Brewing at altitude - the factors to be wary of

Wednesday, January 17, 2024
Mount Everest, the world's highest peak, epitomizes the ultimate mountaineering challenge. Its formidable elevation of 29,029 feet (8,848 meters) has not only captivated but also claimed the lives of numerous climbers. Amidst this backdrop of extreme conditions and daunting altitude, an intriguing question arises: 

is it feasible to brew beer at such a lofty height?

The art of beer brewing is inherently a complex interplay of chemistry and environmental conditions, with altitude playing a crucial yet often underappreciated role. One of the most significant impacts of altitude on brewing is the shift in the boiling point of water. 

brewing beer at high altitude issues

At sea level, water boils at 100°C (212°F), but this threshold decreases as altitude increases due to the corresponding decrease in atmospheric pressure. For instance, at the height of Mount Everest, the boiling point of water drops to approximately 68°C (154°F). 

This lower boiling point requires adjustments in the brewing process, particularly affecting the boiling duration of the wort—the sugary liquid extracted from malted grains.

The importance of the boiling process in brewing cannot be overstated. Boiling the wort is essential for several reasons: it sterilizes the wort, halts enzymatic activity, extracts and isomerizes hop acids (which contribute to beer's bitterness and aroma), and facilitates the coagulation of proteins. 

At high altitudes, achieving these objectives becomes challenging due to the lower boiling temperatures. This can lead to incomplete sterilization, altered hop acid utilization, and inadequate protein precipitation, potentially impacting the beer's flavor, aroma, clarity, and stability.

Another critical factor in brewing is yeast fermentation

Yeast, the microorganism responsible for converting sugars into alcohol and carbon dioxide, requires oxygen for healthy growth and metabolism. At higher altitudes, the reduced oxygen availability in the thinner air can hinder yeast performance, affecting fermentation rates and the development of the beer's flavor profile.

Furthermore, the water used in brewing, a key ingredient, can be significantly influenced by its source, especially at high altitudes. Water from mountainous regions often has a unique mineral composition, which can impart distinct characteristics to the beer.

Brewers may need to adjust their water treatment practices to achieve the desired taste profile.

brewing beer tricks at high elevation

Despite these challenges, breweries around the world have successfully mastered high-altitude brewing. For example:

  • Andes Beer in Mendoza, Argentina, at 3,600 feet (1,100 meters), produces a variety of lagers and ales, such as a crisp Pilsner and a rich Red Ale.
  • Wild Wolf Brewing Company in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, at 1,500 feet (457 meters), crafts beers like a Scottish Ale and a Belgian Tripel.
  • Cusqueña Beer in Cusco, Peru, at 11,152 feet (3,399 meters), is known for its light and crisp beers, attributed to the high-altitude conditions.
  • High Altitude Brewing Company in Gunnison, Colorado, at 7,703 feet (2,348 meters), offers a range of craft beers, including a Belgian Dubbel and a West Coast-style IPA.
  • Sankt Gallen Brewery in Japan's Yatsugatake Mountains at 3,750 feet (1,143 meters) is renowned for their diverse craft beers, including traditional Weizen and bold IPAs.

Each of these breweries exemplifies the adaptability and innovation required to overcome the unique challenges of high-altitude brewing, producing distinctive beers that reflect their elevated origins.
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