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Hopportunity knocks

Behind the scenes at North Van’s craft breweries

Malt. Water. Hops. Yeast.

If Hearthstone Brewery manager Darren Hollett ever loses his way, he’s got the basic ingredients tattooed right on his knuckles.

On each “brew day,” Hollett arrives early. The malt – grains of various kinds – are measured, ground up and loaded into a hopper. The varieties and quantities of the malt determines how dark or light, flavourful or crisp the beer may be, as well as its aroma.

They pour it into the mash tun, a 2000-litre tank, where it’s heated to about 75°C.

Rather than using Metro Vancouver tap water, excellent as it is, Hollett and his staff condition their water to mimic the groundwater in the region where the style of beer originated. Harder water for a Czech pilsner, softer for a New England IPA.

After about an hour at high heat, the amylase enzymes convert the natural starches in the water into sugars. The product in the tank at that point carries the rather unappealing name “wort.”

Hollett and his crew then add hops, which give beer its distinct bitterness but also add a more complex flavor profile, which could make a beer citrusy, earthy or piney depending on the hop. This is also when other flavouring agents like honey, herbs, spices, fruit or cacao can be added.

Once the wort has boiled for another hour, they transfer it to a fermenting tank and use a heat exchange system to bring the temperature down in a hurry. This prepares the wort for the final main ingredient, yeast.

In the tank, the billions and billions of cells in the yeast culture essentially eat the sugar and excrete alcohol and carbon dioxide. Again, different strains of yeast yield different qualities in the beer.

After a week to two weeks of fermenting and checks for quality control, the beer still needs about two weeks of conditioning in separate tanks before it is ready for carbonation and bottling. Some breweries have their own bottling lines, although Hearthstone uses a mobile canning company.

Like most of the people toiling away in the Lower Mainland’s now 40-plus breweries, Hollett began as a home brewer (and when he’s not on the job he’s still experimenting at home).

It may be largely forgotten, but the first licensed craft brewer in B.C. was on the North Shore. Horseshoe Bay Brewing opened in 1981 using dairy farmers’ milk containers to brew beer. They closed their doors in the 1990s.

Hearthstone is the latest of five breweries on the North Shore to open its doors, joining Bridge Brewing on Charlotte Road, Deep Cove Brewers and Distillers on Dollarton Highway, Green Leaf Brewing Co. at Lonsdale Quay, and Black Kettle Brewing Company on Copping Street.

Competitors, yes, but Hollett regards them more like a community,

“The people are amazing. I haven’t met a single person from a brewery that I haven’t liked, in all honesty,” he said. “Deep Cove and Black Kettle have often lent us malt or CO2 or whatever we need.”

There are more than 100 breweries and brew pubs in B.C. now, but Hollett doesn’t see the market as being saturated with the suds just yet.

“We’ve got really great breweries coming out but I think we’ve still got room to grow in terms of coming out with new and kickass beers,” he said. “I don’t think we’re anywhere near to a bubble burst on the craft beer scene. I think it’s going to continue to grow and I’m excited for it.”