When someone refers to a drink as “sparkling” most often they’re referencing its carbonation. You know, that zippy, zingy, fizzy quality. We describe our Little Grove series of beers as “Sparkling Session Ales” for just that same reason: their carbonation is a key component of their flavor profile.
Without bubbles, the mouthfeel of beer thickens, the aroma is muted, and the overall drink tastes somehow lifeless. Carbonation works to “lighten” the beer’s mouthfeel while making sure its aroma is flying up and into your face, enhancing the overall flavor experience. So how do you get that sparkle into your beer? Let us count the ways.
Yeast loves sugar. This is why brewers boil grain: to extract the sugar from it, to feed the yeast. When yeast eats sugar, it creates a couple things: ethanol (alcohol), flavor in the form of esters and phenols, as well as carbon dioxide. But in the vast majority of beer styles, primary fermentation won’t give you the full amount of carbonation you expect out of your beer, which is why we have the next two processes.
BOTTLE OR CAN CONDITIONING
Bottle-conditioning beer is an age-old Belgian technique. How it works: we add a small amount of sugar and yeast to the beer right before packaging. That small addition helps the beer referment inside the package creating the last bit of carbonation, preserving the beer’s quality, and enhancing its flavor.
The actual, real-world process of conditioning is, to say the least, involved. We have to make sure our brewing and packaging is flawless, and flawlessly clean, to achieve the proper conditioning every time. The reality is that we’re adding sugar and then fermenting at warm temperatures—a scenario that unwanted bacteria dream of. On top of that, the amount of sugar and yeast we add depends on the residual sugar that’s left in the beer after primary fermentation—a technical way of saying, if we were to add too much sugar, the beer could overcarbonate, making for a highly pressurized and very unsafe bottle (or can) of beer. Quality control and microbiology play a big role in getting it right.
So why go to all that effort? Bottle or can conditioning can improve the shelf stability of the beer. Fermentation requires a tiny bit of oxygen. And there’s always a tiny amount of oxygen left in the bottle after packaging—we’re talking just a couple parts per billion. Therefore, the fermentation in the bottle acts to absorb that oxygen, making the beer taste fresher, longer.
Inside the brewery, adding an extra bit of CO2 to bring the beer up to its optimal carbonation is called “force carbing” (or more formally, “force carbonation”). This method works by inserting a rod or porous stone into a pressurized vessel and literally forcing carbon dioxide into the liquid. When force carbonating, we use in-line carbonation where the extra carbonation is added while the beer goes from a holding tank and into the can or bottle during packaging. While this doesn’t add any extra flavor, or scrub oxygen from the beer like conditioning in the package, it does serve as a quick, effective, and much simpler way to bring your beer up to the desired level of carbonation.
SO HOW CARBONATED IS “SPARKLING?”
Our Little Grove beers are carbonated slightly higher than the average Allagash beer, at around 2.8 volumes. What does that mean? Think, a nice amount of tingly carbonation. By comparison, champagne—a drink known for its intense bubbles—comes in at around 6.3 volumes. Thus, why champagne bottles are so dang thick: they have to hold in a lot of pressure.
We hope this gives you extra appreciation of the thought that goes into every aspect of the beer sitting—or soon to be arriving—in your fridge.