The Evolution of of Brewing Tech: Innovations that have redefined beer in the modern age

A bladder, clay pots, barrels and a large barrel were all tools used to make beer. Some, like the barrels, are still used today // Image by Marty Harris

A bladder, clay pots, barrels and a wooden fermentation vessel were all tools used to make beer. Some, like the barrels and foeders, are still used today // Illustration by Marty Harris

Today’s brewing scene is a long way from the rudimentary brewing vessels available to the earliest brewers. Heck, it would look completely foreign to the brewers of the mid-20th century. The sheer volume of breweries would be one surprise, as would the beers themselves—hazy IPAs, pastry stouts, wine barrel-aged saisons. 

Equally as shocking, though, would be how the beer is made. Though brewing is still based on centuries-old principles, advancements in technology since the 1980s have rapidly changed the nature of the brewhouse, and shaped the trajectory of modern, independent brewing.

Consider that commercial microbrewing systems didn’t really exist in the United States in 1980. When Sierra Nevada co-founder Ken Grossman set his sights on opening a brewery in Chico, California, he was forced to weld together his own equipment or acquire what he needed from Germany, where the bulk of brewing technology was decades ahead.

Summit Brewing Company began in the same bleak brewing scene in 1984. They, too, modified the meager amount of equipment available on the market, and made major and minor upgrades every decade or so. Summit founder and CEO Mark Stutrud looks out of his office window from the brewery’s newest building to the rest of the campus, and contemplates the last 34 years in business. “Automation has really brought about the most advances,” he states firmly.

Automation reduces the human element and the variations from brewer to brewer, says Stutrud, but it also improves operations at a higher level. As automation became more commonplace at growing regional brands like New Belgium (opened in 1991) and Rogue (1988), consistent return in the form of ingredient costs and increased employee safety and satisfaction were reported. “We used to haul buckets of grain, dump, then have to reset the mill,” Stutrud explains. 

Whether they know it or not, consumers nationwide have seen increased quality, consistency, and shelf stability in beer thanks to enhanced automation. It has also allowed brewers to devise recipes that would have been impossible to execute on dated equipment.

Technology That Shapes Beer From Grain To Glass

A fermentation cylinder and mash filter // Image by Marty Harris

A fermentor and a mash filter // Illustration by Marty Harris

Automation has been employed at every step in the brewing process. In milling, for example, the crush of the grain can be altered remotely, via computer. “In the past, we’d have to make manual adjustments,” Stutrud explains, “by physically changing the distance between the rollers.” Programming allows the mill to change automatically between a coarser grind for base malts and a finer one for specialty grains. 

Beers with properly milled malt and precise mash temperatures are more efficient, and less grain is required to make the same amount of beer. They also taste better. Fans of complex, malty beers, like Oktoberfest or porter, have precise mashing to thank for bringing out the intricate malt flavor.

Similarly, brewers can program automatic mashing—not only dialing in precise temperatures, but even the rate at which the temperatures change from step to step. Innovations such as these do not remove the brewer from the art; they remove her from tedious work.

At Modist Brewing Company in Minneapolis, equipment innovation rises to new heights in the form of a Meura Micro-2001 Hybrid mash filter. Taking the place of a lauter tun, which typically uses gravity to separate the liquid wort from the grain, a mash filter uses pneumatics to create pressure and squeeze liquid wort from grains through a series of 45 chambers, each of which contains a fine membrane filter. This uncommon technology was modified from a colossal scale to a craft scale in 2012 and is found at a handful of other craft breweries nationwide, most notably Alaskan Brewing. Still, it remains cost prohibitive for the vast majority of independent breweries.

Whereas nearly all traditional beer recipes call for more than 70 percent of the grain used to be malted barley varieties in order to avoid gumming up the brewing equipment, mash filtration technology allows brewers to use up to 100 percent rye, oats, wheat, or whichever other grain the brewer wants to experiment with. 

High-Tech Hops

A Randall // Image by Marty Harris

Dogfish Head created the Randall the Enamel Animal to infuse beers as it traveled from the tap to the glass // Illustration by Marty Harris

Hopping technology has come even further since the early days of Sierra Nevada. Pelletization technology entered the market in the early ’70s, around the same time the importance of refrigeration came to light. Since then, several new hop preservation methods have been pioneered. 

Cryogenic-related products like lupulin powder may seem like the future of hop preservation, but they are actually based on old technologies. LupuLN2, the popular powder released for public use last year, removes all the vegetal notes of hops and contains only lupulin—the hop oils deep within a cone. Hops & Grain Brewing in Austin, Texas, was an early adopter of this product and have become outspoken about its merit among a growing array of products.

Boston Beer Company, makers of Samuel Adams, collaborated in developing a customized hop pellet in 2015 called BBC, available to any interested brewers. While other pellets contain either a high proportion of vegetation (the green, leafy material of a hop) or a low one, BBC falls in between. The company believes their new pellet creates the ideal balance of grassy, green material; alpha acids for bitterness; and pungent aromatics, delivering more overall flavor. Less vegetation also means less loss of liquid, thus better efficiency.

A discussion of the evolution of hop addition technology is nothing without the mention of Dogfish Head Brewing Company in Milton, Delaware. In fact, Dogfish (and its founder, Sam Calagione) is nearly synonymous with hops. The 90 Minute and 120 Minute IPAs are named for the length of the boil during which generous, frequent hop additions are made. While few breweries have adopted continuous hopping to the same degree, the method of multiple, small additions expanded nationwide.

Calagione and his team also famously revolutionized hopping at the bar. Randall the Enamel Animal came onto the scene in 2002. The Randall is a bar-top device created by Dogfish Head that looks like a skinny Brita water pitcher attached to a tap line. It’s traditionally filled with hops or botanicals, which the beer is infused with on its way to your pint. This, along with the expanded use of hopbacks on the production floor for late-addition hopping, has ushered in a new wave of beer that is dripping with hop flavor and aroma. 

Canning’s Hidden Complexity

Packaging, the unsung hero of the craft beer awakening, would be almost unrecognizable to brewers of the past thanks to advances in automation, robotics, and laboratory analysis, which have been key contributors to quality on liquor store shelves. Canning requires about seven individual steps, including purging the empty can with carbon dioxide and two-fold seaming. The process has been transformed by computers and advanced laboratory science. 

On a canning line, “each individual piece of equipment can ‘talk’ to the others,” explains Stutrud with a smile. Even the conveyor belts will slow down automatically if the filling process is lagging behind. The key to any form of packaging is meticulously limiting the liquid’s exposure to oxygen. The seaming itself is clearly of great importance, and the quality of can seams is examined by cameras as often as every 15 minutes.

Other measurements available today are also groundbreaking. Improved methods of measuring the CO2 present in beer through fiber technology became available about 10 years ago. The ability to measure dissolved oxygen is even more recent. In 2012, a device by Pentair called c-TPO became available to brewery labs. The tabletop device measures dissolved oxygen in the liquid and in the headspace of the packaging, and has led to greater attention being paid to this ticking time bomb threatening a beer’s shelf life. 

It was decades ago when the technology involved in filling cans with nitrogen was perfected by the most famous brewery using nitrogen: Guinness. Having successfully hired a mathematician to develop nitrogenation in the 1950s, Guinness rolled out an extremely successful nitrogen can campaign, which hit the U.S. in 1991. Improvements throughout the decade led to nitrogen in bottles, and Left Hand Brewing Company, with the help of Ball Canning, improved upon the technology for Nitro Milk Stout in cans just last year.

Brewing technology has kept pace with the booming craft beer industry, and at times has even led it along. The tremendous relationship between breweries and the industries around them—engineers, process improvement experts, chemists—deserves the majority of the credit for shaping the industry as we know it today. The future of brewing is not only bright but it’s casting a light on professional jobs, the power of innovation, and the ability of brewers to shape their own industry.