Friday, January 20, 2006

Brewery History and Stats- Part 1

Just a little history and some statistics about Swerve Brewery.

I first homebrewed at a friend's house back in 1994. We made a nut brown ale, which we entitled Butt Brown Ale, because we got butt wasted drinking all his other brews. I don't remember much about the actual brewing experiences that day, but it was fun.

Fast forward to the year 2000. A friend is cleaning his garage out and offers to sell his brewing equipment for $20. SCORE! It was a decent kit with everything needed to get started. I then brewed two batches at another friend's house to see how it was done. I read Charlie Papazian's book The Complete Joy of Homebrewing and was then on my own.

In retrospect, my first batch sucked. It was a messy affair and I didn't know what I was doing. But it worked, it fermented, it was not contaminated, we drank it all and I became obsessed with how to make it taste better. If Sierra Nevada can do it, why can't I ? Afterall, this was one of the things I wanted to do after finishing college.

14 batches worth of extract-based wort, a couple successes, two more books to read and I was ready to step it up a notch. Batch # 15 was my first all-grain brew. This was a massive undertaking and required more time and more equipment. The payoff would be better control over the characteristics of the beer and hopefully better taste. I would never go back to the extract brewing methods again.

This was even more messy, but the results were better. I was still doing 5 gallon batches at the end of 2001. Winter here in Minnesota means you do indoorsy things, like knitting, playing cribbage, baking cookies and constructing a new homebrewery for 10-15 gallon batches.

The criteria: keep it simple, keep it inexpensive, recycle as much as possible and use all stainless kettles and fittings. Over the winter, the garage became my honeycomb hideout. I had a heater inside and would spend the weekends out there until I couldn't stand the damp cold. Most of the work was in the 3 tier stand that would hold the brewing kettle/kegs, the burners and a small shelf. It was made out of angle iron and I opted to bolt it together, as opposed to welding it, so it was easier to disassemble and move.

Little did I know, the two bedframes I scrounged up used a steel that was really hard to penetrate with a hand drill. Luckily my neighbor saw what I was doing and offered to let me use his upright drill press to drill the holes. Then came cutting the angle iron to fit together. I used a chopsaw with carbide cutoff wheel and trimmed them down with a dremel tool. A grinder or belt grinder would've made this a whole lot easier. Oh well. You live and learn.

It was approaching springtime 2002 and I was getting antsy to brew again. There was no way I was going to brew the old way, so my motivation to finish was immense. I had the entire stand together and spray painted it with high temp paint, flat black, naturally. The modified used 1/2 barrel kegs got welded fittings by my friend Bill Blunt and it was looking like a brewery.

There is a common saying amongst people who build their own stuff: functional, cheap, strong, pick two. Because you cannot have all three qualities at the same time. And guess which was omitted? Cheap. This project was slated to cost me $800-900 for everything. It ended up being $1,500.

I did a test run with water, just to see how things flowed. Then did the first batch, a pale ale. Despite the expected quirks and hiccups, the new brewery rocked and I felt it deserved a name. Swerve Brewery was born in 2002. I chose the name because it had to do with riding bikes home late at night with a beer buzz. The lack of cars in the streets allows you to take up the whole street and swerve your way home. Plus it was simple and it rhymed with serve.

After a few batches it was coming together to the point where brewing was rather routine, like I like it. Few surprises with good results. But not good enough, the beer needed to taste better. More books, more recipe formulations, more refined practices, more equipment and most importantly, more practice.

I now have 12 books, got ProMash software for recipe formulations, started using old-world brewing techniques, purchased a ton of new equipment, built a grain mill and have 72 solo batches under my belt.