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December 19th: A Scary Sound!

Wednesday, December 18th, 2013

Today while we were canning there was a weird noise and for a moment everything got scary.

The noise came from the bowels of the brewery, where steel fermenters crowd together like the nuclear missiles Sean Connery’s Marco Ramius warns Alec Baldwin’s Jack Ryan about in The Hunt for Red October (“Shum thingsh in here don’t react well to bulletsh.”)

The canner raises an unholy ruckus itself, so (as documented in prior missives in this space) we protect our ears with plugs and headphones and such. Thus, we have four cellarmen laboring away at one end of the brewery, hearing muffled against the din, and here, at the other end and naked of ear, here be brewers. Two of them, name of Wilson (head) and Batinski (assistant to), they’re who receive the full fright and oddity of the thing. What did it sound like?

I said (I, who couldn’t hardly hear) like air released from the pinched throat of a balloon. Said Wes, like creaking wood.

When I heard and looked up, the brewers were wide-eyed, made tense of an instant, on the balls of their feet. Both clapped hands to their ears against the weird shriek.

Batinski said it sounded like metal bending or tearing.

Nate and I’d been harvesting cans, corralling them into sixes. He, like the rest of us, stopped and looked back there: a pack of deer going about their business, interrupted by sudden light. We watched Batinski exit stage right with urgency, watched Wilson dash in and out among the fermenters.  “Should we, uh, leave?” Nate wondered.


 So the thing is, our floors are not graded; they do not slope rationally down to a central drain. A central drain exists–to be sure–but it’s up to us to make sure the several handfuls of tons of excess liquids generated in the brewing and packaging process are directed thereto. To aid us in our efforts, we have collected over the years an appropriately wide and motley assortment of industrial-strength fans. These we’ll deploy in trouble spots and point at the floor. They blow the wet concrete floors dry. They disrupt puddles. They deter infestation. And they are exhausted.

 Today, one of them got screwy and made this godawful noise that scared the crap out of us. No biggie. Nothing to it. But here’s the thing:

We deal every day with pressurized metal tanks. I remember when the Red Hook guy died, not too long ago, owing to an exploding keg (although I think that one was plastic). I remember a few different instances over the years when, at the keg wash or elsewhere, dealing with competing jets of pressure, I’ve closed my eyes, muttered an atheist prayer, and opened a valve. Another guy at another brewery, can’t remember which one, died recently when a forklift turned over. And once, as a neophyte in this industry, I was warned by the then head brewer to walk right the hell out of the walk-in cooler if it smelled funny, owing to the fact that it was always possible someone might accidentally leave open (and silently venting) the CO2 line we used to jump-off kegs.

Needless to say, we at the French Broad Brewery and we in general of Asheville craft beer have avoided disaster. We are professionals, even if we have fans pointed at the floors, even if our floors do not grade gently and inevitably into the central drain. I’m not suggesting that we’re taking our lives into our hands, here.

But it’s true that when you experience any goddamn thing in this world at all you’re only experiencing the icebergian tip of it. Here, then, for your edification as a lifter of pints, is a window of sorts into the cold water.


Drinking the New French Broad Koko Stout–What It’s Like

Thursday, December 12th, 2013

You’re on a barstool in a place with low light and someone singing. The mahogany bar glows a little, softly, off-focus,  odd but lovely. Expansive windows reveal an Alpine landscape beyond–shouldering white peaks, blank, fearsome promontories, a mute and booming study in geologic improbabilities. What are these sounds? Well, there’s a fire crackling, for one thing, in a vast stone hearth, a few plush armchairs arrayed around, occupied by sippers, readers apparently, irregularly speaking in unsyllabled tones. In a corner, on a slightly raised platform, there’s a woman in a stunning white dress singing to you. Lots of lips on this one. Also leg. She is holding the microphone in a way that hooks some part of your mind and slinks away with it down paths unlit. When she blinks it’s nice and slow and you realize you may be an eyelid man. When she unblinks, you realize you’ve never properly appreciated the color green. The bartender–how long has he been there?–is drying a highball glass with a white towel. He has big meaty elbows, a $50 haircut and black clothes that fit. “Get you something?”

“A beer,” you say, like they do in the movies. Your voice sounds good in this place. Maybe you belong here. Around all these nice things, these talented people, this warm den in the middle of the relentless wild, held in luxury’s good hands…maybe this is where you belong.

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It’s a black beer he puts on the bar in front of you–an absorbing, opaque, maybe Satanic black. Two fingers of densely packed amber head keep the cold in. If you put it up to your ear, it’d sing to you too: a seduction in slow, concatenating erasure. It would sound like this: fizzzzzzzzzzzz, and would blow tiny kisses of cool air on your ear with each bubble’s sacrifice. I am not long for the world, it seems to say to you.

“What’s this?” you ask the bartender.

“Ask him,” he says, signaling someone sitting next to you. “He’s the brewer.”

“Peter Batinski,” says your neighbor by way of introduction. He’s wearing a hoodie over a pink shirt and a pair of pants that could fit three or four of him. His bike leans against a far wall. “That’s the French Broad Koko Stout,” he says. “Only the second time we’ve ever made it. We used more than a pound of Costa Rican cacao nibs per barrel. The gravity is 5.9 percent.”

“Anything else you wanna say about it?” you ask.

He thinks for a while, says, “It’s dark.”

You take a drink and your eyes close all by themselves. Then open.

You’re on a barstool in a place with low light and someone singing…



Tuesday, December 10th, 2013

Mondays we can. Rest of the week we’ll janky-up our schedules, the bunch of us cellarmen alternating positions, some of us moonlighting as delivery drivers and salesmen, tenders of lines, others toiling in isolated pockets, one here labeling away while another huffs and puffs cold tons on pallets around the walk-in cooler, somebody sweeping, somebody washing, somebody filling, lotta guys trained on they phones. But Mondays we can, all of us together, for about four and a half straight hours. Once you learn your job, when you’ve refined whatever small mechanical repetition is your job to the level of automatism occupied theretofore by such sophisticated acts as blinking, and walking, well you’ve got time to reflect. Some of us even have time to talk.

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One; aka Wes; spirit animal: “Sancho, the Playful Otter”

Here’s how it works the way we do it: One overlords the canning line, feeding it lids and cans and making sure the entire operation does not unspool into waste, catastrophe and tedium; Another has that most joyless of all tasks, the moving of the finished cans from the ceaselessly outputting tract of the canner to the sixing station (essentially a human extension of the conveyor belt, this miserable soul); and finally Three Splendid Blokes capture all these cold 12oz darlings, pinch them into their plastic harnesses and offload them one case at a time onto the waiting pallet, just so. One mostly contents himself within big sound-muffling headphones that themselves surround a discrete pair of earbuds; Another does so too, dancing a lot and air soloing monster metal riffs whilst conveying, but the Three get to talk. What we talk about is mostly food, until we start going a little crazy. There are essentially three phases of the daylong conversation:

1. Food

2. We’re All Going a Little Crazy

3. Battered into Mindnumbed Silence

Another; aka Chris; spirit animal: "Jerome, the Sickly Panda"

Another; aka Chris; spirit animal: “Jerome, the Needful Panda”

We’ve agreed to start trying to eat something very interesting every weekend so we can talk about it Mondays. Had anyone thought to take dictation, they’d’ve found that we’d written a funny, rambling, essentially open-minded book on child discipline. And we’ve gone pretty deep into identifying our spirit animals and exploring their natures.

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A Splendid Bloke; aka Nate; spirit animal: “Ramon, a Groundhog”

This has just been a little primer for you to follow as you pile into your Mondays, dreaming as you undoubtedly sometimes do of the other paths your life may have taken. What if instead of being me I was the person on the canning line? you might muse. What if things had happened differently, and I canned beer instead of all this lawyering or nursing or what all? Well, for one thing, you would work with this guy…

 A Splendid Bloke; aka Armando; spirit animal: "Pierre, the King Snake"

A Splendid Bloke; aka Armando; spirit animal: “Pierre, the King Snake”

…and on Mondays, you’d can.

So here’s to you, muser! Here’s to all of us that dream!







Make sail for safe harbor!

Thursday, November 7th, 2013

As detailed in the wonderful books of deceased Irishman Patrick O’Brian, it wasn’t a completely unusual part of the average British tar’s workday to undertake, in a great big Busby Berkeley sort of choreographed burst, the complete overhaul and camouflaging of one of Her Majesty’s ships while at sea and sailing. Maybe you had the good sense to see the feature film Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (starring Russell Crow and Paul Bettany, directed by Peter Weir), which is based on the great author’s work and which includes a montage of the HMS Surprise, in fact a dangerous frigate, disguising herself as a wounded Dutch whaler in order to ensnare a powerful French ship-of-the-line: look at the men draped on rope ladders over the side, painting the hull anew; look at what labor it is to tuck away the cold tons of cannon; look at the officers chuck their hats and cover their pips, the false colors set reeling up the mast. Here’s the conceit: the French Broad Brewery, right now, is the HMS Surprise, the first several phases of the battle are finished, we’ve arrived at a heroic moment with all  poised in the balance, we are up to our ears in work, the prize is in sight and the paint isn’t hardly dry.

We are not exactly Busby Berkeley-caliber, of course. If Chris Farley went into choreography…maybe that. And while our lines are bluff and our sails trim, we’re not quite up to Her Majesty’s bar either. Merchant Marine, maybe. Mc’what’s-his-name’s Navy, is more like it.

All the above italicized I wrote back on June 13, like a man ejected from a submarine popping through the border of the sea and sucking air. We’d been invited into a maelstrom of change by whatever pantheon of yeastbearded gods arranges the fates of craft breweries. (And by gods I am probably alluding–poor me, little mortal–to some VC, some so-called “angel”, a remote billionaire who’d through some more or less random process cottoned on to our little operation and, easy as opening a wallet, altered our lives.) Chris Richards, who’d captained our ship five someodd years, graduated half an hour south to Sierra Nevada; his first lieutenant Aaron Wilson was given a well-deserved battlefield promotion; Alex Chambers (who may or may not bear a striking resemblance to Nikolai Tesla–I don’t know, but it seems likely) was brought on full time from Asheville Home Brew Supply to the brewhouse; Shannon of the Warehouse (Man of Many Names…Domino, Sluggo, Baby Girl, etc.) exited stage right, in his wake a whooshing vacuum we occupied toot sweet with Wes Barnes, lately of Riverside Drive’s sortofsprawling All Fun Gifts (the headshop supplier and one of Asheville’s fastest budding home grown industries, ahem), all while learning how to use our canning line, the Very Expensive machine from Canada whose functionality at a critical moment depends entirely on a rubber band. A rubber band.

Well, now things are even more fun. Land of the Sky Mobile Canning is sharing our new capacious warehouse space with us and we’re nearing a record year. We’ve largely tamed the beast of Mondays (Mondays we go a’canning). We’ve instituted a calendar-dated bottle-tasting regimen as sure to improve our brewnomics as to tipsy up our mornings. Farmers of all stripes (cows, chickens, goats, vegetables) are hauling in and out of here daily, their trucks laden with spent, steaming grain. And there’s a brand new enormous shattered concrete divot in the back for us to get the forklift stuck in all the time. Fun!

The world out there today is gray and a little rainy and cold. Perfect weather for a pint! A Porter sounds good about now, doesn’t it? Or maybe a spot of barleywine, now well past a year since its “Born-On” date. As the saying goes, “Barleywine: it’s Not Just a River in Middlearth.”

Anyway. I love you. Have a nice day. Come in and stay awhile. Cheers!




















P.S. Of course I meant Brandywine, not Barleywine. As the saying goes: “Barleywine: It was Never a River in Middlearth.”