An award-winning mixologist at the recent Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards in New Orleans said customers imagine that bartenders get home after a long shift and somehow have the energy to whip up concoctions that dwarf even the most formidable craft-cocktail menu. But that is not so, he said. They crack open a beer. To paraphrase wine expert and orator Doug Frost at a beer-cocktail seminar earlier that day, I’m a tourist in the field of beer. I’ve been drinking it since I was a baby (true story), but I’ve never really made a study of beer the way I have spirits, cocktails and wine. Well, till now.
The day I attended Brew School at the Big Dog’s Brewing Co. Draft House, the class was sold out, as I suspect they all are. About 35 of us—including, impressively, eight women—sat attentively at tables and chairs laid out in the middle of the brewery. To my left, a drum kit (brewers do a lot of waiting) and a walk-in cooler filled with hop pellets and kegs; to my right, a few of the new tanks that will eventually become part of the brewery’s impending expansion. Brewmaster Dave Otto spoke frankly about our class project, tangerine wit (Flemish for “white”), a flavor he had never before attempted with a wit.
We crowded around the controls as he milled the wheat and barley, ran our fingers through the rolled oats and laughed when a bag of fluffy rice hulls exploded in the sweet, steamy cloud emanating from the 570-gallon mash tun, briefly turning the brewery into a sort of snow globe. The hulls are added to the mix of hot water and grains to keep the stuff from turning into cement-like goo. As he stirred the thick porridge with a massive stainless-steel paddle, it became apparent how physically demanding this job is.
“We don’t really do a lot of calculation in here; probably not a good idea …” Otto said. He occasionally checked temperatures but only to confirm what he already knew by feel, and everything was alarmingly eyeballed. “That’s why it’s called ‘craft brewing’!” someone piped up cheerfully. Fresh tangerine peel and coriander went into the brew kettle in a mesh sack like a giant tea bag. If all went well, Otto estimated, we’d have a 15-barrel batch of this Belgian-style wheat beer that once fell out of popularity and was revived in the ’60s by a milkman-turned-brewer in Hoegaarden, Belgium.
From there, it was all hurry up and wait. Were we not there, that drum kit might have seen some action. But that meant plenty of time for the students—from the seasoned home-brewers to the wide-eyed newbies—to pepper Otto with brewing questions. What is sparging? Dry-hopping? What yeast does Otto use? We covered it all as Otto went about the tasks of adding the hop pellets and moving the wort from one huge piece of equipment to the next.
Probably the most important lesson of the day was that, other than the chemical interactions, professional brewing is nothing like home-brewing. With the giant mash tun, kettle and fermentation tanks all dedicated and permanently hooked up to hot water—and with the floors designed to be hosed down permanent drains—well, it makes the prospect of trying this in my kitchen daunting. But “Professor” Otto is supportive, and generous with his time and passion, giving equal time to each question without judgment. Like us, Otto didn’t get a degree in zymurgy (the science of fermentation); he learned by doing:
Water + heat + grain = wort.
Wort + yeast + heat + time = beer.
The rest is just time to drink beer and plan the next batch. In other words, there’s hope for this beer tourist!
The next class—Big Dog’s 12th thus far—is Sept. 8, when the attendees will help Otto make a 15-barrel batch of Big Dog’s Chocolate Lab porter. For $99, scholars attend class 10 a.m.-4 p.m., which includes lunch and two pints of their choice (makes it that much easier to sit and listen!), a 20 percent discount on retail items and, two weeks later (for ale; 4-6 weeks later for lager) at the graduation dinner, attendees enjoy two more pints and get a diploma, class photo and, most importantly, a growler of their class’s beer to evaluate their success. At the end of the day, the proof is in the porter.