For the last few years my buddies and I have been making the trek from the Chicago area to Sturgis, S.D., for the Sturgis motorcycle rally. For
the uninitiated, the rally attracts thousands of bikers from around the world. It is one of the largest assemblies of Harley-Davidsons and an awesome display of old, new, and custom hardware.
One of the nicest rides in the area is scenic Spearfish Canyon leading to the town of Deadwood. Rich in Wild West history, Deadwood is the site of Wild Bill Hickok’s shooting and was renowned during the gold rush days. Today it remains a picturesque historic town with plenty of casinos, bars, and restaurants, all set in the scenic Black Hills.
Last year we happened to stumble upon a prize find, a small microbrewery called The Black Hills Brewing Co. in the middle of town. The name has been a part of the Black Hills history for more than 115 years. Originally located in Central City, just up the road from Deadwood, the brewery produced the renowned Gold Nugget Beer label for more than 40 years. The company was a booming success until Prohibition forced the brewery to close down.
The Black Hills Brewing Co. has been an integral part of the region’s colorful frontier history and was the largest and most prominent brewery in the Northern Black Hills region. The new Black Hills Brewing Co. chose the name to keep with a strong local tradition. Karl and Rose Emanuel and Tom and Laura Damon incorporated the present-day Black Hills Brewing Co. in January 1993. Karl’s family is from Germany, where for centuries their livelihood was brewing German beers. Many of the recipes used in the production of Black Hills beer are the original recipes that were used by Karl’s family. This is some serious beer here, and I was blown away by the attention to detail and the quality.
I had toyed with the idea of homebrewing for a number of years. Talking to Karl finally pushed me over the edge. I hit the ground running as soon as I got back home. I tracked down the nearest homebrew store and purchased a starter kit. I haven’t looked back since.
Okay, who am I trying to kid? Brewing has become what borders on an obsession. To make a long story short, after buying all kinds of equipment and reading every book, magazine article, and Internet file I could get my hands on, I brewed a number of batches. A few were wonderful successes, a few were decent, and a few were drain cleaner. The bottom line, however, was that I was making progress and getting more confident and consistent with each batch.
That’s when The Idea hit me. Why not see if Karl would take me on for a week? Made perfect sense to me. As long as I was making the trek anyway, why not apprentice at the source? My beer Mecca, as it were. My sales pitch was quite simple. They get free labor; I get a free education and a taste of how the pros do it. I was an extract brewer looking to get into all-grain, and all Karl and Tom would have to do was put up with my incessant questions. After a letter and a phone call, Karl agreed to let me come on board for the week and help out.
The brewery itself is, from a production standpoint, relatively small; the brewhouse is 7.5 barrels and brews 15-barrel batches. They have a very nice looking facility crafted from California redwood with a store/display area, a brewing room, walk-in cooler, gravity-fed sparge/hot water room, and a bottling/production room. My facility consists of the kitchen and a refrigerator in the garage. I was quite struck with the usability of the rooms. Sinks everywhere, epoxy coated, sloped floors with drains, hooks and racks for everything, and enough room to maneuver in to make the brewing and cleaning processes easier. And stainless steel everywhere! Hose fittings, clamps, pumps, and braided hose lines. Little plastic tubes and tubing I was used to were now replaced with large-diameter hoses with stainless clamps, fittings, and valves.
The concept of clean-in-place (CIP) was a breath of fresh air. Being able to clean gear by running cleaner and sanitizer through it without breaking it down is the hot setup. Then again, these guys don’t have to take their brewery apart at the end of the brew day to turn it back into a kitchen like I do.
We got started at nine in the morning the first day. Karl gave me the quick walk-through, and then I stood knee deep in grain to brew my first micro. The beer coming out today: a fine kölsch. What a rush to be dealing with 50-pound sacks of grain (and having to use a hand truck to move them around) rather than the small bags I was used to. Dumping the big bags of Vienna, wheat, and barley malt into the kettle, we were off to the beginning of a long brew day.
Karl uses a step infusion mash to extract the subtle flavors from his malts and is a stickler for minute details. Each step of the way he explained himself in sometimes excruciating detail, much of which is just now (a few months later) starting to make sense. It was a little overwhelming at times. Much like brewing at home, the process involves prepping the gear, much waiting, and anticipating the next step.
By early afternoon we were transferring the grain to the lauter tun and sparging wonderful pale wort back to the boiling kettle. Raising a huge kettle to boiling temperatures takes a lot longer than my little eight-gallon pot. But if you enjoy the smell of boiling wort as much as I do, nothing can prepare you for the smells rolling out of the big kettle.
The boil was finished by early evening, and it was time to pump the boiling wort through a plate heat exchanger. Hot wort and cold water in, cold wort and hot water back out. It made my immersion chiller look downright primitive. Off to the fermenting tanks, pitch a starter batch, and it’s the end of a long day.
Day two started off with a final cleaning of anything that hadn’t been taken care of the night before and then to the bottling room to start bottling the brewery’s flagship beer, Deadwood Territorial Red Lager. It is the brewery’s most popular (and my favorite) production beer and is a terrific deep red lager with a nicely balanced malt flavor.
The bottling for the day involved moving cases of 22-ounce bottles from the storage area to the bottling room and filling, capping, and labeling them. Everything was done by hand, much like a home setup, but using a high-tech counterpressure bottle filler/capper allows a higher volume of bottles. Although the process is very labor intensive, with a lot of teamwork these guys can crank out an amazing amount of product (500 barrels last year with a projection of 1,000 barrels for this year).
Amidst all this fascinating equipment, did I actually learn anything? Here’s a list of things I can apply to my home setup:
- Cleaning/sanitizing is everything. Nothing new here, but it is worth repeating anyway.
- Brewing at the pro level is as much or more of a tinkering/troubleshooting process as the home version. If the gear doesn’t exist or is too expensive, make an alternative. A little creativity goes a long way.
- The yeast pitching rate is monstrous compared to the homebrew rate. I have used smack packs for the entire time I have been brewing and lately have used starter batches. After seeing the amount of yeast slurry that goes into a big batch, I have to wonder if it would even be possible to overpitch a home batch.
- I was taken aback by the fact that the grains and yeast we use are the same stuff that breweries use. The only difference is the quantities. I will never be able to use the excuse that I don’t have access to the raw materials the big guys use. This pertains to yeast, grain, and hops. We just pay more per ounce because we use smaller quantities.
- Brewing at the production level is damn hard work. Somehow when you deal with five-gallon batches it never occurs to you that getting rid of spent materials in the brewhouse takes shovels and weighs hundreds of pounds.
- Keep a tray or bucket of iodophor or other no-rinse sanitizer handy at all phases of brewing. I have always sanitized my equipment and left it at that. It’s nice to be able to toss a dropped part into a bucket of sanitizer. If you have any doubts about any of your equipment, it’s a great idea to keep a strong solution of sanitizer in a spray bottle for instant application. You can avoid contaminating your beer with the high concentration by rinsing with the no-rinse concentration. Instant kill, then rinse.
- Yes, the smell coming off of a big brew kettle is as overwhelming as you might imagine. It permeates your clothing. It’s wonderful. For the record, weighing hops by the pound is too cool to describe.
- Record keeping of the brewing process is one of the only ways to achieve consistent brewing. Karl keeps immaculate records of the process from start to finish.
- We all know that being able to control the temperature of the beer at all stages is one of the keys to a successful beer. There are more techniques available than just refrigeration. Karl and Tom employ a chiller coil in some of their fermenters and can maintain fermentation temperatures without using glycol or active refrigeration for ales. It might be interesting to come up with a home version that could be made from small-diameter copper tubing and could be twisted into the mouth of a carboy.
- Above all else, attitude is everything. No matter what gear, no matter what experience level, you should be enjoying yourself. It takes as much dedication at the homebrew level as it does at the professional level if you are doing it right.
All in all the trip was the ultimate homebrewer’s vacation. A very big thanks to Karl and Tom, who were fabulous to work for and are the
consummate homebrewers. I am now a firm believer that the brewing process is comprised of about 60 percent inspiration and about 40 percent perspiration.
By the way, right now I am sipping a very pretty pale ale that I started the day after I got home. It is by far my best brew ever. A passing of the baton? Isn’t that what this art form is based on?