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Passion for pilsner

July 28, 2011

Most people would find an anthropologist in a foreign country studying a culture or excavating remains of an ancient civilization, but not Steven Lyerly.

Lyerly, Olde Hickory Brewery (OHB) brewmaster, might have studied anthropology in college but found his true passion was making beer.

In college, Lyerly began homebrewing beer with his roommate who was given a homebrew kit for Christmas.

“Most homebrewers when they get started will brew maybe once or three times a year, but (my roommate) and I went crazy and started brewing like twice a week,” Lyerly said. “It just went on from there.”

Lyerly has been working for OHB for the last 16 years. He and Jason Yates purchased the company from the original six investors a year after the company opened. Since then, the company has updated to its current location in downtown Hickory, increased from 7 barrels to 25 and expanded twice since 2000.

By 8:30 a.m., Lyerly opens the doors in the OHB and begins a long day of work at the brewery with Jake Gee, full time brewer, and Kyle Goelling, brewer’s assistant.

As brewmaster, Lyerly is responsible for administrative work and supervising the beer, from its humble beginnings as barley to its final stage as beer. As well, as brewmaster, Lyerly invents different flavored beers, such as the imperial pilsner he has aging in a chardonnay barrel.

When planning to make his next beer, Lyerly begins by selecting the style of beer and then starts working with the malt. From there, Lyerly will incorporate the yeast and hops and considers the flavor components those ingredients add to the beer.

“There’s no sense in making what the brewer next door is making,” Lyerly said. “You want to put your spin on it and hopefully improve on it and make it your own, make it unique.”

OHB beers are of Lyerly’s design and some are the design of Olde Hickory’s Pro Am, a homebrewing competition sponsored by OHB and Catawba Ale and Lager Sampling Society, best in show winners.

But it’s not creating new beer flavors that challenges Lyerly the most, it’s meeting demands. Last year, the company grew 90 percent and this year, the company will grow even more, Lyerly said.

Brewing the beer
Bags of barley are placed into the grist mill and crushed. From there, the barley is loaded into the grist hopper where it is held until it is placed into a mash tun where hot water is added.

“The hot water is going to activate the enzymes that naturally occur in malt and barley, and what those enzymes do is they’re going to convert the starch, what’s in the kernel, and soluble sugar, either glucose or dextrose,” Lyerly said.

What’s created by the conversion is called wort, a sweet liquor. The wort is taken to the next step in a kettle and the grain takes an exit from the brewing process. OHB will take the left over grains and give them to local farmers.

Once in the kettle, the wort is boiled from 60 to 120 minutes depending on the beer being made. Also introduced in this stage is the addition of hops, “the brewer’s spice,” which add different characteristics (citrus, earthy or spicy accents) to the beer and more importantly, bitterness, Lyerly said.

“If we didn’t add the bitterness to the (wort), it would be like the sweetest southern iced tea you ever had,” Lyerly said. “It really wouldn’t be palatable.”

After the beer is finished boiling, the wort is spun through pumping it from the bottom and causing a whirlpool effect, which adds clarity to wort and remove the hops. Then the beer is cooled through a series of heat exchangers and travel to a tank where the final ingredient, yeast, is added.

In a process called fermentation, the yeast is going to convert the sugar that was in grain into carbon dioxide and alcohol, taking as long as 10 days to four weeks, Lyerly said. OHB uses three types of yeast, which include: two ale yeasts and one lager yeast.

After cooling from fermentation, the beer will go through a filtration process and conditioning. In the conditioning process, the beer is carbonated. Once these stages are complete, the beer is ready for packaging in either a 22-ounce bottle, 5-liter mini keg or a draft keg.

The beer is then stored, aged in a cooler and afterwards ready for sale.
For more information on OHB visit oldehickorybrewery.com.

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