Brewing is a centuries-old process that at its core is rather simple. The key steps of mashing, sparging, boiling and fermenting can be done with equipment found in almost every kitchen. And so while breweries might tweak equipment design and use computer controls more than in the past, not much has really changed in the brewhouse in decades.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some really cool innovations that would make any gadget-geek giddy. Here are three recent technological advances that are both fascinating and serve the useful purpose of making your beer taste better (or at least different).
Ever wonder what that little gizmo in your can of Guinness or Kilkenny does? It is a beer widget and it is an invention by Guinness meant to emulate the taste, head and body of draught Guinness in the bottle or can. To begin, you need to know most beer is carbonated with carbon dioxide. However, draught Guinness is served with a combination of carbon dioxide and nitrogen. It is the nitrogen that gives Guinness and other British/Irish ales that tight, thick head and creamy mouthfeel, as it has smaller bubbles and a softer taste.
Nitrogen is notoriously unstable and, until recently, there was no way to inject it into bottled beer. Then along came the widget. This little oblong or spherical piece of plastic helps hold the nitrogen in a sealed container. The process is deceptively simple. At the last second before capping/sealing, a small dose of liquid nitrogen is injected into the beer. The nitrogen quickly evaporates, pressurizing the vessel. As it does so, it forces beer into the widget, which is pre-charged with more nitrogen. When the bottle/can is opened, the pressure drops and the beer and nitrogen explode into the beer, forming the classic Guinness head and smooth body.
A less dramatic innovation, but one more important for the shelf life of your beer, is the oxygen-absorbing cap. Oxygen is the enemy of finished beer. It causes the volatile flavour compounds to break down and produce off-flavours. The process, called oxidation, is inevitable and what makes beer a relatively short-lived beverage—six months or so for standard-strength beer. Oxidized beer loses its complexity and tastes like cardboard or wet paper.
During the bottling process, brewers do their best to purge the empty bottle of oxygen, but no process is perfect. Those rogue oxygen molecules slowly work on the beer to cause staling. In recent years, many breweries have switched to special oxygen-absorbing caps. These caps are lined with a type of plastic (all caps are lined with plastic) that absorbs oxygen molecules. I don’t fully understand the chemistry behind them, but I am told they are completely safe and that they can extend the life of a beer by three to six months.
There is no way to know which breweries use oxygen-absorbing caps, as they are not labelled and look the same as regular caps. I do know local brewery Alley Kat uses them, but there may be others.
The final cool gadget is not something you will ever see in your bottle of beer. The Hop Torpedo is an invention of American craft-beer pioneer and Sierra Nevada founder Ken Grossman. The Torpedo is designed to add strong hop flavour and aroma to a beer without adding harshness that sometimes happens in aggressively hopped beer.
Without getting too technical, the Hop Torpedo is a stainless-steel cylinder that works like an espresso machine. It is packed with whole hops and then pressure sealed. Fermented beer still sitting in the conditioning tanks is forced through the cylinder and returned to the tank. This process continues until the brewer has the level of hop character they are looking for. What the torpedo does is release the essential oils and resins that create a hoppy flavour and aroma—as opposed to bitterness that can only come through boiling—but leaving behind the compounds that add harshness. This creates a gentler, more pleasant hop aroma.
Hop Torpedoing is still a rare thing in the brewing world. Sierra Nevada, Dogfish Head and only a few other craft brewers regularly use the process, so I realize that telling you about it is a bit of a tease. However, I can promise you that I have it from a reliable source that we will soon see a Canadian-made Torpedoed beer. Stay tuned.
Beer is not really a gadget industry; it is more about tradition. Yet it is fun to look at some of the small ways in which technological innovation has led to better beer. Gadget geeks rejoice! V
Jason Foster is the creator of onbeer.org, a website devoted to news and views on beer from the prairies and beyond.