Friday, February 19, 2010
It's a wonder what rising from bed at four in the morning can do to one's focus and productivity. I find I either stumble out of bed, quite literally, completely disoriented, with the interrupted dream still humming in my head with more clarity than the waking consciousness, or I clear the sleepy gunk from my eyes with calm deliberateness and pull on my boots just as content and rested as if it was four hours later, as normal. At least I have some early-rising experience, a residual benefit from my job at Orchard Hill Bakery in New Hampshire, where the toasty smell of fresh bread was my coffee on those humid summer morns. This morning was a morning of the latter type, despite it being the fifth 4 AM morning in the past eight days. I feel friggin' GREAT! Perhaps it's the double-strength coffee I made; I'm still getting used to the beans-to-water ratio. And I think I'm developing an ulcer.
Urbain and I have been brewing up a storm, though this morning was early to assist Nicolas during the mash for Deca Brouwerij's Antiek Blond. Yesterday was a Pannepeut brewing day for us, and all went well. Mashing seems to be one of the trickier aspects of brewing at Deca, given the 100-year-old mash tun and filtering system. The malted barley is "stewed" for a good amount of time (for acidification and protein and starch degradation) before the husks of the grain act as a natural filter to separate the sweet liquid, wort, from the mash solids before boiling begins. The filtration system at Deca consists of three valves that run off wort by gravity, and tweaking these valves to steadily and successfully leak out clear wort is an art form in itself. This skill has to be blended with the ability to hit the desired gravity (essentially, the amount of dissolved sugars) of the wort;this variable is tweaked by adding water to dilute the wort or, later, adding fermentable sugars during the boil to boost the gravity. Along with the seamless brew of yesterday, Urbain and I brewed three days in succession last week: Pannepot on Thursday and Black Albert on Friday and Saturday.
I'll soon be posting a photo album on glorious Facebook that follows the steps of brewing (a Struise beer) from start to finish. First, the order of malts must be unloaded. At Deca, this involves forklifting all ten or so palettes up a couple stories to be manually trolleyed or shouldered over to the grain hopper for easy access. To prepare for the brew, the malts are milled and subsequently stored in their original malt bags to be dumped into the mash tun. I think I figured out why I'm losing weight over here in beery, meaty Belgium: Urbain and I move 1000 kilos of malt for one brew five times, giving us each a back-cracking workout of lifting 2500 kilos. Per brew. That's Jean Claude Van Damage. It helps us warm up for the brisk, early-morning brewhouse chill - Deca is essentially an open-air brewery. Next up is mashing. Hot water is added to the malt in multiple steps to optimize acidification and starch/protein breakdown, which creates fermentable sugars and sculpts the body (and soul) of the beer. After the three-hour filtration to separate the liquid from the barley husks and unwanted solids, this wort is boiled in the big copper kettle to which hops and, if the recipe dictates, sugars or spices are added. Upstairs, where the boil kettle manway is located, clouds of thick, white, wet, pungent steam purl out and create a pore-clearing, beer-scented sauna. It's really damn therapeutic. I say we set up a parallel sauna business up there, charge for admission and let the hoards sweat it out and watch while we dump in the hops. Anyway, after the boil the wort is pumped through a heat exchanger and into the fermenting vessel, where yeast is added to the (now) cool wort and evolution can be observed in real time. The yeasties get their groove on and go buck-wild for a couple days before slowing and settling down. The beer is then pumped to a secondary fermenter to undergo another, last-call fermentation for a couple weeks. Bottling and conditioning is next, but I'll spare you (and myself) the details for at least another few weeks.
And that's it in a nutshell, as they say. It's nuts. Crazy stuff, but there's so much to it that's infinitely fascinating. Brewing satiates many of my intellectual, creative, physical, social, georgic, and gustatorial desires. I'd really like to divulge my philosophy on beer right now, but I think, given the fact that I feel like I'm about to crash from the early morning/too much caffeine combination, that I will save that for a more clear-headed, quiet, contemplative afternoon.
Since returning from my sojourn in the States, Urbain and the Struise Empire have seen some busy times. Alex Liberati, of Brasserie 4:20 fame, kept us busy with a request for a barrel of Wild Pannepot. Urbs and I cleaned out several old wine barrels and filled one (St.-Emilion Grand Cru from Chateau Tour Baladoz) with the funky Pannepot, bunged it up, and sealed it with devilishly aromatic pine tar. Alex will bring this big beauty back to Rome for what will undoubtedly be a fun, wild beer event. The same day Alex helped us roll the barrel into his van, the Zythos beer appreciation organization held a meeting at the old school; as hosts, we offered them some special draught beers: Struiselensis, a sour blond specialty; Doppel Strauss (a doppelbock); Pannepot; and Earthmonk, a Flemish oud bruin beer consisting of a third of oak-aged, sour beer and two-thirds young beer. Many familiar Belgian faces were present and will surely reappear, flushed and cheerful, at Pre-ZBF or ZBF in March.
My excitement for returning to the States and really kicking off this idea of professional brewing was renewed yesterday. Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergsø, co-owner of Ølbutikken, perhaps Denmark’s finest beer shop, and brother of Mikkel (brewer for, you guessed it, Mikkeller), visited the farm and Deca for part of our Pannepeut brewing day. He informed me of what seems to be a sizable contingent of American expats brewing in Denmark, including a fellow named Ryan Witter-Merithew (who brews for Fanø Bryghus) and another feller named Shaun Hill. Shaun is back in the States now, working towards opening his own Vermont farmhouse brewery (check out his blog here) and, though he doesn't know me yet, he has given me new inspiration and motivation. I look forward to meeting these young and enthusiastic brewers; Ryan says he'll be attending Pre-ZBF, and I think a drive across the Connecticut to visit Shaun will be in order upon my return.
Finally, I promised you a few more words on BrewDog, the next (do I dare say final?) stop on this snowballing brewing tour. I have to admit, most of my knowledge of this fledgling but exponentially growing brewery comes from gleaning news and information from The Inter-Nets; I've only tasted one of their beers, Punk IPA, which I thought was a solid, well-made beer. They do make noise, though, and recently regained the record for world's strongest beer. About half a year ago they brewed and cold-distilled Tactical Nuclear Penguin, a dark wallop of a beer that weighed in at 32% abv. Subsequently, a German brewery, Schorschbrau, passed this with a 40% beast of their own, only to be overtaken by BrewDog again, just about a week ago. The new strongest beer, Sink the Bismarck!, is a 41% hopped-up supertonic with true radioactive properties. Needless to say, BrewDog attracts a lot of attention, good and bad, due to their beers and their marketing techniques. I'm excited for this apprenticeship, perhaps a little wary, too, but I'm sure I'll have much to say from my first day in Scotland. Wish me luck.