What Time Is It? Coolship Time.
We’re pretty excited to unveil a project that’s been in the works for quite a while; something that’s a first for Virginia:
We have a no-bullshit Coolship. And we’re about to begin using it.
Those who know what a coolship is are probably already foaming at the mouth with excitement. If you do not what a coolship is, don’t fret; you’re likely in the majority and I’m happy to explain. A coolship is a simple brewing vessel, designed to cool fresh wort down from its boiling point the old fashioned way: by exposing as much surface area as possible to cold, ambient air. Because we want all this surface area exposed, a coolship resembles a wide, shallow pan. Some traditional coolships are made of copper, but ours is made of stainless steel, primarily for cleanability. So, in an era of fancy, sterile heat exchangers (which we chill most of our wort with), why would we go through the trouble and expense of adding a coolship? That’s where it gets interesting.
Aside from cooling the wort down, a coolship has another impact: it allows open air to touch and inoculate it with wild yeast and bacteria. Most modern breweries consider this undesirable, even disastrous. This is true for most of our beers as well. We use closed-system fermentation and careful sanitation to prevent our “clean” beers from coming into contact with the open air. For the beer we’ll make with our coolship however, we have exactly the opposite aim. We want the open, wild, unrestrained Coastal Virginia air to both initiate and complete fermentation of this particular beer. In other words, we will not pitch any yeast or culture, but rely on what’s known as “spontaneous fermentation” instead. This fermentation will take place inside of oak barrels over the course of many months, even years. The Belgians call this type of beer a Lambic, but because it’s being made in Virginia with a quite different terroir, we will call it something else.
Aged hops in burlap sacks. Ours are over 2 years old now.
We’ve been wanting to make this type of beer for some time, but unfortunately, it’s not something you can hop out of bed one morning and make properly. Preparation is important, most notably where hops are concerned. Our coolship beer requires aged hops. That probably sounds counterintuitive, as hops are more flavorful and potent when fresh. But the potency of the alpha acids in hops is exactly what we’re trying to degrade with aging. We need the other preservative properties in hops to stave off unwanted bacteria (vinegar producers) while the wort is resting in the coolship (an overnight period), but because we have to use a disproportionately large amount to achieve this, we don’t want the bittering properties hops normally have. So, we age them and wait for the bittering acids to degrade over course of several years (our aged hops are over 2 years old now). Another point of preparation is the environment in which the coolship will sit. We built a custom room for it off the brewery out of rough oak planks, with screened-in hatches that open to allow outside airflow when we have wort in the coolship. The rough oak walls and ceiling serve to harvest and retain our local microflora, providing an environment conducive to kicking off spontaneous fermentation. As the season brings us closer to “coolship weather”, this room will be brimming with the microflora we’re looking for.
Rough white oak planks used to build the “Cool-Shack”
The wort we’ll make for this beer will also be quite different from our other beers. We’ll need a very complex wort with long starch chains in addition to the simpler sugars we normally produce with a mash. We get these starches from unmalted wheat, which makes the mashing process a bit longer and more laborious. We need to do this because the starch chains will feed our wild yeast (Brettanomyces) over the course of the long, sustained fermentation.
We believe this to be just the second commercial coolship in existence on the East Coast (the first is located at the ever-stellar Allagash Brewing, in Maine). While it won’t produce a lot of beer, we hope it will produce very interesting beer. Beer that harnesses our environment and has a true sense of place. Stay tuned for plenty of updates as this project progresses. We’re very excited about it and can’t wait to share its fruits with you!