The Church of Nylen

Sunday morning, as my wife gathered up the children to go to church, I went to a different sort of place of worship, to a service more in keeping with my vision of the divine… I went to make beer.

Cascade hops on the vine outside

It all began last spring, at the fundraiser silent auction for the school my children attend. As I was walking around bidding on various items, I discovered the beer-making session offered by my friend — litigator, Cubmaster, Irish fiddle player, Topanga brewmaster and all around good and generous guy, Greg Nylen. I immediately placed a bid. A short time later, my friend Debra approached me sternly: “Don’t place anymore bids on the beer making session. I’m trying to get it for Ernie’s birthday.” Since Ernie is one of my best friends and I wanted him to have a good birthday, I demurred. Perhaps, I gently suggested as an implied condition of my surrender, Ernie would consider letting me tag along? Of course, Ernie would have it no other way.

So on the appointed day some six months later, 8 a.m. Sunday morning, I’m frying bratwursts for lunch when Ernie arrives to pick me up, more bratwursts in hand.

We get to Greg’s place a short time later and set to work. Greg, I should point out, is not a man who does anything halfway. When we go camping with the Scouts, he brings a cooking rig the likes of nothing I’ve seen before. He even has his own campsite in the desert, which I’m told rivals the national parks. And his home brewery is no less impressive, installed in a bright space beneath his back deck and featuring a mind-boggling array of shiny stainless steel vats, beakers, clamps, hoses and other paraphernalia. Blue and red county fair and brew competition ribbons hang on a post board, attesting to his skills at the craft of brewing.

At Ernie’s request, we would be making pale ale. Greg had already been to the home brewing store to pick up the grains, hops and minerals, started the hot liquor vat (brew geek name for hot water) heating, and had the yeast starter swirling in a fancy beaker upstairs. Ernie and I were briefed on the day’s goals, given a print out of a spread sheet with things like pre-boil gravity, wort volume, mash efficiency, water pH profiles, BU:GU ratio and other detailed information that set my mind reeling and almost caused the fight-or-flight response, and tasked with our assignments.

The notes

One of the most exciting things about making beer is the fact that, although equipment and techniques have changed through time, you’re essentially using the same three ingredients — malted barley, hops and yeast — and processes that have been employed around the world for centuries to make one of our favorite fermented beverages. The folks at the Anheuser-Busch megafacilities 45 minutes from my home are doing the same thing as the Trappist monks in monasteries in Belgium have been for eons, albeit on a different scale.

We began by filling the mash vat with hot liquor, and I then added two big bags of malted barley while Ernie stirred with a beautiful patina-ed wooden paddle. I measured out epsom salt and gypsum, contributing to the approximation of the mineral-rich water used to brew English pale ale in Burton-On-Trent. Like in baking, there was much waiting between steps while various natural conversion processes took their time to do their thing. While waiting, for example, for the starches in the mash vat to convert to sugars, we measured out hops, sterilized equipment, tapped Greg’s vast knowledge about beers and brewing with endless questions.

The gathering scents in the room, complex and earthy, reminded me of dough fermenting in my own kitchen as yeast worked its magic. Greg offered up an old saying, “If you don’t like the smell, don’t become a brewer.” On a rack in the brewery were an impressive selection of spices and flavorings — Thai galangal, Indian coriander, vanilla beans, exotic syrups and sugars… Greg explained his ambitions to produce regionally inspired flavored beers including an “horchata” beer made with cinnamon and rice milk paying homage to the beloved drink of Mexico, and a southern beer flavored with Steen cane syrup and hickory smoke.

Meanwhile, the mash liquid, combined with more hot liquor, was “sparged” into the third vat — drained away from the grains and combined with the first round of Cascade hops, which lent that trademark floral bitterness you associate with pale ales. It was now called “wort”. There was much adjusting of temperatures and measuring of sugars on refractometers throughout the process. Ernie took up the paddle once again and attempted to create a whirlpool inside the wort vat.

As the temperature climbed into the low 90s outside, it was already 108 inside the brewery, and I spent a lot of time outside taking pictures of hops and watching butterflies. I let Ernie do most of the work — it was his lesson, after all, and I’m not much good with clamps and gaskets. Some ants that had infiltrated the agave nectar we were going to use to bump up the sweetness (or “gravity,” as beermakers say) slowed us briefly. But a bit of ingenuity and a straining cloth and we were back in business and on schedule.

The Brewmaster (r) and his Apprentice

By 2 p.m., the golden liquid wort was flowing through a pump and various hoses from the sparge vat into the fermenter, where sudsy bubbles came oozing out of the top. I scooped a fingerfull and put it to my mouth, and even only six hours into a several week process, it already tasted deliciously like beer.

Now it was time for me to contribute something I really was good at — bratwurst sandwiches on ciabatta with caramelized onions and mustard, and frites cooked in mangalitsa lard. Tired, hot and hungry, we three men settled around Greg’s kitchen table with chalices of his chilled double IPA and ate, chatting about the day, music, Topanga septic history and traveling to Scotland and Ireland.

*   *   *

Greg is working hard to eventually trade in his litigator tie for a more comfortable fitting beermaker t-shirt as the proprietor of Barley Forge Brewing, coming to Culver City sometime soon. (The zoning restrictions and septic logistics made a brewery at home in Topanga prohibitive.) Check out his page, including some spectacular bottle and label designs based on Mexican loteria cards, on Facebook at Once Barley Forge opens, you’ll likely be able to find me there most afternoons…

7 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Mom
    Sep 25, 2012 @ 03:15:06

    Without question, a spiritual experience.


  2. pal-O
    Sep 25, 2012 @ 17:25:45

    Amen brother!


  3. anna z
    Oct 02, 2012 @ 04:43:10

    Oh goodie – can’t wait for them to get here to my city! (then you’ll be near more often, too!)


  4. Trackback: Cowboy Colgin Rides Again | skinny girls & mayonnaise
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