River West Brewery
Brewing Process

River West Brewing Company's precise science of microbrewing technology requires microbiology expertise, understanding of the interaction between malts, hops and yeasts, appropriate temperatures, and timing. Founder and master brewer Udo Harttung looks at this extensive process as a labor of love.

When you've been brewing beer as successfully and as long as Harttung, it's not the time that matters, it's the taste. As a pioneer in the microbrewing industry, Harttung owns the only three unit privately held brewpub chain in the Midwest. From it's three vessel brewhouse, a unique second-floor grain mill, two types of yeast - using the exact amount, controlling temperature and understanding of the chemical breakdown of the water used - Harttung and his brewers may at times appear to be scientists. But it's all in a day's work for the man who first introduced microbrewing to the Midwest in the mid '80's.

River West Brewing Company's three vessel brewhouse allows several styles of beer to be brewed. The brewing company can be a little overwhelming to the novice. One of the key's to Harttung's draught delicacies comes from the soft limestone water natural to the Chicago area. The water is heated in a mash tun to the correct temperature needed. Brewery workers no longer face the stress and stamina of lugging 50-pound sacks of malt to the top of the vessel in order to add it to the water. The grains of malted barley are milled in a custom-built grain mill on the second floor of the brewery building. By gravity, the mixture is then added to the mash tun . Whole kernels of grain help preserve the fresh flavors of the malted barley, reducing oxidation and staling.

The grains soak in the hot water at different temperatures to release sugars and enzymes and produced a sweet cereal juice known as "wort." The wort is then transferred into the second vessel, known as a lauter tun. Once in the lauter tun, the wort is strained through the grain bed and transferred to the brew kettle.

In the brew kettle the wort will be boiled 1-2 hours. During the boil, hops are added for bitterness, flavor, and aroma. The hot wort is mixed in a whirlpool causing sediment to solidify and form a conelike shape in the center to be removed later. Now, the wort is quickly cooled in a heat exchanger and transferred to a fermentation vessel and the yeast (pitching) is added. The original gravity (O.G.) or the specific density of fermentable sugars in the wort is measured, so that the alcohol content can be analyzed from a measure of the real final gravity, or presence of unfermented sugars left in the finished beer.

The River West Brewing Company propagates its own yeast and receives strains from the oldest beer institute in the world, the Weihenstephan Institute in Freising, Germany. Yeast converts most of the sugars in the wort to alcohol and CO2. Traditionally, bottom fermenting yeasts are used to produce lagers (Harttung's Windy City Pilsner) and top fermenting yeasts are used to make ales (Harttung's Red Fox Amber Ale, Nut Brown Ale, and Railroad Stout). Once the proper yeast strain is added, ales complete fermentation at 60-70 degrees, while lagers ferment at colder temperatures, usually between 45-55 degrees.

Once fermentation is complete, it is aged to complete it's flavor development and carbonation. Filtration follows for most beers, although some beers are served unfiltered.

The final step of brewing - the tasting - is the most appreciated. That's when River West Brewing Company's patrons finally get a chance to sample the fruit of the brewer's labor. At River West Brewing Company, fresh beer is served straight from the serving tank. The flavor and aroma of hops, the wonderful toasty scent of malted barley and the yeast blend together with water to make the drink we know as beer.