Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Water & Beer

Krista likes to call me the absent blogger. While that is true, to my excuse it was a busy year work-wise. Plus I can say that some days I'd preferred to be watching ESPN Deportes (since there is 24-7 soccer coverage) than sitting in front of a computer. But now that I find myself with some down time I'm in the mood to share a little about the Ben front, first starting with a personal hobby that I picked up while in Guatemala.

Some would say that moving from a place like Colorado, where there are 80 some microbreweries, to Guatemala, where there is one main brewery with 3 beers, would be equivalent to dating only person your whole life. There is a lot of variety you miss out on. I have to say that I got hooked on microbrews while living in Colorado, even spoiled considering I traveled a lot for work and spent time tasting IPAs and stouts at just about every one on the list.

So when faced with 3 beers to choose from, of which 2 are light generic lagers, I started to long for bitter hops of an IPA or the chocolate aftertaste in a stout. I had a buddy who told me he had started homebrewing here in GT, ordering a kit from the states and using a hodgepodge of equipment that he made or purchased locally. That idea sat for about a week before I had placed an order for an imitation Sierra Nevada Pale Ale kit from Austin Home Brew in Texas. I immediately began a bottle collection in the house the next day. The hops, grains, IPA extract, and hydrometer and bottling accessories arrived in my in-laws suitcase in mid-July after a little hold-up in customs where they debated on what this paraphernalia was.

A month was spent searching out the essential brew equipment – stainless steel brew pot that I found in the Antigua market and bargained the price down to $5, 2 fermenters that I brought from work (new 5 gallon water bottles), a bung to seal the fermenters, grain sac that I made out of a mesh blanket I bought outside the market, and a promise to bring a sample of the beer to the guys who helped me find this stuff along the way.

The whole brew process is an exercise in patience. Having worked in a laboratory in grad school, yours truly probably over-disinfected and cleaned the brew equipment but then again, I didn’t want to ruin my first batch. Four hours into the brew process the first night, the kitchen was a mess but I had prepared my first wort, measured the specific gravity, cooled the wort with 2 huge ice blocks that I got from an ice cream vendor, transferred the wort with yeast to the fermenter, and had Krista tell me that it stank like a really bad fart in the house. I won’t comment on that one.

The first couple days afterward I was like a kid on Christmas morning…when is this going to start fermenting? 24 hours in and still no sign in the air lock. I went to the web to see what the problem could be and decided for what it was worth, I just needed to wait. The next day, Eureka!, the CO2 bubbles appeared and man was I pumped. That night I came home to what Krista called a blow-out, or what I can best describe as a pressurized explosion where I found the airlock in the sink and a beer trail from the floor to the ceiling. Seems that my 5 gallon bottle was a wee bit small for the application and the air lock was just not cutting it. So, lesson #1 learned. The wort was still good, as I was convinced, since it was still 90% in the fermenter. I re-applied the air lock and cleaned up another mess, this time making sure to monitor the pressure as thing progressed.

After the transfer to secondary fermenter and measurement of specific gravity a week later, I was ready to bottle. Armed with washed bottles and my fill equipment, I proudly filled my first brew while trying a little bit to see how it tasted. Flat, but it had great hops flavor and the promise of being really good. Three weeks later we had a little Christmas party at the house and I had the joy of watching friends try it for the first time. All agreed that it was better than good, so I chalked it up to a successful start. That plus the fact that 4 gallons of brew only last me a month with friends around and some Christmas gifts.

Water is an essential part of brewing, so I will segue to the other part of my life that has been keeping me busy. We at Aguas de Unidad (ADU) have recently installed a pilot project for a community in a small town called Los Lirios, which is near a major town called Masagua. The community is different in two ways from a traditional ADU system in Guatemala: first, there are 1,000 people and second it is not within the typical urban density of a city. We had wanted to serve communities like this for some time, but one challenge for us is how to change our model so that the system is self-sustainable.

The answer in terms of technology was to look at a simpler treatment system. While returning from a 6 hour trip to Tejutla one night, I had this idea to use a skid-mounted system where the equipment can be installed in our office and moved to a site in a pick-up truck. Four months later and that idea has been brought to reality with the help of our ADU technician Otto, and Victor a treatment equipment provider in Guatemala. We developed a drawing of the concept and using a local welder, had the frame for the skid custom built. From this, Victor procured the treatment equipment and he and Otto installed the equipment over a 2-day period. The main treatment step is an ultrafiltration membrane, the advantage being that this can replace a sand filter, cartridge filters, and a UV lamp which we typically install in our systems. I had worked with this technology in my former job and with help from Aaron in our Denver office, we were able to built the pilot around this technology.

As for the operational model, my co-workers Dani, Juan and Lety were instrumental in determining we would operate this type of system to minimize costs. Our idea was to setup a deposit where families pay a monthly fee ($4 USD) to fill their 5-gallon water bottles in the system for up to sixteen times. With 50 families participating in the co-operative, we will be able to cover the operational expenses (salary for water system employee, electricity, etc) and anticipated maintenance expenses including visits from a trained technician, laboratory sampling, and replacement of the system components and membrane.

So in that many words, take a look at the photos below and you can see the results of the 6-month process that turned this idea to reality.

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