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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.