The Birth of a Brew

It's 7:30 am when I arrive, and Xavier already has the malt weighed out and the hot liquor tank heating up. As someone who has secretly always imagined brewers spending most of their days sipping samples and gently stirring a brownish bubbly cauldron of beer, this is just one of many surprises I'll find throughout the day.

Eric Adsit

It's 7:30 am when I arrive, and Xavier already has the malt weighed out and the hot liquor tank heating up. As someone who has secretly always imagined brewers spending most of their days sipping samples and gently stirring a brownish bubbly cauldron of beer, this is just one of many surprises I'll find throughout the day.

After having sipped many samples of my own at BarkEater Craft Brew in Lowville, I finally asked Dean Richards, the founder of the brewery, if I could follow Xavier Cordova, the head brewer, around for a day in New York's smallest registered brewery.

If the words malt and hot liquor bring to mind Colt-45 and hot spiked apple cider, you're not the only one, but it's nowhere near what we're actually talking about. The basic ingredients of beer are water, malt, hops, and yeast. In brewing, hot water is called liquor. Malt is a grain, often barley, that is grown just enough for the seed to sprout, and then dried for storage and added to the hot liquor. It adds the sugar necessary to make beer alcoholic. Hops are a leafy, pinecone shaped flower that add bitterness and flavor to the beer. Raw, they're quite spicy, but we'll get to that later. Yeast is actually a microscopic organism that converts the sugar from the malt into alcohol and carbon dioxide. Really, you could combine these four ingredients, seal them up, and a few weeks later, you'll have beer. But that doesn't mean it'll be any good.

BarkEater Hops
Hops for Brewing Beer

That's where professional brewing takes off. The first step in creating a servable beer is being able to recreate your results. At BarkEater's, each ingredient is carefully measured out, usually by weight. I follow Xavier into the basement, where he pours the malt into a hand-powered mill, grinding and cracking the grains so the hot liquor can extract as much flavor as possible. He stops frequently, checking for a chalky powder that will tell him the mill is grinding the grain too finely. This powder, he tells me, can clog the filters in the brewing system, locking up the entire brew process.

Stacks of bins with various malts and other flavorful goodies line the walls. A few tubs of hops sit, filtering their scent into the air. They were grown on the Tug Hill Vineyards, just a few miles away, and harvested by Dean and a slew of regulars at the brewery eager to help get the next beer on tap. Dean will be here soon to package them.

The water in the hot liquor tank has reached 160 degrees, the optimal brewing temperature, so Xavier pulls one of the many levers in the system, allowing the water to enter the second tank called a mash tun. In this, he adds the ground malt, stirring slowly as he does so. This is called mashing, and it creates a porridge-like substance. The tank holds 8 gallons of mash, and will steep for several minutes before entering the third tank.

BarkEater Craft Brewery
BarkEater Craft Brewery

Xavier and Dean both began as homebrewers. Xavier went on to work at Ranger Creek in Texas and, more recently, at Saranac in Utica, NY. He began searching for a similar job in Lowville when his wife was deployed so he could care for his four year old daughter. This was fortunate for both him and Dean, who was beginning to feel overwhelmed with BarkEater's increased popularity. Dean was spending well over 60 hours a week brewing, serving, and keeping track of the direction the business was going. When he hired Xavier, Dean took on the much needed business management role, though he still brews occasionally and works closely with Xavier to develop new beers.

He adopted an early theme inspired by Dogfish Head's founder, Sam Calagione, to be "Consciously, beneficially, inefficient." That is, to make sure quality comes first, no matter what that means for business. "We operate on a single barrel system, so it takes a full day to brew a single style of beer. With that in mind, it's a big deal to decide a beer isn't fit for the tap room, but we'd rather close for a week than serve a substandard beer." This is the essence of conscious, beneficial inefficiency, and it shows in the brewery's popularity with both locals and visitors. 90% of their guests are from outside the Black River Valley, Dean tells me, meaning the small brewery has developed a big buzz.

BarkEater Motto
BarkEater Motto

When all the sugar is sparged or rinsed from the mash it enters the third tank, called the boil kettle. It's now called wort (pronounced wurt). Here, the wort is boiled, and the hops are added. The bitterness of beer is determined by how long the hops remain in the boiling wort, the longer the more bitter. There are nearly as many types of hops as there are malts, each with their own flavor and use. Dean and Xavier try each ingredient on its own, crunching on malts and chewing the leafy hop cones. "It allows us a more intimate knowledge of the beer we're brewing," says Xavier. It also allows them to catch problems before they happen in the beer. If they suspect a problem in the ingredients, being familiar with their usual flavors lets them taste it before the beer is brewed. I tried some of the ingredients myself. The hops had a sharp, oddly spicy flavor and felt waxy in my mouth. The malt began like a sesame seed in texture and grassy in flavor, but opened to a biscuit taste.

From the boil tank, the beer-to-be runs through a cooling system that functions similarly to a car's radiator. Very narrow double-walled sheets of metal stacked side by side have cold water pumped through them on one side of the wall, while the wort travels through the other. Once it's been properly chilled, Xavier adds the yeast to the fermenter in the basement with the wort. It will stay in an insulated room for about two weeks to ferment, and then he'll keg it, chill it, and serve it.

Sounds easy, right? Because they operate on such a small system, Dean and Xavier have to repeat this process two more times to brew a single barrel worth of beer. A small error, like forgetting to add more water to the liquor tank, can add up to two hours of work at the end of the day. On top of that, the mash and boil tanks have to be cleaned between each session.

As it turns out, cleanliness is a key ingredient to repeatability and quality of beer. Even a small amount of leftover mash or wort can have a significant effect on the final product. Beyond that, the cleanliness of a brewery says a lot about the attention a brewer pays to detail. Xavier and Dean spend roughly a third of their brew days cleaning their equipment.

Following Xavier for the day certainly taught me a lot the individual steps of the brewing process, but above all, it taught me about the patience and dedication to quality both he and Dean share in their pursuit of the perfect beer. 

Located at 5411 Shady Ave. Lowville, NY 13367

About the Author …
Eric Adsit
Eric Adsit can't cross a bridge without looking for a river beneath it. While his mailing address is in Lowville, NY, he lives on the rivers and trails of the Adirondacks and beyond, taking photos, climbing things, and writing about his experiences.
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