“Malted barley is a process, not a thing,” Roger admonishes … again.
The grain room in the basement of the Smuggler’s Brewpub smells like a horse stable. Bags of barley stacked in rows 5 feet high fill the tiny room. Roger digs beneath bags and produces the grains he wants. Today we’re making a double batch of Knuckledragger Extra Pale Ale. We need four sacks of Pilsen, one sack of Vienna, and half a sack of Carapilsner. Knuckledragger is the favorite at the brewpub.
“That’s because people drink beer with their eyes,” Roger says.
I met Roger 10 minutes ago.
“People see a little cloudiness in their beer, or it looks too dark, and they won’t drink it.”
Roger appears to be disappointed in the human condition as it relates to beer drinking.
“My favorite is the Scottish Ale,” he says.
“Mine too. I love dark beer,” I say, honestly.
I came in the brewpub the night before for a beer. By the time I left, I’d had three or four beers. I don’t want to tell Roger that I had the bartender mix the Scottish Ale and the Pilsen. The Scottish is bitter. The Pilsen is a bit yeasty. I don’t want him to think I am a low-class beer drinker. He calls Knuckledragger, the lightest beer he brews, a “training-wheel” beer, for people who don’t understand beer taste. Its low alcohol, low body and light color are a comfort to non-beer drinkers. He wants people to move into darker, more flavorful, finely crafted beers—away from the pale-ale craze. Brewing fine beer is Roger’s contribution to improving the human condition.
Roger totes around with him a hose that extends from one end of the brewing room to the other. He appears happier than a normal person might with the fact that the head on his go-everywhere hose rotates 360 degrees. That way, I find out, the entire brewery can have a good scrubbing at any moment. The sterility of a brewing room can make or break a beer, in Roger’s brewing room, cleanliness is as close to godliness as you’re going to get.
Beer is not a simple beverage. The success or failure of a brew depends on hundreds of variables. The brew needs the right types of grains, the perfect amount of CO2, purified water, specific hops, exact temperatures, correct measurements, well-tendered yeast and the right type of malt. There are pale malts, dark malts, top-fermenting yeasts, bottom-fermenting yeasts, imported barleys, foreign hops, domestic hops.
Contrary to my disdain, Budweiser is still the most popular beer in America. But times are changing. The brewpub is coming into its own, and microbrews now make up over 10 percent of the bottled beer sold in America. According to American Brewer, one of six trendy beer magazines on the shelf these days, “out of a 19.3 million consumer base of those who drink alcoholic beverages, 23 percent drink a ‘microbrewed’ beer. That’s 4.3 million consumers of microbrew.” Beer brewing, both home and micro, has surpassed “hobby” and achieved an almost cult-like status. The “Real Beer Page” on the World Wide Web boasts more than 75,000 pages about beer—a mere fingertip away Any given month on the site’s beer calendar, one can find an infinite number of brewing festivals and home-brew competitions. There’s even beer poetry, this by Gregg Smith: “I’ll always hold my time up North / As a memory most dear / But the chance for gold’s not worth a damn / Without good friends, good times, and beer.”
“Malted barley is not a thing; it is a process,” Roger says again. The meaning of this statement is still eluding me. I always knew that beer was made from barley; what I didn’t know was that barley is malted by a maltster before it is even considered beer-worthy. The barley grain is germinated but is then heated in a kiln to cut the germination off. The malt process varies according to how much and what type of fermentable sugar the maltster wants the final grain to contain—that is called its yield. Several hundred different types of malts can ensue from the process. They vary mainly in color and sweetness and are classified for brewing in three categories: pale malt, kilned malt and caramel malt. Using the wrong malt is akin to throwing a teaspoon of cinnamon into the spaghetti sauce.
I sample the different barleys in Roger’s grain room. I taste beer in them. They’re sweet and crunchy, like cracked wheat kernels. The Carapilsner is my favorite, a sweet, caramelized roast, like healthy candy. All the grains in Roger’s grain room are imported from Southern France. He could buy American grain, but he thinks it’s worth the extra cost to buy imported. There is less chance that he will get a hybrid strain, and the grains from this particular region have a consistently high yield—important in the chemical process of brewing. If Southern France can produce great wine, why would anyone doubt its barley?
Somehow America’s freedom-of-expression obsession funneled into the brewing room, and the 1970s saw the beginning of the microbrewery craze—a protest of the uniformity of bottled beer. A microbrewery is traditionally defined as a brewery that produces less than 15,000 barrels of beer per year. Because of the small yield, more control is possible, and a greater variety of tastes are given to the brew. Microbreweries bottle and sell most of their beer, unless they are coupled with a pub, in which case the brewpub sells most of its beer on the premises. The first microbrewery opened in California in 1976. American Brewer says there are currently 1,293 microbreweries and brewpubs in the United States. The opening of the Smuggler’s Brew-pub & Grille, in Telluride, Colo., added one more to the list.
Roger emanates passion about his craft, the way I imagine a French chef prepares a meal. He combines a science background— geology, biology and chemistry—with artistic insight and a formal education in brewing. He is a creator. Each of the six beers the Smuggler s Brewpub serves is his invention, and like a painting, his signature sits at the bottom of each glass. “Once you have cheesecake with fresh raspberries and granola crust, how do you go back to regular cheesecake?” Roger asks, less as a question than a statement of principle. “It’s the same with beer. Once you taste the flavors in a good beer, you can’t go back to Budweiser.” Roger’s beers have an elaborate depth and mix of flavors. He pours his heart and soul into them, along with, I find out later, some sweat and tears.
Roger designed the brewing room to have no excess dust. Before brewing at Smuggler’s, he brewed at a bakery. But bakeries, he says, are the worst places to brew beer. The flour and dust in the air collect bacteria, and the dust settles into the vats during the process and contaminates the beer. He developed a poor reputation as a brewer, and it seems that now he is redeeming himself. He designed the Smuggler’s brewery so there would be no dust or contaminants in the air. Both Roger and the brewing room are meticulously clean. He swears that his brewing room is more sterile than a hospital’s operating room.
Its time to begin the Knuckledragger. We wear old clothes and big rubber boots. Along with heavy dousings of water, the brewer is exposed to some harsh chemicals—the downside of hospital-room sterility. The temperature in the brewing room gets into the low 100s, and an hour into the process, my feet sit in puddles in my boots. Luigi is with us today. A local, a little crazy, he met Roger and asked him if he could brew a batch of beer with him someday, for fun.
The first step is to make the mash. Imagine making a vat of steaming, hot Grape-Nuts—it will soon be 1,500 pints of ale, so imagine hot Grape-Nuts for 1,000. Luigi has mill duty. In the grain room, he pours the grain into the mill. The grain is milled rather than ground, which keeps the husks large enough to act as a filter for the wort. Beer is wort before it is beer. In fact before beer can be called beer, it is called wort, sweet liquor and unfermented beer. Only after fermentation is complete is the liquid considered worthy of the name I’ve come to love at the end of the day.
The milled grain flies through an auger that runs like a hose from the grain room, across the ceiling to the mash tun, the first of four stainless-steel vats this brew will occupy before it slides by the palates of thirsty consumers. I stand on the platform at the mouth of the mash tun. The grain and hot water pour in simultaneously. My job is to stir the mash during the 15-minute infusion. No problem, I think. Silver paddle in hand, I am armed and ready. The grain flies into the mash tun, and water showers into it. My arm aches after a minute of stirring. Roger tells me that the temperature on the platform is 120 degrees Fahrenheit. The water coming in is 170 degrees, and the steam rushes at me and instantly turns into sweat. I try to keep it from ending up in the wort. It’s like a scene from “Like Water for Chocolate” up there on that platform, where the love, anger, jealousy and sadness of the chef douse first the food, then its unsuspecting gourmands, I’m in a pretty good mood, so I figure I’m at least dropping good karma into the brew.
Brewing beer is a labor of love. I feel cleansed up there on the platform, all of my dirt and toxins sweated out, only a small percentage in the Knuckledragger. The rest seems to be in my boots. How much brewers’ sweat have I drunk in my life? I mash until the grain is all ground and the vat is full. Then I give the huge, steaming breakfast bowl a big stir.
It seems to me that human beings invented machines to increase labor efficiency, so I ask Roger why we hand mash and why this big boiling vat doesn’t have an electric mixer. Those machines are too expensive, he says, and the only reason to have an electric mash process is so that when you change the temperature of a mash, the bottom won’t burn. Brewing is like farming, I think, and Roger is a farmer who gets his hands dirty. It’s his connection to the earth.
The mash tun is the top tank of what is called the combi vessel. The combi stands 8 feet tall. The bottom vessel re-circulates hot water to keep the mash at the right temperature. For the Knuckledragger, Roger heats the water in the bottom kettle to 168 or 170 degrees. The ideal temperature is 150, but because the grain is cold when it comes out of the auger, the water must be hotter to compensate. This temperature is Knuckledragger-specific.
I keep my nose stuck in the mash tun. I love its sweet, earthy smell. I feel as if I am uncovering deep secrets. “People either love it or hate it,” Roger says, referring to the smell. I can tell it makes him happy that I am one of the lovers. We continue to check the viscosity of the mash. The brewer can always add more water but can never add more grain. Roger gives me the task of stirring the mash every 15 minutes.
Roger scribbles notes during the process. He writes any changes to the recipe he might have made. He records the temperature of the water as it enters the mash tun. In the winter he will have to change his recipes because the temperatures will be different. He has already compensated for the fact that at 8,750 feet the water in Telluride boils at a lower temperature. Lower temperatures mean sour beers. Testing for acidity, he records the pH of the wort. Wort needs an acid environment to produce sugars efficiently. Telluride’s water naturally has a low pH. After 45 minutes he checks the pH again—it’s 5.2. That’s good. In mashing, the pH level should be between 5 and 5.5. The enzymes at that pH level break down carbohydrates and convert them to fermentable sugar.
Beer is a megabillion-dollar global industry. Marketing scams are as seductive as Kodak commercials and an inherent part of the beer itself. Who doesn’t know when they drink a Budweiser that it’s the “King of Beers”? Or that “Weekends were made for Michelob’’? The slogan of an Australian beer called Titanic Ice? “Goes down well.”
Beer companies hold slogan contests and ply us with imaginative marketing schemes. An ad for Alimony Ale shows a couple in old-fashioned wedding attire in the back seat of a car. The ad copy: “Let’s face it, good beer, like true love, doesn’t last long. That’s why you’ve got to enjoy it now…” Who can’t relate to that, with half our country divorced and the rest of us preparing for it?
My favorite slogan is the one for Great White Shark Attack beer: “Surfer’s worst nightmare.” Beer even capitalizes on America’s environmentally conscious consumer market. Special Reserve Ale lures imbibers with “Taste the way Nature intended beer to be.” Guinness beer parodies “Think globally. Act locally” with “Think local. Drink global.” Organic beers are hitting the shelves of liquor stores and restaurants faster than sprouts hit sandwiches in the ‘80s.
Ska Brewing, a small microbrewery in Durango, Colorado, markets to college and resort-town kids, mostly the snowboarding grunge crowd. A blond, busty, pony-tailed babe riding a motorbike in a miniskirt sells their new True Blonde Ale, one of the award-winners at the Telluride Blues and Brews Festival. She invites you for a ride with a wave and big smile—alluring if you’re young and impressionable. Ska is beyond politically correct and gets away with it. Their market is young, rebellious and on edge. Crude and rude are what’s politically correct. When I asked the guys at the booth what was up with the Barbie dolls that littered the table of the Ska booth at the festival, one of them explained to me that Barbie was going to grace the tap handles of the festival kegs, but that their heads kept falling off. Nice. Even I, a ‘90s feminist, got a kick out of the Barbie idea. Plus, Ska beer is damn good.
But How Do You Make Good Beer?
We’ve milled, mashed and stirred. Next is the Voralof, which sends the mash through tubes back into the mash tun. The husks settle on the screen at the bottom of the kettle and act as a filter for the smaller grains that settle on top. The end process is a liquid wort concentrate. Unfortunately after 15 minutes we have a “stuck mash.”
“Yup, I think I sent it through too fast,” Roger says, not terribly surprised. It’s a setback but a small one that doesn’t get him down. I stir up the mash and unstick it from the screen. The problem with stirring is that the fibers and grain husks that need to settle on the screen get stirred up and have a better chance of getting through the screens at the bottom of the tank, which creates a potentially green, or what Roger calls “earthy,” beer.
An hour later, the unstuck wort is ready for sparging. Water from a diffuser plate at the top of the mash tun sprays hot water evenly over the grains. This rinses away the sugars. At this point there is too much sugar for fermentation, which would kill the yeast, so you filter the wort through the grains again, to clarify the wort and end up with a weaker concentrate. Roger compares the process to running water through a teabag twice.
After a 1 ½ hour sparge, the wort will move to the kettle, where it boils for two hours with hops. Before we can begin that process, the kettle has to be sterilized. Roger uses the spray ball to cool down the kettle and then disappears inside the kettle. He drags the big hose with him and demonstrates for us how conveniently the head rotates. He scrubs the kettle free of any calcium or hard-water deposits that might affect the next batch and comes out soaked and smiling.
From the mash tun, the concentrated wort gets transported to the kettle and diluted with hot water. It’s like café Americano—a strong coffee concentrate made drinkable with a splash of hot water, but if it’s given too much water, the brew begins to release tannins. The wort travels from the mash tun into the kettle at the same time that hot, purified water runs down the sides of the kettle. The kettle slowly fills with malty, sweet-smelling, amber liquid that looks thick and syrupy. Closer to beer every minute, the wort is now called sweet liquor. Mmm. It makes me warm and sleepy.
Roger seems to relax a little. I get the feeling the batch is going well. He cranks a Dave Matthews CD up a few notches and sprays down the floor. It seems much of the brewing effort ends up on the floors and down the drains.
“Sometimes at home I wish my kitchen was designed this way. I could just spray it down with a hose.” Roger is in a good mood. He sends Luigi upstairs to the bar for three half-pints of Knuckledragger.
“It’s time to start tasting the process so we don’t dehydrate down here,” Roger says. We’re all dripping.
He likes to taste the product throughout the process. He hates the fact that his bosses at Smuggler’s bought tiny shot glasses for the customers’ sampling glasses. “They’re too small,” he says. “You want to be able to get your nose in the glass.” He wants his customers to be able to taste his efforts and takes the small glasses as a personal insult. Luckily for us, Luigi comes back with three wide-mouthed glasses full of cool. We taste. Roger points out that we should be able to taste the sugar and the malt—we do.
“We should be able to taste hints of finished beer all through the process,” he says. We compare the taste to that of the sweet Grape-Nut mash.
“I use a secret yeast,” Roger says proudly. “I love yeast. I’ve wanted to use this yeast for four years, but I was always an assistant brewer. Now I can do what I want.” He is a happy guy.
“Most breweries use American yeast. It’s good, but it’s not as versatile as my yeast.” His is from England. He can use only one type of yeast, and it has to be able to span the five-beer range from light ale to porter.
“I love this beer,” Roger says admiringly.
The sweet liquor needs to boil for two hours in its tank. We go into the walk-in cooler, where the actual serving vessels sit, hooked up with myriad hoses that pump CO2 and beer upstairs. Boxes of hops sit on shelves in the corner. Roger asks me to measure 4 cups of hops. Their smell is amazingly similar to marijuana. I waste no time in asking Roger about that and learn that hops and cannabis come from the same plant. We inspect the pellets, which are from Washington and look like rabbit food. I can’t get over the smell—it feels illicit. Hops are said to be good for digestion, sleep and stimulating the appetite. They add aroma and flavor to the brew and a bitterness to offset the sweetness of the grain sugars. I go back to the boiling sweet liquor and throw in the hops—I’m adding the juju.
Roger eyes the brewing room the way a new father might watch his sleeping infant: with reverent disbelief that he belongs to what is in front of him. It prompts a quick life evaluation. Out of nowhere, Roger says, “I signed an 18-month lease when I moved here. That will be the longest I’ve ever lived in one place in my life.” Roger is 26.
“I’ve always floated around, and finally I am committing to something. At least to a place,” he says.
I understand his satisfaction. Living in resort towns is the perfect disguise against commitment of any kind. Success and permanence are laudable achievements. But I feel a storm cloud brewing behind his contentedness.
He continues, “I’ve always been close to my family. And since I’ve been here, I just can’t relate to them anymore, and it’s killing me.” The real problem, Roger explains, is that all his family’s hopes ride on him. His family is so proud of him, and they’ve set him up to be the success story and the role model. His older brother is a real sweet guy but excessively shy. I take it his father wasn’t around because he says he grew up with only his brother, mother and sister.
“I have a problem with women,” he says.
I have yet to utter a response to his soliloquy.
Roger cuts to the chase. “I have this problem with monogamy.”
This is not the road I hoped to head down in the basement of Smuggler’s Brewpub & Grille. Where is Luigi?
“I just can’t do it,” Roger says. “But I tell them all first. I never lie.”
Harvesting the Yeast
Yeast is the last ingredient added to the sweet liquor. We go to the fermenter to get the yeast left from the last brew, which is now officially beer and sits in a vessel in the walk-in cooler. Roger uses yeast twice before he harvests a new batch from his yeast mine—yeast multiplies by seven, so he never runs out. He shows Luigi and me how to undo all the manacles and gasket heads that hold the bottom of the fermenting tank together. We open the spigot, and out squirts a thick, brown substance I never wanted to see in public. It’s light brown and poopy and comes out hard at first, and as the pressure pushes the rest out, it turns soft. The thought of putting that in beer is not pretty, so I try to imagine mocha soft-serve ice cream pushing out onto the floor. We fill a bucket and put it in the cooler. The fermenter evacuates itself, seemingly exhausted, and the small amount of beer that was left inside spills onto the concrete floor.
The floor of the brewing room turns into a yeast skating rink. Luigi hoses it down, and the mess flows into the drain. Roger swears that breweries are actually good for town water systems because organic matter flows back into the ground, and that helps maintain healthy bacteria at the water treatment plant.
The room smells yeasty. “If you smell this and taste the Pale Ale,” Roger says, “you can tell the similarity.” We decide to taste the Pale Ale this time. We try the batch that is 10 days into its fermentation. I can taste the same yeast we just filled the room with. I don’t like the taste of the sweet liquor and decide that the best aspect of beer is its carbonation. But Roger is right: the Pale Ale tastes like Pale Ale all the way through the process.
It’s time to clean the fermenter. I learn that a major reason breweries fail is that they are lax in sterilizing their vessels. Not Roger. He takes this seriously. He uses hot water and a caustic to scour the fermenter. After the spray ball finishes, Roger peers into the spaceship-like vessel. He sticks his head in and uses a headlamp and flashlight to inspect the interior for cleanliness. “I have to go in,” he says.
I request a look and, flashlight in hand, arm first, stick my head inside the giant vessel. It has a sweet, alluring smell, like a green-tea rainstorm. The steel glistens, and I ask Roger why he has to go in there.
“The only problem with using a spray ball to clean is that the spray ball doesn’t get clean,” he says. The spray ball sits in the highest part of the chamber.
He is taking three small bottlebrushes with him to clean the hard-to-reach angles and the spray ball. He crawls through the porthole-sized door on the side, the one we stuck our heads in. He disappears into the vessel head first.
“Brewmeisters can’t get fat,” Luigi laughs, as we stare, amazed, at the porthole. Roger’s feet are sticking out.
“Do you ever get scared going in there when nobody else is around?” I ask.
“Well, I can just stick my head out the door if I need to breathe. Usually brewers die from the CO2, not getting stuck in vessels,” Roger says from inside the tank.
Pleased with his work, Roger emerges from the fermenter a few minutes later. Arms first, head down to the floor, his body slithers out.
Customers and friends walk in and out of the brewing room as if touring a ship. Beer drinkers and home brewers upstairs in the pub come down to tour the brewing room. Roger happily gives tours and describes his art with the endurance of a heavyweight. He never falters, and he never runs out of things to say. People leave the brewing room as excited as he is about brewing and sampling beer. The world seems fixated on beer.
We have some free time before the next stage of the operation. I offer to baby-sit the brew and watch the pilots while Roger and Luigi run some errands. Roger needs to buy a fan for the water heater that keeps overheating and going off, messing up our water temperature— a sure way to ruin a good batch of beer. He also needs to carbonate the kegs at the bakery where he used to brew. Now the bakery serves beer from Smuggler’s.
One minor flaw in the brewpub is that when the boiler room gets too hot, the hot-water tanks shut off. Not great for brewing—we need exact temperature during the whole process. I am a nervous brew-sitter, afraid I might forget something. Roger calls after half an hour to help me turn off the sparge. Even over the phone, he is a master. He asks me how far below the rung the beer is in the kettle. After I clarify where on the rung he means, I tell him that the beer is 11 inches below where the rung is welded on. Then he asks me to read the thermometer of the sparge water in the hot liquor tank and then to turn up the heat. I tell him how high the incoming water is on the side of the tank. “Okay, now turn the valve just to the left off,” he says. He knows just where I am standing at that very moment, and his directions are precise.
“What does the temperature read on the kettle now?” he asks.
I tell him.
“Okay, go behind the water purifier and without burning yourself turn the one valve that is perpendicular, to parallel.” I do what he says.
“Okay, now turn up the temperature on the boiling kettle.”
“Done,” I say again.
He likes my precision and asks me half seriously if I want a job. “I need an assistant brewer,” he says. I think about the prospect for a minute. I do need a part-time job.
I’m relieved when Roger comes back. I would hate to think of his reaction if I somehow managed to ruin the beer. We have to dry the grain out now. It didn’t occur to me until now that this process creates a byproduct—a mash ton full of grain. When I ask him what happens to the grain, he lights up as he tells me that it becomes cow feed. Each batch of beer produces three garbage barrels full of grain. He gives it to the construction guys who drive an hour and a half to work in Telluride. They sell it as cow feed and make enough money to pay for the gas for their commute. The grain still has a lot of protein. I taste it. It actually tastes pretty good, not as sweet as it once was. Socially responsible beer brewing. There’s an angle for an ad.
The kettle boils, froths and steams. We raise the temperature to keep the wort roiling. It takes one and a half to two hours to break down the oils in the hops. The boiling brew smells like sage-rosemary focaccia.
Things are going well. Roger is relaxed and focused on the brew. Then the damn hot-water tank goes off again. Roger trips the switches and relights the pilots. Then without warning the water valve bursts, and water sprays all over the room. Roger isn’t even perturbed. He keeps smiling and places a towel over the leak to keep the water from shooting all over the place. He chuckles at the quirks of his brewing room. I think the fact that it is finally “his” brewing room keeps Roger’s attitude light. He never tires of cleaning and problem solving, never pauses or wanes in energy. I continue to sweat on the 120-degree platform. He laughs at the kinks. I laugh with him. His energy is infectious.
“I’m psyched to meet someone who likes to drink real beer,” Roger revels. Luigi and I, in true camaraderie, praise the good beer and rip on the bad stuff.
Roger tells us the oldest known recipe in the world, from Egypt 5,000 years ago, is for beer.
In fact archaeologists have found evidence of beer among the Egyptians 8,000 years ago. Recipes and secrets of the craft of brewing are scrawled on Egyptian paintings and tablets found in tombs. Beer was commonly placed alongside the dead to nourish the spirit and to appease the gods who ultimately decided the fate of the deceased. Beer was brewed in almost every household and used as payment for labor and goods, taxes, and debts. Pharaohs received thousands of jars of beer each year in taxes and tributes. Beer was so important to the ancient Egyptians that the hieroglyphic symbol for food was a loaf of bread and a pitcher of beer.
We transfer the sweet liquor to the sterilized fermenter. Roger adds a bucket of yeast, and he, Luigi and I clean up the odds and ends and head up to the bar for a beer. It’s 10:00 p.m. We started at noon. My hair is matted to my head, and my senses are soggy. We’re all exhausted.
The next morning, Roger calls to report that the CO2 is bubbling out of the fermenter like crazy. During the fermentation process, yeast produces alcohol that breaks down sugar and in turn releases CO2. The noxious gas is released into a bucket of water from a hose attached to the side of the vessel. The water roils and bubbles as it coughs out a nostril-burning odor, one so powerful that it feels as if it would burn your insides if you smelled it too long.
Black—By Popular Demand
My second day in the brewery we’re making porter. I love the rich, milkshake quality of a porter. It’s a meal.
Today is a different kind of a day. I am low energy and not feeling right. Roger is not yammering details and recipes and scientific facts. That’s okay; I am not in the mood to take notes. Today I will try just to help Roger and absorb the craft.
I ask Roger if brewing beer is meditative.
“No, not in the way painting or sanding is. There are too many things that can go wrong.” Before we get too far into the porter, a beautiful, thin, athletic woman steps into the brewing room. Roger disappears upstairs with her. I wonder who she is and how she fits into Roger’s skewed polygamy.
When he returns he tells me again that his story is about leaving, but this time she is the one leaving. Get used to it, I want to say to Roger. This is a ski town—people come and go with the seasons.
“We spent last weekend together at Lake Powell,” he tells me. “We spent a day and a half completely naked, touching and holding each other.”
He also tells me how he fell for the little things about her, how she challenged herself and was determined to find her own way. Then he compares her to me, though he says that I am deep and she is not so deep. “People can’t go that deep unless they’ve faced their own pain,” he says.
Just what pain is he referring to? I’ve had one truly, deeply broken heart, a few broken hearts in disguise and a broken face that hurt pretty bad, but I come from a solid family and a happy home. What more pain do I need to feel? Or am I in fact simply shallow?
He tells me that usually he likes a woman to fall asleep with her head on his chest, but with her he liked to curl up and sleep with his head on her belly. And now she is leaving. I tell him not to worry, that he would have left her soon anyway and that if she were staying, he wouldn’t like her so much. Typical ski-area logic. I’m feeling pretty deep.
Brewing is a science. For the porter mash, the water needs to enter the mash tun at a lower temperature than it does for the Knuckledragger. I can feel the temperature difference, though I still sweat into the mash that will magically become my favorite beer. The porter is not as sweet as Knuckledragger. The chocolate barley was bitter, like dark, unsweetened cocoa, just a hint of something delicious behind a bitter skin. So it is with the porter mash. Dark beer is the result of using roasted malts. Light beer came after dark beer in history, when maltsters learned how to control roasting temperatures.
In the mash process, the lighter grains go in first because they have more of a husk that doesn’t get ground up, the better to act like a filter in the mash tun. Then the dark grains get poured in and ground up after the first batch of light grains, but the process ends with light grains. The light grains need to be the last to go through the mill because they will be the first in the next batch of beer, and there may be residue left in the auger that will contaminate the next batch. The mash tun looks like a big pot of black-bean soup and brown rice. I want it to smell sweet or like cumin—it doesn’t.
Miguel, a heavy, pimpled teen-ager Roger worked with at the bakery, comes in. He thinks Roger has a cool deal going on down here. He wants to apprentice with Roger and ultimately become a brewer. Roger puts him to work scrubbing pickle-barrel buckets.
This wort will need to go into a fermenter in a few hours, which means that the Scottish Ale that is ready in the fermenter needs to be transferred into the serving vessel in the cooler. The serving vessel has beer in it, which means that Roger, Miguel and I need to empty what’s left into small kegs.
I set out to find three clean kegs, and Roger pressurizes each keg so that he doesn’t get foam during the transfer. I watch the beer, totally clear, going into the kegs. I stand guard at the cooler door, prepared to turn the valve off when the keg is full. If I don’t, the keg will spray its overflow against the cooler door. I really want to drink a beer today. I am tempted to fill a glass with the overflow from the keg. I refrain.
Miguel goes to work scrubbing the now-empty serving vessel. In the time that I spend in the cooler cleaning a serving vessel and watching the kegs fill up, my arm hairs turn white with frost. This is not a healthy environment. You work for hours in sauna temperatures, then go into the cooler, and in less than a minute, you cool down to a frost. It’s a breeding circuit for sinus infections and exhaustion. I try to blame the constant temperature changes for my wanting to take a nap.
The mash stews in its big vat, looking more and more like my Cuban black-bean soup. Its lack of smell, however, forever disappoints me. The dark mash isn’t as sweet as the ale we made last week. Roger sets the mash into the Voralof. The liquid looks like watery molasses.
The next step is to sparge the chocolatey wort. Day-Glo-orange hoses extend from vessel to vessel. The brewery looks like a “Star Wars” movie set. In an hour and a half, the vat is full. We add the hops and let it boil for two hours. I feel a break coming on, and I’m relieved.
Mark, one of the bartenders in the brewpub, comes down to ask Roger what makes Scottish Ale so dark. Roger says Mark and the other bartenders will soon know because he expects them to go through one complete brew process with him. Then he answers simply, “Darker grain,” upon which he goes into the grain room and retrieves a handful of Carapilsner barley and a handful of Vienna. It’s obvious.
“Taste ‘em,” I throw out, but Mark takes his leave before Roger can school him any more.
The Big Faux Pas
When the sparge is done, the wort gets transferred to the fermenter, where it will get doused with yeast and left to ferment for 10 to 14 days. Not as simple as it sounds. The hearty Scottish Ale in the fermenter needs to be transferred to the newly scrubbed serving vessel in the walk-in cooler. Once it’s in the cooler, Roger will carbonate it and send it up to the bar.
Roger sanitizes and sterilizes all the transfer hoses with caustic and scalding-hot water. A small pump the size of a poodle attaches to all the pumps and the vessels and recirculates the cleaning agents. “Walk it like a dog,” Roger tells Miguel. Miguel and I set up the longest hose we can and run it from the last fermenter in the room to the farthest serving vessel in the corner of the walk-in. I fumble for two or three minutes to get the hoses fastened. I have to hold the ends of two hoses together with one hand tightly enough to hold the gasket between them, then clamp it with half a clamp while I flip the other side of the clamp over and tighten the butterfly screw. Ah, the art of brewing.
With the hoses clamped, we begin the transfer of the Scottish Ale. It relieves me to see that there is actually an end coming to this already long day. Roger seems to share that sentiment. He turns on a spigot on the side of the fermenter to check the level of beer. If beer runs out, it is still above a certain level in the tank and he can relax a little bit; once it runs below the spigot, the transfer is almost finished. The three times he checks the tank, the beer flows freely. “Wow, it’s taking a long time,” he says, puzzled but confident.
Something in his gut tells him that the serving vessel should be full by now. It’s been filling for 10 or 15 minutes. Roger heads toward the cooler, I assume to check what’s happening in there, and we all see it at the same time. Deep, oak-brown ale flows freely from under the walk-in door, as if a dam has broken. In the walk-in, 2 or 3 inches of Scottish Ale swim around the floor. Roger optimistically declares that he made a lot of beer; he assumes that the serving vessel is just relieving itself of its excess. That optimism lasts about 20 seconds before obscenities flow from Roger’s mouth like the beer flowing onto the walk-in floor.
“Shit. Oh, fuck,” Roger half yells. I hear the admonishment of himself in his voice.
Roger forgot to close a hot-water valve, so while the ale was pouring into the serving vessel, hot water was flowing alongside it. In 15 minutes we lose 12 hours of work and 14 days of fermenting. The brewery loses 1,000 pints of beer and about $3,000.
I feel as if a neighbor’s child has died. Roger takes the hit like a fighter. I get the feeling that Roger has had to deal with worse. This is the first time I have seen anything stall him. He sits down on an overturned pickle-barrel bucket and watches 1,000 pints of beer slide across the floor into the brewing room and down the massive drain. What kind of compost will that make for our small town?
Miguel and I set out to clean the walk-in. Roger needs a break. Miguel sprays, and I squeegee with a janitor-size windshield wiper on a stick. The water dilutes the beer, and soon only clear water moves toward the drain. The mistake is almost gone.
Roger shows us the valve he left on. He stares at it as if it betrayed him. The gyro sandwich he ordered an hour earlier arrives from the kitchen upstairs, and I sit on the floor with him while he eats. I want to offer a comforting ear.
“This is the biggest mistake I have ever made in my brewing career.” He stares into nothingness. The sleek, silver vessels that surround us seem to feel the loss as well. They look empty, lifeless. Roger eats the gyro. I eat his beer-battered, deep-fried onion, scooping up all the sweet barbecue sauce it comes with. I can’t believe how good it tastes under such melancholy skies.
“I should have trusted my instincts,” he laments.
I tell him nicely that he should always trust his instincts.
Each time he checked the level of beer in the fermenter he thought the process should have been further along.
“Something felt too hot. I should have known that was wrong,” he sighs. He keeps a level head. “Mistakes have to be made,” he says, almost resolved.
Always one to lighten a heavy mood, I reassure him that he won’t ever make that mistake again. He agrees.
Miguel has disappeared. I’m drinking a Knuckledragger and eating Roger’s onion. Roger sits heavily on his bucket. All evidence of the spill is down the drain.
One of Roger’s bosses, Mike, walks in. For all he knows, we’re just taking a break. He’s not pleased to see me drinking a beer. “No drinking while you’re working,” he says gruffly.
“Really?” I ask, “I’m sorry. I had no idea,” I say honestly. We’re making beer, for Pete’s sake, I think to myself. I thought drinking it was the point. Not drinking it would be like making chocolate-chip cookies without tasting the dough. After Mike leaves, I apologize to Roger. I don’t want to get him in trouble. He tells me not to worry.
“Are you going to tell your bosses about the spill?” I ask.
“Maybe.” He is self-assured. It is his brewery. He is the master.
Roger finishes eating, and I sense it is time to get back to work. Can’t cry over spilled beer forever. It’s time to harvest the yeast from the Scottish Ale fermenter. The first time I did this, it seemed as though the fermenter was giving out a big, nasty load. The Scottish yeast is not as suggestive. The smell is stronger and earthier, and Roger harvests the middle of the purge—not the beginning and not the end. He fills a bucket with the yeast. Roger is reluctant to delegate tasks. I get the sense that he needs to control the rest of the process. If he stays focused, another mistake is less likely. He lets the rest of the yeast run from the fermenter. You don’t want the yeast to sit in the fermenters or in the batch of beer too long, or it will turn into a brick in the bottom of the vessel.
Roger is back on the move. The spill has left him for the time being. He seems fine to have me plunked down on my bucket with an open ear. He dismisses Miguel. He can’t handle giving directions right now.
He tells me later that nobody does things the way he likes them done. “Like when you swept out the grain room, I would have closed the door and swept it out inside so the dust didn’t contaminate the brewery.” He does not blame, simply highlights his cleanliness and respect for the process. “I didn’t say anything when you were doing it because I didn’t want you to think I was an asshole.”
That’s sweet of him, I think.
I ask him if it was because Miguel and I were there that he got distracted. He says he doesn’t want to blame it on anything in particular, but the silence that follows tells me, yes, it was a factor.
He tells me he wants to clean one last fermenter before he goes home for the night. I offer to do the deed, ready to dive into the fermenter, but he obviously isn’t ready to let go of the process. This must be therapeutic for him, I think.
As he’s about to slide into the fermenter, he tells me that he has a lot on his mind and that he suspects I do, as well. Then into the vat he goes, head first, with the hose and scrubbing brushes.
Am I that easy to read, I wonder? I tell him the basics as I peer into the fermenter: that I am preoccupied with the fact that I am 32 years old and have no idea what I am doing with my life. I refrain from mentioning that in addition to my lack of direction, I am mate-less and childless, that I did not expect to be here at this point in my life, and that I am not sure what to do about it.
I don’t think that Roger finds my dilemma any more interesting than his fermenter, but when I’m done, I tell him now that I’ve revealed my darkest secrets to him, it’s his turn to tell me what weighs on him.
I hope to hear more about the girl with the belly who’s leaving, but Roger surprises me. He tells me about his desire to open up a brewery back East, closer to his family and friends, but he feels that leaving this brewery would hurt his family too much. His voice sounds hollow inside the vat.
“Why?” I ask him.
“Because they need to know I can stick with this, that my life has meaning.” He’s afraid that if he leaves here and starts something else it will be a sign of instability. He’s inspecting the spray ball.
As Roger slides out of the fermenter and back into this world, he adds, “and they can’t handle any more.”
Roger intrigues me. He has those beautiful long, dark eyelashes—the kind that catch snowflakes. They mask eyes that shimmer with some hidden wisdom, or some hidden pain.
We agree to finish cleaning up and when we get upstairs to the bar, it’s 9:30. Today we began at 10 a.m. The porter is fermenting. The Scottish Ale is gone. I sit down on my barstool and order a porter, straight up.
Roger and I talk about life and love in small ski towns. As he speaks I get the eerie sensation that Roger is not real—that he is constrained by the earth’s physical limits. I am getting buzzed. He doesn’t want me to drink anymore.
“Statistically,” he says, “I will kill someone.”
Now I think he’s getting too heavy. I’m ready to hear that he owns a gun and thinks that some night he might just shoot it off on his way home from the brewery. Before I can rouse him too much on his rash killing sentiment, he explains that the beer he brews will probably kill somebody, probably in a car accident. He hopes it won’t be an innocent family. That responsibility pains him. I can’t bear the seriousness of the subject, so I joke with him about his women problems. This pains him as well.
My eyelids weigh ten pounds each. They’re loaded with grease and grime and sweat, and now with Roger. I am ready to succumb to their heaviness and shut off the day and this conversation. I ask him if he’s ready to go home. He tells me that he never goes straight home after work.
“I can’t go home alone,” he says.
He needs social interaction and attention and to escape from his own mind. He usually goes out and parties with friends. He could never live in Ophir, where I live, he says. He’d go crazy
I tell him I am ready to go home. He is going to a friend’s house and says he will leave with me. I am worried that I feel obligated to him now that he has poured out his heart to me, and I am uncomfortable. He heads downstairs to find his sweatshirt and turn the lights off in the brewery. I could go down and say goodbye, but instead I slip out into the night without saying anything. I feel awful leaving that way. I leave anyway. This is Rogers story, not mine.