Trouble brewing

A volunteer shift at Twisted Pine means science and strain

The author stirs the stout mash in the mash tun.
Photo by Henry Jager

Y’all better enjoy your stout.

I mean, I knew I wasn’t in the best shape. I’m basically built like Animal from the Muppets, with the strength of Animal from the Muppets, my weird, fuzzy arms flopping about wildly.

So I knew volunteering for a day in Twisted Pine’s brewery production line would be difficult, and to tell the truth, ultimately there was less manual labor than I expected.

But I was still bad at it. Lifting bags of malted grain to dump it into the mill at the start of the process, not so bad, especially since Twisted Pine’s mill motor drowned out my feeble groans. But a few minutes in, I trade places with TP Lead Brewer Henry Jager and start mashing the, well, mash while Henry dumps in malt a floor above me. That’s when it gets tough. Imagine stirring hot, filthy black water while it fills up a massive vat. You’re using an oversize garden hoe. Now, change nothing about that image, and you’ve got it.

But I asked for this. I figured after eight months of covering local craft beer, I should try doing it myself. So I drew deep on all of my zero experience with brewing, even homebrewing, and asked Twisted Pine if I could come in for a day to work for free. Shockingly, they said yes.

TP’s press guy, Justin Tilotta, comes by while my Animal arms are in full flail. “Bit of a workout, huh?” he says. My grimace increases.

Fortunately, manual labor really isn’t a big part of the job. Henry and I switch off on the stirring and malt-adding right at the start, then we can relax our muscles and start working our brains. While the water meets the malt, then while it boils, Henry and I become chemists.

That’s the big surprise, to me: the paperwork and the chemistry. Times, temperatures and amounts are all recorded on a log, down to the tenth of a degree. Our stout’s boil is an opportunity for multitasking, as Henry grabs small samples from the fermentation tanks — everything from wheat to IPA to imperial porter. Hydrometers tell us the beers’ gravity. A hemocytometer tells Henry about the health of his yeast. Other chemistry equipment does other magical chemistry stuff. And, most importantly, brewers take tastes of a nearly ready batch of wheat to check for off flavors.

I don’t mean to be dismissive. Henry explains each step of the process carefully, in between giving me samples of hop smells (turns out I’m a Simcoe fan) and cleaning up after us.

As he flies around, I get a break for lunch in the TP taproom, where I join the brewers of the morning shift, Kay Witkiewicz and Nico Daiss-Fechner, watching a soccer game. Unwisely, I have a beer, which combined with my earlier exertion means I want to lay my head on the bar. Henry’s getting no more help from me.

“I worked in a mine before this,” Nico tells me. “This is harder.”


The stout I assisted with will eventually become Twisted Pine’s Big Shot Espresso Stout and its seasonal, the Rhesus Peanut Butter Stout. Both should be ready in roughly two weeks.