A speed apprenticeship at August Schell
They say if you want to understand a person you should walk a mile in their shoes. I think the same might be said for brewing: If you want to truly appreciate beer, try working in a brewery.
That’s the thinking behind John I. Haas’ “internship program”—although I think “speed-apprenticeship” might be a better name for it.
As the newest member of the Haas account management team, part of my on-the-job training includes spending time working as a brewer. There’s no better way to understand the love of craft (and capital-C Craft), the pressures of daily production, or the time, effort and investment that goes into every can, bottle and glass of craft beer. Lucky for me, the team at August Schell Brewing Company was generous enough to extend their brewery as my training ground.
Before coming to Haas, I spent 15 years as a radio disc jockey and was then mayor of Yakima, WA for six years. While I’ve learned a lot in my short time with Haas, none of my experience prepared me for what I saw at August Schell. The brewery typically produces about 136,200 barrels a year, and the pace needed to maintain that output is really incredible. I had the chance to work side by side with brewers, cellar men, filtration operators, lab techs and bottlers. Through it all, I learned some important lessons.
Brewing is as much an art as it is a science.
Maybe it’s cliché, and I thought I knew this going in, but Frank Uys, Schell’s brewer, really drove it home. Mashing in, adding hops, testing specific gravity—he worked fluidly and ceaselessly, adjusting things as needed, all while never forgetting to teach me what was what. A true scientist and a true craftsman.
In fact, everyone at Schell’s seemed to be able to calculate numbers as if it was pure reflex. Beer production is about precision and repeatability. The right amount of malt milled to perfection. The right amount of water heated to the right temperature for exactly the right amount of time. Among the kettles and mashers and whirlpool you see first-hand that brewing is culinary science and microbiology and plumbing all wrapped together into an amazingly choreographed dance.
If it isn’t clean, it isn’t going to work.
This seems obvious but, when you’re on the floor of a brewery, it really strikes you just how critical sanitation is. Of course you’d want that to be the case with any food or beverage—but yeast are incredibly finicky little creatures. So I spent a lot of time cleaning things. And I mean, a LOT. Tanks. Filters. Hoses. Drums. Candle filtration systems. It was a cold, slow process but Adam Olson and Pat Nelson taught me the way to do it right, why it was so important (bad bacteria = no beer, enough said!) and they actually made a tough job a ton of fun.
Leave the real science to the real scientists.
Don’t tell the brewmasters but, from what I saw (and despite what I said above), the folks who really drive the brewery are the ones in the lab. Kristi Vinkemeier, formally of Rahr Malting, is the quality lab manager at Schell’s, and she takes her job very seriously.
I’m a glasses and button-down kind of guy, so I figured I’d fit right in with her team—and maybe get a little break from all the hard work being done on the floor. Hah!
The lab is a fast-paced place—testing samples, reporting the results, swabbing tanks to verify the cleaning process has worked, reviewing data, preparing reports for the company president, interacting with every department, running sensory panels and reading reports. The work demands quick thinking and flawless accuracy. And everyone in the brewery knows, values and respects the work.
Maybe I should stick to the bottling line.
I’m not saying bottling is any less demanding than any other spot in the production process—but for me, it was awesome. Three hundred fifty bottles per minute requires a number of people to keep feeding empties into the machine, pouring in crowns, grabbing random bottles for sampling and making sure everything runs smoothly. The efficient sight of dozens, hundreds (maybe even thousands) of gleaming bottles clinking and spinning and filling with beer—it was beautiful and hypnotic and, boy, was I thirsty.
I’m indebted to the team at Schell’s for sharing their knowledge, time and patience with me. Everything they taught me will serve me well—whether it’s working with brewers on the road, or when I attend brewer school later this year at the MBAA malting and brewing science course in Madison. But that’s another blog. Until then, I’m going to enjoy a cold bottle of Schell Shocked and nurse my aching back a bit.