Homebrewing gives the casual beer drinker a good idea of what goes into making a beer. It’s a small scale, but you figure that it represents a rudimentary understanding of where beer comes from. Breweries are entirely different monsters.
While I was searching for a job is when I started home brewing. I loved drinking beer, and I loved making it, so I dabbled in the idea of working for a brewery, but I figured there was a lot I didn’t know. When I went to Dogfish Head for its tour, I didn’t really get that idea. Flying Dog showed me the science behind the brew, and the rules that must be followed. Making beer is more complicated than I thought.
If you ever find yourself around Frederick, Md., I cannot stress going to Flying Dog enough. The people who work there are awesome, as well as the beer and the story behind it. It costs $5, you get a six-ounce souvenir glass, a poster, and six (or five, I can’t remember) six-ounce samples, so five bucks is a good deal.
You sign in, get your beer tokens and glass and are sent to the sample room to wait for the tour to start. First impressions of this place? Awesome. Original art hanging on the walls and the people are really friendly. First thing they tell us to do? Get a beer while we wait. Can do boss! Can do …
First stop is the hallway, the one leading into the brewery, where we dive into the mural on the wall that depicts some of the people involved, such as George Stranahan, the founder of Flying Dog, Hunter S. Thompson, I believe this man needs no introduction — so Google him if you don’t know who he is, and Ralph Steadman, the man who did the art for Mr. Thompson.
Every brewery begins with a story …
This story happens to be one of Mr. Stranahan, who has decided he would like to try mountain climbing, but instead of starting off slowly he jumps right for K2 (the second highest mountain on Earth). Our guide then tells us that they were advised to take oxygen, but opted out so they could carry more important supplies (alcohol).
It was a 35-day journey, and by day 17, their stash had run dry. When they finally completed their journey you can imagine what they wanted to do. Get some good ol’ medicine running through their veins. Only issue was they were in a Muslim country that had a ban on alcohol without going through the proper channels, so a beer wasn’t going to be easy to get.
After jumping through the required hoops, they finally got to sit down and drink their well earned reward, and thats when George set eyes upon it. Our guide said it was an oil painting that took Bird Dog (which we consider a dog that fetches birds for hunters) literally. It was a Dog that was no longer on the ground, as it had achieved flight through wings on its back. And thus the image of the Flying Dog stuck with George Stranahan, which lead to the name of the brews we have today.
I don’t know how you feel about that story, but that is definitely one of the best brand name origin stories I have ever heard.
Now, I won’t dive too much into the rest of the history, like the drama behind the slogan “Good beer, No shit”, or exactly how Hunter S. Thompson was involved, because if I did that then there would be no reason to go. And once again … I URGE you to go.
The best part about the tour is that we followed a beer along its path. Snake Dog IPA was the beer that was chosen for us, and we followed it from start to finish. When I say we followed it, I mean we saw it from stage to stage, and tasted how it changed.
As you may know, beer is made up of water, malted barley, unmalted barley, other grains, hops and yeast. Alcohol doesn’t just magically appear, you gotta make the beer right. The first step is basically to get all the ingredients together, sans yeast, and bring it to a boil (Of course adding the ingredients at the right time), basically making a large vat of tea, also called the wort.
Now this is nothing special, but it was cool enough because, as a homebrewer you always try to avoid contamination, so as soon as that boil starts, you keep it the way it is. I’ve never taken the chance and drank any of this “beer tea” just for fear of contamination. Flying Dog gives you that opportunity, and its quite hot, incredibly sweet, and actually quite tasty.
The next step is making the booze into booze, which means fermentation. For those of you that are don’t know, yeast is added to the tea, the yeast eat the sugar, poop CO2 and pee alcohol. A homebrewer will know that sometimes fermentation will get a bit intense and bubble over, and thats just for a 5 gallon batch. Consider the giant behemoth steel containers that commercially crafted beer is made in and the CO2 output looks like the jets on a hot tub. And of course we tasted the beer. The warm, alcoholic, not-yet-carbonated, cloudy beer.
Then its onto the lab! Wait … the lab? A beer lab? I wish I had known about this when I picked my major in college. Consider it this way. Yeast is a microorganism. Someone has to be around to keep your yeast colony in check (Among other things such as the mineral content of the water and basically everything else that will make each batch consistent).
This was the part of the tour that made me rethink that brewery dream of mine. I mean, I can guarantee that I’ll put out some tasty brew, but I can’t guarantee that each batch will taste the same as the last. But these guys can, and for that I am thankful. So what did we get to taste at this stop? Oh, nothing. Just a drop of yeast. And considering that 50 ml of yeast can contain 15 billion cells, its a weird idea to just drink a drop of it. I’ll say that it doesn’t taste good, but it makes it easy to identify that “yeasty” taste in a beer.
The beer is then passed on, filtered, clarified, carbonated and bottled (Or put in kegs: 80 percent of its beer is bottled. The rest is put into kegs). Want to know how the beer is clarified and carbonated? GO ON THE TOUR. Seriously folks, it’s awesome. And so is the bottling machine.
The Krones bottling machine sits alone in its own room, on the other side of a pane of glass from the tour. This is what I see when I think of streamlining beer production. For an art that is as old as civilization, the methods of distributing it have gotten hella high tech. Basically it fills up the bottles, shoots in some hot water to make them foam up, caps em, and sends them on their merry way … and an incredibly high pace.
And at this stage we got to taste the finished product. The stuff that goes into the bottles. Ever gone to a potato chip factory and you get to eat the freshest potato chip you will ever eat? Yeah. I got to do that, too. With beer. Cold, carbonated, delicious beer. Fresh squeezed beer, right off the line. Never been bottled. Just another reason to stop by.
The last behind-the-scenes stop is in the back, where the bottles are checked and boxed up. They check the level of the beer, to make sure that the exact amount of fluid is inside, the labels, and all the other things people look for. If it doesn’t match up, it goes into the employee pile (Hooray free beer!). I’m not sure how to explain this place. It’s where stuff gets ready to ship out. Go see it.
The last stop was the also the first stop. The tasting room. With a pocket full of beer tokens you get to select a few brews to try. But don’t be reckless, in my case there were more beers I wanted to try than tokens, so I had to make some tough decisions. All in all, I’d say it’s worth the five bucks. Hell, I’d pay 10!
I wasn’t sure how to start this post, and now I don’t know how to end it. Flying Dog makes some good brews, quite a few of them. Try them, I’m sure you’ll find a few picks from the litter (Dog joke). These pups (Hah, pups) never disappoint, and have a very consistent flavor. Now these are real craft beers, not your Bud, so drink responsibly and within reason, as they do reach in the higher ABVs depending on the brew.
Support your state breweries. If you wan’t them to stick around, buy booze from their speakeasy and/or GO ON THE TOUR. If you regret going, then tell me, and I’ll tell you you’re crazy.
If you look at some of the bottles you may see the quote “Good people drink good beer,” which was said by the late great Hunter S. Thompson. I’d like to leave you with an extended version of that quote:
“There is an ancient Celtic axiom that says, ‘Good people drink good beer.’ Which is true, then as now. Just look around you in any public barroom, and you will quickly see: Bad people drink bad beer. Think about it.”
So go ahead, let these beers out of their cage. Good beer? No shit!
(All photos by Erik Hoffman)