December 19th: A Scary Sound!

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.

-D.W.

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