Behind the scenes at the Samuel Adams brewery

Road Trip 2010: CNET reporter Daniel Terdiman stopped in to see how one of the most highly-regarded American beers gets made. Yes, he did sample the wares.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
7 min read

CNET reporter Daniel Terdiman visited the Samuel Adams brewery in Boston as part of Road Trip 2010, and saw how its beer is made. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

BOSTON--If it were any other day, and I was tipsy from drinking beer on the job, particularly given that it's not even noon yet, I'd probably be in serious trouble.

But today, I've got an excuse: I'm at the Samuel Adams brewery here for a behind-the-scenes tour of the famous facility. And they've got me sampling the wares.

I'm here on Road Trip 2010, which has taken me to a wildly diverse collection of places up and down the Northeast, but all I can think right now is that drinking amazingly tasty specialty beer is pretty much at the opposite end of the spectrum from my tour last week on the Virginia class nuclear submarine, the North Carolina. Yet, for me, it's all part of the same job.

What I'm really here to see is how Samuel Adams makes its beer, and for that, I'm being shown the lay of the land by brewer Grant Wood, who himself hasn't missed any opportunities for a quick sample of the various beers they've offered me to try. I asked him at one point how anyone there stays sober during the workday, and with a bit of a sparkle in his eye, he said that it's all about sipping.

An obsession with hops
The truth, I learned during my visit, is that making beer is actually a pretty simple process. That's why Sam Adams can take its brew through every step in the process in a room that's only about 30 yards long and about 20 yards across. It's not that every beer made by the company is brewed here; it has breweries in other locations. But it has the equipment here to turn out enough suds to keep the hundreds of thousands of tourists who come through for the factory tour each year happy.

These are hops used for Samuel Adams beer. The brewery gets all its hops from a single region of Germany. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

At its most basic, explained Wood, beer is nothing more than water, malt, hops, and yeast. This is the formula codified by the Germans--with the Germany purity law--in 1516, although that recipe left out the yeast, since microbiology hadn't yet come along.

The process begins with barley malt, Wood explained. Taking barley that has been harvested, but which is not ready for beer, the brewers malt it, a process that tricks the seed into germinating. This softens the grain, and produces the enzymes and the malty flavors that are critical to making beer.

Click here for a full photo gallery on beer making at Samuel Adams.

Making Samuel Adams beer (photos)

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Indeed, brewers can produce different flavors of beer by working the malt differently. For example, Wood said, in order to make a porter or a stout--both dark beers--he would start by roasting the malt until it's a coffee color.

Next up is the hops. At Sam Adams, Wood said, the brewers are true ingredients geeks and have "an obsession" with their hops. Indeed, he said that the way he sees it, hops are to beer as grapes are to wine. In other words, there are countless varietals of hops, and for making Sam Adams' Boston Lager, it's all about Germany. Each year, the brewery sends a team to that country's Hallertau region and hand picks the hops that will be used for the coming year.

That's because the lager recipe comes from an old family recipe of Sam Adams founder Jim Koch, and in that recipe, the hops were always from Bavaria. Yet, when Koch launched Sam Adams, the specific varietal of hops he wanted to use--Hallertau Mittelfrueh--were on the verge of extinction since they were a bit of a pain for farmers to grow, Wood explained. Still, based on Koch's needs, farmers began producing them again, and today, there is no danger of their disappearance, largely because of Sam Adams, Woods claimed.

One might wonder why it's so important to be so specific about hops; to Wood, it's because the hops are what gives beer its signature bitterness. When they're added to the brewing process, they're boiled and their bitter elements are extracted and blended into the beer.

And it might sound strange that Sam Adams would make such a point of going to Europe for its hops, but Wood said that he has always been told not to worry (so much) about cost. As an example, he recalled that Koch once directed him to make a chocolate bock, and was told to go and find the best chocolate to use as a base. As part of that research, it turned out they needed vanilla, and when they found the one they wanted, they discovered it cost $399 a gallon, and had risen from just $99 a gallon two years earlier, thanks to various economic factors.

But Koch didn't bat an eyelash when hearing the price, and told Wood to buy what he needed.

Brewing time
With the malt and the hops taken care, it's now time to start the brewing process. So, Wood and his fellow brewers begin to make their mash, crushing and grinding the malt and adding them to filtered Boston city tap water that has been heated to a very specific temperature. The result is a mash that resembles porridge, or oatmeal, Wood said.

There are four main vessels used in the brewing process: a mash kettle, a mash tun, a Lauter tuna and a brew kettle.

The three vessels used in brewing: the mash kettle (right), the mash tun, and the lauter tun (left). Daniel Terdiman/CNET

The brewer will add mash to the mash kettle and the mash tun--20 percent in the mash kettle and 80 percent in the mash tun--and then will bring the mash kettle rapidly to a boil. When it reaches a boil, the mash is pumped into the mash tun, where the new material causes a very quick temperature rise.

This is all about the key part of this process: breaking down the starch of the mash into sugars. And this is where how you do that breaking down determines the quality of the beer.

And now, what's left is a barley meal, which is sent to a large strainer--the Lauter tun. Here, the grains are strained off and the liquid--known as the wort (a solution of simple sugars)--is moved into the fourth vessel--the brew kettle.

In the case of Sam Adams, where the production of beer isn't that large, the brew kettle is usually just the mash kettle or the mash tun, which is rinsed out in preparation for the addition of the wort.

Here, the wort is brought to a boil and left there for 90 minutes. It's then added to the hops. During this process, the wort becomes bitter due to the addition of the hops, but it's also where the unique flavors of the hops varietals are added.

In total, the process so far has lasted about six or seven hours. Now it's time to separate out the relevant part of the brew from the waste. So, the brew is moved onto a device known as a whirlpool, or a settler, where the wort is essentially decanted. What's left after this is a bright, beautiful wort that is ready to be fermented, Wood said.

First, though, it must be cooled down. Coming out of the whirlpool, it is 190 degrees Fahrenheit, and it is then put through a cooler, which brings it down to about 50 degrees. Which means that it's time to add the yeast.

Pumped into large tanks, and with yeast now added to the mix, the beer begins its fermentation process. This is where the yeast earns its keep. People forget, Wood argued, that yeast is a living, breathing microorganism, and it performs best at specific temperatures. In the case of Boston Lager, the yeast likes a cool temperature.

For the next week, the brew will sit in the fermentation tanks, with the yeast feeding on the simple sugars. The result is the creation of alcohol and carbon dioxide and a host of flavors. The brew is now beginning to taste like actual beer.

After each week of the brewing process, the yeast is collected--it is still alive, and it is set aside and kept cold. The beer is put in another, clean, tank, and the yeast and the wort are added to it.

There's one more step: as the beer is in its second round of fermentation, but close to the end of that process, the brewers take some of the active fermentation from another tank and add it to the cold brew, where it acts as sort of a cleanup crew, Wood explained. The fresh yeast and fresh sugars essentially smooth out the brew. Add a little more hops, and the tank now becomes known as the aging tank, Wood said, because the brew is now kept for four weeks. This processing is known as lagering, and at the end of the four weeks, it's time for filtration and packaging.

To be sure, the process is somewhat different for other beers--longer in some cases, shorter in others.

The basic premise, though, is the same, regardless of the beer, and at Sam Adams, they have turned this into a process that has won a lot of awards. Indeed, hanging from the rafters in the brewery entryway are banners celebrating those awards.

These are the three flavors from the Samuel Adams Barrel Collection--New World Tripel (left), American Kriek and Stony Brook Red. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

For me, having seen how the whole process comes together--and had quite a few tastes of different flavors, I'm feeling good. Sam Adams, of course, isn't just about the Boston Lager. In fact, the company produces 20 different beers, including a new line called the Barrel Collection, so called because its three flavors, American Kriek, New World Tripel, and Stony Brook Red, are fermented in huge barrels that used to belong to an Italian sherry distillery.

These are seriously tasty. But I can't have more than a few sips. Even though I've got a good excuse, I still have a lot of work to do.

For the next two weeks, Geek Gestalt will be on Road Trip 2010. After driving more than 18,000 miles in the Rocky Mountains, the Pacific Northwest, the Southwest and the Southeast over the last four years, I'll be looking for the best in technology, science, military, nature, aviation and more throughout the American Northeast. If you have a suggestion for someplace to visit, drop me a line. In the meantime, you can follow my progress on Twitter @GreeterDan and @RoadTrip and find the project on Facebook. And you can also test your knowledge of the U.S. and try to win a prize in the Road Trip Picture of the Day challenge.