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Crafted With Love: New Belgium Tour and Homebrewing

Its almost impossible to live in Beer City USA aka Asheville, NC and not be at least curious about craft brewing.

I had two items on my #50for50 list that had to do with brewing. One was a private tour of New Belgium Brewing that I had won in a silent auction for myself and up to 7 other guests. The other beer related adventure I had on my list was home brewing suggested by Kelly Bryant Proctor and Ryan Hanley.

New Belgium Tour

The tour had to be scheduled before September as I’d actually won the auction the year before so it was nearing expiration. I picked the weekend in August when my friend Lara Racster would be visiting me as I knew she enjoyed beer even more than I did. I also invited a bunch of my other friends. Sadie Simpson was the only one who was able to manage the Saturday morning on her busy schedule.

However I also invited a new friend, Stan Powell who drove up from Charlotte to come along. One of the cool things about Stan is he works in the beer industry and was able to call ahead to make sure our tour was extra special.

None of us had taken the VIP private tour before so we were all a bit giddy from the get go. Or maybe it was the fact our tour guide had already poured all of us a tall glass of beer to bring with us?

The first stop was outside to talk about how New Belgium completely renovated the land before they even started building. The goal was to improve the drainage on the brewery’s campus since it is right on the French Broad River. The water that filters through the location now comes out cleaner before it flows down the river bank.

Next up on the tour was the Brewhouse, a 5100 sq ft kettle room that doubles as an event space. We stopped for another glass of beer at the bar there (I wasn’t even finished with the first!) and discussed hops and malts. Then we exited to a hallway and although there were stairs avaiable, everyone took the slide down to the lower floor.

There our guide stopped us at another set of taps, where enjoyed another small glass of beer. The alcove is decorated with photos of the inspiration that the founding couple had experienced back in 1988 while on a bicycle trip around Belgium. Obviously enjoying centuries old Belgian beer styles was the influence for New Belgium and by 1991 they began brewing in their basement.

We followed the maze of hallways and through a set of doors into the fermenting room. You could see where the pipes ran from the huge kettles in the floor above and into dozens of fermenting, filtering and brite beer tanks filled this room. While we heard all the processes I was fascinated by the yummy bread like smells.

It actually reminded me a little of when I was a kid and had gone with my school group to Sunbeam Bakery to see bread being made. Except this was liquid bread here at New Belgium. I noticed the guide had stopped in front of a tank that he explained held beer just ready for bottling.

Then he amazed us all by grabbing a long curled pipe and uncapping the end he poured a taste into each of our glasses. Fat Tire straight off the “pigtail”. It was delicious.

Next we went into a cooler and got to feel and smell hop pellets. They are super fragrant and of course one of the reasons I love the smell of an IPA but am not a huge fan of the hoppy taste of an India Pale Ale.

Then we headed up stairs and into a room over looking the bottling line. And more beer to taste. Ironically of all the beer samples it was only the last three that I distinctly remember. This one was Hemperor which has both hops and hemp in the beer. I didn’t feel any way except it was a bit leafy green tasting. I really enjoyed the view of the bottling as it looked like Lavergne and Shirley should be out there somewhere in the mechanical maze of bottles flying by.

Which made me even happier to find out we got to go out onto the bottling floor and see it close up. We followed our guide staying behind a yellow safety line down the floor. Finally we stopped near a door and he told us to each grab a bottle as it went by.

Grab a bottle? Why I was thrilled to! Then he pulls out a bottle opener since it had already been capped and proceeds to uncap each of our bottles. Allowing us to drink a COLD Voodoo Ranger right off the line.

It was another IPA and I didn’t mind as it tasted like naughtiness and rule breaking. We stepped through doors onto a walkway overlooking the river and sat at benches enjoying the brew. Since it was in a bottle and not a glass we weren’t allowed to walk it back across the bridge to the main tasting room and grassy areas.

It was the end of the tour and we all felt really good. Lunch was up next since we all needed something to eat after all that beer. The tour was definitely worth the auction price and I was happy to spend the time with friends old and new.

Home Brewing

My home-brew experience was not until early in November and this experience I opted to tackle solo.

I had been gifted a 1 gallon brew kit and ingredient kits for both a Honey Country Pilsner and an Imperial IPA from Northern Brewer. As you might guess I opted for the former. I liked that it didn’t require steeping any grains and I was fascinated with the sugar kick coming from honey.

It starts out with water. I filled a huge stock pot with 1 1/4 gallons of water then began the cooking process. To the boiling water I added the Pilsner malt and one packet of the Willamette hops, boiled some more then added the second packet of Willamette hops. Then you turn off the heat and add the honey right to the “wort”. That just means the beer starter – the unfermented mix.

Next it was time to chill it and I chose an ice bath since I didn’t have a chiller. While it cooled I sanitized my auto siphon, tubing, fermenting jug, and airlock. I checked the temp and the wort was ready to siphon. Which was supposed to filter a good bit of the “trub” out, aka the hop-malt sludge.

Mine was still fairly cloudy but I hoped could filter out during bottling.

Siphoning was also tricky and I lost about 8 ounces of wort into the floor trying to figure out how to get gravity to do the work. But finally time to add the yeast and seal up my fermenting jug.

I left it on the kitchen counter for a few days to watch the yeast start going to work. It is fascinating to watch it bubble and undulate all on its own. Once the action started dying down I moved to a cool dark place and waited over three weeks of fermenting to bottle.

On bottling day its a lot of sanitizing then using the siphon to fill the bottles while trying to avoid suctioning up any of the murkiness. I got a fair number of bottles filled with what I’d siphoned then added a fizz drop to each (looks like a cough drop and has a small bit of sugar to make the beer carbonate) before capping and bottle aging for another couple of weeks.

Meanwhile it was the middle of December and I was excited to finally refrigerate a bottle and open it for a glass. Despite having a lovely honey beer flavor I noticed it seemed a slight bit flat. After researching a bit I discovered the temperatures in the house were no longer warm enough to properly keep the yeast happy.

The yeast might have fell down on the job a bit and yet I was still proud of myself for home-brewing completely solo as a first timer. Definitely crafted with love.

A couple weeks later after Christmas I gave a speech on home brewing for my Toastmasters group and then let them taste it. It actually got decent reviews all around the table even from some who didn’t like beer. Looking forward to the weather warming up enough for me to try my hand at the Imperial IPA if only I can find friends to help me drink.

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