The sun hasn’t risen yet, but the night sky is giving way to a cool glow in the east. My dreamy mind-state is tethered to the reality of the workday by the hum of machinery - glycol pump, boiler, air compressor as I pull on my boots and stuff a pair of rubber gloves in my back pocket. I kick on the mill and start hefting bags of malt in one at a time, pick some music, sip some coffee, throw in another bag. I like to write out the day’s activities on the dry-erase board with little squares to check off throughout the day: clean a tank, harvest yeast, dry hop. Sip coffee, dump a bag in the mill. Pieces of equipment make their way out onto the floor like uncertain dance partners and are connected by thick brew hoses and tri-clamps. I stand at the parts trays crafting sculptures from stainless parts - sight glass to cross with two butterfly valves, an elbow to divert to the floor. Throw in another bag.
There is a special feeling that comes with starting a brew while the rest of the town sleeps. It is a feeling of simple purpose and the absence of doubt. With the first few bags of malt the heart rate picks up and the tempo of the morning is set. Two minutes till the next bag, weigh out brew salts, sip some coffee. The sky lights up and fills with pink, blue, and wispy white. The spaces are different, but the feeling is the same: Brooklyn, Portland, Hood River. To be honest I don’t get in for pre-dawn mash-ins very often these days, but when I do I love how it snaps me back to that state of mind.
I have met a number of people over the past twenty years and, usually, at some point in that first conversation the subject of our respective jobs comes up.
“I make beer” I say, and we may or may not talk about that for a little while. Those three words sum it all up pretty well – there wasn’t beer and then I did my thing and there was beer.
But it seems to me that when one does a thing for twenty years or so one cannot help but to think about that thing differently. Even in the most superficial way — when I started homebrewing in Vermont and helping out doing menial tasks at a regional brewery, malted barley came in bags, hops were little green pellets in boxes, water came from a pipe and yeast was a packet of little granules or runny tan goo that I plopped into a brew. Now, having spent some time with barley farmers in their fields and maltsters, hop breeders and farmers, having slept in hop fields under the stars and trellises, and found yeast from the wild and isolated and grown it up on petri plates — I know beer more. And now, well into my forties, I find myself contemplating all things much more than I ever had before – hops and barley rise out of the soil, like all things we know and can touch here, a part of the earth made of sunlight and carbon from the air, water and minerals from the ground, yeast – unicellular yet acting as a communal organism shares 23% of its genes with humans. Yup, we diverged from a common ancestor somewhere around 1 billion years ago. I always wondered how I could have such strong feelings for tan goo. And living in Hood River makes one appreciate water. The Hood River runs milky with silt through the summer fed by melting glaciers on our backyard volcano. The water coming out of our pipes has been naturally filtered through volcanic basalt rock to springs just south of town in the forest.
We have a ritual that takes place in that forest near that spring each year. As May becomes June we haul out some beer and food and empty grain bags. We wear long pants and sturdy shoes, hats, sunglasses, light clothing, and we spend a few days picking the tips off the boughs of Doug Fir trees out there. By cutting a couple slits in a grain bag and running a belt through it you have a perfect little harvest basket. It can get pretty hot in the day so my favorite time to pick is in the late afternoon into dusk, under Mt. Hood, with the birds swooping up their evening meal and calling to their loved ones. The sky lights up orange and pink as the sun settles into the hills surrounding the little hidden valley. By the end of the harvest we have about two-hundred pounds of little bright green tips, tans, and smiles. The stand from which we pick is determined by the county forestry department, they must like us since it has the best views around; we like them too. We use these Doug Fir tips for a couple of our beers. One is Woodsman Porter which we make in the fall and winter, and the other is The Sentinel.
The Sentinel is a special beer that we make. It is quite unique, and I like to think of it as a tribute to the space here in which we dwell. The brew was first conceived as a tiny blend made and served in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Northwest Environmental Defense Center. Since we were making a beer to celebrate the efforts of the NEDC to protect this place that we love, I decided to make it with elements from this place – it is a farmhouse ale fermented with our White River yeast strain, which we harvested from further up Mt. Hood, aged in wine barrels with Brettanomyces, and finished with our little hand-picked gems from the forest. When planning out this blend I had a feeling that it could be nice, but once we made it I was enamored. The Doug Fir tips lend a fruity, sort of raspberry, lemon note with just a hint of piney evergreen. Combined with the subtle funk of Brett there is a twangy depth of character but still a light and refreshing brew. In the years since, we have brewed bigger and bigger batches of The Sentinel and now both bottle condition it and keg it off for draft. Each bottle and glass of The Sentinel is filled with life from our surrounding forest.
In my younger years, doe-eyed and eager to get into the brewing industry, I really had little concept of what it would be like to be a brewmaster of a small brewery. I quickly learned that I really like making beer, and all of the tasks that it entails, as sweaty and repetitive as most of them are. It has taken a bit longer, though, for me to think of this work and this stuff – beer – as I do now. Every day that we get up and get started with our day is a magical experience, I am grateful to get to spend my days creating something tangible and enjoyable that grows from this place that we love.