Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Pink Boots at Magic Hat

“The world stands aside to let anyone pass who knows where he is going.” ~David Starr Jordan

August 4: Today is Saturday but there is no rest for the Road Brewer. OK a little rest. I slept in a bit. Then I went to Magic Hat Brewing Company on the south side of Burlington where I met brewer Justin McCarthy. (No relation to my cousin in Durango.) The brewery was completely dark as I walked up. Justin was eating his lunch at the employee picnic table and some tourists were asking about the retail store. All the electricity was turned off for some emergency repairs and the retail store would probably open late.

Brewmaster Todd Haire had left a headlamp for me to use for the day, but Justin did a great job of giving me a detailed tour with his flashlight. Each brewery I visit has its own story to tell, both its public story in the form of marketing, and its personal story that I discover during my visit. Magic Hat’s marketing is famous for being mysterious. They don’t even list their beer’s styles on the labels, 6-pack, or any other POS (point of sale) materials or advertising. They won’t even tell you what kind of hat is a “Magic Hat” hat: Is it a Harry Potter wizard’s cap? Or is it a silk top hat that a magician pulls a rabbit out of? They won’t tell you. They want you to use your imagination. They really don’t even tell you what style of beer is each season’s “Mystery Beer” that is packaged in their mixed 12-packs. You’ll have to use your imagination and knowledge of beer styles to decide. But, it could be as non-styled as Garrett Oliver’s “Local One” Belgian beer.

However, the story that Magic Hat’s brewery told me was different from its carefully concocted marketing story: Magic Hat is a giant quirky brewery. No way around that. Justin tells me that they are on target to hit 100,000 barrels this year, brewing 50 barrels at a time. Now that doesn’t sound so wacky, until you learn that currently all of Magic Hat’s beers are fermented in giant 150-barrel open fermenters. Yup, you read that right. OPEN fermenters. No other brewery that I know of uses open fermenters that big.

If you don’t know why this is rare, I will tell you: With a closed fermenter, whether unitank (cone-bottom) or dish-bottom or cylindrical-horizontal, the fermenter is closed to the atmosphere and therefore to bacteria and wild yeast that are always resident in the air. In most fermentation situations you want to keep bacteria and wild yeast out. In sourdough bread or Belgian Lambic beers, it is the native bacteria and wild yeast that are used for fermentation – on purpose. However in brewing, we generally want to control fermentation and introduce only the friendly microbes that we choose. This is easier to control in a closed environment. When you use a unitank fermenter, that is the closed system you are controlling. With open fermenters, the ENTIRE ROOM becomes your closed system. How will you control that?

Magic Hat’s fermentation room is controlled by Matt Aucoin. I didn’t want to mention it to Matt, because I’m sure he hears it all the time, but he looks like Harry Potter all grown up. (See photo at top of page, L to R: Matt, Teri and Justin.) How fitting is that? A brewery called Magic Hat has a fermentation wizard who could actually be a former boy-wizard working incognito and performing yeast magic undercover?

That’s a fun silly story and I made it up. Apologies to Matt as I couldn’t help it.

Magic Hat’s fan base in New York and New Jersey are keeping the little brewery that could, busy, so unfortunately each beer only gets to visit the open fermenters for four days. That’s just about long enough for Matt to harvest the yeast off the tops of the tanks. Below is a photo of the top of one of Magic Hat’s open fermenters at high krausen. After spending four days in the positive-pressure fermentation room, the beer is moved into the usual cylindroconical unitanks.
Just as I was nearly through tasting all of Magic Hat’s beers in their quirky tasting room, the electricity came back on and Justin had to finish his brew day. I prefer to taste at the end of the day so I’m not fuzzyheaded around brewing equipment, so I declined to join Justin in the brew house. Magic Hat was kind enough to set me up with two mixed cases of Magic Hat and a 6-pack of their Orlio brand organic IPA. Justin also sent me off with a Magic Hat jacket and a mysterious envelope that he said Brewmaster Todd Haire wanted me to have.

Imagine my elation upon opening the envelope to find $100-worth of Shell gas cards! Wow. The Road Brewer now has her first official brewery sponsor in Magic Hat. Thanks Todd, Justin, Matt, Scott and crew for the gasoline! Your $100 gets me almost two tanks farther down the road!

P.S. Dear Readers, lest you think I am drinking copious amounts of bottled beer while on the road, I want you to know what I am doing with all the cases of beer that have been gifted to me: I repack the beer into mixed 6-packs that I give to the breweries that I am visiting. That is my gift to them. So far the brewers I’ve met have been pretty excited by this “beer exchange” program because I try to create a mixed 6-pack of beer not available locally.

For example, the beer that Magic Hat gave me I will try to save until I get to Lexington, Kentucky, because then I will have moved out of Magic Hat’s distribution area. Magic Hat’s beer will be tasted by brewers out of their distribution area and that’s good for Magic Hat, and it is fun for the brewers who are receiving a Magic Hat beer or two in their mixed 6-pack.

Why give only a 6-pack? Because brewpubs can’t send bottled beer with me, and they usually take good care of me by buying me lunch, dinner, or both at their brewpub. But I want them to have a 6-pack too.
The first brewers I visited on this trip didn't get any beer as I hadn't collected any yet. Now the program seems to be moving nicely. I don't want any breweries to feel like they have to give me beer, this is all just a friendly gifting situation that is working out magically.
Is this a great trip or what!

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