How far would you go for a really good beer?How about 25 feet in the air? Suspended by a rope. With the fate of your carcass depending on the reliability of a rock-climbing harness and a metal clamp.
Sounds reasonable to me. If that seems odd, consider that my purpose was not to guzzle the good stuff. It was to lend a hand in making it.
My brief experience as a maker of fine brew started at 4 a.m. one recent morning at Houston’s own St. Arnold Brewing Co. It ended 8 hours later with the climb atop a gleaming fermentation tank holding 1,860 gallons of pale ale.
The idea was to experience, once and for all, how brewers can transform a sackful of grain, some hot water, and some hops into something beautiful—or at least worthy of a good polka tune.
The process started with emptying 2,000-pound bags of barley and running it through a machine that cracked the kernels open and dumped them in a great cooking pot called a mash tun.
Think of it as a giant coffee pot, but it makes something that looks and smells a lot like oatmeal. The hot water frees the starches and enzymes from down in the grain. Those enzymes will break the starches down into sugar compounds, and later on that sugar will be converted to alcohol.
After the mash cooks for an hour, the sweet liquid is drained off and pumped into an adjacent brew kettle, where it is cooked some more. Here on the morning shift, that means it is still only 5 a.m. Crickets are chirping outside, and the brewers are blasting thrash-metal music and drinking huge mugs of coffee to keep going.
The brewing process at a microbrewery like St. Arnold is very hands-on, with the brewers trucking the grain sacks around and closely monitoring the grinding and the boiling. Hands-on takes on a new dimension when it’s your turn to shovel a ton of wet oatmeal out of the mash tun.
“I’ve worked here three months, and already I’ve lost 20 pounds,” new brewer Sam Wright said when he saw me flirting with a heart attack while shoveling away.
Hops are added throughout the brewing process. Put ‘em in early and they break down far enough to give a bitter taste. Put them in midway in the brew and they lend flavor and aroma. Pouring them on late adds their distinctive aroma, but none of their taste or bitterness. And I do mean bitterness. Bite into a hop pellet, and you’ll suddenly think persimmons are sweet. Rarely has something so nasty been so important in making something so good.
The grain you can munch like Grape-Nuts. They come in many varieties from chocolate brown to lightly toasted and they taste good—especially at 5 a.m. when you haven’t had any breakfast. The pile of wet, spent grain I shoveled ultimately ended up in the bellies of some contented cows in Montgomery County.
After cooking in the brew kettle, the brown liquid is suddenly cooled down and pumped into huge fermentation tanks, where it is mixed with yeast and stored for about two weeks to a month. The yeast chows on the sugars, turning them into alcohol and carbonation. Drink an un-aged beer and you’ll see how important that process really is.
The taste is raw, and all the flavors—hops, alcohol, grain—are separate and uncooperative with one another. The look is cloudy and not terribly appetizing. “Most of that yeast will fall out or be filtered out,” brewer Dave Fougeron said. “Drink that whole glass of green beer now, and you will get a lot of B vitamins and you will fart all day long.”
I quickly put the glass down.
The beer we started that morning would eventually be called Elissa IPA. But that would be several weeks away. To jump to the end of that cycle, I wanted to do something with a nearly finished beer. A vat filled with aged Pale Ale was almost ready. All it needed was 18 pounds of hops poured into the top of the stainless steel tank. I volunteered for the climb, which was not particularly arduous thanks to a hydraulic lift that did much of the work. But considering my gracefulness at any altitude, I was grateful to have the harness and the rope.
Perched up there, I could see everything about the little factory that brews and bottles 150,000 cases of fine beer every year. A dozen years ago, St. Arnold was a fledgling brewery, cranking out fewer than 9,000 cases a year and competing with a small army of micro-brew startups. A lot of those have collapsed, but the good Saint soldiers on.
The night after my introduction at brewing, I ordered an Elissa IPA at a local pub. It was a little like meeting an old friend, and I don’t remember a beer tasting any better.
Editor’s Note: Greg Hassell is a contributing writer for The Buzz Magazines. If you have a new adventure for Greg to write about, please e-mail your suggestions to (firstname.lastname@example.org) info (at) thebuzzmagazines (dot) com.