Going crazy over craft beer
June 3, 2012
After two weeks of discussing wine, it’s time to explore another historically significant fermented beverage: beer. Nowhere better to experience brewing than in Crazy Mountain Brewing Co.’s humble digs tucked under Subway in Edwards. Not many things I’d roll out of bed at 4:30 a.m. for, but brewing beer is one of them!
Grain was the crop the first farmers planted 10,000 to 15,000 years ago. Early farmers learned to ferment grain to make beer. Although man’s earliest known experience with alcohol was mead during Neolithic times, the oldest known chemical evidence of beer dates to 3,500 B.C. in modern-day Iran. Claiming wine as the “ambrosia of the gods” and beer the “drink of Barbarians,” the Greeks and Romans sent beer into its own dark ages until monastic brewing began around 500 A.D. Given the high protein content of beer, monks used it not to get a buzz – although that was no doubt a pleasant side effect – but for sustenance. The Industrial Revolution in the 18th century ushered in the mass production of beer. Prohibition decimated the industry, as brewery numbers plummeted from about 3,000 in 1880 to 756 shortly after sanity was restored and Congress and the voters repealed the 18th Amendment in 1933. During the post-war years, the brewery count fell to 101 in 1980. Consolidation continued until microbreweries (craft breweries) offering more diverse choices appeared in the late 1990s. Thanks to the rise in popularity of craft beers, America’s brewery count in 2011 was 1,989 operating all or part of the year, of which 1,938 were craft breweries – small, independent and traditional breweries producing no more than 6 million beer barrels per year. Today, craft breweries make up 9 percent of the American beer market.Riding on a wave of interest in artisanal and nonubiquitous foods and wine, craft breweries are expanding their share of a market long dominated by huge brewers. Currently more than 100,000 Americans are employed in craft breweries. Since opening during a time when Eagle County jobs were evaporating, founders and co-owners Kevin and Marisa Selvy have added employees. Currently, Crazy Mountain employs 13 people – with two more joining in June – two cats on mouse patrol and four dogs supervising the cats. Weekly output of the five-day week of two daily shifts is 5,600 gallons of beer in eight brewings. The goal is to expand to a 24/7 operation in the coming year to meet growing demand.
At 28, Kevin Selvy is already in his third career, having previously been a stockbroker for Lehman Brothers and a California winemaker at Anchor Brewing Co.’s York Creek Vineyards. Selvy quickly transitioned to brewing operations at Anchor, where he found his two true loves – brewing craft beer and his wife, Marisa. Bringing craft beer to the Vail Valley was a natural for Selvy, a Parker native, and in 2010, he and Marisa set up shop in Edwards. They never looked back. Against all odds, Kevin and Marisa’s success in pleasing their newfound customers in turn pleased their investors when they hit their third-year sales projections after three months of Crazy Mountain’s life. The nation’s largest beer distributor, the Reyes Group, picked up Crazy Mountain and now distributes it in a growing number of states coast to coast. Selvy has established himself as a successful master brewer and, from my observation, lives by Confucius’ words: “If you love what you do, you will never work another day in your life.” Yes, he begins “work” long before most people wake, but his work is a labor of love that takes him from the wee hours of the morning brewing beer until late hours marketing it.
Selvy, who says he “learned more about making beer by making wine,” considers brewing to be a blend of science and artistry: The artistry comes from knowing which herbs, spices, grains and hops will produce desired characteristics and the science from knowing specific gravities and brewing times and which additives are needed. Each beer has its own personality and recipe. Crazy Mountain currently brews eight different beers year-round plus one seasonal beer. On the day I worked with Selvy, we were making Horseshoes & Hand Grenades ESB, a beer that begins with more than 1,300 pounds of dark and light barley mixed with hot water in the mash tun to convert the grains’ starches to sugars. Unlike wine where the basic ingredient, grapes, has sugar, grains such as barley, wheat and oats have starches that must be converted to sugar. Typical organic chemistry experiment. The malty, slightly sweet wort was later pumped into the brewing vat for the 75-minute transition to prefermented beer. It was a “hurry up and wait operation” punctuated by Selvy sanitizing equipment, taking temperatures and specific gravities and setting up for the next steps as he waited for each process to finish. At 6:30 a.m., we took a break to sample my favorite, Lava Lake Wit at Selvy’s Uncle Dan’s beautiful beetle-kill wood bar in the tasting room. The breakfast of champions! This fermented jewel is a tribute to Selvy’s artistry. The silky beer is a blend of barley, Belgian Pilsner malt, two types of wheat, rolled oats, Belgian yeast, chamomile, coriander, Curacao orange peel and “grains of paradise” (a fruitier cousin of black pepper). The combination of oils from the oats and chamomile produces both a silky feel in the mouth and fabulous dreams in bed, or so Selvy promises. While we waited, we discussed the most precious ingredient in the entire process – water. I was intrigued to learn how difficult it is for them using water close to its mineral-rich source. Perhaps all those Coors beer commercials showing the Rocky Mountain spring water had me believing that was a good thing. It is, but as Selvy explained, the minerals must be stripped from the water and then added back in the desired amount. It’s a tedious and expensive process, so cold water is run through a heat exchanger to be used again, thus saving as much as 1,000 gallons of water each day. After the wort was safely pumped into the brewing vat, I switched over to the canning line. What a treat to pick off and box the cold six-packs as they were spit out of the canning machine! I surrendered when the height reached 10 of the 12 levels on the pallet, as I could no longer reach the middle boxes. It was exhilarating, tiring and fun to be part of readying the finished product for shipment. There’s so much more to this operation I’d love to share, but space limits me. Perhaps the best way to tell the entire story is to urge readers to visit the brewery and see first hand what a serious and promising venture is going on under our noses. As Ben Franklin said, “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.” Trust me, a tall, cold glass of Crazy Mountain craft beer will definitely leave you happy!Suzanne Hoffman is a local attorney, wine importer and the Chambellan Provincial of the Southwest Region and Bailli (president) of the Vail chapter of the Chaine des Rotisseurs. She is passionate about all things gastronomique. For more background information on her “Behind the Scenes” series, go to http://www.facebook.com/vailvalleysecrets. Email comments about this story to firstname.lastname@example.org.