From South Pole Brewer, Dec. ’96 BYO:
"Imagine being sent to the very bottom of the world to spend 12 months living and working with 25 perfect strangers. For six months there will be no end to the blinding sunlight...the other six months there is no end to the infernal darkness of night. There is no cable TV. No going out for a night on the town. No brewpubs for thousands of miles. What on earth are you going to do? That’s easy — homebrew." ••••• "Station supplies ran out about six weeks before the end of winter and enthusiasm was waxing so production went into high gear. I wanted to be ready; the first flight in would triple the population. What would a station opening party be without Domebrew? When the beer ran out, I spent all weekend brewing batch after batch and using everything I had as fermentation vessels. The new containers allowed me to brew 70 gallons to get us through the last few weeks. All that is left for station opening is Domebrew, and when that’s gone so am I."
As I look out across the tree tops at Pikes Peak from the roof of my apartment building in Denver on this 90° F, sunny and calm August day I can’t help but wonder where I might be if it weren’t for the United States Antarctic Program. After all, if it weren’t for the poor quality beer they forced upon us in the early years, I may never have picked up homebrewing. I also wonder what all of my friends are doing at the South Pole. Kicking back with a "Domebrew" perhaps? Probably not, considering it’s 7:30 on a Monday morning there. More likely they are sitting around the breakfast table staring off into space, silently thinking, "only 10 more Mondays to go!" Still a month from sunrise. The thought sends shivers up my spine. Not that I didn’t like it there (at least most of it), but if I weren’t brewing for a living now I might be having breakfast there and wondering what all my friends were doing back in the states.
When I last brewed in Antarctica we were nearing the end of a very long and cold year. Gearing up for the arrival of new faces, fresh fruit, and toilet paper. Oh sweet TP. All was set. I had 70 gallons of Domebrew chilled and waiting. We had spent three intensive weeks clearing buildings of snow and smoothing out the skiway. It was the last Saturday night alone at the bottom of the world. Monday, god willing and the creek doesn’t rise, they would come! Or would they?
Sunday morning arrived; an ominous dull gray replaced the bright blue sky of the day before. A storm had arrived. Visibility had dropped to a mere 50 feet. The entire station looked as if it had disappeared. Tension mounted as we tried to contact McMurdo, a base on the coast of Antarctica, to see if flights were still on. The skiway was being destroyed with a mess of sastrugi (drifts). Flights were to be postponed for one day. Yeah, right.
On Sunday night our Domebrew supply had dwindled to 60 gallons. Monday morning the storm had come to stay. I got lost walking to work some 150 yards away. I found myself climbing a 25-foot pile of snow that I couldn’t see! After a minute I reoriented myself and realized, "Oh yeah, I put that here."
Depression, even anger over the storms set in. We were ready, really ready, to go! What evil could have created a storm of this nature? We could imagine how Robert Falcon Scott and his crew must have felt when they lay dying, trapped in their tents, pinned down by a storm similar to this but only 11 miles from "One Ton Depot." Okay, it wasn’t that bad; we still had 50 gallons of Domebrew left.
Tuesday. Ditto. There were 40 gallons remaining. By Wednesday morning there was blue sky, but a lot of digging out remained. We would have flights Thursday if the weather held. All day and into the night we dug out the skiway until there was no more time or energy left. The guests would be here soon.
Thursday morning was hurried and we felt giddiness as finishing touches were put on the station and we all donned our gear and headed out to see if we could spot the plane from "Pappa 3" (30 minutes out). "There it is!" rang out over and over for 30 minutes until the plane finally buzzed the station. Shouts of joy crackled over the radio as high fives, hugs, and nervous dances abounded. After several passes the plane landed and out of its belly emerged the brightest red and most fully clothed people we had ever seen. "Don’t they know it’s summer? What are all the clothes for? It’s only 60 below!"
I couldn’t greet the new crew until about an hour later, as it was my job to unload the baggage, fresh food, and cargo from the aircraft. As I approached the aircraft in my tracked forklift I was swallowed by the contrail created behind the plane. What an experience that I’ll never forget.
After a couple days of turning over the station — showing them where their computers were, watching new movies, and finishing off the Domebrew — we packed our gear and prepared to leave. With a tearful goodbye to the few who were staying behind for a longer turnover or even the entire summer, we were gone.
After what seemed to be the longest three-hour flight I had ever taken, we landed on the coast of Antarctica in McMurdo. All the commotion! Where did all these people come from? The heat! It must have been 10° F! We hadn’t felt an above-zero day since rest and relaxation here 10 months before. Even here almost everyone was walking around fully bundled up. We were running around in shorts with no hats. I could run and breathe at sea level without losing my breath. It was also moist out. It must have been 10 to 15 percent humidity. Two days there trying to decompress a bit before being thrust back into society and then the last flight out to the real world, New Zealand.
I had planned to travel to Nepal and India, but after leaving the ice I realized I was in no condition to travel. I was toast, and I knew it. Decisions were hard to make, and I just wanted to go home. It had been a long year. So after traveling around New Zealand for five weeks rafting, hiking, sightseeing, and pub crawling, I knew it was time to go. I was home in time for Christmas, which greatly pleased my mother, and started readjusting to life.
Readjustment took longer this time. It took about six months before feeling normal. I took a couple of road trips across country, skiing, biking, and visiting old friends from the Ice and new friends, too. I bought a Jeep and got a job.
Not just any job, no; I’m brewing for a living! My boss at the South Pole had introduced me to his friend who just happened to be the head brewer at the Denver ChopHouse and Brewery. I kept in touch while in Antarctica and sent in my resume after returning to the states. After months of waiting, he called me up and offered me the job. Sure it was about half the salary I was used to and promised to be a lot of grunt work but hey, so what? The first two days of work I brewed more beer than I had brewed in all my homebrewing put together.
After a year of brewing for the Denver ChopHouse and Brewery, I’m ready to move into a head brewer position when the chance arrives. The ChopHouse is part of Rock Bottom Inc., so there are plenty of opportunities for advancement.
Some people have asked me why I want to work for a large company like Rock Bottom and not a smaller brewery where you have more creative control over the beer. Well, I’ve learned how to make great, clean beer every time, and I have gotten to make two specials from my own recipes. The first was an abbey ale and the second a Scotch ale. Both of which turned out beautifully.
There are only two brewers on staff, so I’ve had a chance to learn everything. We brew about 50 31-gallon barrels of beer a week. Seven beers are kept on tap year round, and we also offer a rotating special and rotating cask-conditioned ale. Like most brewing positions, the job is only about 30 percent brewing. Ten percent is paperwork and training of waitstaff, and the rest is cleaning.
It can be incredibly tedious but rewarding as well. Often I’ll sit at the bar and listen to what people have to say about the beer. It’s so great to watch the bartender hand a beer to a patron and have the customer take a sip and say, "Yeah!" Or have someone remember the abbey from last year and say that they loved it. That makes all of the scrubbing, keg cleaning, grain hauling, and sweeping worthwhile.
So do I still homebrew? Well, not exactly. Creating specials is like homebrewing but with all the toys and on a much bigger scale. Just working full time as a brewer during the week and quality control on the weekends (heh heh) keeps me busy enough! I do like to work with homebrewers, though. Some come to the brewpub to pick up yeast or specialty malts not available at homebrew shops, and others bring in their Cornelius kegs for refill when their brewing falls behind. Some just like to pick my brain, and I love to talk beer.
The Antarctic program may be out of my system, but brewing is here to stay.