It's only 4:30 a.m. but Sam Doniach is already at work loading sacks of malted barley, wheat and oats into the grain mill at Summit Brewing Co. in St. Paul. The first brew of the day is already underway in the copper brewhouse three floors below. The grain he's preparing now is for a second batch.

For Doniach and the other Summit brewers, the process is routine. But this is no ordinary brew day. Doniach is making Honeymoon Saison, the seventh beer in Summit's Unchained series and a beer that he himself developed.

In bigger breweries, the brewmaster is an overseer and the day-to-day task of making beer falls to the brewers. With the Unchained series, Summit has given each brewer control of a new beer from recipe to launch, prepared in a limited batch. This is rare in the world of brewing. To the brewers, it's an expression of the faith that Summit founder Mark Stutrud has in them.

Doniach has been considering his choice of beer since he started at Summit last fall. "There's no guidelines or constraints. It's overwhelming a little bit," he said. The beer's July release helped narrow the choices, nudging him toward a lighter beer. "Since this is going to be a summer beer, I really want it to be something refreshing that you can drink on a hot summer day without feeling weighed down."

His late July wedding provided further inspiration, with the choice of ingredients shaped by old matrimonial customs. "Traditionally you'd drink mead [honey wine] for a month after the wedding. That was the honeymoon. I thought it would be cool to add a little honey in the beer as kind of a reference to that," Doniach said.

Developing a recipe

With the general profile decided, it was time to get serious about ingredients. For brewers, that means chewing grains and sniffing hops. Doniach sounded like a chef as he compared his choices, using adjectives such as "earthy, fruity and nutty." Assessing the character of each malt sample, he layered together different grains to achieve his desired profile: this pilsner malt for a sweet base; that Munich malt for a bit of color, caramel and toast; honey malt to add a subtle honey note; some oats and wheat for a creamy mouthfeel. He did the same with hops, sniffing each sample to get just the right balance of citrus, spice and floral aromas.

Yeast is also an important beer flavor contributor. Doniach considered Summit's house yeast, but opted instead for a bolder Belgian strain that would give his beer interesting spicy and fruity flavors, given that the beer is part of an Unchained series. "It needs to be a little bit out there, I think," he said.

Doniach's recipe had to be completed by early April to accommodate regulatory requirements -- label and recipe approval -- from the federal government. The recipe for Honeymoon Saison was given extra scrutiny because honey is not an approved ingredient for beer.

Then he had to wait until brewing day on June 13.

Mash, lauter, boil

Brewing beer is a three-step process: mashing, where starches in the grains are converted into fermentable sugars; lautering, where the dissolved sugars are rinsed from the grains; and boiling. During the boil, the brewer adds hops and other special ingredients to the beer, such as the honey in Honeymoon Saison.

The brewery at Summit is highly automated. The entire process is programmed and the brewers monitor the progress on a schematic display showing real-time readouts of what is happening in each vessel. On a normal day, when all goes well, the brewers intervene physically only to mill the grain, add the hops and take various measurements.

But new recipes pose a challenge to the brewers. They can't predict where problems might arise. "With all our other programs, we've done it so much that it's basically press 'start' and don't worry about it too much. But with this, I've been watching it really closely," said Doniach.

When the lautering step didn't go exactly as planned, Doniach made minute-by-minute adjustments, increasing and decreasing flow rates or changing the height of rotating rakes that help keep the sugary liquid flowing smoothly. He made frequent trips to the brewhouse to take measurements and make visual checks, all the while taking careful notes to ensure that the second batch would go more smoothly.

When the first batch was finally in the kettle and boiling, Doniach shifted into high gear. He wheeled in a 55-gallon drum of honey and raced to the cooler to retrieve his hops. Adding them was easy. The kettle doors were opened and the pellets simply dumped in. Adding the honey proved a messy proposition. He ladled the sticky nectar from the drum into the kettle, leaving syrupy trails between the two. An attempt to bridge the gap with a plastic sheet succumbed to the honey's weight, unleashing a flow of honey onto the floor.

After boiling, the beer is transferred into stainless-steel fermentation tanks and another wait begins. It would take 12 days for Honeymoon Saison to ferment. During this time Doniach watched over his beer like an expectant father.

His chosen yeast strain was new to Summit. No one knew exactly how it would perform, and it ended up fermenting more of the sugar than expected. "The alcohol will be a little bit higher than expected," Doniach said.

Once fermentation had finished, the beer entered a three-week cold-conditioning period, during which its flavors were allowed to mature. Tasting his beer at this point, Doniach was pleased, but cautious. "It's pretty much matching the profile I had in my head. The hop flavor is there. The hop aroma is there. It's got some residual sweetness. I think you can tell that there's honey there."

But, he added, the beer was still green. "Green beer is immature. The flavors haven't really blended together. It's got harsh edges and needs to smooth out a little bit."

Assessing his beer two weeks later, Doniach noted its progress. "I feel like it's really maturing." he said. "The flavors are just kind of meshing together much better than last time. I think the harsh bitterness is mellowing nicely." His choice of yeast had also paid off. "The aroma is great. This morning I got the nice peppery saison character with some fruit as well."

'Nervous and excited'

Early morning on July 12, almost a month after Honeymoon Saison was brewed, the bottling line whirred up and bottles clanked through the massive machines where they were filled, capped and tagged with labels bearing Doniach's signature. "I was a little nervous and a little excited." he said. "I was probably bothering the guys on the bottling line more than they wanted me to."

That week brought a whirlwind of meet-and-greet release events. Near the end of it Doniach looked exhausted. Sipping a pint of Honeymoon Saison, he reflected on his creation. "I'm very happy with it. I didn't know exactly what I was going to end up with. Maybe part of the fun of it was some of the mystery. But I'm really happy. Going back, I don't know if there's anything I would change about it if I could do it over again."

Once the official parties were over, there was still one important celebration at which Doniach would feature his beer. His wedding, the event that inspired both the recipe and the name of Honeymoon Saison, was just around the corner.

  • Michael Agnew is a certified cicerone (beer-world version of sommelier) and owner of A Perfect Pint. He conducts private and corporate beer tasting events in the Twin Cities, and can be reached at michael@aperfectpint.net.