Friday, June 18, 2010

Summer, Glorious Summer

This update finds me admittedly worn, wilted, and just plain beat, but I've got plenty of worthwhile news and further movements. (Last night was the first night I caved into sleeping at a hostel. No sleep. Wrenched my back this morning. Place reeks of exhaled alcohol and cigarettes. Yum.) I'm on the last leg of the journey here in London, rounding the bend, perhaps hitting the wall and transitioning to anaerobic respiration. I've spent the last few days under the wing of Phil Lowry, the man behind, one of the UK's most respected importers/distributors. In addition to knowing every single thing about beer, Phil also has the dream gig for a homebrewer: he gets to "home" brew on a 5bbl brewpub kit in the bustling Borough Market of downtown London at a spot called BrewWharf. Though he derives no profit from the sale of his beer at the pub (under the Saints and Sinners brand), his ingredients are paid for (as well as his meals) and he gets to bask in the glory of his ultimate homebrewing status. The other day I cleaned out the copper and helped transfer the wort to the fermenter for his latest beer, a Blind Pig clone with buckets of American hops and an aroma that gets my nostalgia glands salivating. In my spare time, when I'm not losing sleep at hostels, I've been exploring the sights and soaking in the rare English sun (it just keeps coming). Neal's Yard Dairy, right around the corner from BrewWharf, has provided me with several hunks of cheese for my nourishment needs and the market offers all sorts of luxury in food form, from meaty mushrooms to gooey brownies to giant woks of simmering seafood curries. The cheeses I've tried deserve a mention, as they've made up most of my diet here in London: there was the rounded and tangy Spenwood (hard sheep's), the curdy and pineapply Cardo (washed rind goat's), the leathery and pungent Durrus (washed rind cow's), and, of course, Stinking Bishop. I'll be back for some blues today. Oh, and I almost forgot: I didn't think I'd have the time (or, frankly, the interest) but the World Cup has sucked me in. BrewWharf has a massive screen and I've nearly had the whole thing to myself during the day. Brings me back to good old Oh-Six, biking around Ireland with Tim and Brooke, crashing the local pubs (turning several heads upon our entrance) for an hour or two of the world's greatest game.

I bused down to London after a most pleasant final week with Cat and Kelly, working for Thornbridge. Pleasant for me, I have to admit, but Kelly was in rough shape. That's what a snapped Achilles tendon will do to ya. His surgery was the day before I left, so I saw him off in the hospital with Cat (the doctors there use "Western" medicine, but I thought all he needed was a footbath in St. Petersburg). Before the bout of pick-up rugby crippled the brewing legend, we'd enjoyed some more fine days of BBQing Kiwi-style, oddly-shaped pigskin tossing, badminton thwopping, and Rock Band jamming. Cat and I created the most dee-lish lamb curry using a mixture of prepared spices and our own secret blend to create a slow-cooked leg of lamb fit for a starving king. In the brewhouse, a new arrival to the Thornbridge team eased the days of racking, cask-washing, cleaning, and brewing supervision. Nigel, the only other Englishman (well, he lived in Australia for a while) besides Matt, joined me in the learning process at the Riverside brewery. It was perfect timing - the newbie replaced the exit of the old newbie. The oldbie. On my final (working) day, I was lucky enough to witness the joy of brewing at the Hall brewery. The sun was spreading its vast warmth and the clouds were mere wisps of decorative fluff in the sky as Andrea brewed a batch of Wild Swan destined to be aged on coconut shavings. I held a bag for the sake of the camera as Andrea shoveled out spent grain.

It was a glorious last weekend, especially for one last not insignificant crumb of news. I'll be joining the ranks of the employed when I return to the States in July. After hearing from Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergsø and Ryan Witter-Merithew of a young, energetic, ambitious brewer from up the road in Vermont, I immediately searched out his blog and found a shared appreciation for great beer and great environment. Shaun E. Hill, formerly a brewer for Nørrebro Bryghus in Copenhagen and founder of the Danish Grassroots Brewing, has hired me as an assistant at the new Hill Farmstead Brewery in North Greensboro. Winning two gold medals (SEVEN Russian Imperial Stout aged in a port barrel and Port Barrel Barleywine) and one silver (Viking Oud Bruin) with Nørrebro at the most recent World Beer Cup, Shaun aims high and will be focusing his efforts on sculpting his own vision for a brewery in elegant New England. We'll be creating beers with refined hop characters, saisons of different sorts, barrel-aged beauties, and other specialties that will not cease to impress, I'm sure. I'm way too excited, been losing a lot of crucial sleep over it, but once the initial buzz stabilizes I'll be ready to get to WORK!

Keep checking for more slices of the latest. I'll be back in Belgium with Urbain and Struise soon before finally leaving for the green fields and forests of New England in the summer, so expect at least one more newsletter and pretty pictures too...

Monday, May 31, 2010

The Yeasts That Run My Life: Thornbridge Brewery, Rail Ale, and Spontaneous Fermentation

The Thornbridge (Riverside) Brewery, clockwise from 11 o'clock: lauter tun, mash tun, kettle, HOPNIK!

I've officially made the jump: the Marblers have seen me off as I continue this whirlwind of a trip down south to Derbyshire. I'm now in the hands of one of the UK's most successful breweries, Thornbridge, where tradition and innovation bind to inspire clean, hoppy, rich, yummyful beers. Thornbridge's original 10-barrel (UK) brewery was inaugurated just five years ago at the Thornbridge estate in Ashford-in-the-Water but now most of the brewing takes place in Bakewell, where a blindingly beautiful, spotless stainless steel brewery (30 UK bbls - that's barrels, not bubbles) has recently been constructed. I've lucked out yet again for housing, with a roomy loft in the apartment of a pair of lively and utterly charming Kiwis above the award-winning Coach and Horses pub. Kelly manages Thornbridge's production, occasionally brews more experimental beers at the small brewery, and acts as the main marketing man for special events. Cat runs the Coach, inside and out, and has dragged me outside a couple times to help with some landscaping tasks here and there. I have to say, the petunias and geraniums I planted by the pub sign look very festive. I really ought to come back a master chef; Cat and Kelly are effortless in the kitchen. By effortless I mean the opposite of inactive. During a spate of uncharacteristically warm and sunny weather, we had a barbecue binge and grilled a plethora of lamb and sausage, balancing the meat with mounds of fresh salad mixed with herbs and rocket from the garden. Kelly's keen on finding wild edibles, too. So far he's prepared grilled puffballs, wild garlic (with spelt pasta and deep-fried sage leaves), and he's even cooked up a few mouth-watering morsels of a poor wood pigeon that met its maker by flying into some netting outside the house. I've had my first taste of smoked wild boar as well, though I'm not sure if Kelly rassled that down himself or if it was farmed. Cat has a special talent for whipping up quick and tasty salads. I'm going to keep my eye on her in the kitchen and try to convert myself to a regular salad-eater.

View from a Derbyshire hike

The two breweries are lovely, lovely places. The Hall brewery, located at the private estate, was installed in an old stonemasonry/joinery shed in 2004 and sits adjacent to the greenhouse with a view overlooking the Hall's rooftop. I haven't witnessed a brew (that's next week) but I've tagged along for some quick gravity checks and also helped prepare a conditioning tank for the transfer of Kelly's new coffee milk stout. JK, another Kiwi brewer (born in England, though), and I dissolved a few kilos of lactose in hot water, tossed this and some locally-roasted whole coffee beans into the conditioning tank, and transferred the fermented beer into the tank to condition for a while. The Hall brewery is where the brewers come to play. It's small, a bit cramped with several people, but a nice example of how to keep a small brewery clean and efficient. The timberframe shed gives it that rustic appeal I'm always a sucker for.

Nigel the Curious and Sefano the Bashful

On the other hand, the 30-bbl brewery at the Riverside industrial park in Bakewell is eye candy for the hypochondriac in us all. The dayglo green floors highlight the beautiful blue-silver stainless steel tanks and pipework that snakes around the spacious whitewashed walls. Cleanliness and quality are the buzz words here and that effort comes out in the beer. The ridiculously international team consists of Matthew and newcomer Nigel (Englishmen), Kelly and JK (Kiwis), Stefano and Andrea (Italians), and some clueless American temp worker. This is the first brewery I've worked at that uses a lauter tun. The lauter tun has a mixer within to give a good mix to the mash, after which it's pumped to the mash tun to create a filter bed for run-off and sparging. Riverside is also one of only a few breweries in the world that use a certain device to provide hop aromas to the finished wort. Called a Hopnik, it's a hipster form of hopback that continuously circulates all or a portion of the hot wort through a oxygen-free chamber of hops to maximize contact time and area. Instead of adding hops to the wort, wort is added to the hops. After this cycle the wort is sent through the heat exchanger and into a fermenter. The computer-intense tasks are left to the guys who actually know what they're doing (brewing, for instance, is predominantly computer-controlled) but I'm honing my skills as a perceptive shadow, hovering over shoulders and asking too many questions. Most of the labor I've contributed is in the form of cask washing and racking - and there's plenty of that to do. I get to use a vacuum-powered cask lifter to stack the racked casks on pallets, but I think I still prefer lifting them for the exercise. Gotta get those quads to bulge.

Living above a pub has its perks. Living above a Thornbridge-owned pub has even more. I've jumped on the Jaipur bus and have found that the light biscuity background and grapefruity hops are a perfect accent to the strong flavors of a barbecue. Its cousin, Kipling, edges towards a softer, more tropical fruit-like character from New Zealand hops for a great quaff on its own. Always a sucker for the bigger beers, I've quickly developed a liking for the bottled versions of the robust, chicory-ish St. Petersburg imperial stout and the Halcyon fresh-hopped imperial IPA.

Rails and real ales

I can't sign off just yet. I have a couple more items I should share, given that they've contributed to both my extreme fatigue as of late, and thus my dearth of entries, and to the enrichment of my ever-developing palate. To put it well-windedly. First, a couple weekends ago, I said my goodbyes to Dom and the Marble crew by volunteering at the Rail Ale beer festival. Held in an old and fascinating roundhouse for trains - y'know, the equivalent of that piece that turns in a circle from those wooden train toy kits we all used to play with as snot-noses - it had over 150 cask beers on tap with live music and a selection of fine English grub. Pork scratchings. If you've never encountered pork scratchings, be thankful. They might have them in the American south, but in England they like them textured. Present at the festival was Malcolm Downie, a sympathetic and sturdy man from the ol' Broch and a brewer for Fyne Ales in Scotland. The connections between us are circumferentially entwining; we were doomed to meet, I think. I first heard of him as a fellow lifter at the Broch Iron Gym (acronymically appropriate) in Fraserburgh, which is where he grew up. He eventually moved and found a job at Fyne Ales on Loch Fyne, where Kelly from Thornbridge first spent his time in the UK to gain more brewing experience. Dom from Marble befriended Malcolm through the brewing trade and eventually introduced me to him (he walked into the Marble brewery as I was finishing my first comfortable independent brew, Beer 57, for which I'm forever thankful to the Marble crew). Incidentally, and to add to the ties that bind, Martin from BrewDog - and the Broch - was an original brewer for Thornbridge before moving back home to brew his own.

Civilized lambic tasters

Not to be out-fested, Belgium beckoned me with its own offering. Just this past weekend I was lucky enough to be invited by Phil Lowry of and Saints and Sinners Brewing, Mark Dredge of Pencil and Spoon, and Pete Brissenden of Hopdaemon Brewery to the Weekend of Spontaneous Fermentation. This festival of lambic, gueuze, kriek, and a handful of other spontaneously-fermented beers drew a buzzing but not hectic crowd of dedicated lambic lovers to a remote spot outside of Brussels, in Payottenland. I boarded a bus to London where I met Phil in Greenwich, popped into the pretty Meantime Brewing pub (home to some of Michael Jackson's beer collection), had a bite to eat at Brew Wharf where Phil brews, and headed to Kent for the night before heading off. Phil's main job is at BeerMerchants but has the dream hobby gig; he gets to brew at Brew Wharf on their 5-bbl system. And brew he does. I tried the creamy and spicy Caufield's Rye and the nose-singeing, wonderfully aromatic Hopster to both calm and cut through the crisp fish and chips that made my dinner. I'll be moving in with Phil in two weeks' time to see the sales side of the biz and perhaps to brew a guest beer. Miller's Super Duper Genuine Draft.

Two Fonteinens

Talk about nostalgia. Belgium greeted us with pleasantly mild weather and my good friend Urbain greeted us with a few beers at Struise, our first stop. We had a massive tasting, as is Struise custom, of the new range of beers including Sint Amatus, Mocha Bomb and Black Mes. All were just phenomenal - rich, chewy, balanced, and each with its own unique set of aromas and complexities, from smooth dried fruits to earthy coffee and peat, to keep us sipping. As a chaser, we sampled a fresh Westvleteren 12 and, to be perfectly honest, it couldn't hold a candle to the Struise lineup. It was grainy, thin, and without the robustness I've enjoyed just a few months ago. I dunno what's up. But Urbs was in top form, at least, and we had a nice visit with him and Carlo. I told them to prepare for my imminent return. Next up was Drie Fonteinen where we met Armand and sampled some of the last of the lambic he brewed himself. The cellar was filled with barrels of his blends and smelled of must, mildew, wood, and wonderful spicy, fruity scents emanating from the bung of each barrel. In the corner sat a few shelves of ripening cheese made with lambic, big hunks of shiny golden goodness. As we sipped our smooth and inviting copper treats, Armand gave us an impassioned speech about the lost art of lambic blending. Lambic brewers and blenders are generally impassioned people; any career that involves producing a finicky, unpredictable product that won't be available for sale for at least three years is bound to attract people with more than a sliver of passion. Another one exists in the form of Jean Van Roy, whom we met and talked with at his brewery, Cantillon. This was my second time visiting but this time Jean busted out a specialty - not for sale anywhere, Ratebeerians - and treated us each to a taste. It was a lambic aged in cognac barrels, and it was perhaps one of the best beers I've had: notes of caramel, pears and crab apples, vanilla, and decayed leaves came through in the aroma and taste to give the smooth tart lactic acid character a perfect bedfellow. Anywho, the lambic festival itself came and went without incident. But I tried quite a number of classic lambics and vintages as well, one of the more notable being Boon Gueuze Mariage Parfait. Why, you ask? Honestly, I don't remember. But I remember thinking, "A stemmed glass of this with a Spanish omelet for dinner would be spectacular." The remainder of our trip, though dominated by car time, was quite pleasant, given the state of my stomach lining.

Everything Jean pours turns to gold

I'm back now, at the Coach, and laboring contentedly at Thornbridge. Lots of casks need washing and racking, but I hear a beer needs brewing at the Thornbridge Hall brewery next week. I'll start polishing my wellies.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

My Carhartts Are Crusted With Wort and Yeast

It's not often that I drink and write. You might be surprised by this, given that it's a much more reasonable and enjoyable combination than the alternative. It's just that I'm often, um, wittiest, I guess, in the morning so I generally choose to write then, when I'm still slurping the milk from my cereal. But now I'm enjoying a bottled E from The White Shield Brewery in Burton-Upon-Trent. It's supposed to taste like the original Bass before they sold out. It's crisp, malty, slightly chewy, and has a floral/herbal hop zip in the finish. Not bad. More on how this got in my hands later.

I must pay homage to the relentlessly accepting and generous crew at Marble. In just two days' time I'll be off their hands and on my own again (for a day), but, as with all of my brewery stints, time has been too short. Four and a half weeks came and went like the sequel to that car movie with Vin Diesel. In that short time I've gained a mother in the form of Jan, owner and operator of the Marble pubs and breweries, who provided me with some of the most comfortable living I've probably ever enjoyed as a guest. She came just short of brushing my teeth for me in the evenings. I've been brought jigging and karaoking by the bar staff and have been force-fed incredibly pungent, beautiful cheeses (Epoisse, Stinking Bishop, Blue Stilton) by the chefs. And, last but by no means of measure the least, I've developed some mad man-crushes on my heroes in the brewery: Dom, Colin, and James. Perhaps I was ready, perhaps not, but they've allowed me an incredible amount of freedom in the brewery (always under a watchful eye, of course) to develop my abilities as a brewer. I know I can make Dom and Colin red in the face with questions, and James just blatantly irritated, but their patience with me and transfer of knowledge of small-scale, taste-centric brewing has not gone unappreciated.

Soaking and aerating the barley at the Carling Maltings

(Editor's note: it's now the next morning and I'm no longer drinking a beer.) Today I'll brew Ginger Marble at the Arch brewery. I'm having a hearty breakfast now of oatmeal and Nutella, with coffee on the side. Then I'll bike half an hour to the brewery, let the sweat evaporate, and start warming up the mash tun. It's my second-to-last day and I'd like to make a smooth one. This weekend there's a beer festival, Barrow Hill Beer Festival to be precise, at which I'll be serving beers (from whom, I'm not sure. Marble or Ashover, I hope) and after which I'll be spending my first night at the Coach and Horses, officially reporting to duty for Thornbridge. However, Marble won't see the last of me then. Two days ago a colony was propagated. A colony of yeasties, natives of Belgium, that will happily eat the sugars in the wort from a big, double Chocolate brew that will happen next week. I've been invited to come back for the day to witness this epic event. The result will be on tap at De Molen's beer festival in September (remember my post from Borefts last Halloween? Time flies!). Man oh man I wish I could go. Alas, Double Chocolate With Belgian Yeast will not wet these lips but maybe if I pluck a hair from my head and throw it into the copper something magical will happen.

Germinating barleycorns

Well, it's been great. And last weekend I took over official Dom social duties by attending an event called Twissup. We were all apparently supposed to get Twissed Up, but instead we had a lovely day of tours and (half) pints. Basically, it was a gathering of some of Britain's most dedicated, accomplished beer writers and reviewers with a smattering of brewers. The famous Andy Mogg, a grower of chilies and a hill walker to boot, helped introduce me to the crowd and I soon warmed up to Mark Dredge (Pencil and Spoon), Pete Brissenden (brewer at Hopdaemon) and his brother, and Chunk (great food and beer pieces), among over twenty others who trekked around the streets of Burton-Upon-Trent, that home of pale ale and hard water that some of us American beer lovers only get to read about in pretty books. We had a lengthy but informative (and, admittedly, wildly interesting to a biology major) tour of the Carling maltings, owned by Molson Coors. The massive plant contained two buildings for malting the barley, one of which was a curious tower that had germinating, drying, and kilning floors at various levels. The building was loud, moist, dark, and warm, but the barley corns were happy as clams, showing off their little rootlets of growth as well as a few acrospires here and there. The acrospires are generally discouraged as they contain more precursors for DMS, that cooked-corn flavor you might find in some badly brewed beer. But, at Carling (England's #1 lager, I believe), they strive for a touch of DMS; that's what the customers expect!

A Victorian tower brewery relic

After the maltings we visited a brewery museum, home of The White Shield Brewery, a functioning artifact in the brewing world. The building and most of the brewery was quite oold, not sure exactly how old, but it was a place where I would give a leg to brew. That might hard, though, since it is also one of the few remaining Victorian tower brewhouses that utilizes gravity to do a lot of the work. Rickety stairs and towering vats is the view from the bottom, but the marvelous brick building and copper-and-wood vessels stole my heart. E is brewed here, as well as some Worthington's White Shield and P2, a fruity, juicy, molassesy imperial stout that pairs with strawberries and clotted cream like natural bedfellows. After the tour and lunch, we enjoyed some beer at various pubs and had another quick brewery tour, this time at Burton Bridge Brewery. I had to sign off early to get back at a reasonable, midnight-ish time, but the whole day was great and I've met a new crowd of like-minded imbibers. In fact, there are rumors afloat that I might be tagging along with Mark, Pete, and Phil (remember Phil, from London?) to a major lambic and gueuze festival next weekend in BELGIUM. Dom and Janine will be there, too. More on that when I know more.

Copper copper at White Shield

That's all for now. I hope to have more news (well, I hope to find time to give you the news) soon. Until then, be well, do good work, and keep reading my blog.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Of Mancs and Men

73 Rochdale Road, aka Marble Arch, aka The ThunderDome

Two and a half weeks into my Mancunian expedition and it feels like ages. In a good way, of course. (Have I reported any misadventures? I feel like I should be adding some brewhouse drama in the mix. But breweries aren't very dramatic places. Unless a tank implodes.) I'm feeling more and more comfortable in the brewery, though I'm still peppering the guys with more questions than you'd find in a philosophy class. The other day Dom took me through another brew session. (I've been on a rotation of assisting the brew, washing casks, racking casks, loading the van for deliveries, labeling, cleaning vessels, and eating my way through Jan's refrigerator) I hovered around him like a midge, took notes in my little black book with my prized gold-plated Cross (which Dom stole to melt down into a nipple ring) stirred some mash here and scooped out some hops there. The note-taking process was especially helpful to synthesize all the tiny but critical steps involved in brewing, the ones involving weaving pipework and rates of flow and everything, and it felt a bit like school again though more gratifying. Earlier this week James guided me through a brew of Pint at the larger brewery down the road. This new brewery was designed to reflect the processes up the road, but the scale change complicates a few subtle but important steps. Just takes some getting-used-to.

Tiny view of the new brewery: mash tun and copper

I've also been out on a delivery run with Richard, the fourth and final brewery drone whose main job is the daily cask and bottle run around the region. We zipped around the Greater Manchester Area in the silver dented Marble van, stopping at a dozen or so pubs, bars, restaurants, bottle shops, and even a couple country clubs, rolling out the casks and chucking them down cellars or through windows if they got in the way. All the accounts coughed up money or a check, apparently a rarity, and I like to think I acted as a good imitator, standing behind Rich with my arms crossed and lips pursed. Rich was probably plenty of intimidation just because he's massive - about 6' 6" and fully bearded. In all, I think I prefer brewing to deliveries, unless I had a stellar audiobook to get through. Back in the brewery I was allowed another morsel of responsibility and independence. On Friday Colin was off and James was in a meeting with Jan, so Dom was left with a hovering apprentice and enough work for four people. He decided to take charge of the brew down the road, at the new brewery, and send me up to the pub to transfer some beer from fermenter to condition tank. It was all very exciting for me, but instead of geeking out on all the details, like explaining how to sanitize a tank and minimize yeast transfer, I'll just say it went smoothly. No pumps were shredded and the beer sits happily in its new sealed tank, chilled and settling nicely before it must be racked into casks.

Mmm... beer.

In other news, I learned how to cook a chicken today. I've also found a barn-burner of an Irish session at a pub called the Jolly Angler. Each Saturday about ten musicians play to a packed pub crowd, standing room only, and the tunes roll on and on instead of being interrupted by Guinness breaks or apathy. When I asked a plump fiddler if she'd be back again the next week, same time, I was replied with, "Well, yes. ...Why, you goin' ta burgle my house?" I'm also very much looking forward to eating swimming pools of curry. There's a strip of town called Curry Mile that I'm afraid might become my second home. I might try street life on Curry Mile.

A bit more beer news: I've been meeting a lot of interesting beerful people and hearing about a lot of beerish buzz around the UK, but one particular potentially nifty event that Marble will take part in is an online beer tasting event organized by two familiar names in the beer world: Podge and Tim Webb. I'm still not sure how it'll work, but I'm guessing it'll be something like a mix between a conference call, a Skype session, and, well, people drinking beer by themselves at home. I believe it'll center around Belgian-inspired British beers and Marble's Decadence Kriek and/or Framboise will be sacrificed. Podge hosts tours of Belgium for beer lovers and Tim Webb writes about beer, including the Good Beer Guide: Belgium that I've toted around for the last eight months and dog-eared to death. Another excitement at Marble is the recent opening of a third location. The Marble empire consists of the original, historic brewpub, the cozy Beer House in Chorlton, and now the more central, hip location that the young crowd will flock to. Here the beards and sandals will be worn not by musty, pot-bellied CAMRA elders, but by 25-year-old pot-bellied hipsters. Ah, the cycle of life.

Mr. Official next to the kitchen and back dining area

I've just heard some exciting news. (I write these entries bit by bit. It takes me about a week of chipping away to finally muster strength to publish one.) This weekend I'll be joining a group of serious beer bloggers on a dream tour of Burton-Upon-Trent. Yep, that place with the weird water that makes a lovely pale ale. Dom worked his magic and pulled the ol' switcheroo to get me in his place as he's got a busy weekend. You can check out the agenda here; apparently we're visiting a maltings, a couple breweries, several pubs, and a museum. The good folks that are going are some of the most prolific, respected beer bloggers and enthusiasts in the UK. I'm really just a poser compared to them, a phony with the beer knowledge of a dollop of salmon paté. I will enjoy it wholeheartedly, though, and do my duty by blogging about it afterwards.

Just a sweet photo of Colin and Janine at Thornbridge

And, of course, another update would not be complete without a few words on the progress of my scheming. I'm now officially in the works for a few weeks at Thornbridge. I believe I'll be staying above the Coach and Horses pub (see last entry), biking it to work, and hopefully providing them with some worthwhile labor in return for their patience in putting up with me. If I grunt loud enough when I move casks it might convince them. I'll fake a hernia, that's what I'll do.

In the spirit of Garrison Keillor: Be well, do good work, and keep reading my blog.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Marbled Musings: The Photos

The Marble Brewery (mash tun, copper, hot liquor tank)

The Marble Arch Inn - check out the vaulted ceiling!

Dom hovers over the mash

Colin and Kelly inspect the hop shoots. Dom wants nothing to do with it.

Vicky, Colin, Janine, and Shooter McGavin at Coach and Horses

Approaching Lairig Ghru

Our bothy early in the morn'

That's where we came from, out of the blizzard

Firefighter Dave in a real Scottish firetruck!

One last morning at BrewDog

Marbled Musings

If only I was a blogger at heart. I could pump out oodles of creative nonsense daily, coffee at my side, fingers cocked back and ready to shoot off rounds of dangerously entertaining tidbits about my time here (which now happens to be Manchester, Lancashire, UK). But alas, alack. I'm only a binge-blogger, a semi-regularist caught between the desire to record every minute of my adventure for posterity and the pseudo-justification I repeat to myself, that I should just enjoy my time as it comes and stop trying to record every damn whiff of hops in my blog. It's the same conflict of feeling I get when my mom whips out a (usually disposable) camera right in the middle of everyone having a good time. Jesus, mom, you ruined the moment, but yeah, I'll probably want that photograph in twenty years.

So now I'm struggling with what to share with you in this entry. It could take me days of straight writing to fit everything in (a combination of the excitement of nearly every minute of my trip and the fact that I write slower than death). I think what I'll do is work backwards, starting with an homage to my current, loverly hosts at Marble Brewery in Manchester, moving on to the time I hiked through a blizzard in the mountains in the coldest part of Britain, and ending with the last days I spent with the hardcore, brew-dacious crew at BrewDog. Pictures will come next in a separate entry, so be prepared for a big wall o' text here.

Aaahhh.... Marble.... what a place, what a place. For a week and a half I've been tutored in the art of brewing some of the finest cask and bottled ales in Britain by some of Britain's finest human beings. These brewers are honest, patient, upright, just a tad smelly (or a third of them are, at least), but not in the least bit common. They wear their wellies with pride. They call rubber boots wellies. They have integrity. They treat timid American intruders with the utmost compassion. And they brew damn. Good. Beer.

At the Marble Arch Inn in Manchester, Dominic, Colin, and James have taken me on and put me to work at their two adjacent breweries surrounding the 19th-century historic pub. After meeting Dom at the Pre-ZBF festival in Belgium prior to my stint at BrewDog, I harnessed the power of Facebook and built up the courage to send him a message asking if they could use an extra hand at Marble. Apparently, Dom and Colin took the owner, Jan, out for drinks, buttered her up nicely with some pints of Ginger, Chocolate, Dobber, and Decadence, and convinced her to house me for several weeks while I puttered around in the two breweries. So here I am, living with the boss (she's Irish, too) in the hip neighborhood of Chorlton, pampered like a babe, spending my days at one of the hippest breweries in the UK. Can life get better? I submit that it cannot.

Dom and Colin are two young brewers who love beer. That helps them brew great beer. They've both been fantastic teachers; they're patient and they love what they do, which makes explaining it all an obvious joy as well. I've been trying to be the best sponge I can be, absorbing their output here and squeezing out what I've learned there, learning and laboring. The original Marble Brewery is located in the back of the gorgeous Marble Arch Inn, a cozy pub with a cozy brewery where brewing is basically homebrewing on a larger scale. With a small, single infusion mash tun, copper, and hot and cold liquor tanks upstairs and four open fermenters and two conditioning tanks downstairs, the size is perfect (4.5 UK barrels); one brewer could manage a brew day on his own, but help is always appreciated. Just down the road is the new brewery, about two and half times the size of the original. Both are utilized and the majority of the beer is racked into casks for local distribution. A selection of beers are bottled, including the decadent Decadence (an imperial stout-ish beer with a soft, smooth chocolatey finish), special Special (a piquant barleywine from 2009), Decadence Framboise (avec raspberries) and Decadence Kriek (with cherries). Marble is interesting in that they condition their beers, both cask and bottled, by krausening. Basically, krausening involves removing some active yeast from one fermenting beer and adding it to an almost-fully-fermented beer as it is put into casks or bottles. This active yeast completes the fermentation, adds carbonation, and continues to develop and meld the flavors of the beer until it is ready to drink. Most other breweries I've encountered use a simple sugar solution for conditioning. This is just one example in a bottomless box of examples of why Marble is successful. If you meet or have ever met Dom, with his soft, reassuring voice and rapier wit; Colin, with his boisterous laugh and heart of pure, unadulterated gold; or James, with his expansive knowledge, experience, and stock of saucy, sly humor, I think you'd understand why Marble is what it is. James is nearly impossible to understand, however, being from Birmingham.

I've barely had time to sit still for the past week. That's OK, 'cause I can't sit still for long, anyway. No, it's no the hemorrhoids. Dom has kept me from wasting away my time on the internet by inviting me on some weekend outings. Last weekend was spent visiting Ashover Brewery in the quaint, English countryside, movie-set town of Ashover. Janine, Dom's girlfriend, brews at Ashover with her father, who runs the brewery. It's small and gee-orgeous. My kind of place. We took a nice walk around the town, huffed and puffed up some hills, quickly called it quits and went hunting for beer. A tram-crawl took us around the pubs of Sheffield where we proceeded to taste a few pints (and half-pints) of this beer region's offerings. For some silly reason (perhaps involving beer) I missed my intended train back to Manchester which turned out OK because it gave us the opportunity to try more beer at the awesome Sheffield Tap, right at the station, until I caught the last train. (Actually, after feeling a cold coming on, I had transitioned from half-pints of bitters to pints of life's sweetest nectar: straight, cold tap water.)

As the week flew by, I coped with the Marble cold that was making the rounds, toiled in the brewery, bottled and labeled beers, threw some caustic solution around, and prepared for another trip to the countryside. Dom, Colin, Janine, Vicky (from behind the Marble bar) and I weaved through hill, dale, and moor to find ourselves at the gate of the Thornbridge Estate, home of Thornbridge Hall and, much more importantly, the original Thornbridge Brewery. If you want a trifecta of solid, established, innovative UK breweries, well, Thornbridge completes it. With a duo of breweries, Thornbridge squirts out a lot of lovely beer, both traditional and new-age, and touring both brewing facilities gave me goosebumps. The smaller, older, more traditional brewery on the estate is where the dirty brewing goes down and is where Kelly, one of three head brewers, met us first for a tour. I met Kelly at Pre-ZBF as well, and he and Dom both struck me with their interest and knowledge of brewing. Kelly, bless him, is a Kiwi. His brewmates are Italian and English and they know their shit. Kelly also has silvering hair, ladies, and will charm your socks off. He works at both breweries and can exercise his craftier side at the small one and his technical side at the large one. We weaved through the eight-ish barrel (UK) brewery, discussing this year's hop crop and other brewer babble, and made our way outside where Kelly showed us his hop vine-growing project as well as his little garden of herbs that find themselves in the beer here and there. We sampled some Bracia, fermented with chestnut honey, and an old ale collaboration with Dark Star, pulled straight from the conditioning tank where it has been laying dormant for 14 months. We then drove down the road to the new brewery, set in a relatively posh industrial park near Bakewell, another fantasy town (devoid of a good pub, though). This new Thornbridge brewery, on par with the size of BrewDog, is a wonder of brewing engineering. Spotless, sparkling, full of stainless steel, and confusing as hell, the brewery produces plenty of beer. I will continue to struggle with volumes, since hectoliters, UK barrels, and US barrels are not all one in the same, but it was big. Kelly talked us through the process, pointing to shiny things and buttons, though I did get the sense that, despite the industrial appearance, lab, and obvious emphasis on consistency and control, there's plenty of personality and craft that make it into each batch. Later that night we wined and dined, or beered and smeared, if you will, at The Coach and Horses, the local Thornbridge-owned pub. The cheer was ubiquitous and our crew was in full form to destroy some fine food and beer. I muscled down a soufflé, complete with the acute accent, and Dom whipped out some Russian River Consecration to aid our digestion. Colin presented some Oak Aged Podge from Alvinne and Kelly busted out a couple New Zealish beers, including one made with a special, citrusy, almost tropical in character fruit that tickled my tongue. Throughout the night we soaked up a number of tasty Thornbridge brews as well. Cat, Kelly's girlfriend and Coach manager, joined us for the meal and cheer.

That gives you a glimpse of my Mancunian experience, but, as per yooj, I've left out more than I should. So feel free to email me to get some behind-the-scenes reportage.

Before being welcomed to Manchester, though, I was able to do some proper legwork. Legsercises. My calves needed some toning, so I shaved 'em, rubbed some insta-tan on 'em, and took off for the one place in Scotland I knew I could achieve that chiseled butt-cheek look for my calf muscles: the Cairngorm Mountains. Jenia and Ali, two couchsurfing friends from Aberdeen, kindly invited me for a weekend of hiking along the Lairig Ghru, an old route through the mountains first utilized by shepherds and their poor, poor sheep. We got lost a couple times, brought way too much food (including a separate tub of mayonnaise to dip the pre-cooked hot dogs in), slept half a night in a pool of rainwater, and hiked for half a day through a blizzard in the UK's coldest region. But we had a blast and I'm inspired to return to the Highlands for more. The views were stunning in their diversity and humble beauty. Our first day was replete with rolling, heathery mountains before bloom and complexly rich muddy hues; the second day started off with a blizzard and brought us through a vast glen walled in by extreme cliffs caked with snow, down through a Scots pine forest smelling of the sweetest pitch and finally onto flat, marshy land. We forded a river at the very end and probably just avoided hypothermia.

All of this, of course, was preceeded by my final days at that powerhouse of an establishment, BrewDog. I'll miss those nuts, the whole crew, from Skinny (who gave me some Buckfast for the road... I have yet to crack it open) to the Aussies to Franzie to Dave to the legendary Polskis to the cheerful fishermen to the wonderful Kelly and Angela to Martin and James, the prodigies behind the beer. I think that I should give special props to Stewart "Bowman" Bowman. I couldn't have asked for a better brewhouse teacher and mentor in that situation; his patience and thoroughness were amazing and amazingly helpful and the guy is a hard working sonofabitch. I forgive him for his absolute hatred of anything resembling hip hop. So to finish off my time, I continued to put in my money's worth and even progressed to the point where Stewart sort of left me in charge of at least most of a brew, from mashing in through run-off through boiling and finally to casting the wort into a fermenter. Sparging was the most stressful step for me, as keeping the mash bed correctly buoyant is a skill not easily obtained. But I got through it without spilling a single hectoliter of beer. I had a day off in there somewhere during which my man Firefighter Dave turned off his volunteer firefighter beeper and invited me and some of his friends over for a barbecue. The sun was out, almost hot, and we slaked our thirst with a few Trashy Blonde underfills (rejects from the bottling line) and let our skin slowly toast from the sun and the heat of the barbie. On my last night in Fraserburgh, I wheeled Dave's Tesco grill a couple miles from his house to the brewery and treated the crew (still at work) to a come-and-get-it barbecue of sausage, burgers, and dogs, American-style. It was dark, a bit drizzly, and cold, but Jack, Red, Franz, Martin and I huddled around the coals, threw back a couple 77 Lagers, and enjoyed the simple pleasures of charred meat and company. Like I said, I'll miss those guys and that undeniably lonely town of Fraserburgh, but I'm hoping to take another final trip up to bonny Scotland and catch one last glimpse of BrewDog life.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

April showers...

Penguin In A Box

Fraserburgh's growing on me. The drab, grey stone buildings seem more handsome, almost stately. The vast, monotonous sea has brightened and welcomed me on its beach for a few refreshing runs on my days off. Time has handed me familiarity, leading to a certain comfort and ownership of the streets and shops. I have my favorite spots staked out: Farm Foods for four energy drinks and bunched bananas at the pound, Findlay's for the meatiest fish and chips and the cute girl behind the counter, BodyTec gym for the usual masochism and local gossip from the owner. All of this fondness is blossoming during the worst weather the region's had since winter seemed to be on its way out a month ago.

Tha brewhouse. The tall tanks are fermenters and that smaller one in the back is the kettle.

But my time is still concentrated in the caverns of the brewery that overlooks the white-capped waves and golden-green dunes. The daily schedule is regular enough: rise at 7:30 or so, chew a banana in the warmth of my bed, browse The (NY) Times for the latest surreal news from a now foreign land, chuckle at the obstinate dark puffs that have found a home under my eyes (I look a lot more tired than I feel), and meet Jack and Franz on the doorstep for a ride from Stewart. This past week I've gotten lucky as I've spent most of my time assisting Franz in brewing the necessary batches of beer. We've had Trashy Blonde, 77 Lager, and Alpha Dog marathons, back-to-back brews of each to fill their respective fermenters. It took four consecutive 50 hl brews to fill a 200 hl fermenting tank of Trashy, and right after that we did the same with Alpha. A new 200 hl tank was just installed on my days off, so now three massive tanks stand like sentries outside the brewery, guarding the inside from Nazis, fascists, and right-wing extremists and acting as our decorative seagull-shit-collectors. For each brew, Franzie and I will check out the brew sheet, assemble the necessary bags of malt and measure out the brewing salts, and begin to mash. Franz pours the pre-crushed grains into the auger and adjusts the simultaneous flow of water into the mash tun while I precariously straddle the elevated tun and use a plastic shovel to stir the rising tide of malt and water. After all the malt has been emptied into the auger, the water is shut off and the mash is allowed to sit for a healthy chunk of time. We measure the temperature and pH of the mash to make sure the enzymes will work properly. At this point, my pits are fully saturated, my face has gotten a steam treatment from poking it into the near-boiling mash tun, and my head, shoulders, and upper back are caked with a doughy film of barley malt flour from the humming auger that hangs above my head. I already could use a nice, sudsy shower, but I still need to clean out the mash tun and kettle, so I might as well save it 'til later. As the mash sits and the molecules do their job, Franz prepares for the filtration. Sometimes we have lunch at this point (by this time it can be around 2 or 3 in the afternoon). Sometimes I must stave off my hunger by drinking more instant coffee or knawing on the bits of dead skin on my hands. But usually lunch is agreed to be a good idea by the majority of us who don't have breakfast or who just have a banana in bed. So, Tesco it is. Tesco provides us with novel nourishment; Jack bought an assortment of eclairs and cream puffs which he was forced to eat in five minutes, accounting for 200% of his daily allotment for saturated fat. Stewart once bought what appeared to be half a pig. He added some limp salad greens to the side for health's sake. David got me hooked on trying all the different offerings of milkshakes; Chocolate YOP and Frij Fudge Brownie are tied for first. Franz has been creative with his inspiring run of canned haggis sandwiches (I'm still waiting to finish digesting the deep-fried haggis I had last week before I try his culinary creation). Anyway, lunch is fun, but it's soon back to the grindstone. By this time the sweet wort is being drained from and filtered by the bed of spent grain into the kettle, where it eventually comes to a boil. This is when I work my hop magic. I've had the job of weighing out the hops for the boil, and I relish every second of it. BrewDog uses hops in two forms: whole flowers (about the size of acorns, only soft) or pellets (looks like rabbit food). They're both vacuum-packed into 5 kg blocks and smell orgasmic when opened. They can be fruity, floral, herbal, minty, piney, resinous, even orange-creamy. Hops are like catnip for me, and the guys say they often find me curled into a ball behind the fermenters, scratching ferociously with my hind legs at a packet of hops. I don't remember any of these episodes. Regardless, the hops are added to the boiling wort and the next step is prepared. This next step is to 'cast' the boiled wort through a heat exchanger and into a fermenter, where yeast is added at a nice, cool and comfortable temperature to begin fermentation.

Tub o' frozen Sink the Bismarck with some inappropriate grafitti. Since water freezes before alcohol, this tub is drained to collect the concentrated beer, leaving mostly frozen water in the original vessel.

Of course, there's cleanup. Bill Dunn, brewmaster for Elm City, a local brewpub back home, told me once that to be a brewer is to be a "glorified janitor." He's right. And, for some reason, I'm embracing this with almost religious vigor. I used to hate, absolutely hate, doing chores at home, especially washing dishes. My mom can attest, after enduring years of post-meal whining. Now I volunteer to do dishes if I'm hosted for dinner, and I'm finding myself looking forward to cleaning the mash tun and kettle. It's therapeutic and relaxing and my attraction to it probably has some deep, weird psychological underpinnings, but I'll happily accept that. I enjoy it, too, because it's like taking a steambath. I actually have to remove my shirt when I clean out the piping hot mounds of spent grain, otherwise I would soak completely through it. It's my replacement for the sauna up the road at home.

Stewart digs in.

Speaking of cleaning, a few days ago I witnessed something extraordinary. It was completely destructive and almost harmless, so it was all the more glorious to witness in a safe, sheltered area, which is where I happened to be. This was April 1st - April Fool's Day for the jokers out there - late afternoon and all was well. I was digesting a pleasant tuna and cheese panini that I bought with Red, the tall Ewan McGregor-look-alike (and sound-alike, since they're both Australian). Red was digesting I think a chicken slamwich, but more importantly he was preparing about 20 kilos of hop pellets to add to a 60 hl (1,585 gallons) fermenter filled with fermenting Hardcore IPA, for that fruity dry-hop kick. To do this, someone else, not me, has to lift him up with a forklift to the top of the ceiling-high tank so he can dump the hops in the top. Well, what he and I and nearly everyone in the brewhouse didn't take into consideration was the effect 20 kilos of hop pellets would have on a beer with a hell of a lot of CO2 in solution. There are these things some academics call "nucleation points", and these are what that dissolved CO2 is looking to latch on to to come out of solution. When Red dumped in that load of hops, the beer went mental. Think Mentos in a bottle of Coke. The beer exploded, started to gush everywhere, out, up, and down. A waterfall of foamy Hardcore spewed down and around the tank, sounding much like a roaring Amazonian rainstorm, covering everyone below it in a sticky, lip-smackingly tasty blanket of beer. Meanwhile, Red was bracing the constant shower from the manway at the top, battling heroically with the pressure of the current to close the lid. After a good couple minutes of this Mentos effect of beer, Red managed to cage the beast and the last drops trickled down the tank to join the several inches that covered the brewhouse floor. Red was soaked from top to toe, Jack (who was operating the forklift) got a good shower, Stewart tried unsuccessfully to climb up the forklift in an instinctual effort to help Red, and David and I remained under cover and dry as driftwood. I think Red was actually pretty lucky he escaped with only a shower of beer and extreme stickiness; a fall from that height could have been fatal, and the CO2 up there was enough to make breathing noticeably heavier. In all, we estimate 15 or so hectoliters of 9.2% abv Hardcore was lost. It was a clever April Fool's joke that someone pulled on us, amazing and amusing to watch but expensive and labor-intensive to deal with.

The Day It Rained Beer. Red is standing on that box thing being hoisted by the forklift, somewhere in the midst of that yeasty mist.

That's it for this episode. I did take a night's trip to Aberdeen on a day off and found some nice pubs and nicer people. Ali and Jenia were my couchsurfing hosts, real sweet and good company. Ali used to be a cheesemonger, so he pointed me in the direction of a small specialty cheese shop where I bought a trifecta of UK cheeses, including a lovely washed rind that I enjoyed with a packet of crumbly oatcakes, though I got some funny looks and crinkled noses on the bus. Ali and Jenia have invited me to join them on a bit of hiking in the Cairngorms in mid-April; assuming the weather warms up a bit, that sounds like a jolly good transition from BrewDog to Marble in Manchester.

The kettle is just asking for a scrub-down.

One last pleasantry: Tim, my friend and future brewery owner from back home, tells me the Gilsum Village Store (in, er, Gilsum) now has Punk IPA! If you're not local, this means nothing to you, but I'm ecstatic that BrewDog distributes to such obscure places and that the Gilsum Store would stock such quality beers. Go beer!

Fraserburgh on a fine morning.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Some Pun Involving Dogs and Beer

Last day in Belgium, washing crates, tired yet still cheery

Crates, tastes, and haste. That’s how I left Belgium. My final day with Urbain saw us joined by two well-malted Americans, Gene and GT, for a bit of crate-washing. Sixteen palettes, or 960 crates, took us an hour and a half, and we celebrated our quick work with a meal at Westvleteren Abbey’s café, In de Vrede. I had a couple sips of the 8, but my body was still trying to mend the microvilli damaged from the night before, my final night in Belgium. That final night inevitably brought on a medley of tastings, mostly Struise classics including Pannepot Reserva, much-missed and gaining my vote as the best version of Pannepot out there, and vintage Earthmonk, a more malty, buttery version that GT declared was his favorite beer. A Cantillon Organic Gueuze was de-corked as well, and the guys saw me off by cracking open two Mikkeller IPAs in the parking lot, part of a series of single-hopped IPAs; we tried the Amarillo and Tomahawk. Tomahawk was a bit brighter, more tropical, and Amarillo was more rounded with perhaps a touch of cedar-like character. Without a moment to spare, we hurried to the train, snapped a couple pictures of Urbain and I (a rarity) and were broken apart by the harsh whistle of the conductor. My time in Belgium had come to a close, and Scotland was a-waitin’.

GT, Urbs, and Gene at In de Vrede, posing for their next pop-rock album

I arrived in Edinburgh at 11 pm, dragging perhaps 35 kilos or more of luggage around, feeling like an ESPN Strong Man competitor doing that trapezius walk, releasing primitive grunts and breathing way too heavily to be in public. Calum, my couchsurfing host, greeted me excitedly and showed me the bed, which I hugged until it was morning. I couldn’t have spent a better first full day in Scotland. At noon I ate a breakfast/lunch of curried veggies at an invitingly crunchy establishment called the Forest Café, run by volunteers and catering to the vegetablists out there. I was happy to see something, anything, other than processed meat. (The next morning I exhibited culinary ambivalence and splurged on a Scottish breakfast of blood pudding, sausage, egg, ham, and buttered toast, with one-half of a roasted tomato plopped parenthetically on the plate.) At one o'clock I careened into a free walking tour of Edinburgh and was regaled with tales of body-snatching, witch-hanging, castle-building, and Stone of Destiny-stealing, after which I invited two other Americans for a drink at the Bow Bar where we partook in some of my first real ales. “Real” defines a beer as being cask-conditioned, or carbonated and matured in the cask it is served in. Yeast remains in the cask, settled at the bottom, so the beer is often considered “live.” Most of the real ales I’ve sampled in Edinburgh have been mild, malty, and sessionable. I probably destroyed my taste buds by starting this tour in Belgium, so I’ll have to go through a bit of an attenuation. A welcome attenuation.

Atop Arthur's Seat, smack in the middle of Edinburgh

After a couple half pints I had some quiche and headed over to Sandy Bell’s Bar, where the good times resonated from fiddles, guitars, flutes, and wavering Scottish voices. With a pint of Ossian and my iPod microphone at the ready, I nestled into a corner of the bar for a couple hours of traditional Scottish and Irish tunes and a few gorgeous songs. My heart filled to the brim with that melancholy satisfaction I get from those purest of melodies, and I knew my time in Scotland would not leave me wanting…

An Edwardian bar in Edinburgh, boasting some fine whiskies

The Bow Bar

… despite the isolation of my next stop, Fraserburgh! Yes, after another day in lively Edinburgh, perusing the Museum of Ancient Metal and Dirt (Nat’l Museum of Scotland – really cool) and getting schooled in the art of whisky tasting by my equally enthusiastic host Calum, I choo-choo’d my way up to a very northeast corner of Aberdeenshire county, home of the great fishing town of Fraserburgh and also home of the great yet still young BrewDog brewery, where I’ll be working another several weeks as a blunt brewing object. I’ve been here only one week and already my hands are raw and replete with dings, scrapes, blood blisters, yet medicated with a green sheen of hop resins. A lot of Nelson Sauvin and Amarillo!

I have to admit: it’s been tough here. The brewery runs 24 hours a day and production is continually increasing. BrewDog owes its success to hard work by everyone here in the brewery, its killer marketing strategies, and, most importantly, the high-quality range of beers it produces to back up its assertive, guerrilla, jungle-warfare marketing techniques. There’s a rotating staff for day and night shifts, each 12 hours long, and the work involves brewing, cleaning, kegging, bottling, packaging, and everything in between. When I first arrived and heard the schedule, I couldn’t imagine I’d be a very happy camper. I like to do other things than brew; I like reading and playing music and having time to take showers. I mean, what about useless internet time? Where was that? That, dear readers, is being replaced by a good, honest day’s work after which I can come home, have a beer that I really earned, and know that I’m learning a helluva lot about brewing damn good beer. Ideally, in a perfect, flowery world filled with unicorns and friendly leprechauns, I would be working in a smaller-scale, more aesthetic brewing environment (I’m really a sucker for environment), but I have no complaints about my time at BrewDog thus far. Bring on the brew, dogg.

So, what’s it all like? First of all, the sea breeze is amazing. The breeze is usually from the southwest, the mainland, but it intermingles with the crusty, salted, oily, burnt-rubber odors that emanate from the harbor and its boats to announce Fraserburgh’s proximity to the sea and dependence on fishing. The town is peppered with drab buildings and is unbearably gray, cut through like lard and relieved of its lipid oppression only by the occasional blinding blue sky and silver clouds of a bright day; the lime-green seaside grass atop rolling dunes makes for a nice view from the beachfront brewery as well. Each day I arise to the cries of the roosters of the coast, those prolific gulls, and head to work with a few other semi-temporary BrewDog employees from the unofficial BrewDog guesthouse. Along with James and Martin, the Emperor Penguins of the brewery; Nara, Angela, and Kelly, the callused computer-typers/office workers; Stew, Graeme, David, and Skinny, native Scots with full-time brewery responsibilities; a handful of weathered, part-time fishermen working in the packaging department; and another handful of Polish handymen (Fraserburgh has a curiously large Polish contingent), I’m joined by a few brewery mercenaries on a slightly similar track as mine. These guys are all about my age and are undergoing a three-month trial period at BrewDog, after which each party will decide whether further employment is appropriate. Jack and Red are from Down Under, presumably descendants of expelled moonshiners, and Franz is a pils-drinking Dusseldorfian and proof that Sink the Bismarck was all for a bit of a laugh. Speaking of Sink the Biz, we (or mostly Jack and Stew) just extracted, mega-dry-hopped, and bottled the latest batch, all of which I think is pre-sold. Sorry. It had more of a bite than I remember at Pré-ZBF, perhaps due to the punch released by those fresh hop oils. Zing!!! Other goings-on at the brewery have included kegging nearly 7,500 liters of Trashy Blonde for a beer festival hosted by a chain of Scottish pubs (I know, we shouldn't have), brewing batch after batch of beer including Zeitgeist and Punk IPA, and watching as Stew works his magic trying to fiddle with a fussy bottling machine. Stew, dubbed “Big Stewart” by the fishermen and sporting loud tattoos and a dominating “strawberry-blonde” goatee, does not, by any standard, look like a patient man. Yet, after six hectic and scrambling hours tinkering with a malfunctioning bottling machine, Stew finally admitted, “I’m starting to lose my patience with this thing.” I also hear he’s only once punched a dude.

Tomorrow I work a half-day and will take some pictures while I’m at it. I hope to see the newest Dog, Tom Cadden, who’s regional sales manager for the London area and a highly advanced (and, again, young) taster with over 6,000 beer reviews on Ratebeer. I’ll have much more to say about my time here, the lads, bruces, burghers, and two lassies that I work alongside, and my seemingly endless future plans (… Marble Brewery in Manchester and Saints and Sinners in London, for starters) after a few more busy, busy days.

Monday, March 8, 2010

A Nice, Smooth Finish (to Belgium)

Less than two days is all I have left here in gentle Belgium, the country I've spent the most time in behind the majestic America. I'm not sure what I'm feeling now, if anything, as I reflect on my time here and accept my imminent departure. (I spent yesterday alone, packing for Scotland, eating a truly Belgian lunch of a hard-boiled egg surrounded by a meatball and a dinner of blood sausage, yet I'm not sure if I'll miss or celebrate leaving this unique gastronomy.) Emotions are stewing, though, and will undoubtedly bubble to the surface as soon as the familiarity of this place is lost to the rhythm of another. Years down the road I look forward to flashes of nostalgia and bursts of longing to come back as I whiff a Belgian scent (mustardy farm rot, perhaps), ingest a Flemish morsel (stoofvlees, or beef stew, maybe), or catch a note of the soft staccato of Dutch from an ex-pat in America. Mostly, I will miss the people that made this a most welcoming and enjoyable trip. When, not if, I return to Belgium to visit, I will retrace my steps and visit all the families and individuals that hosted or shared a few beers with me. Next time, though, I think I'll come during the summer.

The Elliot mash

Above all, I have to thank my two primary hosts, Daniel and Urbain. Despite what Urbain says, I feel enormously indebted to them. (I feel a little like Greece might about the EU, but I haven't yet approached Wall Street for help. Too soon? OK.) Thoughts of them will surely come to me even when I'm old and decrepit, after I've passed the reins of my empire of beer onto the next generation, and my mood will brighten. Their impact on my ambitions, aspirations, and motivation, both professionally and generally, is comparable only to my family, close friends, and a small handful of others. In fact (and of course), I consider them close friends now; with the help of modern communication developments, they'll stay that way for a long time to come.

Menno and Urbain talk Black Damnation logistics

Since last week and that flurry of auctions, we've been as busy as ever. It was a mad rush of blending beers, filling kegs, brewing beer, and transferring the zeitgeist of Struise to Lakebosschen Castle in Ruddervoorde in preparation for the Pré-ZBF beer festival. Urbain's chin-length locks were again a blur as we scrambled around the school brewery and Deca, dragging kegs around, looking for parts, and organizing the eternal clutter that typifies, well, everything. I just got my ears lowered, so my hair was stiff as close-cut Kentucky bluegrass. Otherwise, we might have gotten lost in our mess of hair. Thursday morning was brewing time for Elliot, a crazily-hopped double IPA named after Jeppe's son. It was formerly a Struise/Mikkeller collaboration but Urbain has adopted the recipe. Deca was filled with a spicy, fruity fog of American noble hops and pale ale malt as the brew was successfully mashed, filtered, and boiled. At noon, Menno from the Dutch Brouwerij De Molen rolled into the brewhouse with a tank full of something black, thick, and alcoholic; he said something about Hel and Verdoemenis. I think he had used some of it as fuel to drive to Belgium, but Urbain pumped the rest into a tank filled partway with that Black Albert we brewed the other week. Rootah, Vootah, Zoot! Black Damnation!

Carlo whips up sumpin' good

After the yeast was happily swimming in 32 hectoliters of beer, and with no time to lose, Urbain and I drove to the castle to set up for the big dance. Crap, what a place! By no means particularly medieval, this place was still so grandiose that I fell silent and felt a pang of envious wonder at the thought of living in such an other-worldly domicile. It's not a big castle, and its architecture is a bit mix-and-match with stone, wood, and metalwork intermingled, but it all basically worked and was plopped in the middle of a maze of woods, gardens, and water. A few white geese honked royally to announce our trespassing. Set-up was rushed but perfectly timed, as thirsty beer hunters wandered in just as the kegs were tapped. Struise had an epic line-up for the two festival nights: Struiselensis, Pipe Dream, Earthmonk, Pruned Monk, Dopple Strauss, Pannepot, Sint Amatus, and old-school Dirty Horse. There might've been more, but I was swept away, most coincidentally, to serve beers for another brewery that was missing its representative. That turned out to be BrewDog, the very place I'll be in a few short days.

After pouring a few 77 Lagers, everyone moved over to the main dining hall for a few drams of whisky, whisky-aged beer, and some bites of Glenn's beef stew made with Mano Negra and Mark's bread made with roasted malt and beer yeast. I stayed nearly dry that night but wolfed down that delicious sustenance as I was once again whisked away for work, this time dish duty (I was getting treated to a bed at a local B&B, beer samples, and food, so I kept my grumbling to myself and my dish partner, David). At the end of a late night, I relished the respite of my bed and hoped Friday would bring more socializing and less scrubbing.

Friday was, in fact, one of the best beer festival experiences I've had. The day started out well, as a spread of cheeses - bloomy, penicillined, and piquant alike - greeted us with full aromatic pomp. After breakfast I joined two guys from De Molen for a walk to the castle; the sun dissolved most of my sleep deprivation and gave me a kick of endorphins. To accommodate the surging influx of festival-goers, and because Friday evening was also the night of another beer festival elsewhere, the gates opened at 10 am. The four faces of Struise, Urbain, Carlo, Peter, and Phil, each had a hand on a tap and another in the hand of an idolatrous beer lover so I transferred my labor to the cozy BrewDog corner next to a crackling fireplace and was kept busy cracking open bottles with a guy I think I'll be spending much more time with soon; Martin, BrewDog's founder and brewer, arrived just in time to throw me a company shirt before the first tasters dribbled in.

The castle. One of three pictures I took during the whole festival. I'll put up a link to other photos as soon as other people put them up, unless they were all as busy as I was.

The first beer poured from the BrewDog stand, at 10:05 am, was Sink the Bismarck. Later in the day, I tried a sip myself; at 41% abv, the alcohol is unavoidably present, but the tasting experience isn't really comparable to taking a dram of whisky or a sip of rum. It's not quite flat, buoyed by a very fine, slight carbonation, and the taste creeps up exponentially in your mouth the way an intensely sour hard candy or fiery hot pepper gradually tickles your salivary glands. The flavor is sweet from both the alcohol and concentrated residual sugars, not overly bitter, yet so incredibly hoppy that some flavor notes were present that I never thought possible in a beer. Salty, piney, resinous, fishy, grapefruity - strange yet wonderful. I also tried the Tactical Nuclear Penguin, a 32% abv sixfold stout, and lavished that one mouthful that satisfied my sweet, bitter, and smoky "teeth" to the extreme. Until 8 pm, Martin and I sat behind the bar and served the happy customers samples of some of the UK's best beers. I think it was just loud enough, and my Yankee accent just twangy enough, for the Englishmen who passed through to not fully understand that I wasn't Scottish. At the end of the night, out of all the beers poured at the BrewDog bar, the one that kicked first was Nanny State, their nearly alcohol-free beer (0.5% abv) of surprising character and hoppy robustness. It's my new favorite, and I can't wait to get my hands on some for the muggy American summer that's approaching.

Pré-ZBF was a theatrical ending to my time here in Belgium. When all the characters in a play come back on stage for that song- and dance-filled finale, that's what it was like. Everyone was there: Glenn and Davy from Alvinne; Menno and the De Molen crew; the old festival volunteer crew of David, Mark, Stephan, and Youri; those intrepid beer journalists William, David, and Sofie; the English Geeks Mes, Sim, and Ian; Uli, that crazy German lambic-blending genious; those Italians Lorenzo Dabove, the Prince of the Payottenland, and Alex "Alora, Ciao" Liberati; Luc from Zythos; and some others I'm sure I missed. There were plenty of folks to meet, too; it ain't just, "Here's your beer, now scram, kid!" The Thornbridge brewers, Kelly and Matthew, were able to leave their stand for a visit, brewer Tom from Twickenham Fine Ales had a good spot next to fire and chatted with me for a while, Dominic from the Marble Brewery in Manchester enjoyed his time at the BrewDog nook, and I was able to meet a three-dimensional Ryan, known previously only through Facebook. I hope to see all of these kindred spirits in the future, perhaps for a beer or a brew, hopefully the latter.

I'm looking forward to Scotland. Martin was great company during the festival, and James was chipper and inviting on the phone. It'll be hard work up there, especially with the March winds whipping in from the sea, but I'll tack it up as more invaluable experience and perhaps have some good times with the Dogs to boot. My plans are still as open as a kilt, but I wouldn't mind seeing Scotland in the spring. Who knows, a summer back in Belgium might just have to happen, too...

Monday, March 1, 2010

Gettin' Some Auction

I thought I'd punch in one more entry before the ball of this busy week gets rolling. This Thursday and Friday is the highly anticipated Pré-ZBF Festival, the event that long ago I declared as the climax to this Belgian brewing adventure. I've already bought a plane ticket to Scotland for next Tuesday, where I hope to maintain the buzz I've felt during my time with Struise. This coming week, however, will be packed tighter'n canned sardines marinated in soybean oil. We've got several beers to keg, including Earthmonk, Mokkabom (aka Black Damnation II: BD fermented on whole coffee beans), Black Mes (Black Damnation aged on Caol Isla Distiller's Edition '95 whisky), and Coffeeclub (Black Damnation II aged on Havana Club rum). These new BD beers are part of a developing collection of a dozen beers based on Black Damnation that will be released in the coming months. In addition, Struise will be serving Sint Amatus, a newly released oak-aged quad of sorts, some of the original batch of Black Albert from 2008, Pipedream, and a keg of the original Dirty Horse (this kriek-like beer is now 25 years old, brewed back in the 80s by a young, homebrewing Urbs). In between filling every available empty cavity with beer (not, um, any body cavities... yet) we have to brew some beer, too. I mean, we are a brewery. "Elliot", a double IPA named after Jeppe's son (see previous post), will be brewed on Wednesday, and it looks like the Witte will be brewed on Thursday morn'. With the first night of Pré-ZBF, Whisky Night, exploding on Thursday, it's going to be a marathon of a day. How do you train for such a marathon? That is my question.

Nine earthy liters; I spy an unawares photographer

But before we delve into the art of being busy in the brewhouse, some loose ends must be tied up here in the schoolhouse offices. Urbain has been conjuring up some magic on The Internets, pounding out some spells on the keyboard that are making die-hard beer geeks die even harder. He's been creating some auctions for bottles of special-release beers, the profits of which will go to saving the Vleteren region's school bus service. The announcement can be found on their website, and the auctions can be found through this link. Up for sale are a bottle of 2005 Pannepot Grand Reserva, four bottles of 1983 Dirty Horse, two bottles of 2008 Earthmonk infused with La Vieille Prune (barrel-aged distillate of prunes), aaaaaaand.... one 9-liter bottle of Earthmonk proper. Earthmonk is a dangerously smooth, fastidiously blended Flanders sour ale that will satisfy your desire for a full-bodied yet refreshingly tart fruity beer. Imagine how many people you could please with 9 liters of this stuff! More auctions, and thus more beers, are on the way.

Damn Dirty Horse

Might as well make one more thing public; no sense in keeping it a secret. I'm well into ruminating over the fact that I'll need a job when I return to the States. I've been contacting as many New England breweries as possible to see if an assistant brewer position is open anywhere. So, if any of you, Dear Readers, have any leads regarding brewery work (not just in New England), I would love to hear from you. Thanks!

Beer comes out of some random tanks strewn across the farm

One last note: Carlo was feeling celebratory on Saturday, so he decided to open a beer, an American one, for us to try. Trying these American beers (a lot of West Coast beers that are hard to find in the East) makes me excited to go home, wrap the silky stars 'n' stripes around my torso, and sip all the sweet nectars Uncle Sam has to offer. What we tried was 2008 Cuvee de Tomme, from Lost Abbey. Their website describes it as "a massive brown ale base that is made from four fermentable sugars including Malted Barley, Raisins, Candi Sugar and Sour Cherries, this beer is fully fermented before being placed in Bourbon barrels where the beer ages for one year with the Sour Cherries and the wild Brettanomyces yeast that we inoculate the barrels with." I have to say it was Capital, just Capital! A hearty yet delicately tart beer with just the right amount of carbonation and dark fruit character.