Brew Master Steve Buscka has made beer professionally since 1991 and started applying the talents of his trade at the Frankenmuth Brewery nine months in November of last year and says that he’s always enjoyed a good beer. He started making beer back in 1983 and through his college years and his first job in 1991 was at Bells Brewery in Kalamazoo.
While there are brewing schools one can attend, Steve says his knowledge was mainly acquired while going through the ranks of his apprenticeship and earnestly explains how the process of making a quality craft beer consists of equal measures of science and inspiration.
“Any starch can be converted to sugar and sugar converted to alcohol,” explains Steve as he takes me for a journey through expansive inner workings of The Frankenmuth Brewery. “We start with barley as our starch and the first process involves converting the starch to make a sugar by heating the water to approximately 172 degrees, which we mix with cool grain so a mass temperature of 150 to 152 degrees is achieved. The starch is converted to sugars during this malting process.”
“Once the starch is converted we transfer it to a water tub with a grain on top, which acts like a giant strainer,” he continues. “The grain sits on top and then we rinse the sugar away from the grain and collect it back into the kettle. At this point it’s called ‘wort’ and tastes much like sweet tea and contains zero alcohol. There is no buzz involved at this point and we taste it all the time; it’s quite good.”
“After we get all the sugar away from the grain we put it back into the boil kettle, which sterilizes and clarifies it. At this point we add the hops, which is like the ‘spice’ of the beer,” he notes. “This gives beer its bitter and aromatic qualities. We generally add 3 to 25 pounds of hops, depending upon the nature of the beer. More hops means more bitterness, which we measure by IBU’s (International Beer Units). After a 90-minute boil we transfer the wort to whirlpool, which turns in a tangential, or circular motion, so all the plant material stays in the center of the vessel. And then we transfer it through a heat exchanger that takes the wort to 65 degrees, so you have hot wort on one side of the plate and cold water on the other. This fermentation process is where we introduce yeast to the wort, which converts the sugar to alcohol. CO2 and a small amount of heat creates an exothermic reaction, and that is pretty much all there is to basic fermentation.”
Steve says that each batch brewed at The Frankenmuth Brewery yields 25 barrels of custom craft brew, or 31 gallons, which are held in serving tanks that act like a giant 800-gallon keg of beer, which is then sent through pipelines to eager customers.
“Because Frankenmuth is a number one tourist destination in Michigan, we go through lots of beer here,” he notes, “probably 25-plus barrels on the weekend. We’ve gout our week cut out for us most of the time and make it as fast as people can drink it.”
When asked if much waste is involved with the process, Steve says ideally they try to make the correct amount each time they go to bat. “The shelf life on a craft beer at 5-7% alcohol should last approximately six months, but 7-10% alcohol content can last for years,” he explains. “It takes approximately 18 to 22 days from start to finish to brew our ales, depending upon the style of the beer; whereas the lagers take anywhere form 30-45 days.”
With five employees working the brewery, it’s a fairly small group responsible for such an estimable output. But Steve also notes “in a brewery you’re dealing with living organisms, so somebody needs to be here all the time. Usually there is someone from the brewing staff onsite from 12-14 hours per day seven days a week.”
When asked what the most challenging component involved with his trade consists of, Steve points to the scale of the operation. “Working in any production facility, if one piece of equipment is not working properly it carries a domino effect through the whole process,” he reflects. “My experience at Bells was very helpful in this sense, because back in the day my first year there we were putting out 300 barrels of beer a year and it was up to 40,000 when I left.”
In terms of popularity, Steve says that for craft beer Frankenmuth Brewery’s IPA is the most popular and usually they have at least four on tap. “For the most part we use 100% barley in the process and with one we use 50% white wheat, but we also have one day each week that is our experimental ‘let’s try something new’ day,” he smiles.
“On July 1st we tried a maple porter with real maple syrup in it and really, with beer, you are only limited by your imagination. We also tried one with toasted coconuts and chocolate mints that tasted like a Mounds candy bar.”
“I always say there are two types of breweries,” concludes Steve. “Those that dump beer and those that should dump beer; and everybody falls within those two parameters. Occasionally we get some that go wrong, but if you use due diligence and get your math right in terms of combination of ingredients, usually the beers we create turn out to be winners.”