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Inside Genesee Brewing: How malting, mashing and yeast make Genny beer

ROCHESTER — When Steve Kaplan talks about beer making, it sounds a little like a survival game. Barley does a job for a bit, but then gets tossed aside. Sugar is vital, though some of it will be “left behind.”

And yeast? That single-celled, fungi-family organism is an indisputable “rock star” — and one with many lives.

[Gallery: Take a tour inside the Genesee Brewing Co.]

Kaplan is the assistant brewmaster at Genesee, where a team of 600 workers have the capability of brewing, bottling, packaging and shipping up to 13,000 barrels of beer every day. Put another way, that is nearly 4.3 million cases of 12-ounce cans — product of a month-long brewing process that begins each week on Sunday nights and continues until the the orders are filled. (In winter, that’s likely a Wednesday, but for the hotter summer months that beg for a cold beer, it could go till Friday.)

The potential numbers are impressive. (The company keeps its actual figures under wraps for competitive reasons.) They will likely fluctuate come January, when the brewery completes a $40 million-plus modernization that will have Genny, a division of North American Breweries, producing batches that are half the size, but faster and with more efficiency, and an expanded ability to produce different types of beer.

The beer-making process begins with barley that is malted, which means it is soaked to germination and then dried. Most of Genesee’s malted barley comes from North Dakota and the Canadian plains, although for specialty beers the company purchases grains from further-away places like England and Germany.

At Genesee Brewing Co. in Rochester, a team of 600 workers have the capability of brewing, bottling, packaging and shipping up to 13,000 barrels of beer every day. (Derek Gee/ Buffalo News)

This malted barley is a source of starch that will be converted into sugar. First, the grain is milled to expose what Kaplan calls “that good starchy stuff” on the inside. Then, in a process called mashing, it is combined with hot brewing water that will convert the starch to sugar.

That hot water ranges from 113 to 162 degrees Fahrenheit, and exactly how long the grain remains in that water, and at what temperature, will determine the taste of the beer. Some of the sugars will become fermentable, meaning they will create alcohol, while others get – in Kaplan’s words – “left behind.”

The historic Rochester brewery is in the midst of a major expansion while brewing the same Genny beer that has been embraced by Western New Yorkers for generations.

Those straggling sugars are important, though.

“The ones that get left behind form the sweetness and the body and the mouthfeel and all the good, malty things about beer,” he said. “So we have to make a decision during the mashing process. Do we want a very, very light beer that is going to be dry, low in calories, low in carbohydrates? Or we do we want a sweet, malty, heavy beer?”

The mashing process stops when the brewers raise the water to 170 degrees, which halts the enzymatic activity and essentially locks in the style of beer. To separate the sugary water, called wort, from the grains, the mash is pumped into a lauter tun. This machine works like a drip coffee maker, filtering the wort into kettles. The grains left behind are collected and sold as feed to local dairy farmers.

“It’s a source of revenue for us, but it’s also a very green way to get rid of brewing waste,” said Kaplan, a Liverpool native who earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in 2005 from the Rochester Institute of Technology. After working for the beverage behemoth Anheuser-Busch, he joined Genesee in 2011.

A stainless steel cask in the Genesee Pilot Brewing at the Genesee Brewing Company in Rochester. (Derek Gee/ Buffalo News)

Genesee is in the midst now of modernizing this process to become much more efficient. Soon, the lauter tun will be replaced by a mash filter that works more “like a French press,” Kaplan said, finely milling the malts to the consistency of flour and then squeezing the wort from the grains.

The water is boiled in brew kettles for about an hour, which sterilizes and concentrates the wort, carmelizing the sugars to create a darker color. This is also when most of the hops – the flower addition to beer that provides flavor, bitterness and aroma – are added to the mix. Hops introduced early in the boil bring out bitterness in the beer; hops mixed in later provide aroma and flavor. After the boil, the wort is cooled to fermenting temperatures — in the 50s for lagers, and high 60s and low 70s for ales. Yeast – that single-celled, fungus microorganism – is added to the now-cooled mix, which is sent to a fermenting vessel.

This is where the wort – which is, at the moment, nothing more than hopped-up sugar water – becomes beer.

“The yeast is actually the rock star,” Kaplan said. “It takes all those sugars we created, and it consumes them and it gives off alcohol and CO2 as a byproduct, and a whole other range of flavors that are very specific to the strain of yeast that we’re using. At that point, once the fermentation is done, we have beer.”

Sounds a little like a science experiment, doesn’t it?

It should. It is. Genesee, which started brewing in 1878, has been using its own strain of yeast for a hundred years, dating back to Prohibition. 

“We have an ale yeast and a lager yeast, and those are our yeasts,” said brewery manager Mark Minunni, who joined in 1982 as an electrical engineering intern and has been with Genesee since. “Nobody else has those yeasts. Nobody else, probably, will ever have those yeasts.”

The state-of-the-art yeast room which produces all the yeast used at the plant to exacting specifications in a closed environment at the Genesee Brewing Company in Rochester. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

This is a differentiator. Kaplan points out that if we were given the yeasts used by, say, west coast brewers, he could easily recreate a Washington or California beer. To that point, Genesee does do private-label brewing for a variety of beermakers, some of which are famous brands, though the company won’t reveal which ones.

After the rock-star yeast does its job, is exits the spotlight and settles to the bottom of the tank as the beer is chilled. The yeast is collected for reuse – it can be reinvigorated for up to 10 cycles – and the beer is pumped into storage vessels where it is aged (or lagered, to borrow the German term) for one to three weeks.

At the end of the aging cycle, the beer is then filtered (unless it is a style that is supposed to be hazy) and sent to bottling tanks. The brewhouse in Rochester, which also bottles Seagrams wine coolers, among other products, has the capability of packaging up to a quarter-million 24-count cases every day.

“We’re not doing that right now,” Minunni said, “but hopefully someday we will be.”

Cases of Genesee emerge from the casing line and then ride a conveyor belt across Genesee Brewing to the shipping area. (Derek Gee/ Buffalo News)

Next year, the new eco-friendly brewing equipment should help. It includes updated systems for milling, mashing, hopping and yeast handling, along with 24 new fermenters and several other pieces of equipment, many of which reduce waste. That will give Genesee the ability to produce a bigger variety of beers quickly and efficiently, an important capability in an age where specialty brews are increasingly popular with consumers.

“It’s a career-changing event — it’s huge,” said Kaplan, who helped plan and design the renovated brewery.

For him, the new equipment is more than a professional advancement. Kaplan, who lives in suburban Rochester with his family, is hoping that brewing becomes a generational profession.

“I have two little boys,” he said. “To know that someday they might work here and brew on this equipment too is pretty exciting.”

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