GREENFIELD — A sweet, savory smell lingers after a batch of beer is made at Wooden Bear Brewing Co. in Greenfield.
The floral, nutty, maple-like aroma gives an impression of warmth and sparks curiosity.
For those who dabble in craft beer-making, scents like these are the mark of a successful experiment. That’s what brewing is, they said: an artful and scientific trial; structured imagination that takes practice, an educated palate and creativity.
Jason Swift is one of a growing number of Americans who have taken on craft beer brewing. For him, it started as a hobby and became a livelihood.
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He looks at home standing next the super-sized stainless steel vats where his company’s brews are boiled and talks modestly about the effort it took him and Wooden Bear’s co-owners — Dan Noah, Kurt Sundling and Brent Sandquist — to grow their brewery from separate makeshift setups in their homes to the establishment now housed in downtown Greenfield.
Each batch of beer, at its most basic, contains grains, yeast and water, Swift said, holding a small glass of the amber liquid in his hand. Hops, grain-like flowers formed into pellets for the brewing process, and other ingredients are added for flavor.
The finished product, much like the brewery where it’s made, depends based on the time and talent put into the process of developing it.
“This isn’t a bar, as far as I’m concerned,” Swift said. “I think there is a difference between a brewery and bar; and I don’t do bars. From day one, we wanted this to be a place where people could come and bring their kids. That’s what craft beer is about. You don’t really get the hard-drinking crowd.”
Soak, season, stir
Brewing takes four primary ingredients and four main steps, but mixed in are countless recipes and techniques, brewers said.
Several types of grain are commonly used in beer, according to Sandquist, who works closely with the brewing team. These include barley, oats, wheat and rye. Various mixtures of grains produce different flavors, colors and consistencies.
The first step in brewing is a bit like making tea. The grains are soaked in hot water for roughly an hour during a process called mashing. Here, sugars are extracted from within the grains to form the beer’s base liquid, Sandquist said.
Mashing typically is done in a pot called a mash tun, which has a false bottom where the grains settle. Toward the end of the soaking, more warm water is sprinkled over the settled grains to ensure all the sugary liquid — called wort — is separated.
The grains are removed, and the liquid is put in a kettle, where it boils, Sandquist said.
Wooden Bear has four 100-gallon kettles, Swift said, which allows the brewery to produce beer more quickly.
The company orders its grains and hops from all over the United States.
Brewers also purify the water in house, which allows them to stay true to the different styles of beer, Swift said.
As the wort boils, hops are added to the liquid in different stages and quantities to give the beer its taste, Sandquist said. Hops have a harsh flavor on their own but balance the sweetness of the wort.
“If hops are added early, (the beer) will be bitter,” Sandquist said. “If it’s added later, it gives the beer a more distinct smell.”
Once the wort has boiled for about an hour, it is quickly chilled to 70 degrees, by putting the pot into a bin of cold water, for example.
Yeast is added, and the mixture sets for the fermentation process, Sandquist said.
Here, the remaining sugar is converted into alcohol by the yeast, he said. The length of fermentation can vary based on several brewing factors, including the type of yeast, how much is added and the temperature of the beer.
When fermentation is complete, the finishing touch is to add carbonation, Sandquist said. The brews are bottled or put into kegs and are ready to be served.
Becoming master brewers
Brewing beer as a hobby is growing in popularity in the United States. The American Homebrewers Association estimates that 1.2 million people have taken to brewing beer in their homes.
Home-brewing follows the same basic steps as professional brewing but on a much smaller scale. Rather than 100-gallon kettles and other specialized equipment at professional breweries, large pots on the kitchen stove are used for home-brewing.
Swift said he and the other Wooden Bear owners each started off as home brewers.
They sampled 1,300 beers in roughly three years when they were starting. They made lists of flavors and styles they enjoyed and eventually realized the craft beers they were brewing at home could hold their own against those made by professionals.
Now, 16 of Wooden Bear’s 24 taps are house brews, Swift said, created from the owners’ original recipes.
But there are other ways to learn the art of brewing.
Eilise Lane, CEO of Scarlet Lane Brewing Co. in McCordsville, attended the American Brewers Guild while living in Oregon. The classroom-based program required her to complete 18 months of lessons, practical examinations and apprenticeships.
What she learned solidified her dreams of opening a brewery. She and her business partners set out to bring a Northwest-inspired establishment to Indiana. Their business opened just more than a year ago.
Growing in popularity
As an industry, craft brewing increased production by 18 percent in 2014, according to the Brewers Association, a nonprofit group for professional brewers that works to set industry standards and best practices.
More than 3,400 small craft breweries now exist in the United States, and more open regularly.
Hancock County’s two breweries are growing, as well, and their owners often share ideas.
New equipment has allowed Wooden Bear to double its brewing capacity in the past few months.
It has begun to distribute beers to be served at other breweries in central Indiana. Scarlet Lane, too, has many of its original brews on taps in other establishments. The company receives inquiries regularly about when its beers will be available in bottles and cans for sale at retail stores.
The owners have those ambitions, Swift said. But, for now, they are content to stick to the basics: creating unique brews that will bring Greenfield’s beer-lovers together.
“We just want to make really good beer and have fun,” Swift said.