I have lost track of the number of times the brewing process has been explained to me.
I’ve heard it on various brewery tours, during presentations by BREW-ed founder Cliff Mori and have even seen it visually broken down in the New York Times bestseller The Comic Book Story of Beer: The World’s Favorite Beverage from 7000 BC to Today’s Craft Brewing Revolution.
But each time, it’s never quite stuck with me. Try as I might, there’s something elusive about the chemical processes that mostly makes sense in the moment, then rattles around this English major’s brain and gets pushed to its recesses while some random tidbit of movie trivia takes its place.
As I near the 10-year mark of writing about beer, the time seemed right to make one last-ditch effort to better internalize how beer is made — preferably while on the clock. And so, in hopes of not becoming the beer journalist equivalent of the Woody Allen adage, “Those who can’t do, teach; and those who can’t teach, teach gym,” I contacted the OGs of the Asheville craft beverage scene, Highland Brewing Co., about the possibility of getting some hands-on experience by tagging along for a brew day.
Whether due to pity, a free comedy opportunity, the goodness of their hearts or some combination thereof, the Highland pilot brewing team of Shane Cummings and Josh Jiles heartily agreed to take me under their wings. What follows is an account of my minuscule part in helping make a batch of Hellbender, a smoked märzen (aka rauchbier) that I somehow didn’t screw up and will allegedly be available for public consumption at the brewery’s Clawtoberfest 2023 on Saturday, Sept. 16.
I arrived at Highland’s East Asheville headquarters promptly at 9 a.m. Abiding by the safety requirements, I left my usual shorts-and-sandals attire behind for long pants and close-toed shoes. At the open garage door to the right of the taproom, Cummings (whose official title is brewing innovation manager) and Jiles (brewing innovation lead brewer) greeted me with a level of enthusiasm I didn’t think possible this time of day. Clearly, these morning people had been up and at ’em for some time and were operating at a mental level far exceeding my own.
Case in point: Unbeknownst to me, I’d walked all the way from my car with its removable cupholder stuck to the bottom of my water bottle. Rather than concoct some elaborate story about having devised a superior cooling method and/or protecting a 2011 Toyota Prius’ original parts from the warping summer heat, I owned up to my bungle and thankfully received accepting chuckles from the brewers.
It’s a good thing that this dynamic duo fires on all cylinders at such an ungodly hour. As I quickly learned, the pilot brewery is not only where Highland’s adventurous small-batch beers (read: where my eyes always gravitate to first on the wall menu) are created, but where many of the packaged brews available at grocery stores get their start.
In order to responsibly enter the sacred space, Cummings supplied me with a pair of safety glasses. He then asked if I’d done any homebrewing (negative) and which beer styles are my favorites (pretty much anything flavor-forward and/or barrel-aged). Neither answer got me excommunicated, perhaps because these guys are A) nice and B) gravitate to hoppy beers and lagers, which explains the Hellbender selection. Cummings also shared that he’s a foodie, prompting Jiles to add that he enjoys baking, which the latter cited as a key development in his comprehension of the brewing process.
“I understood what each raw ingredient was supposed to do,” Jiles said. “It all kind of clicked.”
Wishing my own mental LEGOs would fall into place, I asked Cummings about his “eureka” moment when the nuts and bolts of his future profession made sense.
“For me, it was going to college for science,” he said. “I always enjoyed that aspect of brewing. The highlight for me is when you read about it and you have the muscle memory to put what you’re reading into practice, then it really comes out a little bit more deeper and more clearly.”
We shall see, gentlemen. We shall see.
Are you experienced?
Having talked the talk, it was now time to walk the walk, and so I followed Cummings to the mill room. Until recently, the grain mill lived in the pilot brewing room, next to the brewhouse, which he said made for tight quarters. Eventually, he and Jiles requested a separate room around the corner, which made sense on a comfort level. After he handed me a pair of ear protectors and turned on the mill, the separation also made sense on a sonic/anti-deafness level.
A master planner, Cummings had laid out multiple 55-pound bags of malt in a particular order to get the proper smoky flavor profile for Hellbender. After he methodically poured the first two bags’ contents into the mill, he let me handle the third — and in lifting it I got my first taste of how physically demanding being a brewer can be. No wonder Shane is swole!
“The whole purpose of that is to expose the internal guts of the malted barley — what we call the endosperm,” he said once the industrial noise performance had subsided. “That pretty much has all the starch sugar enzymes we’re looking for to convert the sugar.”
I was flying high, having contributed something of note to an actual beer — but little did I know that things were about to take a bittersweet turn. Back in the pilot room for a water break, I checked my phone and learned that Tony Kiss had passed away shortly after midnight. I grew up reading the “Beer Guy,” then worked with him at the Asheville Citizen Times before experiencing the surreal honor of editing his work at Xpress after he was laid off by Gannett’s Asheville Citizen Times. Just over seven years after the death of film critic extraordinaire Ken Hanke, I’d lost another mentor and friend.
I informed Cummings and Jiles of the news, and they were likewise saddened. But we cheered up at the appropriateness of being together at Highland; Kiss had been a champion of the brewery since its inception in the basement of Barley’s Taproom & Pizzeria nearly 30 years ago. About an hour later, Nikki Mitchell, Highland’s vice president of brand development, paid a visit. She informed us that brewery founder Oscar Wong — a longtime close friend of Tony’s — was one of the last people to visit him at the hospital the night before.
Word of Kiss’ death granted an extra layer of significance to the rest of the day’s activities and helped me dial in that much more. From there, it was time to pipe in the malt from the mill room and marry it with hot water to convert the sugar and form mash. I was tasked with getting “in” the brewhouse (i.e., standing on the platform in front of the mash and kettle tanks) to create the oatmeal-like product. With a live Phish album providing a pleasing soundtrack, Jiles handed me a stainless steel paddle to move around the malt as it was fed into the hot water. Rowing through this pond of gradually solidifying breakfast-y grains (and having a flashback to summer camp rafting on the Nantahala River), I eventually got the mixture to its desired consistency.
We then let the mash sit so the enzymes could, in Cummings’ words, “do what they need to do.”
Following a restorative burrito lunch from Mamacita’s, during which I discovered that Jiles is a fellow former trumpet player who converted to euphonium, I returned to the mash tank for cleanup duty. Here, I truly got to experience why brewers are in such good shape. With a sturdy red plastic rakelike instrument in hand, I pulled the spent grain into a large plastic trash can. It was hard work but, like mowing or shoveling snow, the kind where progress is immediately evident and therefore immensely satisfying.
My loyalty proven, Jiles showed me the Hellbender recipe and other handwritten entries in the binder. (Little did they know, the spy camera in my contact lens captured as many pages as possible.)
For my final trick, I was tasked with dropping hops pellets onto the combination of sweet wort (that had been sent over to the brewhouse kettle after the preclarification step of recirculating) and some freshly added potable hot water that had all been brought up to a boil for sterilization. The gist of that sentence sounded logical in the moment as Cummings described the scientific processes at play, but removed from the experience, I’m just going to take his word for it.
“Make it angry,” Cummings said as I tilted the container of hops, and he spoke of isomerizing the alpha acids and imparting a bitterness to help balance out the wort’s sweetness. (Bitter? Sweet? Balance? Check.) Meanwhile, I was apparently witnessing some wild chemical reaction in the kettle, resulting in mini-cyclones that reminded me of Kurt Vonnegut’s icy weather descriptions at the end of Cat’s Cradle. I pointed out the trippy visuals to Jiles, who reluctantly burst my bubble with intel that the swirls were courtesy of a fan atop the tank, not postmodern fiction come to life on a small scale.
My workday drawing to a close, Cummings dubbed me “officially a master brewer.” And as we all know there are no takebacks in the brewing industry — so his word is bond.
Now, could I replicate the process on my own or even deliver a short lecture on what was accomplished that day? Hell no. (Well, maybe I could fake my way through if I was allowed to consult this article and my interview transcripts — plus The Comic Book Story of Beer, which is now probably bursting with epiphanies.)
Like anything else, it’s going to take additional practice, and now that the Highland guys have made the process far more tangible, I’d be glad to hop back in and help them or someone else brew more batches. It’s rewarding work and the personalities it’s attracted at Highland are ones that would be fun to call colleagues, even on just a casual level.
Until that next opportunity, I look forward to raising a glass of Hellbender in honor of the one and only Tony Kiss.