From barley to beer
By Grace Ramey, Watertown Public Opinion
Watertown Brewing Co. owner Don Walraven did everything backwards. After retiring from a career working in grain elevators, he started looking for a new project.
“I wanted something unique,” said Walraven. “I wanted to bring something unique to Watertown. I studied what was the common business trend, and every time I looked it up or read magazines, breweries were the thing.”
Knowing craft beer was becoming more and more popular, he bought a hop yard north of town off Hwy 81, started growing 200-foot long rows of cascade, centennial and chinook hops and began the search for a restaurant.
Walraven looked at other buildings, including The Goss, but chose to purchase a building downtown that was once a bakery. He remodeled the building by knocking out walls, filling 15 dumpsters of garbage and discarded materials, building the bar and moving things around.
“When I bought it, people thought it’d be a takeout restaurant,” Walraven said because of the size of the main room. “I had to have vision.”
Most of the original brick, the old bakery sign, bakery cabinets and shelves, scraps of wood featuring signatures of former bakery workers, the original stained glass ally window and other trinkets left behind after the bakery closed Walraven has saved to display around the restaurant.
“We tried to keep as much original as possible,” said Meara Short, Walraven’s daughter. “The building has so much character in itself.”
After a year and a half of remodeling, the restaurant and brewery opened its doors in March 2016.
But it wasn’t until a few months ago that Walraven and his brewing partner Josh Crance of Watertown Fire Rescue learned how to brew beer themselves.
“I built the business backwards, starting with buying the building, opening the restaurant, planting the hop yard and then learning how to brew beer,” Walraven said.
Walraven enjoys getting customers involved in the entire process of brewing beer by inviting them to his hop yard to pick the hops in the summer. In return, they receive a Watertown Brewing Co. shirt, two free meals, a voucher card for 10 free beers and the opportunity to watch the hops they picked get brewed into the beer.
“It’s a novelty,” Walraven said. “A lot of people drink craft beers but haven’t seen a hop yard themselves.”
The Watertown Brewing Co.’s brewing process
The cumulative 8-hour process to brewing a batch of beer starts with water boiling at approximately 178 degrees in a hot liquor tank.
Once the water is hot enough, it is transferred through sterilized hoses to the mash tank, where grains are added. For the Irish Blonde beer Walraven and Crance crafted for St. Patrick’s Day, golden naked oats, hulled barley flakes and Pilsner malt were used. The mixture will soak in the mash tank for about 30 minutes, while more hot water is filtered through a sprinkling system to “rinse the sugars out of the grain,” as Walraven explained.
The sprinkling is Walraven’s favorite part of the process. “I like the smell, the looks and the action because you can actually see the sugars getting filtered out,” he said.
When the 30 minutes are up, the grain-soaked water is moved to the kettle to boil at 220 degrees for 60 to 90 minutes. The grains used to craft the restaurant’s popular Codington Cream Ale are saved to be baked into pizza crusts, crackers and brew sticks. Grains used in brewing other beers, such as the Irish Blonde, are saved for local farmers to feed to their livestock.
While the beer boils in the kettle, hops are added for flavor in two intervals — once after the first 15 minutes and again in the last 15 minutes of the boiling process.
“I think of it like a teabag,” said Walraven. “You basically add sugar water to the hops. Without the hops you won’t have flavor or taste.”
At the end of the 60 to 90 minutes, the mixture is transferred to the fermentor. When moving the liquid to the fermentor, the beer passes through a radiator to cool from 220 to 80 degrees and mixes with one percent oxygen to keep it stirred and to help activate the yeast. The water that filters through the radiator to cool one batch of beer is recycled into the hot liquor tank to be used for the next batch of beer.
Around 200 gallons of beer will then sit in the fermentor for approximately three to four weeks before being served to customers or sold to local restaurants.
During the brewing process, pH, alcohol, gravity and temperature levels are measured at least three times — once in the mash tank, again before boiling in the kettle and again after boiling — and monitored daily in the fermentor until it’s ready to serve.
Crance said his favorite part of brewing beer is seeing the final product. “You spend a day just connecting hoses and measuring things and you’ve got beer — lots of beer.”
This photo story is a part of a Day in the Life photo stories produced for the Watertown Public Opinion.