Imagine being sent to the very bottom of the world to spend 12 months living and working with 25 perfect strangers. Your nearest neighbors, 800 miles away on the coast, are themselves 1,200 miles from civilization. For six months there will be no end to the blinding sunlight as the sun circles on its seemingly endless spiral around the sky. The other six months there is no end to the infernal darkness of night.
The upside down aluminum salad bowl known as "The Dome" and the steel arches protect the buildings that you live and work in from the unrelenting weather of the "Southern Continent." The yearly mean temperature at the pole is minus-60° F, with the temperature plummeting to below -100° F during the winter.
For eight months there are no flights in or out. It's just you and the other 25 people there to keep yourselves busy and entertained. There is no cable TV. No new movies to see. No going out for a night on the town. No brewpubs for thousands of miles in all directions. What on Earth are you going to do?! That's easy -- homebrew!
Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station
For 40 years the United States Antarctic Program (USAP) has continuously staffed a research station at the South Pole, but it wasn't until recently that homebrew (Domebrew) arrived on the scene. It's hard to say exactly when homebrewing became a popular pastime here, but it's sure to continue for years to come.
After all, can you imagine receiving one shipment of beer at the end of the summer and making it last for nine months? Not even taking into consideration how old the canned beer is by the time it gets to you or that you have a choice of only four different beers. Year-old beer at the South Pole has, until recently, been considered relatively fresh. Stories of drinking five-year-old beer during a winterover when the year's supply ran out are not uncommon.
Several years ago some homebrewer "ahead of his time" started the South Pole's Dome Brewers Association (DBA). As the most recent member of the DBA, I'm happy to be able to share my domebrewing experience with you. Everything in this article is true! Not even the names have been changed to protect the guilty.
Take a trip with me now to a place where few have been and even fewer have brewed...90 degrees south.
Homebrew and Me
I began my homebrewing career (oddly enough) in McMurdo, a USAP station on the Antarctic coast, after my first winterover. Upon returning to Christchurch, New Zealand, in October 1992 for a two-week holiday, I promptly gathered up brewing equipment (a plastic fermenter, thermometer, and some bottles) and as many beer kits as I thought I could brew in four months. I recall brewing about eight batches and leaving the remaining four kits with a friend to brew during his winter.
Brewing was ultra-simple then. Basically all I did was pour the kit into the fermenter and add hot tap water from the sink in my room. I stirred with a large spoon I had appropriated from the galley, let it cool over night, and pitched the yeast. Sterilization? What sterilization? I was, to say the least, a little green.
I've grown up in the world of homebrewing over the last four years and have become what I consider to be an advanced-intermediate homebrewer.
Life at the South Pole
Why on Earth would someone want to live at the South Pole? It's so desolate. White, flat, and cold in every direction you look. What is it that draws one to the ends of the Earth, to these conditions? These are questions that I could spend hours explaining, but it still would do no good. I haven't even been able to put it all together yet myself, and I have been working in Antarctica for five years.
All I can say is that I've been attracted to the polar regions since boyhood, and I was amazed that I actually made it. Most people, for lack of a better term, call me crazy. Yes, it's a crazy place to be, but it makes life a bit more interesting, and what's life without a little craziness?
Life at the Pole isn't exactly all that comfortable. Living conditions are cramped. Most rooms measure only five feet by nine feet. Each berthing area under the dome contains one bathroom for everyone, and except for your little boxy room, there is no privacy. During the summer there can be 150 men and women using the same bathroom! During the winter, however, there are only the 26 of us, 20 men and six women. It could be best described as a coed college dorm.
The station itself is pretty small. The farthest building from the dome is only three-quarters of a mile away, and there is nothing but a snow skiway in between. Every day my commute to work entails walking from my room under the dome, through several non-heated arch sections, past the power plant, gym, and garage, to my office -- about 300 feet in all.
My work mainly focuses on inventory and maintenance of supplies on station. This is the same type of job I did in McMurdo. It's not my chosen profession, rather only a vehicle to bring me to the ice, the place I love. Three long, cold, dark winters I have spent in Antarctica allowed me to travel around the world and across the country. It's in between contracts that I am allowed to experience my adult childhood. However, the times between contracts can be so full of activity that I have very little time to prepare for the next period on the ice.
How does one get ready for an entire year of brewing in a place where there are no homebrew shops? That's easy -- overprepare!
One thing that played to my favor was e-mail. I was fortunate enough to find South Bay Homebrew Supply on-line so I could send in my last-minute order. They were more than helpful when filling it; it's not often you receive an order from the South Pole! Ruth and the crew happily followed all of my packing and shipping instructions for the long, rough trip, and everything made it down here without a problem.
The folks at the homebrew shop even went through the trouble of shipping my liquid yeast order out the day they received it to ensure freshness, and they packed it with insulation to keep it from arriving frozen. Thank goodness for e-mail.
During the Antarctic summer season (November through February) we receive mail by plane on a weekly basis or whenever there's room. When the mail comes in, everyone pitches in to haul it upstairs to the pool room and sort it out. As it happened, all of the supplies arrived on the same plane. A few people were disappointed when they learned that 260 of the 400 pounds of mail on the plane that day had my name on it. It was a great day.
Of course the shipment had to pass through New Zealand customs and yes, they did open the bags of grain to see what might be hiding inside. Sorry guys, just grain.
Fresh ingredients are also a must. Luckily I live on top of the world's largest block of ice, and things stay nice and fresh when stored at 60 degrees below zero.
Buying all new equipment and shipping it to the Pole can be costly, but if it's already there, why bring it? So I brought a few things such as a Glatt mill and two hydrometers with me. I waited to see just what equipment I would need to have sent to me after scoping out the growing stash. The best decision I made was to bring both of my hydrometers along, because my finishing hydrometer was broken in transit.
I was not surprised to find no glass carboys anywhere on station. Only a few roughed up plastic carboys and some buckets without sealing lids. I'm a glass man. Plastic can be hard to clean and sterilize and can retain the flavors of old batches, especially cider. I ordered one six-gallon carboy and then while on R&R in McMurdo, I located two other five-gallon carboys that I had used two winters before. One still had my original digital thermometer attached. I appropriated some new Tygon tubing and a couple of bottle brushes and I was in business. What a score!
I made sure to order grain in the quantities specified in the catalog to receive a few free buckets, just the thing to construct a lauter tun. A bit of scrounging produced a coffee pot spout to use on one bucket. With a trusty drill I spent two hours poking 3,500 holes in the bottom of the other. All of this I will leave as my small contribution to the DBA for future brewers.
Stainless-steel pots from the galley and a 10-gallon stainless-steel insulated water cooler provided a perfect mash tun.
What else was I missing? A digital probe-type thermometer from the power plant, a Makita drill from the carpenter shop to power my mill, and a large, plastic funnel rounded out the last bits of essential equipment.
Former Domebrewers left me with an ample supply of Grolsch-type (cage-cap) and champagne bottles, along with 1,000 caps and several soda kegs complete with a tap in the bar and a fridge cooled with outside air.
At first I was hesitant to use kegs here. This stemmed from my first experience with kegs in McMurdo. There we used old, discarded, and modified fire extinguishers as our primary kegging equipment. Carbon dioxide bottles were hard to come by, so natural priming was the course of the day. Here at the pole we use compressed CO2 with a regulator, so no more cloudy or overly effervescent batches. This is better than I have at home.
A typical brewing session starts with me thinking: "What should I do tonight?" Before I know it I have all of my equipment out and I'm milling grain. Since the workday runs from eight a.m. to six p.m., six days a week, the brewing often runs into the wee hours of the morning. I just chill a couple bottles of Domebrew for 20 minutes outside and ease into the evening.
All of the brewing is done in the galley kitchen. The galley is one of the few gathering spaces we have to just sit and talk. I can usually count on seeing just about everyone pass through in the course of an evening either just to see what's going on or to grab a late-night snack. Most will venture back into the kitchen with their olfactory nerves engaged and say, "I thought I could smell you brewing."
I usually tell them what I'm brewing and show them the recipe. Then without fail the question comes, "When will this be ready?" It's usually the same answer, "About a month, two if I'm patient, three weeks if we're running low."
Sundays are usually my best brewing days. I can brew in the afternoon without getting in anyone's way, and I can still watch plenty of videos that night.
Brewing at the center of the world's highest, driest, and coldest continent can be interesting to say the least. There are things that I can't do here and things that I can do here that you wouldn't dream of doing at home.
Let's start with the main ingredient to every batch of beer ever made, water.
Yes, you've all heard it 1,000 times: "We use only the purest mountain spring water, blah blah blah." Well, my friends, I'm sitting on top of 90 percent of the world's fresh water supply. About 9,000 feet of ice separates me from the rock below my feet. Millions and millions of years worth of accumulated snow and ice stretching out for thousands of miles in all directions. It's a hot, thirsty man's dream.
All station water is produced by either melting surface snow or by using waste heat from the power plant generators to melt out a bulb of water 350 feet below the surface. While this water is some of the purest in the world, a tiny bit of chlorine is still added to keep the plumbing from collecting any funkies. The water I'm drinking and using for brewing has been locked in the form of ice since Columbus discovered America and maybe even longer. Having fallen as snow, it is also very soft. The closest thing back home would be using distilled water.
In McMurdo our only source of water was desalinated ocean water -- highly chlorinated. Yuck. Chlorine belongs in swimming pools, not in homebrew. While I was there I also took advantage of pulling some 1,000-year-old glacial ice out of the bottom of a crevasse a few miles from town. It wasn't five gallons worth, but somehow it seemed to "make" the beer.
If there's one thing I lack, it's knowledge of water, which makes using kits or malt extract a very appealing alternative to my preferred brewing method of using all grain. I add a few things here and there to adjust the pH and the hardness, but I'm not one to even begin to explain it. Water will be the next item I try to conquer.
If any of you homebrewers have gone hiking in the mountains, you will understand this point immediately. While our physical altitude is 9,300 feet above sea level, our physo altitude often reaches 11,000 feet. Not only is breathing difficult, but so is boiling water. Water boils at about 185° to 195° F here, so my wort never makes it to full temperature. While I'm not sure if
this affects the actual brew, it does throw all of my decoction charts for a loop. Oh well, as they say here, "Suck up and deal, Dorp."
As mentioned above, supplies are difficult to find. When that last plane left on February 21, that was it! If I didn't have it or if it was broken, too bad. I lost (don't ask me how) the only wooden-handled, hammer-type capper at the beginning of winter. I looked high and low but to no avail. It just vanished into the pit. The two lever-type cappers we had wouldn't fit the champagne bottles, so out came the hacksaw. It's not pretty, but it's functional.
Brewing in Antarctica does have its advantages. Nowhere does it say that I can only legally brew 100 gallons a year, and nobody is ever going to know if I make a bad batch. To date I can say that I have poured out two batches. One was from contamination in McMurdo when I didn't know what sterilization was, and one was at home when I tried to make cider but in my enthusiasm to get started didn't boil the fresh apple juice purchased directly from the orchard. Some wild yeast took over, and I had five gallons of the most dreadfully sour cider ever. Those were tough times.
Sterilizing equipment here is not taken to the extreme to which it must be taken at home or even in McMurdo. Why? Well, the air here is extremely dry, 2 to 10 percent humidity year round. We are far from any plants or animals. We are 800 miles from the nearest coast, and it's another 1,200 miles to New Zealand.
There are not a lot of wild yeast or mold spores floating around to ruin my beer, especially now that we have run out of fresh fruit and vegetables. I've been bad and left bottles sitting for weeks without washing them and come back to find no mold growing at all. I'm sure that bad habit will be broken as soon as my first moldy bottle rears its ugly head at home.
Chilling the Wort
This is one step that I definitely suggest you do not try at home! After the wort has finished boiling and I have strained all of the hops out, I run outside with a clean pot and bring back a load of fresh snow. I then dump the snow directly into the wort until I've achieved the proper temperature or topped out at five gallons.
That's one advantage to living where there is no pollution. The dense, cold winds coming off the glaciers almost always blow from the same direction, so I go upwind of the power plant and skip the yellow snow. Like I said, I wouldn't recommend this at all. Unless of course you would like to winter at the South Pole.
Recently I decided to attempt my first doppelbock. The advantage here is not only the amount of time I have to wait (I'm not going anywhere) but also the fact that we have a walk-in cooler to use for lagering. One difference is that we heat our cooler to keep it at temperature.
Because of low supplies and impatience I decided after only one month of lagering to go ahead and keg this brew. This turned out to be a good decision. It wasn't long after tapping this particular batch one Saturday night that it seemed to vanish right before my eyes.
This is one disadvantage to brewing for a large group of people. Maybe I need a couple of 10-gallon systems sent down here for next time.
While I do the majority of the brewing here at the pole this year, I don't do it all. Jamie Lloyd, an Australian researcher working for the Center for Astrophysical Research in Antarctica (CARA), also does a small amount of brewing. This is Jamie's second winter in a row at the Pole. And you thought I was crazy.
As much as I like to brew alone, I do have a few eager volunteers here willing to help with the occasional brew. Mostly they help by washing equipment and bottling. It's funny how much more helpful they become the lower our beer supply gets.
Nearing the end of our winter, along with the sun, our enthusiasm returns. There are times, especially during the middle of the five months of total darkness, that you just don't want to be bothered with anything but passing time. Production during these slow periods drops off dramatically.
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 supplies ran out, I spent all weekend brewing batch after batch and using everything I had as fermentation vessels, including two plastic carboys and a 10-gallon stainless-steel water cooler. The new containers allowed me to brew 70 gallons to get us through the last few weeks. Oh, I think that'll do! All that is left for station opening is Domebrew and when that's gone...so am I.
(6 gallons, all-grain)
This is undoubtedly the favorite of this year's winterover crew.
- 15th-century ice water
- 9 lbs. domestic pale ale malt
- 1 lb. roasted barley
- 0.25 lb. chocolate malt
- 0.25 lb. black patent malt
- 0.5 lb. crystal malt, 40° Lovibond
- 1-1.5 oz. Liberty hops (4.5% alpha acid), for 70 min.
- 0.5 oz. Cascade hops (3.9% alpha acid), for 20 min.
- Whitbread ale yeast
Step by Step:
I've used two different mashing techniques for this stout. First I tried overnight mashing. I was graced with a 10-gallon stainless-steel water cooler. This turned out to be the perfect overnight masher. I mashed in 3 gals. of 160&3176; F water and the temperature dropped to 150° F. Twelve hours later the temperature had dropped to 120° F.
I've also tried infusion mashing. Mash in at 135° F for 20 minutes, raise the temperature to 145° F for 30 minutes, then raise to 155° F for 60 minutes. Mash out at 170° F for five minutes. It's a little more trouble, but I have plenty of time! Sparge with 3 gals. of 180° F water. After boiling (length differs here becuase of our altitude) I use my unconventional method of cooling the wort with fresh snow blown in from 1,000 miles from nowhere to make 6 gallons.
Because of storage problems with liquid yeast -- in my case it's nearly a year old -- I have had to use dried yeast. My standard for dried yeast is Whitbread ale. At the beginning of the winter, I had Wyeast German Ale 1007 liquid yeast, which gave a nice rocky head. I enjoyed it very much.
I've tried several variations on this recipe, including using 10 lbs. pale ale instead of 9 lbs. and using German Spalt hop plugs (3.4% alpha acid) instead of Cascade hops. This was a nice beer, too.
I ferment in glass for about 14 days, depending on whether I have the energy or enthusiasm to bottle it during the middle of winter. Age when consumed: 27...oh you mean the beer...uh...about three weeks after bottling. Judges' comments: "Wow," "all right," "excellent," "mmmmmm."
OG = Don't know
FG = Doesn't matter
90 Degree Smoked Abbey a.k.a. "Dorp's Surprise"
(6 gallons, all-grain)
This is for 6 gallons (I figure I have a 6-gallon carboy, so why not fill it up?)
- 15th-century ice water
- 11 lbs. German Vienna malt
- 0.5 lb. Crystal malt, 40¡ Lovibond
- 0.5 lb. British peat smoked malt
- 2 oz. chocolate malt
- 1 oz. roasted barley
- 1-1.5 oz. Oregon Perle hops (8.2% alpha acid), for 1 hour
- 1 oz. Liberty hops (4.5% alpha acid), for 1 hour
- 1 oz. Oregon Fuggle hops (3.2% alpha acid), for 10 min.
- Wyeast Belgium Abbey liquid yeast
Step by Step:
I used the overnight mashing method for this one as well. Come to think of it, that could be dangerous when the night lasts six months.
Comments: Maybe a little too bitter. Could use less Perle and more aromatic hops at the end of the boil. Could be a bit more smoky, too. I'll just have to keep trying this recipe to get it right. Other than that I quite enjoyed it.
You might be able to tell that I'm limited to what I can use for grain, hops, and yeast. I could only bring the basics, so feel free to add your favorite aromatic hops or other ingredients. Experimentation is still my game. Fermentation: about 16 days.
OG = 1.043
FG = er...um...I can't remember.