Saturday, September 22, 2007

A Visit to Alltech's Lexington Brewery, Alltech, Analytical Services & Woodford Reserve Distillery

"What we hope ever to do with ease we must learn first to do with diligence." ~Samuel Johnson

Photo above, L to R: Jim Larson, Ursula Thielen and Christopher Bird.

September 20-22: Overslept my alarm clock. Easy to do with the earplugs in. Wrote up my directions and hit the road hard. Today's drive from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania to Lexington, Kentucky took me about 11.25 hours. Fortified myself with Diet Dr. Pepper, Peanut M 'n M's, and a big peanut butter cookie. My drive took me through parts of four states: Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, and Kentucky. Just missed the tip of Ohio where Hwy 64 passes from West Virginia into Kentucky. I left at 9:45 am, and arrived at about 9:00 pm. Long day!

Arrived at Ursula Thielen's home in good shape but wired. Ursula's boyfriend is fellow brewer Christopher Bird, formerly of Goose Island and the Siebel Institute. For the last several years Christopher has been Brewmaster at Alltech's Lexington Brewery.

The next morning (Friday), Christopher gave me a tour of his brewery. In the photo below Christopher is shown in front of a display wall of Bourbon barrels that had been used to age and flavor his Kentucky Bourbon Ale. Christopher has a very nicely laid-out 20-barrel system producing 3,600 barrels a year. He makes three beers (Kentucky Light - a Kolsch, Kentucky Irish Red, and Kentucky Bourbon Ale - the red aged for 6-weeks in Bourbon barrels), all available only in Kentucky, and 60% consumed in Lexington.
This area of Kentucky is Bourbon and horse racing country. Lots of beautiful horse farms with horse barns that look like they could be churches.

The next tour of the day was at Alltech. Alltech is a multinational fuel and feed company based in Lexington. The owner, Dr. Pearce Lyons, emigrated with his wife from Ireland and founded this company in 1980. Alltech currently has offices in 80 countries. I toured Alltech's extensive headquarters. Dr. Lyon's wife designed the impressive building. The DNA double-helix is a motif here. The photo at right shows the smaller of two wooden double-helix staircases.

Alltech was on my tour circuit because I mistakenly believed that it still ran a brewing and distilling school. At one time Christopher, Jim Larson, Dr. Gary Spedding, and a few other brewing industry professionals worked for the Siebel Institute brewing school in Chicago. A complication arose when conflicting deals were inked. Somehow Lallemond ended up with the Siebel Institute, but Alltech ended up with Siebel's instructors. That was a long time ago. About five years ago Alltech sold its entire Alcohol Division, including its brewing and distilling school, brewing enzymes and yeasts, and any other brewing products to Lallemond.

Christopher brought Alltech's brewery online and continues there as Brewmaster. Gary Spedding departed after the Alcohol Division was sold and created his own company called, "Brewing & Distilling Analytical Services." He's busy helping breweries and distilleries of all sizes to "keep it clean!"

We visited Gary in his laboratory (photo at left). Gary was kind enough to give me the full tour, and showed off his nifty laboratory equipment.

I believe the only other former Siebel instructor currently working for Alltech besides Christopher is Jim Larson. Jim has a long and colorful history in the brewing industry, having worked in brewery engineering for Rainier and various G. Heilmann breweries all over the country. Jim gave us a tour of his current project: fermenting biomass, cellulose, and corn solids to energy.

Okay, it's not quite as easy as all that, but Jim runs a pilot plant designed to wring ethanol from whatever sources of waste or crops he finds efficient and expedient to wring fuel from.

At left is a photo of Alltech's proposed Biorefinery project. Jim and facilities tour guide Doug had my head spinning with the possibilities that Alltech's founder Dr. Pearce Lyons and his scientists have ingeniously cooked up.

Now, lest you think that this Alltech information is too far off the brewing map, please keep in mind that Dr. Lyons began as a brewing yeast research scientist. He just discovered other purposes for brewing yeasts and enzymes. In addition to alternative fuels, Alltech is involved with animal feeds, especially with increasing animal nutrition through enzyme enhancement. This is where Christopher's fabulously beautiful and intelligent girlfriend, Ursula Thielen comes in.

Ursula hails from Chicago and has an undergraduate degree in Biology with all the animal science coursework required by a Pre-Veterinary program. Ursula's father is a big-game hunter, and a few years ago Ursula accompanied her dad on a South African wildlife safari. Suffice to say she held her own. It's hard to picture Ursula, a petite young blonde, as a big-game hunter but I get the feeling she's strong enough to hold her own in just about any situation. I think she'd make a great brewer!

In fact both Ursula and Christopher are enrolled in the graduate program in Brewing & Distilling at Herriott-Watt University through its distance learning program. You go girl!

Ursula and Christopher took me to a local joint for lunch where I ordered a side of fried green tomatoes, since I'd never had them. They were breaded and fried, and reminded me of eggplant, although the flavor was fruitier than eggplant.

On the way to somewhere, we dropped into Village Liquors in Lexington where Christopher's friend, Ed Bullen, is the Beer Steward & Buyer. Some of you might remember Ed from when he was a brewer for Hops Restaurant Bar & Brewery in Tampa, Florida. Ed lives in Lexington now, to be near family. He's stocked Village Liquors with an interesting supply of USA and imported beers. Ed says "Hi" to his old brewing pals, and says he misses brewing like crazy. The photo at right shows Ed in front of his aisle of beer.

The next day Christopher took me to nearby Woodford Reserve Distillery. I'll continue this post later when I have time, but here are the photos. I'm sitting at Panera Bakery using their free wireless and my laptop's battery is about to die...

OK, I'm back. We drove to the Woodford Reserve Distillery and had the full tour. The photo below is of the top-half of a very tall cypress wood fermenter. The grain is in there along with the "wash" or wort. If I remember correctly, the grain is 72% corn, 18% rye, and 10% malted barley. We watched the fermentation bubble away. It was a lopsided fermentation, with more bubbles coming up on one side of the tank, so it looked like the mash/fermentation was turning over and over.
From there we went to the distillation room. If I understand it correctly, the whole mash/ wash/ contents of the fermenter are transferred into the first pot still. Woodford Reserve is the only Bourbon maker that uses the Scotch-style pot stills. It takes about 4 hours for the first distillate to come out of the first pot still and get transferred to the second pot still. All together, the future-bourbon goes through three pot stills, one after another, spending four hours in each still, for a total 12-hour day of distilling.

The three stills are shown in these photos are all three of Woodford Reserve's pot stills.

Then we were off to the big barrel shed (photo below left). Carolyn, our tour guide instructed us to "smell the Angel's Share." Yum! The barrels are moved into place by rolling them, and taking them up on an elevator, then rolling them across the beams and into place. They were not in any particular order by date. Most barrels are ready after about seven years, give or take. If the Master Distiller wants to retrieve one, he has to roll a few back and out of the way to then roll out the one he wants. They take samples by drilling two 1/4-inch holes on the butt-face (top and bottom), and allowing gravity and air-intake to trickle an ounce into a glass. Then they deftly pound a 1/4-dowel piece in to plug the holes. I didn't see this demonstrated, but I did see some dowel plugs in some of the barrels.

After our tour, I ran ahead to the front of the line to taste my half-ounce pour. In my haste I didn't notice that my camera had slipped from my grip, and I left it on the bus. I quickly sipped my taste and ran out to where Christopher waited in the car. He had a 1:00 pm appointment to give a tour, and we were a long drive from his brewery. Just as we left I discovered my missing camera, so I asked the tour guides to look for it on the bus and call me when they found it. We got the call about two minutes later, but we were on a mission to get Christopher to the brewery on time.

While Christopher worked tour magic, I worked on computer and Internet tasks, like this lovely blog that everyone is enjoying so much. Christopher gifted me a case of his Kentucky Bourbon Ale. Then it was back to Woodford to retrieve my camera, then Christopher dropped me off at a Panera Bakery to use their free wireless Internet. Once my computer battery ran dry, Christopher picked me up and we relocated to Ursula's house where Christopher grilled us hamburgers for dinner.

The next morning I repacked the beer cases I'd been collecting into mixed 6-packs so I am ready for my next future brewery visits.

Ursula has two dogs, named Max and Molly. After I finished my shower, as soon as I opened the bathroom door, Max, a stocky Jack Russel Terrier, yelped and bolted for the bathtub. Over the edge of the tub he scrambled and there he stood, in the wet tub, licking the water at the bottom. He's a character!

Christopher was thoughtful and brought me a blueberry muffin for the road, and off I went, headed for Bloomington, Indiana.

1 comment:

Hungry Robot said...

Hi Teri - Just stumbled onto your blog tonight (I am looking for a fun day trip from MA to VT for me and my boyfriend tomorrow). I say "you go girl," and may I also say, as politely as I can, I am so effin' jealous! What a fantastic thing to do!