They recently opened a 50-bbl production brewery on the edge of town, still brewing on the Peter Austin system. This British innovation works on a single yeast, Ringwood yeast, which turns out a wide variety of ales, from blondes to browns to IPAs. An Austin system works on a direct fired double-jacket brew kettle and open top flat-bottomed fermenters. Accustomed to the conical-bottom covered fermenters throughout the west, and knowing the home brewers gospel of keeping air away from the working yeast, I had to know more about the Austin system. Rick said they just tweak and twist the malted grains to get them to the desired end, and that I should talk to their head brewer, Jason Kissinger, for
Jason took me into the brewing space in the pub and started with the brick-lined brew kettle. Space between the bricks and the metal allows for a different caramelization than the modern steam jacket kettles get, he explained. The week-long fermentation in the open fermenters lets the oxygen-hungry Ringwood feast for two or three days, then the chill sets in, forty degrees Fahrenheit.
Austin systems were more popular in North America in the first crest of the craft brewing boom, in the early to mid-90s. Today the more automated systems are in vogue; a system that calls for a lot of hands-on work is not. "You really have to like shoveling malt at odd hours to enjoy brewing this way," Jason says with a chuckle. "Good thing I do."
Davidson Brothers is one of 22 breweries using the Austin system in the U.S. today. The missionary operation is Shipyard Brewing in Portland, Maine, which had been Austin's designated training center for American brewers wishing to learn the techniques; in recent years Davidson has taken over that responsibility, The Northeast remains the center for Austin brewing, and the furthest west it goes is
The method does adapt to large-scale brewing: the new Davidson plant is rated at fifty barrels and Shipyard in Maine is running hundred-barrel batches. The fermenters seen here with their open tops and flat bottoms ("we don't need conical bottoms because all the yeast we harvest stays on top," Jason says) are at work in that chilly forty degree air.
Precise temperature control is essential to working with Ringwood yeast, according to Jason, as the aggressive yeast loves to generate diacetyls, a compound that often lends a buttery flavor to beers. As a small taste component, a buttery note may be all right in some styles, but the brewing here keeps it under control.
"So is Ringwood the One Yeast to Brew Them All, sort of like Tolkien's Ring?" I asked Jason. Well, almost but not always, he says. They have a Belgian Tripel in the works, one of their twentieth anniversary commemorative brews, that will be made with a yeast from Belgium. But almost everything else comes from this sturdy English yeast.