by Jenny Knodell, IQS Editor
Today, as we all well know, judging from the steep spike in green attire and beer buzzes, is St. Patrick’s day. March 17th has been celebrated since the 1600s, at first a strict Catholic holiday honoring Saint Patrick himself. Originally, St. Patrick’s was a day of no drinking—all the bars and pubs in Ireland were closed. Since then, things certainly have changed. In fact, some bars open around the time I get up for work to service the most dedicated of St. Patty’s celebrators. Ireland is well known for its beer and the people who love to drink it. Celebrating their culture must include a tall mug of traditional Irish beer—a stout or porter. These dark, smooth and coffee-like beers have been brewed in Ireland for hundreds of years. In that time, brewing hasn’t changed much. Mostly, the same equipment is used for malting, milling, mashing, fermenting and filtering ingredients that, through these processes, become beer.
One of the most important steps is fermenting, a process that converts sugars into ethyl alcohol and CO2 through action of yeast. For a long time, this process took place in a large vat made of iron or standard steel. These metals were not well suited as food grade tanks because they weren’t easy to clean, rusted easily and could contaminate the beer. In the early 1900s, the introduction of stainless steel changed the brewing game. It’s a simple alloy, steel and 10% chromium, with many benefiting attributes. Stainless steel won’t corrode, rust or contaminate, deeming it safe to use in food and beverage processing. It also exhibits a smooth, shiny texture, making it easy to clean and sanitize. With the introduction of stainless steel tanks, the festive pints you enjoy today are safe, clean and tastier.
In fact, today stainless steel is used in several steps of the brewing process. Both grades 304 and 316 stainless steel, the top two most widely used austenitic metals, are considered food grade and therefore appropriate to use in brewing. Large tanks made of welded sheet metal act as vats called mash tun. These stainless steel vessels are where the grist, or milled grains, are soaked in water, heated and converted from starch to sugar. After this process, the pre-beer ingredients are transferred to a conditioning tank and left to ferment. Here, the beer matures, clarifies into that nice brown color, and naturally carbonates. Once the beer is ready to drink, it’s bottled, canned or contained in pressurized kegs, which are made of aluminum or stainless steel.
So when you get out of work today, head down to your local Irish pub or brewery. In the name of Ireland, order a tall porter, stout or ale, and remember: without stainless steel, your drink wouldn’t be as satisfying or safe as it is today.