Hundreds of Beers & Thousands of Beer Lovers, Take 1

The week of NHC is finally here. My countdown to this event began all the way back on Memorial Day weekend with The Bruery’s 3rd Anniversary celebration. The anniversary, while important to everybody at The Bruery, was especially so for me because it served as my introduction to beer festivals. As a virgin fest-goer I learned some important lessons (Lesson 1: If you want to sample beers all day, you must drink water and increase your caloric intake beyond nachos and their accompanying “cheese.” (Lesson 2: Do not expect decent vegetarian fare at a beer festival)) and I was saved from liver failure only because I was working for the first two thirds of the celebration. I found that helping may actually be more fun than simply attending, which has me very excited to steward the NHC finals this Thursday. Most of my day was spent pouring at the VIP tent; a task made more daunting due to the length of the VIP line and The Bruery’s track record of letting down many of these same acolytes at their last large event (a train-wreck that has led to the renaming of all subsequent reserve society parties: they are now “Clusterforks”). However, we came prepared and the red-flag-raising queue cycled through in less time than it took many a surprised Very Important Person to finish 3 ounces of highly sought-after booze.

Pouring and sampling these drinks taught yet another lesson: the people who pay hundreds of dollars for      fill in with any number of “whale” beers      are out of their goddamn minds. Yes, these beers are wonderful (the most illuminating of the VIP pours was the difference between Stone’s ’07 and ’08 Imperial Russian Stout; I was astounded at how a beer can mellow so perceptibly even after three years of cellaring). But I have to believe that those who inflate their value to such an absurd degree must come away disappointed. The aura of expectation that surrounds these select beers does more harm than good, as far as I can tell. The only griping patrons I encountered were those who came too late to get Chocolate Rain or Black Tuesday. But for every lauded Imperial Russian Stout (why are they all Stouts? It’s because any stout can be made more special with some time in a bourbon barrel, right?) there are a number of beers of equal greater quality and lesser stature to be had.

So now, after The Bruery 3 experience, I have a new top reason to be excited about NHC. There are no over-hyped beers amongst homebrewers. Almost everybody is unknown and word-of-mouth only has a few hours to develop after a beer starts pouring. This means every sample is a chance to be surprised. Oh yeah, and on top of the homebrews there are the presentations, NHC finals, nighttime soirées and the banquet dinner. There’s even a vegetarian option.

The Sounds of Heavy Metal

May 19, 2011 2 comments

A funny thing has happened since I began working at The Bruery: I’ve developed a strong preference for silence over listening to music. With my Bruery weeks and Manzanita weekends I average 4-6 hours of driving every Friday to Sunday, yet still I traverse those miles with the sound system off. It seems that this is a natural response to the brewing environment, which tends to be quite loud. We are, after all, talking about industrial production here. Dickensian working conditions these may not be, but when you’re nestled between air compressors and propane burners things get overwhelming pretty quickly. It’s not unusual to find myself screaming at Garry during the course of an otherwise pleasant conversation because of all the noise.

While brewing does cause auditory fatigue, an attentive ear is a surprisingly useful asset in a production environment. Machines speak volumes if you listen. Mills and pumps that have run dry protest loudly and with reduced bass. The keg washer hisses and splashes in various combinations as it moves through its cycle, which allows you to track its progress from anywhere in the brewery. While filling kegs you can hear the last of the carbon dioxide get ejected before the full keg begins to spray foamy beer on the floor. You also know that if you hear something out of the ordinary you should probably try to figure out the sound’s origin immediately. Just this morning my supervisor, Victor, and I were talking when he suddenly asked if I heard water running. I could only hear the decidedly unsubtle sound of wine barrels being pressure washed, but soon thereafter we realized that he had indeed heard the miniature waterfall created by sparging too hastily.

Yet the din of the machines is hardly the only culprit behind my tired ears: we also have ourselves to blame. The Bruery has an awesome sound system. The average age of the six brewery staff is 25. We listen to music and we listen LOUD; not that we have much choice if we want to hear over the aforementioned racket. You might think this somewhat masochistic but I promise it’s essential for morale. Try quickly removing 2500 lbs of spent grain from the mash tun or bottling for 8 hours straight and you too would need the boost afforded by music with a quick tempo. Some days it sounds like a nightclub in there. Sometimes a mosh pit. No matter the genre, between the music and the machinery it’s no surprise that I relish a silent drive from brewery to brewery.

…And now, the best and worst of The Bruery’s various playlists:

Worst Offenders New Favorites
An entire album of Taylor Swift Foals – Antidotes
An entire album of Linkin Park Big Business – Here Comes the Waterworks
An entire album of P.O.D. Jay-Z – The Blueprint 3
“The Reason” by Hoobastank Deadmau5

The Politics of Everyday Purchases

In case you needed a reminder to always consider who you’re supporting with your daily purchases, here’s a short clip about the battle between Humphrey Smith (of Samuel Smith’s) and the town of Tadcaster, UK:

[[Video find via Beervana]]

I Had a Feeling Something Like This Might Happen

Today was a thoroughly enjoyable day at The Bruery. I was super busy and everybody seemed to be in unusually high spirits. However, as I left for the evening I found that my bike had disappeared. Asking around drew only the mildest concern and some pretty straight faces. It took a little looking, but I eventually located my ride:

My Bicycle Hanging Around at the Bruery

This explains the good moods. It also signals the kickoff of a badass prank war.

… to be continued.

In Brewery, Beer Schedules You!

April 27, 2011 1 comment

Welcome to my own personal economic downturn. There’s been little for me to do at The Bruery so I’ve only been in twice this week and today’s the start of a very long weekend. This displeases my wallet and speaks to a brewing reality that is worth delving into: if you aspire to enter the industry be sure to consider how flexible you can be. I’m not referencing the ability to “twist and turn, reach over your shoulders, bend and stoop” that every brewer’s help wanted ad mentions; I’m talking about choosing a flexible lifestyle.  If you need a steady, dependable schedule to anchor your life you won’t find it making beer.

All things considered, my hours are relatively easy to handle. Packaging takes place between 8 and 5 and The Bruery tries to stick to weekdays whenever possible.  I typically find out each week’s schedule on the last day of the prior week. My scheduled days do sometimes change at the last minute, but that’s unusual. Full-time employees know they work every day but their hours vary widely. With our two brewer, 1 – 3 batch per day schedule one brewer generally comes in as a early as 4AM to get the brewday started and the other stays into the evening to finish up. Their days last between 8 and 12 hours, depending on what’s brewing and how busy we’ve been in the preceding week.

My friend Nick brews at Ballast Point and confirmed that our malleable schedule is hardly unusual, even for a larger outfit. Though Ballast Point’s annual production is 10 times The Bruery’s, their employees’ hours still change on a day-to-day basis. I imagine that life doesn’t become more predictable unless you work for a brewery like Stone that’s brewing 24/7. Most of the daily variation is simply unavoidable. For instance, higher alcohol beers require longer lauter times. The Bruery’s boil lasts anywhere from 20 minutes to 4 hours depending on the beer. Schedules have to change if a fermentation takes longer than expected or ingredient deliveries get delayed. There are very few brewery processes that can be paused, so it’s necessary to keep working until the task is complete, quitting time or no quitting time. Unless we’re bottling a full day’s worth of beer we avoid taking any breaks until we’ve finished.

Some might find the brewer’s schedule unsettling, but I find it invigorating. One of the joys of life is that every day has the potential to be different, if only we’re willing to capitalize on the endless possibilities afforded to us. The average full-time job imbues our days with an unrelenting sameness that hinders one’s perception of these possibilities. The inertia of the daily grind lends itself to a stagnant existence against which we should constantly struggle. So while I would certainly appreciate having an extra day on my time card this week, I remember to value the less tangible benefits of the brewer’s lifestyle. If you believe that you’ll feel the same, you just might enjoy brewery work as much as I do.

Brewer’s Little Helper: Initial Thoughts on Yeast

——Update 5/1: I’ve added this fancy-schmancy glossary page in the hopes of making this blog accessible to newer, or even non-, brewers. If there’s anything I’ve missed that demands definition, let me know!——

Two weekends ago I caught my first glimpse of individual yeast cells at Manzanita. While I was thrilled to dive into some lab work, the impetus that compelled us to do so was not exactly joyful. It was getting towards the end of the brew day and we were finishing up a batch of Riverwalk Blonde. Garry harvested yeast from a finished batch intending to re-pitch into the latest brew, but life intervened and he ended up with a sample that resembled yeast soup rather than the viscous slurry he was expecting. Knowing that this didn’t look appropriate, he brought out the microscope to take a cell count. What we found was that we had nowhere near enough yeast. With no other yeast on hand that day’s batch would have to wait. Two or three days later he was finally able to introduce yeast into the wannabe beer, but it was too late. I had a taste of that batch last weekend and the flavor bore a remarkable resemblance to hot dogs. Unpleasant. We had little recourse but to dump that particular batch down the tubes. While it’s never fun to lose a batch, this experience served as my introduction to yeast quality control and as a powerful reminder of what “beer” becomes without the assistance of billions of yeast cells.

A Sample Cell Count

Sample Cell Count: The outlined cells are yeast, the dark blue cells are dead, the amorphous blobs are hops and protein.

Every good brewer, whether at home or in a production brewery, recognizes the importance of yeast. When it comes down to it yeast is what makes beer; brewers merely create the conditions for that process to happen. In fact, the chosen yeast and fermentation conditions have a greater flavor impact than any other single ingredient in the recipe. At a commercial level the key is consistency. Once Garry knew that the wort would have to sit overnight (we didn’t realize it would have to be several nights) we knew it would be problematic. Significant procedural changes made it impossible to produce a Blonde that was true to the brand Manzanita had established. The flavors produced by yeast largely depend on the temperatures employed and fermentation timeline. Wort is a perfect medium for growing yeast or bacteria, depending on what is introduced first, so brewers encourage yeast to gain a foothold as early as possible. When we failed to pitch at the appropriate moment we left a window that unwanted bacteria took advantage of. And that’s the recipe for hot dog beer.

I hope to make the microscope a more frequent part of the Manzanita brew day. It’s a standard industry practice to take a cell count, which notes not only the number of cells but also their health, before every pitch. Breweries harvest yeast from finished beer to re-pitch into their next batch. As they do this the amount of yeast and its viability varies from generation to generation. Knowing our cell concentration would help us come closer to pitching the same amount each time, which would in turn improve our batch consistency. I’m starting to gloss over all of this far too quickly, so I’ll cut myself off here for now. There are volumes that could be written about yeast and I promise to revisit the topic as we ramp up our lab program at Manzanita.

Brewer’s Library: Designing Great Beers by Ray Daniels

April 5, 2011 1 comment

Designing Great Beers, by Ray DanielsIf you were going to have a brewing library that consisted of only one book, I would strongly consider choosing Designing Great Beers for the role.  It’s not necessarily an easy cover-to-cover read, but you’ll find yourself reaching for it nearly every brew day for one reason or another.  It’s especially telling that, while Garry and Tyler (of Manzanita and The Bruery, respectively) both have large libraries of brewing books in their offices, this is the one text that I’ve seen out and open on both of their desks.

This work has two very distinct sections.  The first is a relatively concise overview of various topics in recipe formulation: the malt bill; water chemistry; beer color; hop flavor, aroma and bitterness; fermentation concerns, etc.  This first bit can be intimidating if you’re still relatively new to brewing.  That can partially be explained by Daniels’ ability to focus only on recipe formulation.  He is not trying to rewrite How to Brew or The Joy of Homebrewing.  Thus, he completely avoids explaining how to perform most brewing procedures.  If you don’t already understand how the enzymatic reactions work in a mash, you’ll have to head back to the bookstore.  When I was first given this book (by my younger brother – thanks Zach!), I tried to read this first part cover-to-cover and beat a hasty retreat because I didn’t have the background knowledge that Daniels assumes of his readers.  However, as I acquired a better understanding of the brewing basics I found myself repeatedly returning to this first section with specific questions.  Some of the topics he covers deserve entire books of their own, but Daniels makes it clear when he’s merely skimming the surface of a given topic.  His chapters on water chemistry, beer color and yeast are especially notable for the brevity in light of an incredible amount of material that could potentially be covered.  That said, Daniels has done a great job of pairing down these sections to their most fundamental concerns.

The second section consists of guidelines for 14 different major styles (i.e. IPAs and Pale Ales, both English and American, are covered in a single chapter).  Included in each are relevant historical notes; contemporary versions of the style; and essential ingredients, procedures and parameters.  One of the nice things about Designing Great Beers is that these sections are set-up such that you don’t have to rely solely on Daniels’ word.  Whenever possible, he has included recipe data sourced from NHC Second Round entries.  Each of those beers beat out hundreds of others to compete at the national level and collectively provide wonderful guidelines for successfully producing any given style.

If there is any problem with this work it’s merely its age.  First released in 1996, the most recent revision is still over a decade old.  “What,” you ask “could have possibly changed about brewing beer in the last ten years?”  Well, while the fundamentals of brewing have certainly stayed the same, many of the practicalities of modern brewing have changed quite a bit.  Obviously, it’s easier to get equipment and ingredients than ever before.  Homebrewers who have been at it for a couple decades tend to be DIY-madmen and tinkerers because you couldn’t just buy whatever you needed.  Now most major cities have a number of supply shops that could outfit you with a full all-grain system in an afternoon.  The old problem used to be finding hops at all, the current problem is choosing from the array of available varieties.  Not only are more ingredients in stock, but they are also of considerably higher quality.  Homebrewers of the late 80’s reported frequent discoveries of pediococcus- and brettanomyces-laden dry yeast packets, leading to a unshakable preference for fresh, liquid yeast.  As for hops, a number of important strains have been developed since Daniels published this work.  Citra and Simcoe, two industry standards, were only developed in the last ten years and were unable to be included in this work.  Additionally, a number of very high alpha acid hops have been developed that have allowed IPAs (…double IPAs …triple IPAs) to become increasingly bitter.

But along with these innovations came an increased distribution of brewing knowledge.  While Daniels’ book may have indeed been the only work on your shelf back in 1996, today it’s easy to augment his text with knowledge from other sources.  Everything discussed in Designing Great Beers is still pertinent today, Citra or no Citra.  So while I still contend that this work is the one to have if you could only have one, how about just making it the first of many brewing resources in your library?