Contamination can be a brewery’s worst nightmare — unless of course it’s intended, like when you’re brewing sours. Gallons to barrels to hectoliters of product, crafted with care and destined for the thirsty mouths of craft beer fans everywhere can become undrinkable overnight.
Whether it’s from bacteria cultivated from improper sanitization or the infiltration of wild yeast, contamination is something breweries seek to avoid at all costs. It can be disastrous if you’re unprepared for it. And it’s not only about wasted art; the financial implications can be serious, especially for microbreweries operating on a tight budget.
This has become especially apparent with the explosion in the popularity of sour beer, which requires traditional contaminants to get its unique sour flavor. However, even a small mishap can cause the wild yeast and bacteria in sour beers to wreak havoc on a brewery.
Unfortunately, serious contamination is a distinct possibility at some point in a brewery’s life cycle. The good news is steps can be taken to avoid it and mitigate the damage done if and when it happens.
First, it’s important to understand how beer can become contaminated to know what can be done to avoid it.
There are any number of ways to ruin beer (like adding lime flavoring, for instance). But when referring to contamination, brewers are concerned about two organisms in particular – bacteria and wild yeast.
Now, if you’re familiar with what goes into beer, you know that yeast is essential to the process. Some would say the most essential part – it’s what’s responsible for turning the sugars in the mash into the alcohol that makes the beer, well, beer.
With all the sours out there on the market, you’re probably pretty comfortable with the idea of a little bacteria in your brew, like Lactobacillus. In fact, sour beers are rising in popularity at an incredible rate.
But not all yeast and bacteria is a desirable addition to beer.
Wild yeast refers to any yeast that is not deliberately added and under full control of the brewers. It can result in any number of problems including hazy beer, bad flavors and even decreased ethanol production.
When carefully applied and controlled, wild yeast can actually add desirable attributes to a brew (here’s looking at you, brettanomyces.) But when run amok, it can ruin a lot of beer, hard work, and profit. The same goes for bacteria – sure, when controlled carefully it can bring a boring beer to life. But it can also kill it.
So, how are breweries able to mitigate instances of contamination?
Beyond any step taken, keeping things sanitary and hygienic is the most important part of preventing beer contamination. Whether you’re Budweiser or a homebrewer working with a single carboy, keeping your gear clean and your supplies properly stored will greatly reduce the risk of contamination.
That’s why brewing sours can be a tricky business. It’s easy enough to contaminate your non-sour beers without purposely introducing wild yeast and bacteria into your brewery. Typically when brewers decide to create sours or wild ales, they take extreme measures to prevent cross-contamination, going as far as to require separate facilities for those beers, not permitting employees who worked on sours recently to enter other parts of the brewery and encouraging all employees to wash their clothes daily. It’s that serious.
Bacteria is a little easier to control than wild yeast, although it’s still no mean feat. Because of the low oxygen environment, alcohol, and acidity, most bacteria don’t do well in the brewing process. But there are strains that thrive.
By simply keeping every tool frequently sanitized, you can limit the bacteria that comes into contact with the beer wort. Additionally, acid washes of tanks will kill anything that has begun to proliferate.
Because wild yeast is airborne and not killed with acid washing, it’s essential to keep it out of contact with the brewer’s yeast and wort. Keeping your yeast unexposed to the air as long as possible is a good first step, and covering all open containers throughout the brewing process is essential to avoid exposure.
Contamination isn’t inevitable, but it is extremely likely at some point. If it’s one batch, it can be frustrating. But if the whole brewery is affected, the results can be devastating.
For up-and-coming craft breweries, a total product write-off just isn’t feasible. Financially speaking, a loss like that may be impossible to recover from, quickly ending the aspirations of ambitious brewers.
Thankfully, insurance providers have taken notice and are increasingly offering protection against a variety brewery calamities, including but not limited to contamination. To protect your brew and the future of your brewery, it’s smart to plan ahead and invest in insurance against contamination.
With the rise of sours, people are paying closer attention to what gets in their beer than ever before. And while wild yeast and bacteria may be welcome in a good Lambic, they can spell disaster for other beers.
Smart breweries take precautions. The most important of these is sanitation, which can stop contamination before it starts. But even with all safety measures implemented, there is still a chance something will go wrong.
The smart route is to plan ahead – by investing in brewing insurance, you’ll be able to ensure that even if the worst happens, you’ll be able to afford recovery, and keep brewing the good stuff.