Dude! All that beer you drank at the fair was 3.2!

Categories: Science

Of all the terrifying urban myths surrounding the Great Minnesota Get-Together, Blotter can confirm that at least one is true: All the beer served at the state fair is weak.

Turns out every brewery must serve up what's commonly known as 3.2--alcohol content of each frosty 12 ounces by weight--at the fair. The big breweries--such as, in the case of what's served at the fair, Heineken--produce hundreds of thousands of barrels of watered-down lager and ale every year, so the process isn't much of a stretch.

But for smaller brewhouses, like Summit in St. Paul, the process is a little more involved.

Mike Lundell, who's been a brewer at Summit for nine years, explains how he and others prepare the 300 or so barrels of Summit Pale Ale brewed each year for the fair. (Full disclosure: "Summit Mike," as he's quite naturally known in certain circles, is a friend of this writer.)

"It's pretty simple," he says, sounding like a man who is about to explain something very complicated. "Here it is. You've got your yeast, which essentially turns sugar into alcohol. If you give yeast less sugar at the start, you'll have less sugar at the end. It's purely mathematical."

Summit uses 7,000 pounds of malt for every 150 barrels of "regular" "strong" beer it produces. (A barrel holds 31 gallons, twice as much as the average keg.) For the 3.2 Summit, it's 5,000 pounds of malt per 150 barrels.

The malt, or barley, is mixed with water, producing what's known in the biz as "wert"--"essentially sugar water," Summit Mike reveals. Then there's a "matching process," where the right amount of yeast is introduced to the barley water. "Yeast needs sugar to produce alcohol," Lundell continues, "and the enzymes in the malt essentially break malt down into sugar."

This is all on day one, Summit Mike says. Then there's a fermenting period: "It takes us two weeks to make a beer."

Summit produces some 60,000 barrels a year, though this year it looks like it will be 65,000. 1,000 of those are 3.2--going to some bars in south Minneapolis and places like the St. Paul Curling Club--and roughly 30 percent of that goes to the fair.

"The big breweries, like Budweiser, make wert at a higher percentage of sugar and add water later," Lundell says. "We just reduce it on the front end."

The fair board dictates that vendors sell 3.2, Summit Mike surmises, "to keep down rowdiness, which I understand."

What's the difference? 3.2 is measured as alcohol by weight, and though the regular beer is often identified by "5.0 by volume," the equivalent measurement is about 4.0 percent alcohol by weight.

So, by Summit Mike's math, there's 25 percent more alcohol per beer. That means four regular brews is the same as five 3.2 offerings.

Not that it makes much difference. "You can get a good buzz on 3.2," the brewer sagely concludes. "I've done it, and you've done it too."

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