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North Carolina Brewery

Copper Jackets for Our Kettles

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Our last look at the progress at the new brewery site focused on the installation of the brewhouse, but getting the vessels set is only half of the story. The vessels themselves are sophisticated tanks, but for us, they won’t be complete until they get their final polish: their elegant copper jackets.

Our main “West Side” brewhouse in Chico, and now the brewhouse in Mills River, are dressed up in shiny copper, but that outward appearance belies the gear within. The real business is done in the stainless steel vessels underneath the cladding.

Why the façade?

Well, it’s simple. The copper cladding pays homage to the traditional copper vessels that were used in most brewhouses prior to the 1970s. In brewery parlance, the kettles are sometimes referred to as “coppers” regardless of what material they’re manufactured from.

In the old days, brewhouses were manufactured from copper because it is an excellent conductor of heat energy. Older technology featured kettles that were either direct-fired with large burners underneath—like a large-scale version of a pot on a stove—or had steam pipes built into the kettle that jacketed the bottom of the vessel. These kettles worked well, but had a few downsides. Principally, they are difficult to maintain properly. Copper is a soft metal, which makes it hard to work with. Over time, the acidity of the wort dissolves the metal; after every brew, the maintenance needs of the vessels increase incrementally. Direct-fire kettles also have the tendency to scorch wort, adding caramel-like burnt sugar flavor and darker color to the finished beer—not good for the quality-obsessed like us.

In 1983, it was time for our first big brewhouse expansion. Our founder, Ken Grossman, got a tip that a brewery in Germany had gone out of business and was selling its brewhouse. Ken traveled to Germany and purchased the 100-barrel copper brewhouse at a considerable discount (the price of scrap metal). He dismantled the system and shipped it back to Chico, but it was another four years before he could afford to install the brewhouse in its current home. That faithful copper brewhouse—referred to as the “East Side” brewhouse—serves us well to this day, and continues to be used for some of our most popular beers, notably Bigfoot Barleywine and our Harvest Ales.

When the need arose for yet another brewery expansion in 1996, Ken opted for the newer style of stainless steel brewhouse, but he coaxed the original coppersmiths who manufactured the East Side brewhouse out of retirement to recreate the look of the beautiful copper vessels.

Our newer kettles in both the “West Side” brewhouse in Chico and in Mills River were built by the same manufacturer and feature internal calandria heating systems. A calandria is a cylindrical device positioned at the center of a kettle that features dozens of tubular steam pipes that rapidly heat the wort, forcing it upward into a distributor cap and creating massive convection currents in the kettle. The result is a vigorous boil, shorter heating times, and energy reduction for greater efficiency.

Like before, the copper cladding on the new brewhouse in Mills River was a fortunate find from defunct breweries in Germany. We’ve carefully salvaged and shaped these domes to cover our new brewing vessels, maintaining our signature look of the past three decades. Soon enough, the shimmering surfaces will host your reflection as you stroll by on a brewery tour.