Brewmaster Eric Toft and homebrewer Markus Weingartner talk during Oktoberfest about beer tradition and the smart and connected technologies bringing handcrafted microbrewing to the masses.
It is one of civilization’s oldest intoxicants and favorite pastimes, but the secret to beer’s success over the past six thousand years might lie in its ability to fuse alchemy and art with technology.
Beer brewing has evolved – from ancient artisanal methods born in Mesopotamia, through the Industrial Age, when beer was machine manufactured for the masses.
Now, several decades into the microbrewery boom, experts and novices are turning to internet-of-things technology to bring the craft of beer making back to its roots, where small batches are made – often at home – by curious, thirsty tinkerers.
It’s not because there isn’t already enough beer to go around. Instead, there’s a confluence of accessibility to ingredients, equipment, recipes and new technologies that are driving people to brew at home. Some of the new electronic components being used to make homebrews are the same internet-of-things technologies used to make smart cities and robots in modern manufacturing plants.
“This is the most optimal time for home brewing,” said Eric Toft, a German-trained brewmaster with 25 years of experience.
“Technology is now less a problem than sourcing ingredients and getting a proper yeast. Today, home brewers have a plethora of everything. Homebrew shops are everywhere.”
The growing number of commercial breweries is also inspiring more people to try home brewing, he said.
“It’s crazy,” said Toft. “It’s a self-feeding mechanism now, so as more breweries open up, more people start homebrewing.”
There are likely six thousand beers from four thousand breweries, according to Toft, numbers that depict an explosion of new craft beers in the U.S. in recent years. The Brewer Association identified 4,225 regional breweries, microbreweries and brewpubs in the U.S. in 2015. That’s up from 2,400, almost double the number of craft beer makers in 2012.
Originally from Cheyenne, Wyoming, Toft started home brewing in 1980s, during the early days of the craft beer revolution in the U.S. He hopped the pond to earn a degree in brewing science at Weihenstephan in Germany, then spent a few years in Belgium before settling in southeast Bavaria for the past two decades.
Toft is steeped in tradition but keenly tuned in to how science and technology impact beer making.
Currently the brewmaster at the 236-year-old Schönram brewery located near the border between Germany and Austria, Toft sees the homebrew trend spreading from America to Europe, particularly across U.K., Sweden, Denmark, Italy, France and Austria.
“It’s just starting to catch on in Germany,” he said during a gathering coinciding with Oktoberfest 2016.
Mastering the Home Brew
Part of the home-brewing frenzy is fueled by new technologies that help manage each step of the brewing process. In his garage outside of Munich, homebrewer Markus Weingartner uses several pots, containers, hoses and fittings fastened together along with automation technology to brew and ferment his own beer.
At the heart of his smart brewing system is an Intel Edison compute module. The credit card sized circuit board collects and processes sensor data then automatically (or manually using a mobile device) adjusts to follow specific recipes. Weingartner imports these recipes into his automation system through the BeerXML Standard, a database of homebrew recipes.
Temperature sensors placed inside the fermentation vessel and refrigerator constantly feed information to the computerized system. Using his wireless tablet or smartphone, he monitors and controls the operation from anyplace.
“The brew system constantly monitors temperature sensors to let the software make decisions on whether to turn on or off the gas burners,” said Weingartner, a global communications manager at Intel.
“One burner sits underneath the mash tun, and the other sits under the wort kettle,” he continued. “The system precisely controls the temperatures of the mash and the boil which – similar to professional brewing – is essential to being able to reproduce great beer at the homebrew level.”
Rise of Beer Technology
While a lot has happened in the brewing world in the last 30 years, particularly around automation, Toft said technology from the industrial revolution made a huge impact on beer making.
In the 17th century, Anton van Leeuwenhoek, the “father of microbiology” used a microscope to better understand yeast. In the late-1800s, Frenchman Louis Pasteur furthered the science behind yeast fermentation. In 1818, likely inspired by James Watt’s steam engine, a kiln was invented that changed the malt drying process. Toft said before that time, beer tasted like whiskey with less alcohol.
“They were using peat, coal and wood to dry malt, which gave the beer a real smokiness or peat and charcoal flavor.”
Modern refrigeration in the 1870s allowed beer to be brewed year-round.
Today, internet-connected sensors and digital control systems are bringing the craft into the Digital Age.
“It’s always about striving for perfection and consistency,” he said. Today’s automation technologies are helping him refine and make repeatable recipes.
Better Setup, Better Brew
Four ingredients — water, barley, hops, and yeast — are extremely important for beer purists.
“You can make a great beer with good ingredients, but you can’t make a great beer with poor ingredients,” said Toft, an arbiter of Reinheitsgebot, the beer purity law celebrating its 500th anniversary this year.
“We try to meld tradition with progress,” he said. “We automate and modernize where we can, but we don’t lose sight of tradition.”
Technology helps Toft manage parameters like temperature and pH balance. He said it’s critical to continuously measure temperature relative to time, pressure and flow rate, and gravity, for a term brewers use to refer to the extract or sugar concentration in wort.
“The better your technical setup is, the more repeatable your beers are because you can pay attention to detail in every step of the process,” Toft said.
The cost of temperature sensors has dropped in recent years, and smart, networked computer systems that can control the brewing process are more readily available. This progress in automation has allowed Toft to get more enmeshed in ingredients.
“Part of the fascination with brewing, is the fact that it’s an agricultural product,” he said. “The hops and the barley are susceptible to seasons and weather. You can use the intrinsic properties of the ingredients to adjust the process in order to keep the beer as spot-on as possible.”
Weingartner took different path to brewing, but eventually his knowledge of technology and appreciation for good beer finally intertwined.
After collecting and purchasing pots, tubing, fittings, sensors and a compute module, the former software engineer said he dusted off rudimentary coding skills and started tinkering in the garage.
He selected a South German Style Weissbier recipe, BJCP Style 10A, but added a twist by using Cascade hops and fresh hops from his backyard trellises.
“I occupy our garage for about a day and a half to make a 40-liter batch,” he said. “Keep in mind, good brewing is 75 percent cleaning,” he said, citing home brewing legend John Palmer.
To save time, he taught his children to mill the grains while he sanitizes the beer hoses and assembles fittings.
“It’s become a competition between my daughter and son for who gets to mill the grains, so now I have motivated assistant brewers.”
Once brew process is finished, Weingartner puts the wort into stainless kegs for fermentation. Those kegs go into two temperature-controlled refrigerators, managed by Intel Edison compute modules.
“The yeast still has to turn the sugars produced during the brew process into alcohol, CO2 and other by-products that shape the flavor of the beer.”
Weingartner said fermentation – depending on beer style – can take between one and three weeks. Lagers and very strong beers like Barley Wine need to mature longer in another vessel before they can be truly enjoyed.
The whole idea to homebrew hit him one day after reflecting on recent conversations about technologies for makers, the same computer technologies used to make robots, smart homes and smart cities. He kept hearing makers saying the same thing: We’re only limited by our imagination.
“That got me thinking, why not use Intel Edison to build an automated home brewing rig and make those American Ales and IPAs that are still relatively hard to find in Bavaria.”
The rest is beer history in the making.