Beer doesn't just "happen."
Well, OK, it did originally, but since then (roughly 5,000 years ago) we've worked to control what we get when we brew. You make good beer the way you get to Carnegie Hall: Practice, practice, practice. Or, put another way, testing, testing, testing.
We're in a fun but nerve-wracking period here in the brewery. We're actually brewing beer. All that pretty equipment is assembled. We've done a "water-only" batch, moving liquid through the kettles as though brewing but without any grain or hops. We've sanitized fermenters, converted five-gallon recipes to fifteen-gallon recipes, and developed brewing and fermentation schedules. Finally, after testing the assembly, testing the electrics, testing the flow of liquid, testing our cleaning procedures, we're...still testing. We're producing beer on the equipment that will brew the first beers pulled off of the taps for sale, and that's the biggest test of all. Beer recipes depend to an almost unbelievable degree on the equipment on which they're produced, so just because our initial batches (at five gallons) were hitting their marks, it doesn't mean these will.
At this point, I should probably add that by "we," I mean Seth. Sure, the rest of us pitch in, but he's the one quarterbacking this whole enterprise.
Where are we now? Well, the first beer (our Blonde) has made its way through the system and is fermenting away. In a few days it will be cold-crashed and fined (the drop in temperature and gelatin addition coagulate and drop out proteins and tannins, to improve clarity), then moved into kegs. That's when we find out how our first batch on the new system holds up. For what it's worth, we have reason to be optimistic. Our original gravity (OG) reading (which tells you how much sugar is in there and therefore how much potential alcohol) was almost identical to previous (smaller) test batches, which is a good sign; a lot depends on that number, and a big "miss" on OG is a serious red flag in a new brewery. Fermentation is progressing nicely at a cool 60 degrees Fahrenheit, which should make it nice and clean, as expected/hoped/desired. But there's no substitute for the kind of evaluation that comes from tasting that first testing.
And while we're waiting, it will be on to the test batches for the Coffee Stout and IPA.
I can't hardly wait - but as the stoic sage Seneca said, "patience is not the enemy of productivity." These tests will ensure that the beer that you taste when we crack open that first keg meets (and exceeds, I hope) your expectations.
Building a brewery - not in the metaphorical sense, but in the literal sense - is a challenge.
The simple reality of a brewery is that even before you get to the part where you spend most of your time cleaning (in a brewery, the saying "everyone wants to go to the party, no one wants to clean up" isn't a metaphor, it's a statement of reality), you have to put in hours of designing, ordering, unpacking, assembling, and organizing before you get to produce your first drop of beer.
Seth designed what should be a pretty simple setup, as professional breweries go, but even that is no picnic to build. Unpacking it all is one evening's work. Organizing it is another. Assembling...well, let's just say it's not exactly a quick job.
Imagine, for example, having to reckon with this pile of fittings, bands, connectors, tubes, tailpieces, barbs, shanks, nuts, and more.
It's said that the reason that golf is so challenging a sport is that no other sport gives you nearly as many opportunities to choke - you decide the club, the shot, and when the time comes to swing it's just you taking your shot whenever you're ready - and living with the results. Brewing, in my humble opinion, is the golf of the culinary world. When you're running a kitchen, you have the pressure of meeting orders on-demand and the luxury of adjusting your process as you go in reaction to rapid feedback - see, smell, touch, and react until that steak is perfectly cooked.
Brewing, on the other hand, gives you plenty of chances to choke. You design your system, select your ingredients, decide on your process, brew your beer, ferment it, condition it, and only then do you know if what you've made is any good.
And it all starts here. This is the system that will brew Steel City's beer for the foreseeable future. Now it's time to put it all together and see what we get! I don't envy Seth the task, but I'm confident that he'll have this system humming in no time.
Long before the first pint is poured, there's a lot of work that has to be accomplished behind the scenes. That includes, I regret to report, going back to school (for the staff) and getting your report card (for the brewer).
Steel City team members recently underwent a multi-day course in the basics of beer and brewing to prepare them for the rough-and-tumble world of brewery life! The course introduced them to beer ingredients (eaten as well as drank - did you know you can just eat brewing grains?), the brewing process, how to tell one style of beer from another, and more.
We also gave them a taste of test batches of Steel City beers, because the best way to know what you're pouring is to drink it. Even those who didn't have a lot of experience with beer gamely dove head-first into their studies, and by the third day we had them pouring perfect pints and jabbering on about IBUs and IPAs like true beer geeks (or, at least, reasonable facsimiles thereof). Seth and I will be around for the first couple of days of proper service (sometime in November, I hope) to help them field any oddball questions (and we'll always be available by e-mail as well), but I'm quite confident that you'll be in good hands in beer as well as coffee.
They weren't the only ones drinking Seth's proto-beers: we recently hosted a "friends and family" tasting of our first test batches. Ed and Laura invited some local beer drinkers to sample our blonde ale, English IPA, and coffee stout (clever names pending on all three) and provide the vital first feedback that will guide our future recipes. Good brewers want feedback, even when they don't agree with it, and I'm hopeful that this will be the first of many doses.
The short version of this story (too late) is that firing up a brewery is about far more than just brewing beer. It's a learning process that never stops. To improve is to change, Churchill said, and to perfect is to change often. The staff are growing in their knowledge, the beers are developing in their quality and character, and Steel City is evolving into something better.
Perfect? Probably not. But we're learning!
Every home brewer gets asked the question, "so, when are you going to go pro?" It's a question many reject out of hand, but for those who take the plunge the fear and excitement tend to go hand-in-hand. That's an intriguing moment, and it struck me as a great time to spend a few minutes with Head Brewer Seth Clearwater.
When did you first know you were "into" beer and brewing?
I started drinking better beer after high school — full disclosure: I thought I was a higher class of beer consumer because I drank imports like Foster’s. The things you think when you’re young, right? In any case, exposure to things like Guinness and what craft beers were available in central PA around Y2K helped convince me I really liked beer. One of my favorite places was Gettysbrew in Gettysburg — I’d go there every Friday afternoon with a book for a couple of pints and homemade pizza. Brewing grew out of that love of great beer and a burgeoning interest in food and cooking (inspired by my wife, Leslie). I started getting curious about brewing, someone in the family got me a beginner’s kit for Christmas one year, and I was off. Living outside Philadelphia, the combination of making my own beer and being spoiled rotten by the available craft beer here created a lovely feedback loop
Why would anyone drink beer at SC instead of the other (counting...still counting...) 1,478* breweries in Phoenixville?
I think folks will come to Steel City to drink beer for the same reasons they come for the coffee and food: it’s delicious and the atmosphere isn’t like anywhere else in town. We’re still going to be a cozy coffee shop and killer live music venue; we’re just making our own beer now, too. Want a few pints while listening to world-class music? Want to grab a few drinks with friends in a quiet joint that is distinctly not bar-like? That’s us. Plus, no one else in town serves beer with breakfast, so we’ve got that going for us...
*This number may be inaccurate. The author has acalculia, which is a real disease and it's wrong of you to mock him for it and don't you feel terrible now? But it's a lot of breweries is the point.
How does it feel to know you'll be brewing for the public?
Incredibly exciting and humbling in equal parts. Claiming your beer is good enough that people should spend actual money on it is different than just sharing with friends; it feels hubristic yet vulnerable. That being said, I love the beer I make and I’m thrilled at the opportunity to share it with a wider audience. Over time, I hope to introduce folks to styles and flavors they didn’t know they were missing.
How does it feel to know you'll be brewing for the public FOR Laura & Ed?
Really happy (They’re reading this, right?!)! [Author's Note: I have no idea if Ed and Laura will read this blog, but I think they probably should, in the event they're called to testify in a later legal action - yes, they've since confirmed they ARE in fact reading the blog...] Laura and Ed have such love for Steel City and for Phoenixville, and I’m proud to be a part of their latest project. I also love that they’re committed to making “damned good beer” (in their words) in whatever form that takes, not just chasing what’s trendy or popular on Untappd. It’s that attitude, actually, that sold me on working with them.
What should we expect from SC beers?
For our draft offerings, think classic or retro: English IPAs, blondes, altbiers, coffee milk stout, maybe a nice dunkelweizen or English bitter. In other words, beers that may not go viral on social media but that have stood the test of time, at least for some of us. We’re not trying to be a traditional bar: we’re a coffeehouse and live music venue that now also makes our own beer, so we want you to stop in for a breakfast pint without feeling guilty or have several pints during a show and still be able to function. Above all, we want to make classic, high-quality, quaffable beers in styles you might not be as familiar with but which we think you’ll love.
Worst brewing screwup?
I have to admit this? [Author's Note: Yes, yes, you do] I attempted a Belgian dubbel once that, despite a complex grain bill and Belgian yeast, had no actual Belgian character. To fix this, I added many pounds of elderberries because adding an odd fruit to questionable beer always produces stellar results. Except this time, of course. Now, the worst tasting beer I ever made was a California common with kimchi for a homebrew club Secret Santa competition. The base beer was quite nice, but nothing can hold up to kimchi. That beer is legend to this day... [Author's Note: It is, indeed, legendary. And it was, in fact, horrendous]
Biggest brewing triumph?
Getting hired by Laura and Ed. :) I’d probably go with the first time I nailed a French-style saison. I called it “Slow Smile” because that was my exact reaction when I pulled the first draft off my taps. It wasn’t funky or imperial or weird: it was just really, really good with just the right touch of “saison-ness.” More than that, it was the first beer where what I produced was exactly what I was aiming for. I think that’s huge in any brewer’s history.
Thanks for reading, and if you have questions, comments, feedback, ideas for beers you'd like to see, etc. please ALWAYS feel free to contact Seth at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you have outrageous praise and ideas for things for me to say to Seth that you don't feel comfortable saying to his face, reach out to me at email@example.com.
Laura Vernola - firstname.lastname@example.org
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
September 25, 2018
Steel City Coffeehouse to Add Artisan Nano Brewery to Phoenixville in 2018
Landmark establishment sets out to create a new kind of coffeehouse to complement Phoenixville's booming beer scene!
Phoenixville - Steel City Coffeehouse owners-operators Laura Vernola-Simpson and Ed Simpson announced today that they are bringing a fresh perspective to the growing list of breweries that can be found in downtown Phoenixville, a town which has more breweries per square foot than anywhere else in America. The addition of an in-house artisanal brewing operation allows Steel City to pair their diverse menu and eclectic music scene with easy-drinking beers.
Head Brewer Seth Clearwater, a multiple-medal-winning brewer and Phoenixville resident, is planning a steady rotation of beers inspired by the pubs of England and beer halls of Germany, some of which incorporate Hobo Ed’s Artisan locally-roasted coffees that Steel City is rightly famous for. “We’re not going to be a ‘beer bar,’” Clearwater says. “This is still a café, coffeehouse and listening room – but it’s going to be a café, coffeehouse and listening room with some of the best beer you’ll find anywhere in the Philadelphia area.”
Adding to the brewing operations and creative brain trust will be Josh Weikert, internationally famous (particularly in Latvia) beer writer, Contributing Editor of the Craft Beer & Brewing magazine, and two-time Eastern Pennsylvania Homebrewer of the Year. He brings 11 years of experience in writing about, talking about, and most importantly, brewing beer. "I'm unbelievably excited for what we'll produce," Weikert says. "Our intention is not to compete with the existing beer scene. It's already fantastic. But what we are setting out to do is bring a personal, approachable craft beer experience that you probably won't find in a dedicated brewery. We're offering a unique gateway for soon-to-be-beer-lovers and beer geeks alike."
This is not a new idea. Laura Vernola-Simpson and Ed Simpson purchased Steel City Coffeehouse just over two years ago, with a clear vision for future plans. "Our strengths lie in running a business, and bringing in the right talent to help us deliver our vision," Laura says. "We are working with some of the most talented beer aficionados around. Between their knowledge, and our passion and business acumen, we're confident that we will produce a product that will be just as impressive - if not more so - as our coffee and food menu."
Small batch testing and tasting will begin with a small focus group this fall, with three taps becoming available to the general public starting in November 2018. Their signature beer is appropriately planned to be a coffee stout brewed with Hobo Ed's Artisan Coffee. Growlers will be available on a first come, first served basis, and Steel City plans to offer their iconic cold brew coffee in growlers as well.
About Steel City Coffeehouse:
Steel City Coffeehouse opened in 1997 and is Phoenixville's first coffeehouse and only listening room & live music venue. Since its inception, Steel City has gone through many changes (and owners), but has recently experienced a rebirth within the community under the ownership of Laura Vernola and Ed Simpson.
Steel City sources locally and supports fellow small businesses. Check out the full menu offerings HERE, or call to inquire about our daily specials, soups and homemade ice cream flavors.
Steel City Coffeehouse is open 7 days a week and has complimentary wifi.
Facebook: STEEL CITY COFFEEHOUSE
Author: Josh Weikert
CONSULTING BREWER & CERTIFIED CICERONE