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 Barren 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.
Once added all that grain has to be carefully worked in so that is thoroughly wet. The all 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.
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.
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.