A day in the life of a brewer — it’s tougher than you think

Gordon Biersch head brewer Nick Landers explains something only he understands. | Photo by Kevin Gibson

The life of a brewer is simple, yet complex.

“It’s hurry up and wait,” says Nicholas Landers, head brewer at Gordon Biersch Brewery & Restaurant downtown. “Either everything is happening or nothing is happening.”

At this point, the beer Landers is brewing is only in the beginning stages — the mash tun is filled with soaking grain, and he’s in the midst of sanitizing the fermenter.

Our hurry-up-and-wait situation at this point is for the sanitizing agent to finish its course through the vessel. It’s a lengthy process in itself, and further evidence that a big part of brewing beer has a lot to do with cleaning; no wonder local brewer David Pierce used to say being a brewer was like being a glorified janitor.

Brewing is complicated. | Photo by Kevin Gibson

But that doesn’t speak to the technology involved.

Brewing is about more than just kettles, and as I look around at the 15-barrel brewhouse, I feel downright intimidated by some of the mechanics and electronics involved in the making of beer. I was happy to leave that part to Landers.

Anyway, the beer at hand is going to be a session New England-style IPA. I’ve been asked to tag along as guest brewer, and the beer will tentatively be called “Gibby’s Moist and Hazy,” which will be shared with the public on Saturday, March 30, at the NuLu Bock Fest on East Market.

(Note: Landers’ inspiration for the beer was based on a piece I wrote about people’s hatred of the word “moist.”)

Landers explains that my late arrival due to work commitments meant I missed the most exhausting part of brewing, which was bringing 55-pound bags of pilsner malt and flaked wheat, used in the beer, from a dock at the other end of Fourth Street, a couple of blocks from the brewery.

I feel pretty lucky that the heaviest item I end up carrying was a box of hop pellets from a basement cooler somewhere in the bowels of Fourth Street Live.

“Who needs a gym when you work at a brewery?” Landers wonders aloud.

The grains now are in the process of being “mashed” to extract the sugars. Landers instructs that the water has to be about 170 degrees — if it was much hotter, we’d end up getting undesirables like proteins and tannins in our wort, which is what beer is called before it is fermented.

(During all this, I can’t help thinking that this job is somehow above my pay grade. Mind you, I have two college degrees.)

A brewer’s-eye view of an early hop addition. Smells so good. | Photo by Kevin Gibson

But the wort smells wonderful, and it’s finally time for me to do the first hop addition. I carefully measure out a pound of Nugget hops and pour them from a plastic container into the rolling wort. It now smells even better in the brewhouse. Hops are wonderful.

As ’80s music plays in the background, with Men at Work crooning about “Overkill”— Landers often listens to a Wang Chung Pandora station — he tells me I will soon get to do the dirty work in “mashing out.”

In other words, I get to scrape the spent grains out of the bottom of the mash tun through a trap door.

Landers hands me a long-handled metal hoe and instructs me to start pulling out as much as I can, letting it drop into a gray garbage can.

Mind you, this isn’t necessarily a difficult task, but as minutes go by, I realize my arms and shoulders aren’t accustomed to doing it. I fill up one garbage can, then he brings over another, and that one finally fills with the help of automated equipment inside the tun. My arms are getting rubbery, so I’m happy to put down the hoe.

That’s when he hands me a high-pressure hose and tells me to spray all the leftover grains toward a drain in the floor. Again, this is not a difficult undertaking on the surface, but for some reason I can’t get a consistent stream. Grains are going this way and that.

Landers chuckles and says, “I remember my first time using a hose.”

He shows me the proper way to do it, and I manage to mostly get my job done.

To my relief, it’s time to take a break, the good news being that there’s fresh draft beer just a few feet away. As he retrieves a pair of pilsners for us, I realize that at this point, my feet and pants are soaked and I may or may not have spent grain in my hair.

“When you drink your own beer, it’s quality control,” Landers says between sips. “When you drink someone else’s beer, it’s market research.”

Two beers later, it’s time for the late hop addition — this time, I’m dumping a bag of Mosaic hops as well as a bag of Nugget. The aromas inside the small brewhouse just keep getting better.

I pour in the second hop addition, and now things are really brewing. | Photo by Nicholas Landers

Soon, Landers begins moving the wort into the fermenter — we’ve made 15.5 barrels of beer on this Thursday evening — and it’s time to pitch the yeast, which is a cool brewer’s term for adding yeast to start fermenting.

Landers explains to me that the wort is in the aerobic stage, or at least I think that’s what he is saying. He injects some oxygen and then it’s in the anaerobic stage. Pretty sure, anyway; yeast is complicated.

Cold water then goes into the wort, which will ferment for two weeks. The beer will be carbonated in the very vessel in which it will ferment. (Sometimes a vessel called a bright tank is used for carbonation and filtering.)

The next step? Beer. Well, OK, the next step is actually a hot shower and a good night’s sleep. Just six hours of pretending to be a brewer has been enough to teach me that, well, I’ll never be a brewer. But someone has to drink the end product, and I’ll sign up for that job every time.

Gibby’s Moist and Hazy IPA also will be available, while it lasts, at Gordon Biersch starting in late March or early April. One last note: It’s definitely fun to help brew a beer that then becomes your namesake, but it’s a bit of a guilty pleasure when you know someone else did most of the work.