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.