Santa Barbara News Press readers will have seen this already in the July 4 edition of the SB News Press Life Section. This is the first beer column to appear in the paper, and my appears on the first Thursday every month. If you don’t subscribe, you can catch my columns here on the third Thursday of each month once the rights to the material return to me.
They grow up so fast. It felt like it was just yesterday when Island Brewing Company was little more than a pleasant place to drink a beer and wave at the Surfliner. But now, as the Carpinteria brewery celebrates its 12th birthday, it is making the jump into the grown-up world of craft brewing.
There have been telltale signs of Island’s emerging adolescence—bigger tanks popping up throughout the brewery, robust crowds in the taproom and whispers of a canning line to come, but the true mark of Island’s growth came on Saturday when it held its first regularly scheduled brewery tour.
The tours, given Saturdays and Sundays at 2 and 4 p.m., are a chance for the brewery to show off just how much it’s grown, and growing.
“I would be interested in a tour of a shoe factory. That would be interesting to me,” Production Manager Mark Matthews said. “There’s this disconnect between people and the products they use. Nobody knows how anything is made, it just sort of miraculously appears without thinking about the ingredients or what’s involved.
“It’s part of that, but obviously beer is a little more different, special and fun. People ask things like ‘oh, is that where the hops go in?’ and everybody has a rough idea – just enough to be dangerous. I think when they put it all together it demystifies it a little bit.”
The first tour on Saturday was a little awkward, as so many of those first forays into adulthood can be. Although the taproom was packed with revelers spilling over from the Rods and Roses festival downtown, only a few were interested in giving up their seats to look behind the curtain.
Still, Mark guided a small and eager group through the bowels of the brewery. He stopped first along a new line of 45-barrel (one barrel = 31 gallons) tanks to give a brief history of Island Brewing Company.
He joked about his family connection, he married owner and brewmaster Paul Wright’s daughter, and explained that Island was steadily growing. The small brewery produced about 1,400 barrels last year, and is on pace for 20% growth this year.
From there the tour moved toward the mill, which is the first step of the brewing process. There were small samples of malted grain – each with different colors and flavors. Those grains, sometimes upwards of 1,000 pounds of them, are crushed in the mill and delivered to the mash tun – and the tour followed that path too.
There, next to the copper-jacketed vessel, Mark explained the next crucial step in the brewing process. All those crushed grains sit in the tun and are mixed with hot water (usually around 152 degrees depending on the brew), which allows the malt’s natural enzymes to convert the starch from sugar.
The sugary runoff is pumped out through a false bottom, and the spent grains are given to local flower farmers for compost. The tour didn’t have to go that far though, and just took a few steps to the right toward the big brewing kettle.
There, Mark explained how the sugary liquid, called wort, was boiled. Hops, which Island Brewing sources from Washington’s Yakima Valley, were added at the beginning of the boil to provide the bitterness and then again at the end of the roughly 60-minute boil for flavor and aroma.
From there the now-hoppy wort is pumped around to form a whirlpool that separates the proteins and hop particles from the liquid, which is then pumped through a heat exchanger that cools the hot wort to provide a friendly environment for the yeast.
That happy yeast was on full display at the tour’s next and final stop – the fermentation vessel. Here, Mark showed how the yeast was given time to convert the sugar in the wort into alcohol and carbon dioxide. The latter of the two forced its way out a long arm that swooped up from the top of the tank down to waist-height, where it was connected to a tube with the other end dipped in a bucket of sanitized liquid – with bubbles bursting out like a child playing with a straw and a milkshake.
The steady stream of bubbles was proof that the Jubilee Ale behind the cool steel walls of the tanks was fermenting the way it should.
And while Island Brewing Company may not be the biggest brewery in Santa Barbara County, its newfound structure and continued growth are proof that it is growing up nicely.