I’m going on a date and we have to be home by six. Unfortunately for me, that is six in the morning! Now, normally this would be perfect, but I’m on the graveyard shift and my date is hefty, seductive and Russian. And…requires lots of attention. I’ve clocked in for my shift at 8 PM and I’ve been tasked with brewing our Russian Imperial Stout, The Abyss, in the middle of the night. Certainly this is an honorable endeavor.
Our 50 barrel gravity fed brew house is only fired up every other week and usually just for Obsidian Stout. It’s a favorite place to brew among our staff because we are not at the mercy of intricate software built of indecipherable logic. If you want to move beer, actually called “wort” at the brewing stage, from one vessel to another, you psychically grab a valve and open it. Of course, this also means it’s easier to draw immediate and immense amounts of enduring ridicule from fellow brewers when you do this incorrectly…but that’s a topic for another day.
The Abyss is a monster and hard to please. It requires two mash ins per brew (the process of combining cracked malted barley with hot water) in order to extract enough sugar to satisfy the lofty alcohol expectations of this barrel aged beast. Each mash is separately lautered into the boil kettle where a variety of ingredients join in on this celebration of viscosity and decadence.
It’s 10 PM and I’ve surveyed the scene. I’ve gotten up to speed from the swing shift brewer and have begun to take over. There’s one half of the brew in the kettle waiting patiently for the other. All the ingredients are staged and I now have an idea of what my night will entail. By the time the sun rises I should have The Abyss home in the fermenter, until then we’ll be spending some quality time together.
I could not have single-handedly brewed this beer. Simply prepping the ingredients requires a coordinated effort. The day before The Abyss brewing, a brewer is scheduled to “prep” the JV brew house which includes getting ready all the necessary ingredients. The licorice is the most demanding since each stick comes individually wrapped in plastic. Don’t think Red Vines, they are nothing like that. They are six inch sticks the width of your thumb, jet black and shiny. They shatter upon hard impact, are very bitter, smoky, and a bit leathery and stick to your teeth when chewed, which by the way is a horrible idea.
A small handful of the infamous individually-wrapped licorice sticks
Unwrapping individual sticks of licorice isn’t a big deal until the brew requires nine boxes with 40 sticks per box. Then it becomes an event. Two or three brewers (or one intern if available) will gather around a large bin and unwrap each licorice stick, break it into thirds and toss the pieces into the bin. It’s the Deschutes Brewery version of the obligatory office water cooler, stories are told, rumors are spread.
Many years ago when one of the first test batches of The Abyss was being brewed, the licorice sticks were simply tossed in the kettle all at once with the belief they would melt and disperse equally throughout the wort. Some did, but most of it simply joined forces at the bottom of the kettle to form a colossal black blob the size of a large house cat. Now we throw the broken up licorice sticks into the kettle by the handful throughout the entire boil.
Midnight… The swing shift brewer has clocked out and is drinking beer. I’m making it. Both halves of The Abyss have since joined up in the kettle and are now boiling. “Knock out” time is coming soon. At this step the brew is transferred via gravity to our hop back below the kettle in the basement. Some brews receive an additional dose of aromatic hops at this stage. With The Abyss, the hop back simply serves as a method to strain out all the “spent” hops (hops that have already been utilized in the boil kettle) from the wort. The hops get left behind and the wort passes through onto the whirlpool.
Just before knock out a “late” addition of Nugget hops (intended to impart aroma rather than bitterness) is thrown in as well as 120 pounds of my all-time favorite ingredient Black Strap Molasses! A gallon of water weighs about 8.3 pounds; a gallon of Black Strap Molasses…weighs 12. We buy it in bulk and it’s stored in giant metal drums deep in the brewery basement, where the temperature can reach triple digits in the summer. The higher temperature helps it pour easier and it’s drawn off into five-gallon buckets when needed.
The Abyss glides quietly to the kettle (in back ground)
Right before these additions I pull a small sample from the kettle to check the gravity. The higher the number the more sugar present in the wort and therefore more potential alcohol. Mirror Pond Pale Ale is around 13 degrees Plato, this batch of The Abyss checks in at 25. On track, I toss in the hops and molasses. Then I overindulge. By scraping the sides of the buckets, I’m able to extract enough molasses to induce a wicked stomach ache. But Yum! It’s worth it! Sharp, very sweet, roasty. Mrs. Buttersworth’s got nothing on this stuff.
This also provides me with the sugar rush I’ll need to get through this upcoming busy stretch. The first half of the second brew (did I forget to mention this was a double date) has finished in the mash tun and needs to be dropped to the lauter tun. Right after that, I need to knock out the first brew, run it through the hop back (quietly waiting for The Abyss to the right) and direct it safely to the whirlpool. Then I need to begin running the wort from the second brew from the lauter tun to the kettle as soon as its empty and while monitoring that process, suck up the spent hops from the hop back with a giant ceiling mounted vacuum.
Sometime between yesterday and today… The rush, rush, rush, wait, wait, wait, cycle of brewing has swung from tenacious to tranquil. The first brew is quietly running from the whirlpool, through a heat exchanger, where it gets cooled, and then out to the fermenter. I’ve added yeast to the fermenter from one of our yeast storage vessels via a pump and network of hoses. The first half of the second batch of The Abyss is lautering slowly into the boil kettle. I’ll need to mash in the second half of the second batch of The Abyss later but right now I’m hungry and my sugar rush is gone.
First runnings from the Lauter Tun creep into the kettle
I’ve always wondered how the Black Strap Molasses would taste on waffles and I finally remembered to bring in a box of Eggos on a day when brewing The Abyss. I packed the toaster full and then went into the basement to harvest a small cup of molasses. After heating it up in the microwave I was ready to present the rest of the graveyard brewing staff with an exquisite meal. Okay, not exactly, but brewers will eat almost anything in the middle of the night. However, they will also give you a detailed description of the flavor experience, just as if they were quaffing a fine beer or wine, subtle nuances aren’t lost but rather savored and discussed. Ultimately, it was a tasty combination but French Toast would have been better.
Fine dining redefined
5 AM… The waffles are consumed and the brew house is in order. The first brew of The Abyss is safely in the fermenter and the yeast is already beginning to feed on the copious amounts of sugar in the wort. I, on the other hand, should probably stop feeding on copious amounts of sugar but instead am foolishly seduced yet again by the sweet molasses and I eat some more hoping for another violent sugar rush. It never comes and I instead manage to get some stuck in my eyebrows. My stomach hurts and it’s now official, brewing in the middle of the night has lost all novelty. I feel like an old cheeseburger waiting under the heat lamp for someone to take me home.
Scott and Robin scrutinize the molasses and Eggo taste experience
5:08 AM… Shouldn’t have checked my watch again so soon.
5:45 AM… I’m standing by the kettle listlessly, half alive, half awake, sporadically throwing handfuls of licorice into the kettle. The day shift brewer arrives and my work is done.
(David arrives for his day shift, dramatically sliding down the stairs to save the now decrepit grave yard brewer from having to make any more important decisions.)
Though my work is done, the beer is far from it. After fermentation and clarification, a portion will be transferred to oak and bourbon barrels where it will sit for a year. Another portion will sit on bags of cherry bark and vanilla beans. Some will remain unaltered. It all will be blended together before bottling into the delicious heavyweight that you’ve come to know and love as “The Abyss”.