Spent grain is caked on my forearms, like I've just lost a fight with a cereal mascot. And more grain keeps belching my way, from a pipe above a bin resting on the arms of a forklift. A brown mound builds, and I attack it with a garden hoe in a futile attempt to free space for more grain.
"Now I know how Lucy and Ethel felt," I tell Patrick Raasch, a brewer at the Free State Brewing Co. He's overseeing my apprenticeship on an April Friday at the East Lawrence production plant. It's up to Raasch, 24, to make me feel as though what I'm doing is important, without his getting too far off his schedule.
"Let me take over to finish that out," Raasch says. He spreads the grain evenly before trucking it to a container destined for cattle at the Iwig Family Dairy.
Steve Rold, a 29-year-old bearded giant, is the other pupil today, finishing his first week of training under Raasch. "Learning the plumbing is like The Matrix," he jokes. Having worked at microbreweries in Iowa (Thirsty Mermaids) and North Carolina (Blind Squirrel), he has experience that I lack, but he's riding his own learning curve. "The first week, I was just flipping switches and trying to figure out what's going on."
At stake are approximately 38 barrels — 1,200 gallons — of Oatmeal Stout, one of the Lawrence brewery's year-round staples and the focus of my day's work in the 20,000-square-foot home of the Sunflower State's craft-beer movement.
Twenty-four years ago, Free State became the first post-Prohibition brewery in notoriously dry Kansas. And this could be the year when the world beyond Lawrence learns why drinkers flock to Massachusetts Street for Copperhead Ale and Wheat State Golden. With a new bottling line expected to be up and running this month and a dedicated barrel-aging room, Free State is poised to shed the devastating effects of a 2008 fire at its East Lawrence plant. This year, founder Chuck Magerl's vision comes to fruition: a pipeline of palate-pushing brews running down Interstate 70 to Kansas City.
But first there's the matter of those 38 barrels.
The white clock with a Free State logo reads 9:04 a.m. as Raasch, Rold and I climb the elevated platform to the mash tun, a metal cylinder shaped like a pressure cooker. Head brewer Steve Bradt is already there, watching it fill with ground grain on its first step toward becoming beer.
"This is the job I fell in love with," Bradt says, "I was there the first night we opened, when I was just a bartender trying to describe something to folks not used to drinking craft beer. Since then, I've just become thoroughly entrenched with the art and science of beer."
Bradt was the brewery's first assistant brewer, under Magerl, at the downtown Lawrence brewpub, and he oversaw construction of the production plant, rebuilding the brewery operation that Free State purchased from Portland, Oregon's Widmer Brothers Brewing Co. His Helles, a light German lager, was the first brew off that line, in July 2009.
He wants today's mash (the ground grain mixed with water) to stay light and fluffy, like a biscuit, as the enzymes break down to form simple, fermentable sugar. A machine-powered rake stirs the muddy brown stock to ensure this result. Rold, who affectionately calls Raasch "boss," takes the temperature with an outsize instrument resembling a comic's prop meat thermometer, and he notes the volume. At 158 degrees Fahrenheit, the temperature is in the right range to produce the roasty, malty character that defines Free State's Oatmeal Stout.
Raasch moves nimbly to the next station while monitoring the temperature gauges and water levels. "You always have to be thinking where you're headed next," he says. "I was having dinner with my girlfriend the other night, and I kept telling her all the other things we could be doing with our time."
The redheaded former University of Kansas business-communications major maneuvers between the piping and vats like an experienced alpinist, his hands and feet finding the spaces. I manage to follow him, thanks less to dexterity than to lucky genetic happenstance. (I'm "great for confined spaces," Boulevard brewer Jeremy Danner tweets that day.)
And I'm learning that brewing is all clamps and hoses. Clamps need to be undone or secured. Hoses need to be filled or flushed. (Everything is rigorously cleaned to keep anything foreign from being introduced to the brewing process; sanitizer is used in volumes not seen outside a doctor's office or a day care.)
As Raasch flicks switches (and I keep my hands by my sides), hot water sprays on the bed of mash in the tun. This process, known as sparging, produces a sweet, sugar-laden liquid called wort, which is then piped out the bottom of the tun (which has a false bottom, a screen that Bradt compares with a coffee percolator) and into an adjacent kettle. After bringing the liquid to a boil, Raasch and Rold add four varieties of hops, for aroma and taste.
In the adjacent warehouse space, Bradt and production manager Brad Scott are testing the new line, working on a solution for a temperamental crowner (the station that presses caps onto bottles). Last used by Pepsi, the hulking metal line, with a conveyor-belt feed wide enough to accommodate 25 bottles, can push through 800 bottles a minute. Bradt requires only a quarter of that speed, but even at that rate it will run at four times the current line's speed.
"I'm a data junkie," Bradt says. "I have sales figures going back years downtown. But as a production brewery, you have to be a lot more reactive, and there's less flexibility. Still, my crystal ball is getting a lot shinier."
Bradt's number crunching — let's call it lager metrics — finds its complement in Geoff Deman, who has been in charge of the daily production and brewing at the pub since 2009 (and whom Bradt calls a "creative dynamo").
"I like to think like a chef," Deman says. "I've been fortunate to do a lot of new styles, and the fun part is when products originate downtown and then go to bottle." Stormchaser, one of Free State's newest bottled beers, began as a lighter IPA on tap in the summer. Deman is working on Brightwater Saison (made with Nelson hops, to evoke a sauvignon blanc), which he expects to be on tap in May.
He and Bradt have also been collaborating on Free State's Eccentricity series — the barrel-aged small batches were first unveiled December 12, 2012, at 12:12 p.m. Inside a walk-in cooler are Templeton Rye barrels and sealed kegs that have been aging as long as eight years. Iron Man Imperial Stout, Baltic Porter, Owd Mac and Barleywine are here, waiting to hit the new line for release in 750 ml bottles.
"I've consistently had my preconceptions about how long our beer can last challenged," Bradt says.
For the first time in six hours, Raasch is sitting. He posts himself at the corner of an elevated metal railing to maintain his view of the water levels and the kettle temperature. Rold sends the wort through pipes to the whirlpool, where the liquid is clarified by spinning. Raasch watches the steam at the whirlpool's lid, waiting for the right moment to start pulling the wort toward the fermenter. Ideally, the solid particulates drain through the bottom of the whirlpool tank, and the clarified wort is sent through a heat exchanger, where a cold-water bath rapidly brings down the temperature.
Raasch takes samples at each stage to measure pH and the Plato-scale number (a measurement gauging the amount of malted sugar). The idea is to produce a brew that's neither astringent nor too strong. Bradt pours small sample glasses of the cooled wort.
The dark-brown wort is like watered-down simple syrup with an aftertaste of tree bark. The malt and hops have not yet found common ground in the fermenter, which is the day's final destination. With the addition of yeast, the sugars will convert to alcohol, and Batch 605 of Oatmeal Stout should be ready in about two weeks.
"Now," Rold says with a smile, "we're making beer."
When I walk out to the production floor, I notice a black-and-yellow sign that says "Danger Men Brewing," and I feel some relief. Seven hours after I arrived here, Free State's beer is free of danger from this man. Later that night, at a charity event downtown, I'm glad to be back on the other side of the bar, a cold bottle of beer in my hand.