Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Those Who Labor For Our Enjoyment

Yesterday was Labor Day, a federal holiday to "celebrate the achievement of workers and the labor movement", so it seems only fitting to take a moment out to remember and thank the folks who work so hard to make the beer that so many of us love to drink. Brewing beer in a huge industrial plant like that of Coors or A-B may be a matter of pushing buttons and monitoring computers, but doing it in a 7 or 10 barrel brewhouse entails plenty of hard, physical work.

Any lingering doubts I might have had about this fact were dispelled when I spent from 8:30 am to 5 pm Monday working with Zach Henry in the St. Elias Brewing Company's brewhouse. Zach and I were brewing a beer we designed together, a Strong Scotch Ale loosely based on one of my homebrew recipes that attempts to replicate Caledonian's Edinburgh Strong Ale, a favorite of mine from years past. See my blog way back on 12/15/2008 for more info on this non-longer-produced masterpiece.

As I said then, since this beer is no longer brewed, I've been trying to replicate it via my homebrews. The results have gotten good enough that Zach decided it was worth brewing a batch. Translating my extract-based recipe for a 5 gallon batch into an all-grain formula for 7 barrels (217 gallons) was a bit of a challenge. We both dug into reference books to glean more information on the beer we were seeking to emulate. Once we were satisfied with our plan, it was time to put it into action. So there I was at 8:30 am on Labor Day, ready to start brewing.

As I said, brewing a beer in your typical microbrewery or brewpub entails plenty of manual labor. First off, I carried 12 25kg bags of grain up a set of stairs to dump them into the hopper above the grist mill, a total of 646.5 lbs of grain. That will get your heart rate up, let me tell you! Next came the mashing in, mixing all that grain with hot water as it was carried into the mash tun by Zach's augur system. Zach and I took turns on the canoe paddle which serves as his mashing fork, and after a few trade offs, his turns got progressively longer, I'm ashamed to say. After plenty of hard work, we had a well-mixed, full (and I do mean FULL, as in darn near overflowing) mash tun, so we could take a break while the enzymes did their magic.

This was the perfect time to trade our mugs of coffee in for pints of beer; we needed to replenish all the fluids we'd just sweated out! We each had a pint of Black Hole, St. Elias' new Cascadian Dark Ale. As I said in my review last week, it looks just like a porter, but has that Pacific Northwest hop aroma and bitterness that's the defining characteristic of this new style. It was a nice segue from my cup of coffee into something equally roasty but a little stronger.

Soon enough it was time to start drawing off the sweet wort, so back to the brewhouse. This took quite a bit of time, as in several hours, but eventually we had a kettle full good-looking wort. Given how full the kettle was, the 90 minute boil meant standing around, making sure it did not boil over, especially after the hop additions. Of course, this gave us time to shovel out that 645 lbs of (now-waterlogged) grain from the mash tun into a half dozen 55 gallon garbage cans and spray down and clean the mash tun.

I won't go into detail on the rest of the brewing process, the sanitizing, the cooling and transferring of the wort, the pitching the yeast, the cleaning, etc, etc. The bottom line is that there is a tremendous amount of work involved, work usually done by one man alone. I am not too proud to say that after 8 hours of helping Zach, I was beat. Yet he regularly does all this by himself, week in and week out, just as the guys at Kenai River and Kassik's do. These folks work their tails off so that you and I can stand at a bar or sit in front of our TVs at home and enjoy excellent, hand-made craft beers, at ridiculously reasonable prices.

If there's anyone who deserves recognition on Labor Day for their hard work and dedication to their jobs, it's the American Craft Brewers. As Shakespeare said in Two Gentlemen of Verona: "Blessings on your heart, you brew good ale." Keep up the good work, guys.

Speaking of good ale, Kenai River has released the latest beer in their Single Hop IPA Series; this one is hopped with Liberty hops. This is another hop variety that I am not especially familiar with, having never used them myself, so I was anxious to taste them. They are an American version of the noble German Hallertauers, traditionally used as an aroma hop in German lagers. Used in the IPA, I thought they had a bit of citrus favor to them, but not as strong as that from Simcoe hops. For some reason, I found them reminding me of Chinooks, which is strange as they are very different, at least on paper. Chatting with Joe Gilman, the Assistant Brewer at Kenai River, we both agreed that this was a brew that might get even better with some aging. He plans to put a couple of 5 gallon kegs aside, and I think I may do the same with a swing-top liter or two. If you like hoppy beers, be sure to stop by and give the Liberty a try.

On Saturday, September 18th, the Soldotna Elks will holding the 11th Annual KDLL Oktoberfest to benefit our local public radio station. For only $12 you can enjoy a traditional German dinner, music from Die Alaska Blaskapelle, and an Oktoberfest beer from Kenai River. The Elks Club is located at 44640 Parkway Ave and seating is limited, so buy your tickets in advance. Dinner is served at 7 PM.

Finally, there may or may not be a blog next week, as I'll be in Denver attending the Great American Beer Festival. If you happen to be there and see me, please come up and say hello!

Until Next Time, Cheers!

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