The unique qualities of Mystic's beer are a result of our central focus on early brewing methods and the spirit of retroinnovation. We adopt methods and techniques that were used for aeons before modern industrial beer making practices. Because the last place many of these techniques survived has been Belgium, our approach lends it self to styles still produced there, including saisons and abbey beers.
In this section we will be periodicaly adding posts on our methods for those looking for deeper insight into the origin and philosophy behind Mystic Brewery beers.
The goal of the mashing step in brewing is to get sugar from grain. We need this sugar for the yeast to ferment into alcohol as well as into the flavors of the beer. Unlike the grapes used in winemaking, the sugar in a grain is stored as starch. In order to release the sugars that are stored up in grain, brewers begin by crushing grain that has been malted.
The malting process prepares the grain for mashing. In short the grain is tricked into thinking it is sprouting, a process that naturally starts to release the sugar from starch so the new plant can grow. However, the process is stopped by the maltster by drying and/or kilning the grain. This allows the malt to remain stable for long periods of time.
When a brewer is ready to make a beer they add water to crushed grain and let it steep, essentially finishing off the process of releasing sugars. This is called mashing. Because of the highly uniform malt that is available today, many brewers use a simple process, made popular in England, called infusion mashing. This is a one step process. Water is added to crushed malt to directly obtain the right temperature to convert starch to sugar.
A perhaps older method more closely associated with German traditions is step mashing. In this mode, the mash sits at various temperatures for a period of time and then it is raised to the next temperature. This was, in part to get the best performance out of pre-modern malts. It’s hotly debated if this technique is of use with today’s highly modified malts. However, adherents strongly believe that some of these steps build character in the beer that is difficult to obtain any other way. Some of the steps or rests have distinct effects on the beer. Head retention can be affected, the amount of sugar extracted increased, mouthfeel, and even the flavor can be affected. Step mashing can be exceedingly sophisticated.
However, a method we feel must have been one of the earliest is what we call gradient mashing. The brewer would add malt to some warm water and then simply stir it with a fire under it. Without thermometers this would have been one of the most foolproof ways to make a good beer reasonably consistently in the early days of brewing, and it could be done in a simple pot. Some brewers in Belgium continue to use this practice, especially farmhouse breweries. The method is simply to slowly raise the temperature over the period of an hour until all the steps in conversion have been achieved.
One thing we find attractive about this technique, besides its evocation of old ways of brewing, is that it creates variance in the mash. Because we heat the mash from the walls of the mash tun we create another gradient, a steep internal temperature gradient. This helps prevent a purely uniform treatment. Uniform conditions can give one dimensional results. That's not what we are after in the our final beers.
Gradient Mashing is not as simple or cost efficient as other modern techniques, but we’re convinced it makes a big difference in the final beer. It’s also incredibly satisfying to turn back the clock and find another gem of a method nearly lost to the sands of time.