Gingerbread Jesus is Back

Making beer is hard work.  Period.  End of discussion.  Homebrewing is a good way to begin to learn this lesson.  It teaches us about measuring and quality control and after a while we start to understand that making beer, especially good beer, takes a lot of time, focus and dedication.  But industrial brewing, even at a small scale, is a far better teacher.

I was privileged to be invited back into this classroom last week when I returned to IMAG00667Barren Hill Tavern to again lend a hand in making Gingerbread Jesus. One of the first lessons of the day was that sometimes, not everything goes as planned.  We found this out upon walking in the door to discover brewmaster Dave Wood struggling with the grain mill.  For some reason not all the rollers would spin which meant we couldn’t crack the barley.  And, if you can’t crack the barely you can’t brew beer.  After an hour or so of taking the machine apart, making small adjustments and putting it back together again about 3 times we finally were ready to mill the grain.

This is where we got the experience the physical part of brewing first hand.  Hauling and lifting 50 pound sacks of grain and then hauling and lifting the tubs that held the cracked grain into position.IMAG00669 IMAG00671

Once added all that grain has to be carefully worked in so that is thoroughly wet.  The IMAG00674all steel paddle used for this purpose looked kind of like a canoe oar but could also have been the sort of thing you’d see in the hands of a Klingon warrior.  Moving it through a thick slurry of wet grain is no easy feat.  Dave made it look easy but when I took my turn I found it was a whole lot harder than it looked.  It’s not brutal work but it does teach you that brewing is a very physical art form.

After we finished mashing in it was time for a coffee break.  Which leads to another reality of brewing that few non-brewers actually get… namely there is a lot of waiting.  In professional facilities they definitely find ways to make use of that down time.  There is no end to cleaning, checking things like gravity and ph, and generally doing whatever else you can to make sure the equipment is ready to make the next batch.

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After a while we moved things over to the boil which meant we could clean out the mash tun.  600 pounds of dry grain doubles in weight which meant there was a lot of scooping into plastic trash can and then dragging said heavy cans outside so they could be picked up by a local pig farmer.  This marked the end of the strenuous activity but hardly the end of the work.

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Hops had to be added and then later the spices.  Since we were working to perfect last year’s recipe this meant doubling the amount of fresh ginger but otherwise we kept the balance of cinnamon and the nutmeg about the same.

All told the process took more than eight hours.  I’m grateful to Dave and Erin not just for making this crazy idea happen again, but also for opening the brewhouse so that I and other members of the church beer club could get hands on experience and deepen our understanding of how beer gets made.

Look for more updates on Gingerbread Jesus and the launch party with Christmas Carols very soon.

“Where have you been?”

downloadI stopped by my local beer distributor and those were the first words out of their mouth. “Where have you been?”  After thinking about it for a moment I realized he was right.  I hadn’t dropped by more than once the whole summer.  Of course some of the time I had been away, but the real reason for my absence was that this summer I fell in love with bourbon.

It started out innocently enough.  About five years ago my aunt brought us a bottle of Blanton’s and we were immediately smitten.  This will come as no surprise to most bourbon drinkers since Blanton’s is pretty high up the food chain selling for $60 or more.  To put it in beer terms it’s kind of like starting out with a St Bernardus 12.  Of course we didn’t know any of that at the time.. we just knew we liked it.

In time we started to try other, less pricy bottles like Four Roses and Jefferson’s.  It wasn’t long until you could find a bottle bourbon in our cabinet all the time.   In time rye joined the party as well.

IMAG00177By 2014 that gift of a single bottle had ballooned into a regular part of our routine.  But beer was still far and away my go to beverage.  All that changed this August.  In the course of a single week bourbon managed to eclipse beer as my evening libation.

So what lead to such a radical conversion?  The answer was an amazing six day trip to Kentucky.   With some expert guidance from the great Lew Bryson, my wonderful wife managed to map out a way for us to hit 11 distilleries in 5 days plus squeeze in a trip to Mammoth Cave to boot.  I’ll go into more details about where we went and what we learned in a future post.

But this brings me to perhaps the most ineffable, yet also most important, reason why that week altered my preferences in a way I would have never thought possible… namely that the love of bourbon is something my wife and I now share.  Don’t get me wrong- she likes beer just fine.  But in over 25 years together she has never, and I mean never, showed the kind of enthusiasm for discussing and analyzing beer that she does for bourbon and rye.

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Said lovely wife dipping her finger into a fermentation vessel at Buffalo Trace

That added value is what finally toppled beer from its long held zenith.  That few minutes of discussion about which of the now many different bottles we’d like to share that night or the enjoyment of trying something new together… well it really enhances the experience and makes an already delicious beverage all the more enjoyable.

I confess that I am still getting used to this new order of things.  At times when I go to the liquor cabinet for a night cap, it feels like I am cheating on my poor beer fridge out in the garage.  And who knows?  In time beer might just climb its way back to the top.  But for now both my beer fridge and my local distributor will have to get used to seeing less of me.