The grain made a loud splashing sound as it hit the floor of the tiny lofted room. Maria looked up sheepishly as she was pouring a 55 lb bag of Premium Pilsner malt in the mill. The room was clouded with grain particles floating through the air as Kevin was giving us tips on how load the mill properly. It was 10:30am and we were in the first hour of brewing our collaboration beer with Free State Brewing company. Kevin Prescott was one of three brewers showing us the ropes at Free State’s 25 year old brewing system. Geoff Deman (head brewer) put us to work during the mash and Tommy Kelley (assistant brewer) gave us the rundown on the boil and clean up.
Less than 16 hours prior we had discussed the collaboration when we drove the RV to the brewery where everyone piled in and drank beer while we hashed out what exactly this beer should be. Geoff put together a recipe over night that would consist of primarily of Pilsner malts with some Chocolate Rye for roast and color and rolled oats for a smoother mouth feel. The Black Ale would be hopped late in the boil with healthy amount of Chinook, Amarillo, and Galaxy hops. Finally it would be fermented with Chico yeast instead of their house strain to branch out a little from the norm.
While I had worked at Free State for year in college busing tables I rarely ever entered the brewery. One or twice to help someone carry a keg, but at the time I was not seasoned beer traveler and had no idea of how the system worked. Seeing the system now made me realize the incredible engineering needed to fit it all in such a small space and the nimbleness needed to work with it. The term “brew cave” comes to mind while navigating it’s various nooks and crannies. The original 15 barrel brew house was installed just over 25 years ago, when Free State became the first legal brewery in Kansas since prohibition, fits snugly in the corner opening of a narrow walkway packed tight with fermentation vessels.
The brew house is surrounded by concrete except for one wall of glass that separates it from the restraunt giving a view into the brewing process for anyone who is interested enough to watch. The brewers climb up and down narrow steps and ladders while constantly maintaining order by keeping everything in it’s place ensuring that no space is wasted.
Now it was our turn to join these tight quarters that would now be occupied by five people instead of three. Fortunately Maria and I have been trained to operate is narrow spaces by our time living in the RV. After our adventure in grain milling we joined Geoff at the mash tun to help provide some manual labor and ensure grain didn’t pile up as the the hot liquor was added to the vessel. Maria and I took turns with the mash paddle as we started to feel heat in this non air conditioned brew house.
We broke for lunch after mashing in and traded stories with Geoff and the Handbuilt Productions crew, Dalton and Austin Paley, who were filming the brewing process. We still had several hours to go after we rejoined Tommy when he was transferring the wort for the boil. Maria was probably the most excited about adding the hops but we would have to wait 85 minutes to pour in our late addition hops. We filled the down time by discussing life as a Free State brewer, beer in Kansas, and Wu-Tang with Tommy (he wants to brew a series of beers for each Wu-Tang member).
Remember all that grain we milled to make this beer? It was now time to remove it. Maria approached the task with gusto and filled up three huge plastic buckets to my one before Tommy stepped in and showed us how to scrape in beast mode. After our the cleaning was done and the boil approached neared it end we added our hops and and soon after watched as Tommy transferred all that hard work into a fermentation vessel where it met was joined with the Chico yeast and left to make the magic happen.
It was a long day for us but even longer for the brewers who repeat this process day in and day out to make the delicious liquid that we typically down without much thought of what goes into it. While I already had a great deal of respect for brewers in general this experience made me much more aware of what goes into our fermented libations. These “glorified janitors” aren’t in it for the money or fame but for the love of the product. So next time you meet a brewer, tip your hat and say “thanks”.