live long and drink beer

By on Jul 25, 2013 in libations, process | 0 comments

Beer: a not so final frontier. This is the story of the Brewery Metropolitan. It’s five-year mission: to brew delicious beers, to seek out new varieties and flavors, to boldly brew what no one has brewed before. OK, perchance I am slapping some nerdy artistic license onto my interpretation of these fine folk. Perchance. But if you walk into Metropolitan Brewery, a small operation on Chicago’s north side, one of the first things you see is the bigger than life-size stick-on of Bones (Dr. McCoy, people, not the show on Fox, and to be clear… dammit, he is a doctor, not a brewer) adorning one of the giant fermentation tanks. If you take a stroll down the aisle of tanks, you will notice the tank names. If you are in the know, you will see that they are all named after minor Star Trek villains. One row for the original series, one for The Next Generation. Then you spot the robots that the owners Tracy and Doug Hurst made in the early days when they had a little more time, all sporting elements of the brewing craft. And if you keep looking, the signs of sci fi geekery are everywhere. And then there is the bit where all the beer names reflect Chicago’s industrial history. And one of their beer labels has a robot on it. And they have a sweet mascot dog named Phelps who oversees general morale. In short, I loved them immediately. A couple of weeks ago, Tracy, one of the co-founders of Metropolitan Brewery, let me come in and shoot. She was kind enough to make sure it was on a production day, so I got to see a little bit of it all, from pouring in the initial sacks of grain, to the mashing, peering into the tank as it brewed merrily (source of the happy baking bread smell, I think,) all the way down the line to the impressive sight of watching the small crew (five employees, including the two owners, and one intern) bottle case upon case, four bottles at a time. It is absolutely amazing to me how such a small operation can crank out so much glorious beer. I have known of them for several years (they started in 2008, so the five year mission thing totally works,) and have long been a fan of their Krankschaft Kolsch and Iron Works Alt. My corner liquor store actually introduced me to them, since they are very big proponents of supporting local businesses. Anyone who has seen their bottles knows they have an absolutely beautiful amalgam of design styles that work so well together I probably bought my first bottle just because I liked the label. And yes, you can judge this beer by its cover. When I walked in, the first thing that hit me was the smell. It was glorious, like bread baking in an oven. I grew up in La Crosse, Wisconsin, back in the days when Old Style was still brewed there. The giant brewery was downtown, and you always knew when it was a brewing day, because the smell… it was overwhelming. And, although this is likely heresy to say, it smelled BAD. You held your breath when driving through, and everyone sped up just a little until you were out of range. I mentioned this to Tracy, and it turns out she had a similar experience up in Milwaukee with the Miller brewery. Apparently it is because they use corn in the process somehow, or at least that is my understanding. Not so here. I watched as Doug, the master brewer and tamer of hops, and another gent (and I am sorry, my brain is forgetting your name, sir!) lined up 55 lb. sacks of malted grain from Germany, carefully open each one, then one by one empty them into a machine that then shot the grain up through a large tube and down into a tank where they began the first stage, the mash. In case you missed it… this was just two people. Two. If you walk in, you see the stacks of kegs, the innumerable cases, and they are constantly cranking out more and more. And the start of the beer assembly, as it were, is two people. Two other gents were filling keg upon keg from the tank known as Gary Seven. I am not sure of the actual number of kegs, but it must have been well over 20. I was too busy stalking the gents around the mash and brew kettles to keep count. Then they set up the bottling machine. If you have ever enjoyed a craft beer, have you ever considered the bottling? How many of you immediately envision the title sequence to “Laverne & Shirley”? Come on, admit it. You want it to be bottles flying down an assembly line, with a whimsical scene of a glove ferried along a single bottle stuck in for good measure. This is not that scene. There is one small machine, bristling with tubes both rubber and metal, that can fill four bottles at a time. Four. One person takes the plain brown bottles and puts them on a little machine that rolls on the label, one person takes the labeled bottles and carefully racks them up in the machine, constantly adjusting things on the input end (because there is definitely...

the angels are lucky

By on Jul 22, 2013 in libations, process | 2 comments

Long ago, when Middle Eastern alchemists worried over their medical elixirs (being apparently a little more noble than the European ones working on transmuting things into gold,) they noted the vapor given off during the distillation of alcohol. They collected it, and called it the spirit of the original material. Now we call the distilled liquid derived from fermented mash that ultimately creates some delicious cocktails… spirits. When these alcohols are aged in barrels, a portion of their liquid evaporates, which is known as the angel’s share. So we have spirits and angels, presumably representatives of the afterlife, coming back to have a nice little restorative tipple. Those lucky bastards. One of the places that offers up a bit of boozy afterlife delight is Few Distillery in Evanston, Illinois. This lovely little suburb of Chicago was actually dry until the 90s. The 1990s. No really. Enter master distiller Paul Hletko. A quiet man with roots going back to European distillers of old (I am going to bet not alchemists,) he was kind enough to let me come up an lurk for a bit at their wee distillery, the first to open in Evanston. And when I say wee… I mean wee. A generously sized garage, tucked into a back alley, barrels stacked to the ceiling, breathing silently up to the waiting angels. (for the record, the gent above is not Paul, that is Mark, another distiller) I found Paul, tucked back in a monastic cell of aging whiskey barrels and industrial metal shelves. He was fairly quiet, answering questions with a word or two, and as I had promised to stay out of the way and not interrupt production, I left him to his work. Mark, another distiller, was draining a freshly distilled batch of whiskey, and showed me the equipment, neat and compact, the tall multi-windowed copper stills with their myriad pipes bringing to mind a grown-up version of Willy Wonka. I shudder to think of the damage Veruca Salt would have done in here. There was a fresh round of rye becoming mash, a few steps and a fermenting tank away from becoming rye whiskey. It smelled like a bakery, and when I commented on it to Paul, he said “well, that’s the idea.” Mark dipped and dodged around the twisting maze of pipes, tweaking a valve here, swiping a finger under the draining whiskey to test the flavor, tapping away at some mysterious device I could not see, triumphant when it apparently whirred back into life. Standing in the hot confines of their small space, watching the few people working, you realize… these few people are making hundreds upon hundreds of bottles of booze, day in, day out. No assembly lines, no gigantic industrial machines. Three people were there on the morning I was. One of them was a young woman interning there who was transferring the freshly distilled whiskey into barrels to age. By hand. One jar at a time. An incredible amount of care goes into the making of these libations, and what would appear to be an incredible amount of tedium. But when you care about the end product, the tedium becomes a joy. Or at least so I would like to imagine. I was not the one with the jar. From what I understand, they have volunteer parties to help adhere the labels to all of the bottles, so it really becomes a community effort. Perhaps that I am just romanticizing the process, but can you even imagine that at, say, Wild Turkey’s distillery? There is also a challenge to being such a small distillery. Spirits need to age. So how do you start up a business if you need to wait for things to age? Mark gestured to the barrels surrounding us, stacked up to the ceiling, and how some were small, some were large. When they started, they had to use smaller barrels, which allowed them to get a product aged more quickly. Now that they are bigger, they can get bigger barrels and take the longer time to age the larger quantity. And I mean long. Two years, at least. They do a bourbon, and part of the definition of a bourbon is a whiskey that has been aged in a charred oak barrel for a certain quantity of time, a process that gives it that golden color and complexity of flavor that I do so adore. I should pause here to point out that they do distill gin and vodka, and occasionally a specialty spirit depending on what they have access to, but I am a little whiskey-centric. It is my favorite tipple to have, poured solo over a few choice ice cubes. But I digress. I did not actually ask about the origin of their name. Few Spirits. The least prosaic way of looking at it would be… they make a few spirits. But I am doubting they based the name on that. I would like to imagine that they are Few as in… there are few places like this, or at least there were when they started a few years ago. Few people were able to take that leap of faith it takes to start up a business that does not have an immediate product from the day they open. Few people would have the perseverance to stick through it. Few people would keep on paying...