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Bagby's Beerleaders Program Teaches Brewing Basics

The community beer education program offers a day in a brewery making beer


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Jeff Bagby leads a community beer education program called Beerleaders from his brewery in Oceanside. | Photo: Bruce Glassman

Have you ever spent an entire day with a brewer? If you have, you likely got up around four in the morning and showed up around five to start preparations. By the time you were done—around eight to twelve hours later—you were probably exhausted and very ready for a nice, cold pint. If you’re like most beer fans, however, you likely just do the sitting down with a nice, cold pint part, where you no doubt appreciate all the aromas and flavors you’re enjoying without thinking about (or knowing) what goes into the actual creation of your tasty beverage.

 

A variety of malt samples were available for smelling and tasting. | Photo: Bruce Glassman

At Bagby Beer Company, Jeff and Dande Bagby are aiming to get a few more beer fans aware of the complexities of making great beer. Their recently launched Beerleaders program offers small groups an opportunity to spend an entire day with Brewmaster Jeff and his team as they explain the many processes and decisions that go into crafting every batch of beer they make.  

 

A bowl of hops sits atop the kettle, ready for inclusion in the boil. | Photo: Bruce Glassman

On the day I joined the group, some of the work had already been done before we arrived (at 7:30 a.m.). The grain, for example, had already been milled and the mash tun (where the malt/grain is steeped) was already warming up.

 

Demerara sugar was one of two sugar additions made during the boil. | Photo: Bruce Glassman

The first order of business for the day (after coffee!) was discussing malt, which is the first ingredient a brewer deals with in the brewing process. Folks got to see, smell, and taste various kinds of malted grains as they listened to Jeff explain how and why he chooses certain malts for certain recipes.

 

Few dishes on the menu are more beer friendly than Bagby's Macaroni & Cheese with Sourdough Bread Crumb Crust and an addition of Crispy Pork Belly. | Photo: Bruce Glassman

After watching the mash tun fill and churn, it was time to strain/drain the mash and transfer the sweet, hot liquid (now called wort) to another vessel, called a lauter tun.  From there, the wort travels into a third vessel—the kettle—where it’s brought up to a boil and the hops are added. Before adding the hops, the group sampled and smelled a collection of hop varieties and voted on which kind to use. Because we were creating a Scotch Ale, there was also a sugar addition to be determined. Again, Jeff presented the group with three sugar options, which were then voted upon. (The group voted to use two of the three sugars: Demerara—raw brown—and a dark Belgian candied sugar, which came in syrup form.)

 

Cleaning the mash tun requires full immersion into the tank. | Photo: Bruce Glassman

As we waited for the boil to finish (most boils are 60-90 minutes) Jeff and his assistant brewer, Brandon, walked the Beerleaders through a variety of other tasks that need to be done on a typical brew day—a great deal of which involve cleaning, scrubbing, and sterilization (a surprisingly huge part of brewing). The mash tun needs to be emptied of its spent grain and then cleaned, the fermentation tank needs to be prepped by cleaning and sterilization, and the yeast to be used needs to be harvested, which also requires great care and very clean and controlled conditions.

 

Checking specific gravity: This tells the brewer the sugar levels in the wort, which will determine the ultimate ABV and final sweetness of the beer. | Photo: Bruce Glassman

Once the boil was complete, the wort was whirlpooled to separate the liquid from any remaining solids and was chilled down and transferred to a fermentation tank into which yeast had been added (pitched). This is where the yeast soon comes out of its slumbering state, eats the sugar in the wort, spits out alcohol and carbon dioxide, and magically turns the wort into beer.

 

The fermentation tank must be scrubbed, sterilized, and checked thoroughly before each new batch is pumped in. | Photo: Bruce Glassman

Brewing is fun, creative, and interesting, but it also requires a lot of waiting. Certain processes, like mashing in or doing the boil, can’t be rushed or shortcutted. They take the time they take. Fortunately, there were a number of adjunct activities for the Beerleadeers to focus on during some of the down time. Lunch, which was provided by the kitchen off the full menu, came with a brief discussion about pairing food with beer. There were behind-the-scenes tours of the cold storage and cold box areas, in addition to a tasting session where folks got to learn about and sample various beer styles from the Bagby portfolio.

 

Yeast is harvested from tanks in which fermentation has been completed. The yeast is then re-pitched into a new batch of wort, where it begins the fermentation process again. | Photo: Bruce Glassman

It goes without saying that you don’t really have to know how beer is made in order to be a serious beer fan, but knowing about the brewing process certainly adds a special dimension to the consumption of beer. Understanding the stages of production as well as the many choices that a brewer makes regarding ingredients, temperature, and timing greatly enhances your appreciation of the craft and makes you realize just how much dedication goes into every glass of artisanal beer. Jeff agrees that the education he provides makes a tangible difference in how his “students” look at beer. He says, “By far the most gratifying part of the Beerleaders Program is the feedback we get at the end of the class when we’re all having a beer together. We chat about the day, and it’s then that I get to see how their understanding and appreciation of beer and brewing were genuinely affected in a positive way, that they learned something, and that they immediately want to come back and do it again. It feels like our goal is genuinely achieved in these moments, and that is really cool.”

 

The Beerleaders group celebrates their satisfying day of hard work with cold beers and a new-found appreciation for the craft. | Photo: Bruce Glassman

While the Bagby team intends to host three more Beerleaders programs in the second half of the year, the exact schedule is not yet decided. If you want more information about the program visit bagbybeer.com/beerleaders, where you can also put your name on a list for a possible upcoming slot.

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