Let's be honest, even if you know your beer well enough to tell an IPA from an amber ale, or can make a beer selection off the stultifying Edmund's Oast menu without having an existential crisis, most of us don't know the first thing about actually brewing the stuff. Indeed, in this craft beer crazy world where we bandy about terms like 'cask conditioning' or 'dry hopping,' how can you be expected to know your top from your bottom fermenting drafts?
For our beer issue, we strapped on our lab goggles and sat down with David Flynn, general manager of Boxcar Central, the local technology company whose Power Line Communication (PLC) system is redefining the beer business here in Charleston, to learn more about the science of barley-broth and how advances in sensor technology are changing the way we brew.
First the basics: Flynn explains, "everything starts with the grain seed." The brewer will make a recipe of different grains, oats, and wheats, depending on the taste profile they are trying to achieve. The malted grains are then milled and mixed with hot water in a mash tun, essentially a big cylindrical vat where "they are stirred up and allowed to sit for about an hour to an hour and a half, depending on what type of ale or lager the brewer is making" says Flynn. The purpose of this phase (if you'll allow me to revisit high school chemistry for a moment) is to allow the starches in the grain to break down and convert to sugar. This infusion of ground malt and other grains, which is attractively called "wort" is then extracted from the mash tun and boiled in a kettle at which point the brewer will typically add different levels of hops.
From there the mixture is cooled and placed in a fermenter, the upside-down cone things that you might recall seeing on The Drew Carey Show (if you're me). Then the real magic begins when the brewer adds yeast. The yeast consumes sugars in the wort and converts it into the stuff that dreams are made of, alcohol. Worth noting — the main difference between beer types comes down to the type of yeast used to ferment it. The fermenting process, according to Flynn, takes 10 to 14 days. Over that time, brewers adjust the temperature of the fermenter multiple times, including a "cold crash" near the end to get the yeast to fall out of suspension.
In the olden days this surprisingly delicate process meant "every day the brewer would go to a fermentation vessel and extract a half a pint of beer to read the temperature and gravity level inside of that tank, going through a half a pint of beer, per vessel, per day."
These days, local brewers are able to keep the thirsty masses at bay and save vast amounts of time using Boxcar's PLC control panels and web-enabled interfaces to monitor these readings on their computers and smart phones.
Boxcar started in 2002, heralding the future of warehouse management software using cloud based technology. "If you think back to 2002 ... no one really knew what [cloud computing] was or what it did, let alone how it could be leveraged to enable your business." In 2015, the company was reacquired by its founder Don Taylor.
"He put us on a diversification strategy," Flynn says. "To get into the internet of things, IoT, systems technology." For those who don't know, in the consumer context, IoT is the technology that enables Alexa to skip that track on Spotify, turn on your lights, or manage your shopping list. Boxcar has used it to develop cellular technology, adapted from their warehouse management days, that can be applied to almost any environment requiring precise sensor readings, including beer production.
Their first foray into the versatility of these control systems was working with sister companies Tiger Corner Farms and Vertical Roots to develop container-to-table greens — farming inside a technology loaded shipping container. "In the food and beverage industry consistency is the name of the game," says Flynn. Using their PLC system they were able to automate nutrient delivery and maintain consistent pH levels and temperatures, in order to grow a fresh and dependable product.
Using the same sensor-intensive technologies, they are now able to provide consistency and peace of mind to brewers, including Dockery's, Revelry Brewing Co., and Rusty Bull Brewing Co., just to name a few of their clients.
"We have saved hundreds of barrels of beer just this past summer with our customer base," Flynn explains. "Because the glycol chillers which maintain beer temperature can get overtaxed in the heat." Now, when there's a problem, Boxcar's automated systems can simply alert the brewer to the problem via text, no matter where they are.
"If we save you an hour a day from taking a lap around the brewery to check temperature profiles, that's 365 hours a year," Flynn adds. "I just gave you a few weeks back. What could you do with all that time?"
Brewing might be tricky, but the answer to that one is easy — drink more beer.