Brewing beer from (not so) thin air

Miguel Ángel Carcuro  dreamed of opening a brewery, but his Chilean community had no water to spare. Driven by his memory of a teenage trip with his father to view the fog catchers above the bay of Chungungo, Carcuro set out to brew with water from the air.

Fog catching has been used in Chile’s Atacama Desert to supply water to surrounding communities for more than 50 years. The catchers have three main parts: a structure with a fine mesh net, a gutter, and a tank for storing the water. The nets capture droplets of water from the air, which eventually combine and drip down into the gutters, which guide the water to the tanks.  Recent innovations involve novel fabric that may increase water capture from the traditional polypropylene or polyethylene materials, along with probes to identify the best locations for the fog catchers.

Carcuro’s fog catcher stands with others in the Cerro Grande ecological reserve, where he drives from his breweries in La Serena and Peña Blanca to harvest the water for his beer. Other community members use water from the catchers for livestock or crops. Carcuro states that water from the fog catchers is especially good for brewing because it has less sediment and less nitrate and nitrite than other Chilean sources.

Carcuro’s artisanal beer brewed from the air is called, appropriately, Atrapaniebla — Spanish for fog catcher. Atrapaniebla is a Scottish ale that pours a golden amber in color. I have not had the opportunity to try it (nor do I speak Spanish), but Carcuro’s website states (in Spanish) that its aroma and taste are characterized by a malty sweetness, with touches of caramel and salt.

While Chileans and others who dwell in arid climates use fog catchers out of necessity, others apply them to create novel gadgets for entertainment purposes. The stars of Esquire’s “Brew Dogs” recently used San Francisco’s fog to create a breathable beer, dubbing it the “beer that started as fog and will finish as fog.” They harvested the fog from nets in the Marin Headlands for use as brewing water, but then engaged Harvard Professor David Edwards’ Le Whaf to turn the brew (back) into flavor-filled clouds. Le Whaf’s devices use piezoelectric crystals that vibrate rapidly to create ultrasound waves, creating alternating high and low pressures through the liquid, and transforming the liquid into tiny droplets that appear as a cloud. Thereby, the devices provide a way to inhale your favorite beverage in a way that enhances flavor, eliminates calories, and nulls the effects of alcohol.

Curiosities aside, Atrapaniebla is a testament to the application of innovative technology to harvest resources in the context of the immediate environment.  As fog catching technology improves, so too will Carcuro’s beer, and the communities that depend on both.

No longer limited to the Night Shift

After months of plotting, I finally managed to attach myself to a group of friends visiting the new Night Shift Brewery and taproom in Everett, MA. Pulling into the parking lot, I noted significant improvement from the old location, a somewhat run-down, industrial space that did not quite suggest designated parking spaces, much less encourage one to leave one’s car. Indeed, here the lot was already at capacity, a sign indicated that I was in the right place, and a food truck beckoned near the entrance.


Night Shift was founded by a trio of nocturnal home-brewing enthusiasts, Michael Oxton, Robert Burns, and Michael O’Mara, in 2011. The three friends got their start on a 5 gallon fermenter system, and instituted weekly tastings of every beer style imaginable to develop their palates. They found that their favorite beers were the most memorable ones, because those beers both included unusual ingredients – whether fruits, spices, or yeasts – and had quality taste. Their focus continues to be on “wholly unique brews with complex, interesting flavors.”


A $700,000 loan from MassDevelopment supported the new site opening on May 22, 2014, with 2500 sq. ft. of taproom space, featuring “80+ seats, plenty of parking (on-street and our own lot), actual bathrooms, and a new production facility.” The production facility promises to increase production from the 750 barrels Night Shift produced in the old space, to about 3000 barrels by 2016. Equipment ranges from 40 and 20 barrel tanks to 7 barrel tanks to accommodate experimentation in different sized batches.

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Having arrived a few minutes late after getting caught in Assembly Row traffic, I accidentally joined a Boston Brew Tour instead of the official Night Shift Tour. The guide provided lots of good information about the brewing process, but politely kicked me out of the free tasting at the end of his lecture. Fortunately, I secured a flight of beers from the bar in the taproom, and joined my friends around a barrel table to compare our choices.


My two favorites were Whirlpool and Smolder. Whirlpool is a very juicy American Pale Ale, which pours a hazy light golden hue into the glass. Its prominent tastes are of citrus and peach, with a slight dank bitterness at the end. Whirlpool is light and crisp and very drinkable. Smolder, however, is more of a sipping beer, sitting black in the glass. This Imperial Stout boldly features the style’s signature roasted coffee, chocolate, and dark fruit notes. As you get to the bottom of the glass, the coffee taste becomes more prominent, and the mouthfeel smoother.


As we finished off the last glass of our flights, and the sandwiches from the food truck, I surveyed the taproom. On a Saturday afternoon, I was happy to see families, couples, and large groups, all gathered around barrels or picnic tables throughout the room. The brewery has succeeded in creating an industrial but inviting and laid-back atmosphere. The location is certainly not central for Bostonians, but Night Shift promotes events that make the brewery an attractive destination, including weekly 5k runs around Everett, a Halloween party, brewer showdowns, and new beer releases. Further, fans of the beer have the opportunity to join the Night Shift Barrel Society, which functions much like a farm CSA: members pay for exclusive offerings up front, helping to fund the brewery’s production, and then receive oak barrel-aged brews throughout the year.


Finally, it was time for our group to leave the taproom, but we were not yet finished drinking Night Shift beer. Membership privileges provided us with three exclusive beers to enjoy later, perhaps with those s’mores supplies that awaited us by the fire at home.