Spending a morning in a brewery does not a brewer make. But it may be the best way to understand the process.
You could spend days in a brewhouse watching a master at work and still come away with only the vaguest understanding of how to make a beer. I know because I’ve done it, hanging out on brew days at Liberty Brewery & Grill in High Point and Preyer Brewing in Greensboro, touring Red Oak and others nearby, interviewing every Triad brewery’s head brewer and kicking it with a local homebrew club during a demo. I’m convinced that unless you enroll in a brewing program, home-brew for a couple years or work in a brewery, you still won’t truly know how to brew a good beer.
That’s part of why, when Gibb’s Hundred Brewing in Greensboro invited me to come in and brew my “own” beer, I said yes, seeing it as a chance to better understand the intricacies and science of producing high-quality beers. But really, I agreed because it sounded badass.
Triad City Beat briefly had a beer named after it — Hoots’ Wheelbite Wheat originally debuted for an evening as the Triad City Wheat at our Winston-Salem Kickstarter party. I once helped a friend brew in college (“Back before it was cool,” he added, in that way pretentious hipsters do) and we got hammered when the alcohol content reached a much higher percentage than we’d intended. But all my real beer cred derives from my experience as a writer — and maybe to an extent from my experiences as a consumer — rather than any qualifications on the manufacturing side.
When I showed up at 9 a.m. on a recent Friday morning, William Brown had already started working. Just over a year ago, Brown quit his well-paying-but-ultimately-unrewarding logistics gig to brew beer. After years of doing it on his own at home and with the companionship of the Greensboro homebrew club called the Battleground Brewers Guild, Brown joined up at Gibb’s. There, under the guidance of head brewer John Priest — formerly of Michigan-based craft giant Bell’s Brewery — Brown helps produce the brewery’s cool commodity on a 15-barrel system.
But that morning, he’d be working on a much smaller rig, stacked on a rolling cart hooked up to a power source and city water, a 10-gallon set-up made in part from some of his own homebrew gear. The process is comparable, and the timing pretty identical, to brewing in the big time, he said, except the cleanup is easier.
Having watched brewers rake spent grain out of tanks and hearing Brown talk about wearing pants to avoid burns despite the high temperatures in a brewery, easier and smaller sounded ideal to me anyway.
“This right here is nothing but a French press upside down,” Brown said as we stood in front of the small-batch rig that morning, discussing how we’d run water over the mash. I knew some of the terminology like “lauter” and “sparge” from previous brewery visits, not that I could accurately describe what each meant and what function it served.
I asked Brown what must’ve been an unceasing line of questions, but the answers aren’t what I remember. What sticks out in my mind instead is when the mash got stuck even though he’d added rice hulls “to prevent it from turning into cement” and Brown said we might need to “burp” it to knock the mixture loose (though ultimately we didn’t need to), or the immense heat emanating from the boil kettle on the floor, or Brown talking about how the changing temperature of city water complicated the process and gave him a deeper respect for brewers in hotter climes.
I remember measuring out the Amarillo and Cascade hops and dumping the two kinds in at intervals. I remember waiting, and Brown’s patience with me, and drinking a tart Berliner Weisse. I remember him saying it would take at least two weeks to ferment and another to carbonate.
But more than those recollections, I’m left with a deeper respect for the process, for the amount of manual labor that goes into making even a relatively small amount of beer, for the unpredictability of what exactly might happen even for someone such as Brown who has a strong handle on what they’re doing. It’s a dirty job, filled with all too much science and janitorial work to prevent me from pursuing it, but I’m so very glad other people like Brown find it rewarding.
I’m also left with a question, and a pretty important one; what the hell should I call “my” beer?
I had found the recipe online, picking through a forum on beeradvocate.com until I found a straightforward saison. It’s summer, I figured, and something dry and refreshing like a light saison would be exactly what I’d want to drink. I had no idea if the recipe calling for 60 percent pilsner malt, 35 percent dark wheat malt and 5 percent torrified wheat —with French saison yeast added later in the process — would be any good. And I still don’t; Gibb’s will be releasing this batch in August. But I did know that the person who posted it said this beer is also good with mint and cucumber, and that’s all I needed to hear.
It isn’t easy to predict how much cucumber such a beer should take, Brown pointed out, and the beers I’ve tried with fruits and veggies often fail to hit the right quotient. We decided to forgo it but retain the simpler mint addition, though I plan to stick a cucumber round on the rim of my beer when this thing finally comes out.
So, a saison with mint — and possibly garnished with cuke — in need of a name. Riffing off the US Mint, I came up with Summer Currency, and Freshly Minted Season saison since it’s fermenting as summer officially begins. I also thought of Summer’s Spear mint saison (get it?). But in the end I realized I’m still just as clueless when it comes to naming beers as I am with regards to brewing them.
Stay tuned for more details about when you can try the Ginsbrew mint saison at Gibb’s Hundred Brewing (GSO) in August, and please offer up better names for the beer.
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