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.
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.
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.
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!