Admittedly we were a little early for the 12:00 opening and knew we would need to wait. It wasn’t long before employees started to arrive and customers began filling the parking lot. Many had their own growlers with them and were there to have them re-filled. Others like us where there for the tour.

Those of us there for the tour gathered in the tasting room where we meet Heather our tour guide for the day. She started us off the right way by offering us a sample of one of the 11 of their different brews on tap.

I selected their newest brew the Strawberry White and Dan selected their trademark brew the Country Pale Ale. The Country Pale Ale was the first of their many different brews. After picking up our complimentary samples we took a seat at one of the many high top tables.

Heather started with a quick explanation of how Wachusett Brewing Company was founded. We learned that it was founded by three WPI students who all had an appreciating for home-brewing. The founders Ned, Kevin and Peter who were either engineering or biology majors put their education to work experimenting until they got the formula just right.

The walking tour of the brewery begins every hour on the hour. The full brewery tour takes about 30 - 45 minutes and is offered on Saturdays. Your tour guide will give you a brief history of the brewery and walk you through our brewing, cellaring and packaging. Children are welcome, but of course may not taste beer during our tasting session, which follows the walking tour. Altogether, the tour and the tasting last for about 1 hour, and tastings are limited to two (2) 2oz. samples.

We learned that the red barn depicted in many of the labels represents Ned’s Family farm in Westminster where they first brewed their beer. They stopped brewing their beer on the farm after they produced so much that they ran the well dry. The well supplied not just the barn but Ned’s parents’ home. The parents decided it was time for them to move their operation out of the barn and they moved into a portion of the current facility.

Many of their equipment was re purposed from other things such as the shrimp steamer now used as their mash pit. In 1994 they started distribution with clear growlers which they cleaned sanitize, hand fill and deliver to the local package stores. When you purchased one you would leave a deposit of $5 for the growler which if you returned it you would receive back. Those empty growlers would be returned to Wachusett Brewing Co where the process would start again. They also started with bunk style keg’s which were hard to fill and dispense from. In 1997 they began bottling.  They changed their growlers from the clear glass and began using light block growlers imported from Germany in 2004. They will hold 5.5-6 beers. The beer lasts for about 1-1.5 weeks unopened once opened it will last just a few days. In 2010 they changed kegs to the straight walled kegs which are both easier to fill and pour from.

1994 Wachusett Brewing Co was producing 40 Kegs per week, today we do 3000 cases of bottles, 5000 cases of cans and 500 kegs in an 8 hour day. As a local craft brewery they brew roughly 30,000 barrels of beer in a year.

They are currently the second largest brewery in Massachusetts behind Harpoon. Sam Adam’s no longer brewed volume in their Jamaica Plain facility just specialty and small batches. They lead the way for Wachusett to take that No. 2 spot. They also have the only canning machine in the state and can beer for other brewers.

There are four things that make a craft beer. Water is the first and the founders are passionate about the area and they use the town water from the Fitchburg reservoir. It is triple filtered and they occasionally add salts. The second ingredient is the wheat and barley which affects the strength, smells, and taste. They also use a 2-row malt. The lower the number of rows the better the quality. There are 22 different varieties of grain used to provide different flavors in the many brews.

The third ingredient they use is hops which they get in pellet form from Washington State. They also grow a small amount locally which they occasionally produce special batches with. Hops grown on a vine up to 25 feet tall.

They fourth ingredient is yeast. There are two different types of yeast. Top fermenting of bottom fermenting yeast. Top fermenting yeast produces ale’s and bottom fermenting yeast produces lagers. The yeast eats through the sugars which then produces alcohol and carbon dioxide.

With that background of Wachusett Brewing Company we got a second sample. Dan and I both chose the Blueberry Ale. Once done with those samples we moved on to the production floor where we first entered the packaging area. This area serves as both as a shipping and receiving area. On one side newly brewed bottled and canned beer is palletized and then their newest tool the orbital wrapper shrink wraps those pallets to ready them for shipping. On the other side bottles and can’s are de-palletized and sent for cleaning and sanitizing.

The 22 different varietals are selected for which ever brew is being produced. Those selected grains are put in the grist grain mill where the wheat and malted barley are ground up and put in their modified shrimp steamer now mash tun. 600 gallons of water are flooded into the Mash and brought up to 160-165 degrees for 75 minutes. You don’t want it to boil you just want the sugars to steep.  This produces a product called wort which is then brought to the brew kettle. All of the grain is pulled off and is trucked to local dairy farms to feed the cows.

The magic happens in the brew kettle. It boils in the brew kettle and the hops are added and it stays in for 75 minutes. It’s too hot to go directly from the brew kettle to the fermenting tanks so it passes through the whirlpool. Once down to temperature it is ready to be moved to one of their fermenting tanks.  From the grist mill to the fermenter takes roughly 5.5 hours.

In the tanks the yeast is introduced at the bottom of the tank and it eats its way to the top. This is top fermenting yeast and produces ales. The yeast eats all the sugars and produces the alcohol and carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide bubbles out into buckets of water and is released and the alcohol stays inside the tank. Brews stay in for a pre-determined period of time based on the particular recipe. It is here that samples are brought to the lab to test and ensure that they brewed correctly and to determine if they are ready. This can take up to 2.5 weeks or as little as 1 week.

These fermentation tanks range from 70 brewers barrels to 180 brewers’ barrels. One brewer’s barrel is equal to 2 kegs and a keg is 15.5gallons so each run produces 140 – 360 kegs.

Once fermentation is complete its filtered or left unfiltered before entering the Bright Beer Tanks to finish. ½ is filtered and ½ of the different brews are filtered. The filtering process takes place the DE filter or diatomaceous earth filter. It is very similar to a pool filter but it is food grade. Then it is placed in the bright tank where the beer is force carbonated. It is aged and conditioned in these tanks. Depending on the brew and alcohol content it can take 5 days to 1 week in the finishing tank.

The operation is a 24/7 operation. If it is ready to be bottled or canned it can take place at any hour. The employees are brought in and it is completed. As mentioned earlier they are the only canner in the state of MA and often other brewers ask them to can their beer. In one of the bright tanks we noticed that they had BBC Steel Rail which was soon to be canned.

Next is packaging. Wachusett can package their beer in can’s, bottles and kegs. They can keg 60 full kegs a minute when they are at full steam. The can’s come like a glass which is washed cleaned and sanitized. It is spun to remove any residual water before it is filled. Then the top is applied and seemed and sealed. Each can is x-rayed and checked for a complete fill.  They purchased their canning machine from Coca Cola when they closed down their Bermuda cannery. Once canning is complete they are bound into six packs and into cases then sent to the palletizer.

The bottling happens at the bottle fill station. They are cleaned and sanitized similarly as the can. They are shot with one drop of liquid nitrogen which not only cleans and sanitizes but forces all the air from the bottle. They are filled from the bottom to the top where it is capped and then sent to the label machine. Once labeled they are put into boxes and then cased and sent to the palletizer.

That is the whole process of making beer and distributing it to vendors for sale.

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