We are fortunate to have access to many high-quality, local ingredients perfect for making our Ninkasi craft beers. This starts with very basics—water, malt, hops and yeast. Follow our process below and see what goes into making each batch of beer!
The water used at Ninkasi comes from our municipal water source for Eugene — the McKenzie River. The McKenzie is fed from pure cascade mountain runoff, and experiences natural volcanic filtration before arriving in Eugene. Because of this all-natural filtration process, Eugene water is uniquely low in concentrations of minerals such as gypsum, limestone, magnesium, and salt. These compounds are important to the brewing process and their concentrations must be just right to produce great beer. Since it is difficult to remove these compounds from water if the mineral content is too high, having access to water that is low in mineral content means we can add the specific compounds desired to achieve perfect water chemistry for each style. The McKenzie River is one of the purest water sources available in the world, and one of the reasons we located our brewery here in Eugene.
Malting is a process that activates the barley for use in the brewery. During this process the barley is first soaked in water to hydrate the grain—a process known as steeping. The grain is then transferred to large beds for germination. It is during this process that the starches begin to convert to sugar. This is where the barley kernel would, if left alone, turn into a seedling and then a plant. In the malthouse, however, the process of germination is stopped after three or four days by carefully drying the grain with heat—a process called kilning. At this time, the finished pale malt contains far more sugar than starch and the remaining starch will be converted in the mashing process. The finished malt is then cleaned to remove rootlets. The end result is malted barley, which forms the sugar content for beer, like grapes do for wine, or honey for mead.
Our hops are sourced almost wholly from the Pacific Northwest. The sources for hops in the Pacific Northwest are the Yakima Valley in Washington and the Willamette Valley here in Oregon. Different hops impart different characteristics to the beers. Hops add bitterness and flavor in order to balance the sugars in the beer, as well as add complexity to the final product. Depending on when the hops are added to the kettle they impart different properties and characteristics to the beers. The active bittering components of hops are alpha acids — the higher the alpha in the hop, the more bitterness it imparts. Bitterness increases the longer the hops are boiled, while the hops added toward the end of the boil add more aroma and flavor components. Typically, there are three hop additions, one when boil starts, one after 60 minutes, and one at end of boil after 90 minutes. For some beers, we even add hops directly to the fermentation tanks — a process called "dry-hopping." Different varieties and amounts of hops are used in each beer to create the final product based on the recipe design. There are over 50 varieties of hops to choose from, each one imparting different characteristics to the beer. The selection and use of hops is one of the key components of recipe design in our beers.
When the wort is in the fermentation tank, the yeast is added. The yeast is what turns the wort into the delicious final product — beer! The yeast feeds on the sugar, and as it consumes the sugar, it converts it into alcohol and CO2. Buckets full of liquid next to the fermentation tanks can be seen bubbling and frothing over onto the floor during this process. Before fermentation begins, these buckets of water act as an airlock, ensuring no air is able to enter into the clean, sanitized tank. The positive pressure created when the yeast becomes active forces CO2 out of the tank and causes the buckets to start bubbling as active fermentation occurs. Typically, it takes about a week for fermentation to finish, two to four days for primary, two days rest at fermentation temperature of 68°F, and two days to cool to a conditioning temperature of 34°F. Once the beer is chilled to just above freezing and the yeast becomes inactive. The yeast settles into the large cone at the bottom of the tank, where it can be collected and used again in another brew. When the beer is chilled, it conditions in the tank for approximately another week. Then, it is filtered and sent to a bright tank to await packaging. The entire fermentation and conditioning process takes 14 days.
One of the foundation elements of all beers is malted barley. We use 2-row pale malt as a base for the majority of our beers. The 2-row pale malt is delivered via truck to the silos outside of the brew house near our patio. The larger silo holds 60,000 pounds of 2-row pale malt, and the smaller silo holds 20,000 pounds of Munich specialty malt. We receive the malt by the truckload from Great Western Malting in Vancouver, Washington and by pallets from Brewer’s Supply Group for our German grains. We currently receive approximately three, 48,000 pound loads of 2-row pale malt each week!
In addition to the 2-row pale malt, we add specialty malts that contribute flavor and color characteristics to the beers. Malts that are kilned for longer or at higher temperatures develop different characteristics and are typically darker. Medium malts can add a red or amber color to the beer and different malt flavors. Black malts are used for porters or stouts, imparting a darker color as well as roasted coffee and chocolate notes. The specialty malts are shipped in 50-pound. or 25 kilogram bags and are then added to our recipes per their design. All the barley, both the 2-row pale malt and the specialty malt, is shipped in its whole form in order to maintain freshness until used to brew. The malts are driven by an auger through pipes above the brewery and to the mill room, where bag malts are added to the grist individually. The mill cracks the grain coarsely in to what is called "grist." Ideally, the kernel is broken into two to three pieces, exposing the remaining starch to be converted in the mash mixer, but leaving the husk intact as much as possible. This helps during the mashing and lautering processes in the brew house.
The mash mixer is the first stage of the brewing process, in which the milled, malted barley is blended with hot water to hydrate the grain. This is where the brewer finishes what the maltster started. Hot water (about 162 to 170°F) is added to the grist. Once it is mixed together, the mash is about 144 to 158°F depending on the beer. This is where the alpha and beta amylase convert the remaining starch to sugar. At the lower temperature, the beta enzymes are more active in giving more fermentable sugars. At higher temperatures, where the alpha enzymes are more active, there are more un-fermentable sugars. This helps in designing different beers — if a lower bodied, drier beer is desired, we mash at the lower temperature. For fuller bodied beers, we mash at a higher temperature. We sit at this temperature for 40 minutes and then mash off (or heat) the mash up to 168°F before transferring it to the lauter tun. The liquid or "sweet water" that is extracted from the malt is called wort.
The lauter tun has a false bottom, essentially a large set of screens, which are stainless steel plates with small slits in them. This allows for the liquid to pass through, leaving the grain behind. After the mash is pumped over to the lauter tun, it is allowed to sit briefly to allow the larger particles (those two to three pieces of the husk that were produced back at the mill) to settle. Once it has settled, we vorlauf, or recirculate, the wort to clarify. During this process, the smaller particles are pulled from the bottom of the bed and deposited on top to create a natural filter bed. Once it clears, (20 to 30 minutes) we begin to transfer to the brew kettle. During this time the sparging process sprays hot water over the top of the grain bed, which filters through the grain and washes the sugars out of the malt. The lauter tun is equipped with internal rakes that help channel the water through the bed to efficiently rinse the malt. Once the kettle is full (90 to 100 minutes), the de-sugared grain is pumped out to a spent grain silo. We use about 4,000,000 pounds of grain per year.
The kettle is steam jacketed with an internal calandria — a metal column that steam is pumped through so that liquid is heated from the outer tank as well as from the center of the liquid. The kettle brings the wort to a boil for 90 minutes to sterilize. Then, we add the hops. At Ninkasi, a lot of hops are added! We estimate that we use about double the hops of the average regional brewery per barrel. As a result, our beers are very flavorful. Although it certainly isn't the least expensive way we could make beer, we don't build recipes around price; we make and design our beers on the principle of creating the best, most delicious products we can.
Once the boil has ended, the wort is pumped to the whirlpool. The inlet in the whirlpool runs along the wall of the tank so that as it is filled, it creates a force that causes the liquid to spin in the tank. The rotation causes the hop particulate and proteins from the grain to gather in the center and group together. As the liquid slows its rotation, it causes the hop particulate and trub to drop to the bottom of the tank, allowing the liquid to be drawn off while the particulate stays behind.
At this point, the liquid is still almost at a boil, which would kill the yeast if it weren't cooled. To cool down the temperature, the wort is passed through the heat exchanger where plates separate it from cold water moving in the opposite direction. The heat is drawn off the wort and transferred to the water through the plates; the hot water is reclaimed and used to start the next brew. The wort travels through the heat exchanger and is cooled to 68 to 70°F before being sent to one of the fermentation tanks in the brewery. Oxygen is added to the cooled wort to help the yeast grow and start making beer.
After the grain has been stripped of its sugar in the lauter tun, the spent grain is collected in a silo outside of the brewery where it awaits a second life. We partner with Oregon Natural Meats in its mission to support sustainable agriculture systems. Through this partnership, we are able to bring hundreds of thousands of pounds of spent grain to local ranchers. The lack of sugar helps the cows digest the grain and turns what was brewery waste into a great addition to the local food supply. Since 2009, we have upcycled more than 50 million pounds of spent grain – creating local products out of what would otherwise be waste sent back into our local agriculture.
This is where the liquid wort is converted into delicious beer! We have several different sizes of fermentation tanks, ranging from single batch 60-barrel fermenters, to 480-barrel fermenters which hold up to eight brews at once. The 480-barrel fermenters are the largest tanks we can fill with our current system because we can brew eight times per day and it is best to fill tanks from beginning to end within 24 hours.
At Ninkasi, we use a centrifuge for clarification. The centrifuge uses a spinning bowl inside an enclosure (running at 7,200 to 7,600 RPM's) that creates a force equivalent to 50 tons. This rotation causes solids, like yeast or hop particulate still in the beer, to spin out of solution and leave clear beer to pass through. We use this as an alternative to a cartridge or foreign medium filter which strains particulates through a porous material. Sheet or pass-through filtration tends to strip out some of the flavor that we value and work hard to put into our beers. The centrifuge was a significant investment for us — allowing us to retain the most flavor through the best treatment of our beers.
Once the beer is filtered it is transferred to a bright tank. The beer is naturally carbonated in the fermentation process, but we also add CO2 to the beer in order to achieve a consistent specification every time. The bright tanks are so named because they were traditionally used to allow gravity to clarify the beer, or make it "brighter." The beer comes to the bright tanks clear from the centrifuge filtration, although we leave a bit of yeast in for body and the slight bit of flavor that it imparts. Once the beer is in the bright tanks and carbonated to spec, it is ready to package and can either be bottled or kegged.
Our bottling line is capable of producing both 22 and 12 oz. bottles. It can package 22 oz. bottles at a rate of 150 bottles per minute, and 12 oz. bottles at a rate of 250 bottles per minute! The machine takes empty bottles and runs them through a rinser, which uses UV-treated light to rinse the bottles inside and out. Once through the rinser, the bottles are sent to the filler, which uses 40 heads to fill the bottles. To create an oxygen-free environment in the bottle, the filler vacuums the bottle and pressurizes it with CO2 twice before filling. Once filled with beer, a thin stream of water is jetted in the top of the bottle, causing the beer to foam out. The bottles are then capped while foaming in order for any residual oxygen to be pushed out by the foam, allowing the cap to seal the beer inside. Oxygen can deteriorate beer so we work hard to make sure there is as little oxygen as possible in the sealed container. Once through the filler, the bottles are sent through the labeler, and then gathered together and drop-packed into their cases. The cases are sealed, stacked on pallets, and ready to go!
Beer is also packaged in kegs. The keg line takes dirty kegs, runs them through a cleaning and sanitizing process, then fills them with beer and kicks them off the line ready to ship. The kegging line can clean and fill about 50 kegs per hour. A hoist is used to stack the kegs on pallets and minimize the lifting necessary for the operator. It is a big improvement from when we used to have to maneuver each keg manually onto the pallets!
Regional Beer Distributor
With more than 60 distributors throughout Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, and Alberta we aim to make Ninkasi readily available at bottle shops, favorite go-to grocery stores and the best taps in town. Our regional distributors work hard to ensure Ninkasi is available wherever our customers choose to purchase their next craft brew. Working directly with distributors, our fearless sales team seeks out the best partners to keep the beer flowing and our customers happy. Drink on!
In addition to brewery operations, Ninkasi runs its own local distribution servicing Eugene and Corvallis, allowing us to maintain a direct connection to our local area and offer dedicated, educated support to local retailers. Our local distribution team works to support and service hundreds of accounts and ensures that everyone in our local area has access to all of our great beers!
Ninkasi Tasting Room
Our tasting room hosts and educates guests about our beers and our company. The tasting room offers a selection of Ninkasi beers on tap to right where they are made and a knowledgeable staff to answer questions and provide a great experience to people visiting our brewery. Working to be a positive presence in our neighborhood and community, the tasting room hosts events that support local organizations and non-profits throughout the week.