Although I have toured my fair share of breweries all over the country, until recently I had never actually observed the entire brewing process — from start to finish — in a production facility.
This past week Christian Kazakoff, good friend and Brewmaster at Iron Springs Pub & Brewery, invited me to shadow him as an “Assistant Brewer” for the day.
For those of you who are not familiar with Iron Springs, it is a privately owned and operated pub and brewery located in Fairfax, California. The owners are dedicated to crafting everything from its food to its beer from scratch, using the highest quality of ingredients, as locally sourced as possible. Iron Springs has been certified as an official Green Certified Business by the Marin County Community Development Agency.
Christian Kazakoff has been the Head Brewer of Iron Springs since late July 2008. I had the honor of meeting him just shortly after moving to Berkeley, CA. He has become a good friend and tremendous resource to me since. So when Christian invited me to come brew with him, I could not resist jumping on the opportunity.
By the time I got to the brewpub, Christian had already started mashing in. The beer of the day? A classic Kolsch. For those of you unfamiliar with the style, Kolsch is a German style of beer typically brewed with 100% Pilsner malt or pale 2-row barley, German noble hops, Kolsch yeast and fermented at cooler temperatures that most ales.
Shortly after I arrived, it was time to start the sparge.
While waiting for the sparge to complete, I asked Christian about his brewing background — Where, when and why did he decide to become a brewer?
After serving 4 years on an Airforce Carrier in the U.S. NAVY, Christian decided to “get his hands dirty” in the restaurant industry. He enrolled in the culinary program at the City of San Francisco and started his career as a line-cook in various Bay Area restaurants. As fate would have it, Christian landed at Triple Rock Brewery & Alehouse, where he got his first taste for brewing.
But the story was not one of love at first sight. Christian admits that, at first, he did not drink Triple Rock’s beer. Instead, he opted for the ciders. His first real beer epiphany occurred during a visit to England, where he had his first taste of cask beer — what Christian refers to as “real ales.” Being spoiled by this real ale experience, it was hard for Christian to adapt his palate to the “American West Coast” styles of beer.
(I stole this photo of Christian at Triple Rock from Jay Brooks of Brookston Bulletin)
Everything changed (for the better) when Shaun O’ Sullivan, who was a Triple Rock brewer at the time, convinced Christian to start homebrewing. Eventually, Christian started volunteering to help out in the Brewery. The “lightbulb” officially went off during a trip with Shaun O to Portland in the summer of 1996 for the Oregon Brewers Festival, where Christian realized his calling.
According to Christian, Shaun O had a significant impact on his decision to become a brewer.
Shaun O ultimately left Triple Rock to assist with brewing operations at the (unfortunately “late”) Twenty Tank Brewery in SF. (Shaun went to open his own brewer, 21st Amendment in San Francisco, after Twenty Tank). After Shaun left Triple Rock, Christian jumped on the opportunity to become the new Assistant Brewer. He eventually became the Head Brewer in 1999. And in that same year, Christian completed a five week intensive brewing and engineering course at the American Brewers Guild.
Back to the brewing …
Once the sparge was finished, it was time to start the boil and the first hop addition. Iron Springs operates a 10 barrel brewing system, which is pretty standard for a brewpub of its size.
Once we got the boil going, it was time to clean out the mash ton. Christian made the comment that brewing is 90% cleaning, 10% brewing and 100% cleaning — which I found to be entertaining. In a small operation, cleaning is the majority of the work load. This is because it is almost entirely manual. And so, while I lazily watched, Christian scooped the spent grain from the mash ton into huge plastic barrels.
Iron Springs, like most breweries, donates its spent grain to a local farmer to use as feed for its animals. The neat part about their farmer is that he comes an picks up the grain from EACH batch of beer brewed. I had the honor of meeting the farmer that day.
After taking the grain to the truck, I helped Christian spray out the mash ton. He ended up getting inside to clean it more thoroughly while, yet again, my lazy butt watched from the sidelines. While Christian was cleaning, I proceeded to ask him more questions about his interests and hobbies.
Like me, Christian is also a wine geek and uber foodie. We discussed out favorite wine varietals, favorite wineries and various experiences with wine. I was extremely envious to learn that Christian once had the opportunity to try a Chateau La Tour from the late 1960’s. I anticipate the day when I will be able to even touch a bottle of La Tour, let alone drink one that is decades old.
After cleaning out the mash ton, it was time to inoculate the fermenter with the Kolsh yeast. I was very excited and impressed to learn that Christian uses traditional Kolsch yeast in his recipes. It may be the reason why he produces the BEST American Kolsch that I have ever tasted.
Speaking of tasting beers, it was around this time that we both got a bit “thirsty.” Still having some time left on the boil, we threw in the second hop addition and took a break to taste through some of his beers.
Here are my highlights:
- Kent Lake Kolsch: Brewed with all German ingredients. Light, crisp and clean — slightly characteristic of a lager. Hops: Tettnang, Hallertau Abv: 4.5% O.G.: 1.050
Grain Bill: German Pilsner, German Wheat, Vienna, Munich, Acidulated (its tangy and tart notes are attributed to the slight addition of acidulated malt). Overall impression: As I noted before, this is by far the best American Kolsch that I have tasted. And I’m not just saying that. It is super clean, refreshing and easy to drink.
- Chazz Cat Rye: A light, golden amber ale with a slight hop bite. Well balanced with fruity, earthy notes and spicy overtones. Hops: Liberty, Fuggles, Cascade Abv: 5.5% O.G.: 1.054
Grain Bill: Belgian CaraPils, British Two-Row, Munich. Overall Impression: This is a really good beer. I happen to really enjoy the use of rye in beer (and I almost always prefer rye bread to other styles). This particular beer was made with 50% rye, which yielded a really nice caraway-like flavor.
- The Dark Path Dark Lager: German style Sharwzbier, or “black beer.” Clean, dry, chocolate and coffee malt flavor. Hops: Halletaur, Crystal Abv: : 5.5% O.G: 1.049
Grain Bill: Durst pilsner malt, Dark Munich, Chocolate Wheat, Chocolate Malt, Black Malt. Overall Impression: This is an extremely tasty beer. Perfectly attenuated, mild roasted notes with a nice clean, dry finish. Easy sipper.
- Fairfax Coffee Porter: English-style porter Infused with real “Marin Roasters” coffee. Dark in color, heavy coffee and roasted malt aroma. Dispensed with nitrogen gas which produces a nice creamy head. Dry finish. Hops: Horizon, Crystal Abv: 6% O.G.: 1.065
Grain Bill: British chocolate, British Brown, Two-row Pale, Crystal Malts. Overall Impression: Christian is quite known for this particular beer. It is extremely well-attenuated and the malt & coffee flavors are very well-balanced. Having this particular style on Nitrogen added an appreciated creaminess to the body.
By now, the boil had ended and it was time for the whirlpool. Being a small brewery, the whirlpool was done in the brewkettle.
Around this time, we were informed by the kitchen staff that steak tacos (well, they were more like fajitas) had been prepared and Christian and I gladly helped ourselves to a couple of them. We washed the lunch down with the J.C. Flyer IPA — which ended up being an excellent match for the spicy “tacos.”
While eating, Christian and I chatted some more about his passion for food & beer. Like me, he enjoys cooking with beer as much as possible. We discussed all the various ways to incorporate beer or beer ingredients into food. He had the great idea of spraying ribs with wort while they were in the smoker, in order to create a nice caramelized layer on the outside and help to retain a moist inside.
Being a relatively low malt bill and low hop content beer, the whirlpool took no time at all. It was then time to transfer the hot wort through the heat exchanger to the fermenter.
Once all of the wort was in the fermenting tank, Christian and I took a moment to engage in his “tradition” of toasting the new batch with the old batch. And so we raised a glass of Kolsch to a successful day of brewing.
However, we were not entirely done at this point. If there is one thing that I learned this whole day it was that the majority of brewing, as Christian pointed out, is cleaning. Lucky for us, though, Kolsch is a relatively “easy” style of beer to brew and fairly easy to clean up after.
So once again I found myself lazily standing by while Christian did all the dirty work.
The brewing day officially ended with a few more tastes of beer and some more compelling conversation about all things beer and food. Overall, the experience was very insightful and very fun. Next time I vow that I will definitely help out more. I intend on being the one to climb inside the brewkettle and clean it. The thought of it oddly excites me, actually.
SPECIAL THANKS TO CHRISTIAN AND IRON SPRINGS PUB & BREWERY FOR THE AWESOME OPPORTUNITY TO GUEST BREW! CHEERS!