Class Trip To A Place Called Kalamazoo

February 28, 2011

About sixteen guys from the class setup a trip to Kalamazoo, Michigan so we could get some brewery tours in over the weekend. John Mallet, the brewery operations manager for Bell’s Brewing gave us a lecture on brewery operations a couple weeks ago, and we were able to get him to arrange an in depth tour of the facility on Saturday.

We headed straight to Comstock to get into the production facility. I never really knew how big Bell’s really was, considering Larry Bell started the company out of his homebrew shop back in the eighties. With over 20,000 barrels of fermentation capacity, I’d say they’re pretty damn big. 🙂 The tour was extremely in depth. We got to see all the automation their process has. They have two 50 barrel brewhouses, each with a mash tun, separate lauter tun, hot wort receiver (so the wort can be pre-heated before the kettle), a kettle, and a whirlpool tank. He said they churn out about sixteen brews per day, running 24/7.

The interesting thing about their kettles is that they both use external calandrias to boil the wort. No pumps required and it’s a very efficient process that gives them a lot of precise control.

This tour was awesome as we finally got to see how a large craft brewery does things. The fermentation area was one of the most impressive things I’ve ever seen. There were seven rows of tanks ranging from 60 barrels to 240. Then there was a warehouse sized room containing thirty six 400 barrel monsters. These guys were all sitting on an intricate arrangement of steel girders built into the structure of the building. Suffice to say that they were installed before the building was completely constructed.

When it comes to packaging, they apparently had a bottleneck in the speed at which workers could take full kegs from the kegging line and palletize them. Kegging 400 barrels, you really need efficiency in the system, so they bought a large robotic arm that is currently palletizing 280 kegs per hour. The robot can do a higher rate of kegs, but that’s the limit of the kegging line itself, currently. Bell’s has a freakin ROBOT! Awesome.

After all of this, we hopped in the cars/vans and headed to Arcadia’s brewpub. Mark, one of the guys in the class, knows the brewers at Arcadia and was able to setup a personal tour of their brewing facility. The kettle and hot liquor tun were encased in brick and both were direct fired by natural gas. The mash tun was lined with wood. The whole system looked really badass.

The coolest thing about the brewpub, though, was the meat smoker they had out back and the wood fired pizza oven. I had the pulled pork (which was a giant pile of pork, none of that sandwich crap), and was able to try the brisket. That was some wonderfully tasty food, and the beer was pretty good, too. The beers are all English styles, or bastardizations of English styles, so they like to ferment similar to traditional English methods. All their fermenters are in a cold room and are all open. They actually crop the yeast from the top of fermentation for repitching, and he said they don’t restart their yeast at all. Just like traditional English brewers, they just keep repitching and repitching the yeast. They’re currently at over 400 pitches from this yeast, which is just something I never expect to see given how paranoid a lot of brewers are about their yeast. Honestly, if you minimize the stress on your yeast, repitch properly, and provide it with consistently high quality conditions for fermentation, you really shouldn’t have to worry too much. At least, that’s my philosophy.

After this we checked into the hotel then hit the town to explore Kalamazoo. By ‘explore’ I mean ‘get really drunk in’. Obviously. We hit a bar called the Beer Exchange, where their beers prices are run on a supply and demand stock market kinda model. Every ten minutes the prices would all change based on what people were buying, and there were TVs all over the place that had all the current beer prices listed with beer price tickers on the bottom of the screen. I thought it was a really neat gimmick, and it helped me get a Bell’s Two Hearted Ale and a Southern Tier Gemini for $2.75 each. Bam! It was also in a gorgeous building with a great atmosphere (and I’m told the food is really good, though we didn’t eat there).

We had to hit the brewpub that Bell’s has in town, too. No one knew this ahead of time, but they were having a couple of bands play that night. We were all pissed cause we showed up and had to pay a $10 cover, but it turned out to be awesome. The bands were kind of bluegrass-ish, and both had a ton of energy. That was a great time, at least the parts I can remember. After the first time Paul got kicked out of the pub, he managed to piss himself then came back in.

My memory of the night is kinda… blurry. I do remember being hammered and getting lost in downtown Kalamazoo with Tom as we tried to find the hotel. We eventually said ‘fuck it’ and grabbed a taxi. Yeah, we were really close to it and the cab driver kinda laughed at us for being drunken idiots. It was a good time.

Let’s just say that my morning was… ‘rough’. When I walked into the breakfast buffet, everyone was already eating, and they just looked at me and laughed. “Dude, you look like hell”. Yup. That means we had a great night. This weekend kinda made up for missing Alumni Weekend in Troy recently.

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