O'FALLON, Mo. • Although I've been on the beer beat for almost three years, I have yet to take up the craft of homebrewing. To borrow a friend's phrase, I spend enough time and money on beer as it is; any more would likely cause strife in my household.
But the brewing process fascinates me with its combination of art and science. So when Brian Owens, head brewer at O'Fallon Brewery, invited me to join him on a recent brew day, I jumped at the chance.
I showed up at 7:15 in the morning to the industrial-park warehouse in O'Fallon, Mo., that houses the brewery. All of O'Fallon's draft beers are made here; most of its bottled and canned products are brewed and packaged under contract in Stevens Point, Wis., where Owens travels every few weeks to ensure the beers are being made to his standards.
Owens outfitted me with rubber gloves and safety glasses, then led me to a room where assistant brewer Jason Small was hoisting 50-pound bags of malted grains into a milling machine to crack open the kernels. The grain bill for this 15-barrel batch of O'Fallon Hemp Hop Rye included malted barley and rye, as well as toasted hemp seeds that Owens sources from Canada.
We mixed the milled grains and hot water into a vessel called a mash tun. The whole thing looked and smelled like a big bowl of hot cereal, giving off a heady aroma that's familiar to anyone who's ever brewed beer or been in the vicinity of the Anheuser-Busch brewery.
After the grains were steeped, we transferred the resulting liquid — a sugar-rich substance called wort — into a brew kettle, leaving the spent grain behind. This process is called lautering.
Over the next several hours, I dumped hops into the boiling wort and helped clean out the mash tun, but mostly I tried to stay out of the way as Owens and Small worked their magic.
The intersection of art and science was apparent every step of the way: They tested and made adjustments to timing, temperatures and other elements to make sure this batch of Hemp Hop Rye would be consistent with the last batch they brewed.
And they cleaned.
I've often heard brewers say that 90 percent of their job involves cleaning, and that isn't much of an exaggeration. Small, whose background is in microbiology, meticulously sanitized every crevice of every piece of brewing equipment we used.
Once the wort had been transferred to a fermenting tank, where it will sit for several weeks as the yeast we added converts its sugar to alcohol, I was ready for a beer. But there was more cleaning to be done.
Finally, about 10 hours after we started, Owens, Small and a handful of other O'Fallon employees gathered around a small bar in the brewery for a well-deserved pour.
That beer hit the spot. But I imagine it will pale in comparison to my first taste of the batch of Hemp Hop Rye that I helped brew.
O'Fallon Brewery on the rebound
It's been eight months since former A-B InBev marketing executive Jim Gorczyca bought O'Fallon Brewery, a regional craft brewery founded in 2000. He kept original owners Tony and Fran Caradonna, head brewer Brian Owens and office manager Dawn Obrecht on board, and they have been working to ramp up production and introduce new beers. Here's a look at what to expect this year.
B.D.S. Belgian-Style Dark Ale • O'Fallon will release this limited-edition beer early next month in 22-ounce bottles. About 3,600 bottles were produced. Owens brewed a Belgian-style dark ale and let it age for almost a year in empty port barrels from Mount Pleasant Winery in Augusta. A sample tasted this month revealed flavors of dark fruit and tart cherries that mellowed any heat from the 10 percent alcohol content. A note on the name: B.D.S. stands for Belgian Dark Strong, which is the beer's base style. "Strong" is one of several words that the government does not allow to appear on beer labels, so O'Fallon uses the initials instead.
New summer ale • O'Fallon plans to roll out a new summer-seasonal ale in May. The name and recipe details are still being finalized, but expect something along the lines of a cream ale that Gorczyca says will "deliver refreshment and flavor complexity." Wheach used to be the brewery's summer seasonal, but it is now available year-round.
By the numbers • O'Fallon brewed about 6,500 barrels of beer last year, about the same as its 2010 total. Last year's numbers reflect the fact that O'Fallon didn't brew any beer for about four months leading up to Gorczyca taking over the company. He projects the brewery will sell about 10,500 barrels this year, equivalent to about 3.5 million 12-ounce bottles.
Regional footprint • O'Fallon recently added Tennessee and Wisconsin to its distribution area, which also includes Missouri, Illinois, Kansas, Iowa, Kentucky, Ohio and Michigan; it sells limited amounts of beer in Alabama, Colorado and Pennsylvania. Gorczyca says he doesn't expect to add any new markets immediately, instead focusing on building sales in the areas where its beers are available.