Rarely do customers get a close look at beer before it becomes beer – but a lucky handful spent Sunday studying how a small Napa brewer takes its first steps from grain to growler.
At the inaugural Beer Boot Camp, about a half-dozen microbrew mavens visited St. Clair Brown Winery & Brewery to witness – and take part in – the process of turning barley, hops and yeast into a dark liquid that, with nine weeks of fermentation, will become a brown ale, of which each visitor will receive a case.
In the meantime, the day-long tour, filled with explanations of grains, yeasts, hops, water temperature and their effects on the numerous varieties of beer, was a chance to learn the story behind the beverage.
“Seeing the number of vats as an outsider, it seems like endless pipes going from this thing to that thing,” said Nick Dengler of Pleasant Hill. “Here you see the simplicity, the big picture. … The brewing process is a bit daunting: where to start, what’s important. I like the beer here, so I thought I could learn from the best.”
Sunday’s Beer Boot Camp, which included both ticket buyers and past donors on Kickstarter, was the debut of what the Napa winery-brewery’s co-owners hope will become a twice-yearly outreach to customers, home brewers and those who appreciate craft beers. With a morning and afternoon to spend at St. Clair Brown’s brewing and winery building – on Vallejo Street steps from its tasting room and garden – boot camp visitors could get a rare big-picture view of the effort that produces their favorite ales and lagers, according to brewmaster and co-owner Elaine St. Clair.
“I hope they get a little bit of an appreciation of what goes into brewing,” she said last week.” For those who are home brewers, I hope they get their questions answered and an education into the brewing process.”
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The beer camp began with the seven grains, a combination of barley and rye, that would form the flavors of a brown ale – then continued with the addition of hot water to form mash and the piping of the grain-sweet liquid, known as wort, out of a vat called a mash tun to leave the grain husks behind.
After 90 minutes of boiling in a kettle chamber, it was time for St. Clair to add the key flavoring agent: hops, a group of flowers that lend beer its characteristic bitterness as well as floral aromas. After St. Clair scaled a ladder to drop a mesh bag of hops into the kettle, one student after another followed, each stirring the bubbling liquid with an oar-like paddle to spread the hops.
“I’m a cook and it’s very similar – enzymes and proteins – so it’s interesting,” said Kim Kocher of Alta Heights, who was invited to the beer-making camp after chipping in toward one of St. Clair Brown’s refrigeration tanks. The front-row seat at a hometown brewery, she added, was a chance to “actually see the process, understand what makes the flavor of a beer.”
Tucked into one side of a single-story building, St. Clair Brown’s brewery is a fraction the size of the national brands’ automated and climate-controlled beer-making operations – and thus, to co-owner Laina Brown, an effective classroom to create better-informed beer lovers.
“People can get a solid understanding of making beer and what affects beer,” she said, adding that St. Clair Brown plans to maintain a similarly small test brewery even as its production expands in years to come. “Our system is so small that it’s all hands-on; it’s a nice time in our development to do something like this.”