Sometimes, you’ll have one of those moments where the things that you have learned suddenly snap into place and you’re left talking competently about a subject that you thought you didn’t care about. The second semester at Niagara College was based largely around the scientific aspects of brewing. Of course there’s all manner of information available about the ingredients that go into making beer, but the equipment being used in order to facilitate all of that action is important too.
The difficulty is that I wasn’t there for the first month or so of the second semester and never really caught up. The thing you have to understand about Niagara College is that if you’re going to go there to learn about beer, you have to move there. Well, St. Catharines, anyway. There were a couple of students in first year who were commuting from Toronto, but they fared rather better than I did because they were on the same schedule and had the ability to carpool. A sense of camaraderie is important in a situation like this.
In my case, I would get up at about 5:30, drink several cups of coffee, get to the Bay/Dundas bus terminal by 7:00 (leaving the house at 6:30), get on the bus, get to St. Catharines about 8:25, get on the bus to Niagara College and then get to school no earlier than 8:43. I would go to whatever classes there were and then get back on the bus and commute the two and a half hours to my apartment. If you consider the cost of the return trip including the TTC fare… well, don’t.
People ask why I didn’t just drive: I don’t drive. I know how in a vague “I’ve played a lot of Need For Speed Underground” kind of way, although I suspect that I would probably confuse the windshield wiper lever for the nitro booster jets in a real car. What do you mean they don’t have nitro booster jets in real cars? Friend, I think you’re mistaken. Next, you’ll be telling me that carbon fiber doesn’t make it go faster.
For about five months I was doing really well. I made honor roll the first semester, which was good. Then I got offered a book to write and I had to do that and the technical stuff fell aside. Deadlines would crop up, or I’d have to write a column (for which the deadline is usually Thursday. So much for that afternoon class.) Eventually, with the number of tasks to perform, commuting 4-5 hours a day was impossible.
People ask why I didn’t just work on the bus. I did. Sometimes. Initially. Eventually you just get run down and tired. I slept for three days after first semester. You get sick because you’re on a bus with people sneezing and coughing. Also, brewing technology is a pretty hands on kind of thing. The driver frowns on dismantling a pump on the bus.
Essentially what happened was that I started writing about beer in order to get into brewing school and by the time I was in brewing school it was more or less the main source of income and therefore the thing to prioritize. I more or less inadvertently succeeded my way out of the original plan.
The thing is this: You can write about anything. You can’t bloody well brew about anything. Try brewing a treatise on Keynesian economics. Probably, people will not get past the first paragraph.
I was pleased to learn, while I was in San Diego, that I have picked up enough technical brewing information to tell you the following:
Green Flash is the most wonderful brewery I have ever seen. A lot of the time when we talked about brewery tech in Gord Slater’s class at Niagara, we were tailoring the information to making things fit together. Most breweries don’t have the luxury of getting everything brand new. A lot of the equipment is bought second hand or jury rigged together or improvised.
Green Flash is what happens when you have the opportunity to start over from scratch at a new location when you’re in the middle of your life as a brewery. The fermenters are 250BBL behemoths and their layout is such that they maximize the space in the brewery. Green Flash has nearly doubled in production in the last year, up to 45000BBL. Chuck Silva has managed somehow to design a walkway that sits between the tops of the fermenters making it easier to dry hop the fermenting beers. There’s talk of doubling production in the next couple of years.
The fermenters are next to the CIP system. I would not have thought that a CIP system would be remotely interesting to me, but this sucker is flat out sexy. It has dual 10HP pumps. It’s got a sleek touchscreen interface. I was floored by it. I guess if you’re going to significantly dry hop your beers, you need that kind of power in order to wash away residue.
The brewhouse is similarly impressive. It has two 50 BBL kettles that run simultaneously and the biggest hopback I’ve ever seen. I would guess it’s a 2 BBL hopback. For those of you who don’t know what that is, it allows you to run wort from the kettle through a vessel filled with hops to whatever system you’re using to cool beer. It lets you maximize the amount of aroma retention. I have seen industrial boilers smaller than this hopback. Great googily moogily.
I was unable to ascertain the information from looking at it, but I think they’re working with a 72 head filler. I cannot really imagine this. I have worked with a single head filler and I’ve packaged off a six head filler. For craft beer, this is a production.
There’s the barrel aging program, just off the tasting room. While we were there, there was a display that showed the DNA structures of the various yeasts being used in the barrel aging process. If I understand correctly, there were also captures of brewmaster Chuck Silva’s DNA. This is a good reminder that the processes going on here are biological and not completely artistic. How much DNA do we share with yeast? Probably not as much as we share with dolphins.
The tasting room is 4000 sq ft. It is five times as large as my apartment. Actually, if the tasting room had Wi-fi and a coffee maker, I could happily live there. They had a large number of beers on tap and even more for sale. They had a food truck outside. Merchandising takes up an entire wall. I wasn’t kidding in the paper when I said I liked it so much that I bought the t-shirt.
Now, Green Flash has only been around since 2002. I know that this kind of success doesn’t come overnight, and I can’t tell you how many untold hours of financial planning and design and experimentation went in to giving them the facility they have now, but this is a dream brewery. It’s a marvel. More than that, it finally allowed me to understand how all of this technology fits together and the implications of that information.
I said as much to Chuck Silva. He had the good grace not to beam too proudly.