Fairfield, California, is not known for beer -- or grunge music, for that matter -- like Seattle is. But there's some pretty damned good brew coming out of the town that lies halfway between San Fran and Sacramento. In addition to being the birthplace of the excellent and independently owned Heretic Brewing, Fairfield is second home to Anheuser-Busch’s Elysian Brewing, where the Seattle-based brewery now produces its own Space Dust IPA via “cross-brewing”: the process by which a beer recipe invented in one location is faithfully reproduced in another.
As Senior Editor for The Beer Necessities (a publication also owned by Anheuser-Busch), I traveled to Elysian’s new outpost to find out how a plant that typically brews beers like Natural Light has to adjust in order to brew a very un-light 8.2% ABV beer with a boatload of hops.
After recently enjoying a Space Dust straight from the source on a trip to Seattle to see Radiohead, I was initially a bit confused: how were they going to brew this uniquely Pacific Northwest beer 763 miles south of its city of origin? Would it taste like a poor man’s Space Dust? Would it remind me of Natty Light enough to play beer pong with it?
I hopped on a plane to Fairfield to find out, and the experience was eye-opening to say the least. Here are the six most surprising things I discovered about what goes into producing a beer like Space Dust on a national level.
1. It’s brewed using secret machines
First things first, that album Now Here Is Nowhere by the band Secret Machines is a classic. More importantly, the Fairfield plant has its own version of the defunct alternative band in the form of a dry-hopping apparatus. Since the brewery opened in 1976, it has mostly brewed lagers; while AB could retrofit its industrial equipment to brew ales like Space Dust, they instead built a brand new building and filled it with new, expensive beer-making machines. Secret machines.
“This next room we’re going to go in, we ask that you don’t take pictures,” said Craig Nunn, assistant brewmaster at Fairfield, who’s been brewing for over 25 years. Nunn did not seem like he suffers fools. Being a fool myself, I kept my phone in my pocket when we entered the new building.
“This piece of equipment is for dry-hopping, and it has a proprietary design to add the hops [uniformly] instead of just throwing them in at the top of the tank.” The machine looked like it was straight out of a sci-fi movie, with a billion pipes and brightly colored buttons. I'd bet that if it were ever to achieve sentience, it wouldn't be a robot you’d want to mess with. Luckily, all it does now is make sure that Space Dust gets dry-hopped, giving it that delicious hop aroma and flavor you’ve come to expect.
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2. They purposely have to try to not improve the beer
You’d think that when Anheuser-Busch purchased Elysian, they’d eventually want to change the beer in some way. But not only does AB claim they're trying to not change the beer, they say they want it to taste exactly as it always has when brewed in Seattle -- even to the point of making sure it doesn’t taste “better.” “When we cross-brewed some of our beers in Fort Collins, the aromatics were amazing,” says Joe Bisacca, one of Elysian’s co-founders, who first tested the process at AB's Colorado brewery. “They were way better” -- likely due to the altitude, he explains. But cross-brewing isn’t about improving a beer. “The end result has got to be Space Dust. If it’s not Space Dust, we shouldn’t make it. The goal is to make these beers taste like they do in Seattle.”
3. The beer doesn’t just go national…it goes global
Budweiser is sold almost everywhere in the world (and probably in space?). Before AB acquired Elysian, Space Dust was not sold everywhere in the world (and most definitely not in space, despite the huge marketing potential). But now that the Fairfield brewery is expanding the brewery’s ability to produce more of the IPA, the beer can be shipped to more places. Carl Belshause, General Manager of the Fairfield plant, explains: “The beer’s distributed to the Pacific Northwest, all the way down to SoCal. But we also do some exports to Chile and Taiwan.” Sounds like the thirst for IPAs is global now.
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4. It allows for the production of more pumpkin beers
If you’ve heard of Elysian, chances are you’ve also heard of its annual Pumpkin Beer Festival in Seattle -- or at least its wildly popular series of pumpkin beers. But those beers are often difficult to find because the brewery can’t make enough of them to satisfy demand. That changes with Space Dust being cross-brewed in Fairfield. “Space Dust takes about 60% of our capacity,” Bisacca says. “It narrows down what we can brew.” When production of the beer is moved to California, this frees up space. “We can double the amount of pumpkin beers we were brewing last year because we have the tanks for it.” Expect more Punkuccino Coffee Pumpkin Ale in your future this Fall.
5. Making the beer requires the brewers to drink a ton of water
“Water is the main ingredient in beer,” says Craig Nunn, “so we want to make sure that the water’s perfect.” In fact, if the water’s not perfect when producing so much beer at once, it could cost the company an immeasurable amount of time, money, and resources. (Okay, you probably could measure it, actually -- but I wouldn’t want to do the counting.)
Thus, the brewers at Fairfield sit down for a beer and water tasting panel every day at 3pm. “We probably taste about 20 water samples a day,” admits Narissa Seraphin, the resident brewmaster at Fairfield. “The incoming city water, our mash water, the water we use to remove the extract during straining -- we call that sparge water. It’s used from the beginning to the end of the process.” They also taste water no consumer will ever drink. “We taste water that either will become part of the beer or could get in contact with beer,” says Craig Nunn. That includes water that sprays the bottle as it’s being packed. Like I said, they’re thorough. These peeps are definitely getting in their 64oz of water per day.
6. The beer is brewed by a woman whose father was almost responsible for failing me in college
Remember Narissa Seraphin? I’d never met her before in my life, but when we sat down next to one another at a group dinner, we realized we both went to the University of Delaware. Not that weird -- but what IS weird is that over a decade ago, her dad taught my business statistics class. A class that was so difficult, I almost didn’t pass. Thankfully, I did -- or else I probably would’ve asked to sit next to someone else at dinner. And while I still understand very little about business statistics, I’m also thankful that Seraphin and her team helped me to better understand all that goes into faithfully reproducing a limited-run, cult-favorite beer on a much larger, national scale.
Note: Elysian Brewing is a member of The High End, owned by Anheuser-Busch.