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.