Thursday, April 30, 2009

NHBC Brewery Update

Alright people, it's been a long time since anyone posted anything on the "brewer's blog", so I'm bringing you all back in to the loop. There is too much that has happened since the last time I posted to fill you in on all of the adventures that we've had, so I'll cut to the present... beer-wise. For 2009 we have made some serious changes in the lineup (as I am sure you have all noticed). We cut our lineup to 3 seasonal beers and have added a number of draught-only beers - some of which include Red Tulip, Zoomer, Brother Jacob, Imperial Hatter, Existential and a few more that I won't share with you just yet. Dragon's Milk has been rockin' and we've been putting it out every month - instead of every three months that we used to do. We have started to alternate packaging Milk in 22's and 12's every other month, which gives people some options as to how they want to buy it. We have gotten a bit of new equipment that has helped us out a ton - 2 new 100bbl fermenters, 2 new 100bbl bright beer tanks, and a new sterile filter have all made life at the plant a bit easier. Due to the increase in Dragon's Milk production, we have grown an impressive wood-ageing cellar with barrels from some top-notch distilleries from the South.

I can't tell you all of the things that we have kicking around idea-wise, but just know that there are some very big things in the works. Our crew has grown and has brought in a few new faces. So here is the rundown at the production facility: John Haggerty (brewmaster/bad motherfucker), Adam LeClaire (warehouse manager/shipping & receiving), Jacob Derylo (lead brewer), Ted Cothran (Packaging supervisor), John Stewart (sink pisser, aka lab guy), Jason Salas (brewer), Mike DeHaan (cellerman), Brandon MacClaren (FNG/packaging "specialist"/delivery bitch), and Bill VanEnneneneneneneeneneman (packaging worker/warehouse specialist/beard aficianado). I'm sure that I've forgotten someone extremely important, but let's be real -fuck em'.

I'll try to keep this "up to date", but chances are that it'll be another 2 years until I get back at it. Just remember that your NHBC brewers have love for you - thanks for your support.

Believe it or not, Jacob is getting married...

That's right people, after a long absence from the NHBC brewer's blog, we're back bitches. We're back with big news. Your good friend and mine, Jacob Derylo, is getting married in 2 days. If any of you have ever met Jake, you probably have the same thing going through your head that is going through mine - how the hell did this happen? A simple look at "his" gift registry will show you that there is a multitude of candleholders and shoe-racks in his future. We are all hoping that he has made exit plans.

All joking aside, we are all happy for Jacob and Erin and wish them the best. The next time you see them, congratulate them and give them your love.

NHBC Love,
Pierre LeClaire

Monday, November 5, 2007

Chicago Hillbillies

Well, Jacob and I survived our trip to the big scary city of Chicago, despite our best efforts to get as lost and intoxicated as possible. We got a late start out of town, since we wanted to see the presentation of our GABF medal to the pub. Jacob actually got the honor of hanging that wonderful chunk of silver on the wall. So after all of that, we drove off into the darkness and the unknown. I must admit that while driving down there I had the feeling that this trip was somehow a combination of Hunter S. Thompson and Stanley Kubrick all wrapped up into one. On one hand I felt the Thompson vibe about to present itself in the way that we were sent to see the festival, but would return home discussing everything but. On the other hand, there was a very real sense of driving straight into the real country darkness to release our mayhem on the unsuspecting world, which gave me a 'Clockwork Orange' kind of feeling. At any rate, we arrived, dropped our beer at the festival site, checked into our hotel, and headed off to the brewer's reception. There we met up with a few good friends of ours - first the Salazaar's from New Belgium and then Frank and Beth from Goose Island. As the party died off, Jake and I decided to venture out to find a dive bar - which proved to be a harder task than either of us had imagined. We wandered the city most of the night, drinking when and wherever we wanted, and eventually headed back to the hotel.
On festival day, we wandered over to Goose Island to meet up with Frank and Beth to have lunch and start drinking some oak-aged beers. We both felt that some beers were better than others (hey, that's the way those things go), and we were both amazed by the New Belgium sour beers. As it turned out, they swept the category taking all three medals. We ended up not winning any medals for our beers - and even though I was disappointed at the time, the beer that I was able to sample more than made up for it.
After the festival (and a few more beers at a few more bars) we headed to the Dogfish Head after party where we met up with a few of our friends who work for some of our supply companies. (Thanks to Kelly and Larry for buying a few rounds and dealing with my drunken nonsense debates about topics that will be spared from this blog). It was shortly after that when Beth entered the scene again and all hell seemed to break loose in our own little group of hooligans. More beer, more random discussions fueled by yours truly, and just when we thought it was safe to get up and leave, it happened. As I tried to squeeze my way past our table to leave, my feet didn't seem to follow and down I went in the middle of the bar - taking some unsuspecting girl out in my path. I don't have to tell you that our time at that bar ended abruptly. We headed back to Frank and Beth's place where more obscure conversations and beers were had - this was another prime example of Kubrick meets Thompson (and maybe a little Kerouac mixed in). I think it is strange enough to meet like minded people around you, but considering that we only get to see these two a handful of times a year, it is amazing the connection that we have made.
So there you have it, the story of two little hillbilly boys (and trust me, there were plenty of times that we felt a bit 'small town' during the trip) trying to navigate the city of Chicago. We made it out alive and had a hell of a lot of fun along the way. Until the next NHBC adventure...

Pierre LeClaire

Thursday, November 1, 2007


Well, as promised, when Haggery took us out to dinner a good time ensued. We all met up at his house and cracked into that deep beer cellar of his. We had a bunch of great beers, including some strange gueze and some La Folie from New Belgium. After that, Hags took us out to Bistro Bella Vita where we ate like madmen. We hit a few bars in Grand Rapids - the grand opening of The Meanwhile and Logan's Alley. After many, many beers we headed back to Jeff's house where we got a little out of hand. There isn't any one story that sticks out, but everyone got loose and we all woke up a little foggy. Anyway, things since then have been pretty busy - we have seen some beers really take off and have been trying to get it all out the door, but it's really up to the beer. For being our "slow season" I haven't seen it yet.
This weekend will be a whirlwind for us. Tomorrow we will have more work to do than any of us can fit into 8 hours, which should be interesting. At 6pm we have our awards ceremony at the pub for our Pilgrim's Dole GABF medal and from there Jacob and I head to Chicago for the Festival of Barrel aged beer. We have shown pretty well there in the past, so given the opportunity to be there in person, we had to make it happen. As it went, I said I would go, then convinced Jake after a few beers to trade Saturday shifts and come along with me. It turns out that he had made previous commitments to his girlfriend, which she was none too happy about. He's going to Chicago anyway. Now factor in that neither of us know our way around Chicago, neither of us has a great reputation for being responsible in situations involving large quantities of beer, and both of us are used to living in conservative Holland, Michigan. This should be interesting. I checked out some of the other breweries that are going to be there and am now more excited than ever. I hope our beer shows well, because it would say a lot to stand up to all those other breweries, but I'm really excited to see what other people have done with wood ageing and taste the fruits of their labor. It will be nice to see friends in the industry and be able to spend a weekend in Chicago. My main goals for the weekend are to get out of the Holland city limits, take some time to not think about all the things I have to get done inside the walls of NHBC (that will be the hardest part), and enjoy some great beers that I may not be able to find easily around home (this should be the easiest part).
I feel that I also must share with you that in the not too distant future the production/sales team is making a little outing to see the one and only David Allan Coe. Being a fan of the original long-haired redneck rock n roll son of the south himself, I'm pumped to get my hillbilly on.
Wish us luck this weekend - we'll need it - and we'll keep you posted

Pierre LeClaire

Saturday, October 20, 2007


Hello again from inside the walls of NHBC. It has been a while (a long while) since we have posted anything and I felt it was time to get back at it. I should first say that we were trying to rotate posts in order to give everyone a chance to speak, but we've all been a bit busy and the blog was last on the priority list. That being said, a lot has happened since our last post. First up was festival season - and oh what a season we had. The Michigan Brewers Guild summer festival was great, two days of great beer and good friends. When you work in the industry, the party doesn't really start until the festival is over - and we took full advantage. Without going into too much detail (and giving the prosecution too much evidence) there was extreme intoxication (that's a given), more male nudity than society was ready for (including naked man-ass being thrusted on the hood of a car driving through a trailer park to the tune of Motley Crue's "Girls Girls Girls"), and a failed attempt at getting a stripper (apparently you need to give them money when they show up). I'm not going to say that all of these activities were appropriate or in any way justified, but if you want the truth - there it is. The Great Taste of the Midwest was also a hell of a time. For the third?? year in a row we took home the award for best booth - I guess when you show up with burlesque dancers it's kind of in the bag. In all seriousness, we put a lot of effort into making our booth what it was and we were all very proud of it (no naked man-ass ensued at this festival however). Also since we have posted last we hired a new brewer, Jeff Sheehan. Jeff worked at a brewpub in Idaho for a while and is somehow fitting right in with the likes of us. Look for him to blog shortly. In other news, there's another new brewer around, Collin Michael Haggery - that's right, John had a child! We're all really happy for John and Danielle and can't wait to meet the little guy. If only my father had that sort of beer cellar when I was growing up - the kid is going to be 14 years old chugging bottles of Cantillon in the basement when mom & dad are gone! What else is new? We got in two new 100BBL fermenters a few months ago, which have helped up our capacity a bit. Also, (and make no mistake about it, I'm letting the cat out of the bag here) we have recently brewed an Imperial Stout. It's the first time we've done it and it should be big, so look for that in a few months. So with all of that having gone on in the last few months, our fearless leader John Haggerty is taking the whole crew out to dinner in Grand Rapids tonight. I myself am a little nervous. It seems that every time we all get together there is an epic story the next morning. I think the last time I stayed the night at John's house I was trying to figure out how I was going to replace urine-soaked couch cushions the next morning - that was never a conversation that I had envisioned having with my boss. At any rate, we will make an effort to blog more - please feel free to leave comments on this site, we always enjoy them. Until next time...

Pierre LeClaire

Thursday, July 5, 2007

One Brewer's Story

Well we're in full summer swing down here at 690 brewing like madmen and bringing beer to the people. We're a pretty tight crew, we work together, drink together, we're the ones in the trenches taking grenades, so most people don't have a really good idea who we are or where we come from. We like it that way. Oh I suppose we can be cordial and social when pressed, but it's not easy to crack into our little brewer circle. This is why I've decided to use this forum to let you, the curious and the intrigued, get to know who we are. I haven't the time nor the energy to explain the story of each man today, that will happen eventually, so if I'm to divulge one guy's secrets to the world I feel I should start with my own.
My name is Jacob, I'm the short hairy guy of the bunch. I've been brewing here for about 35 dog years. I was born under a new moon in a camp of bedouin spice merchants, the small island of Boolanjari was swallowed by the sea that night. For the first eight years of my life I plodded through incense, camel dung, and sand until I befriended a merchant mariner who took me to the Mediterranean island of Sardinia. In Sardinia I quickly got a job on a rocky farm milking goats, it was a good gig, I stayed on for two years. But I had bigger dreams, Sicily was a stone skip away and they had sheep. Oh how I dreamed of Sicily and milking those sheep. Well, as you may have guessed my boss had a little flat-bottom boat and eight months later I had widdled me some oars and high-tailed it outta off to Sicily. I was closing in on the age of eleven when I landed on those soft, sandy shores where the sheep udders hung heavy. "I've finally made it" I thought to myself "the top of the mountain". But life is funny sometimes, I just couldn't find a job, not one udder to milk. Well you know what they say, when life gives you dry udders, make vinegar. So that's what I did, it wasn't too bad really. So four years pass, I'm fourteen now and was actually getting paid with real money instead of rooster feathers. Well what's a fourteen year old kid with a few lira in his pocket gonna do? You guessed it, get a plane ticket and go to Sysketon North Dakota, USA. So there I was eating dust and drinking vinegar, when I heard a real cowboy singing by the roadside. It took me several moments to realize what he was singing about, this thing called beer. "What is this magical beast you name as beer?" I finally asked. "It dwells not in this soiled land, but only in a pure heart" was his slurred response. So I spent the next nine years searching for this moment of purity which is called beer. Then, while canoeing the outer shores of Lake Michigan, I happened upon a place, an odd kinda place, with a light on inside and voices spilling out. "Here" I thought to myself "is a place to get yak meat, a place where a man can get a sack of real sand for his pillow". What I didn't realize was this was a place where beer lived. I had finally found, beer. So I hid in the rafters every night for fourteen months, after a lifetime of wandering I had found the end of my search. I got a job shortly after, when the owners talked me down from their rafters. My job was to make and tame this magical beast called beer. So there ya go, that's my simple little tale. If it bored you I apologize, but next time you see me at the pub enjoying a beer, realize a moment of magic is happening, I'm drinking beer.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

of men and machines

One of the most impressive sights at a production brewery is the automated bottling line running at a good pace. Even small bottling operations are pretty cool to watch, like our previous setup back at Fairbanks which consisted of a 24-head filler, a labeler, a case packer, and a six-pack erector. Pretty much everything else there was done manually; at the front end of the line we had a couple of "volunteers", usually Hope College students, snatching empty bottles off of pallets and loading them onto the conveyor as fast as they could. Some of these volunteers were real characters, but that's another story for another 'blog entry. For the back end of the line we stitched case "mother" boxes a few days ahead of time, then stuffed six-pack holders into them during the run and fed them onto the case packer conveyor to have the bottles dropped in. Ideally there was actually a case in position under the bottles when they dropped out of the packer, since 24 smashed bottles and their previously contained beer took some time to clean up and would stop the whole process (hopefully before bladders were about to burst so the rest of us could bolt for the can). The cases that were successfully packed with bottles were hand-taped shut, the date was stamped on the top, and they were then stacked on pallets. Most days the whole process seemed like barely controlled mayhem but one way or another we usually made it happen. Anyway, we really thought we were the shit, running about 800-1200 cases during most bottling runs. The "record" for a day was around 1300: a LONG day on that line.

When things went well it was a pretty good day: volunteers keeping the line supplied with bottles, beer filling nicely, labels straight and staying put (right side up, always a nice touch), and so on. But fairly often one machine or another would take us on a demon hell-ride and make us wonder why we'd ever been born. The filler in particular had a habit of wreaking havoc, and woe to the poor bugger who was running it that day. You knew it was going to be a long one when a string of shitpissgoddamnwhorebitch's came flying out from the corner where the filler lived, usually followed by a thrown bottle or three. One day a tall stack of short-filled bottles in cases "accidentally" tipped over, gently nudged by Uncle Frustration. Good times.

So when we found out that part of our move to 690 included a "new" bottling line with almost everything automated, we started counting the days 'til the last run on the "old" line. You'll notice that "old" and "new" are in quotations; well, in this case old and new are only relative as to when we owned the equipment, not actual age. We were impressed when we learned that our "new" Cemco filler would have 60 heads compared to the 24 on our "old" Cortellazzi, but our "new" filler is 20-some years older. Not necessarily a bad thing though: the "new" Cemco is a much simpler machine and built like a freakin' tank (and the shop manual is in English, not Italian). And as Himself assured us: "Back in the day this was the Rolls Royce of fillers, ALL the big operations had 'em." COOL! (we think). A lot of this equipment has lived at some pretty big breweries over the years, and we still find the occasional Rolling Rock or Sierra Nevada bottle cap or piece of glass hiding in a machine.

With progress comes change: gone are our hungover bottle-feeding volunteers. That job is now done by one brewer on the depalletizer. The full pallets of bottles are put in position and a rake pushes the bottles onto the front end of the line. They're run through the rinser and over to the filler, then the labeler, and finally the case packer. Where we previously had to erect and stitch case boxes a few days ahead of time, there's now a big green beast of a machine that takes the flat cardboard boxes, pops them open, and glues the bottoms closed automatically. A six-pack erector still pops open the flat six-packs, but the new one is faster and shoots them onto a conveyor instead of into a lucky brewer's lap to be stuffed into the case boxes. The stuffing is now done by another machine further down the line, and the stuffed cases are then fed to the case packer. After the bottles are dropped in the case tops are automatically closed and glued, the production code printed on the side, and then spit out onto a conveyor where one of us has to manually stack them onto pallets. A serpentine string of conveyors hooks all of this together, and when it's all working as it should the only thing done with muscle is keeping the case and six-pack machines full of paper and the stacking of cases at the end. We run the line at about 150 bottles per minute, which translates to a case coming off the end of the line every 10 seconds. This is dead slow for this bottling line: it can easily run at twice that pace, and the filler can run up to 600 bottles per minute, or a case every four seconds.

Of course that's all in the perfect world that exists only in our dreams; reality has a funny way of being, well, reality, and bottling days are still our least favorite day of the week. Cardboard gets crunched instead of popped open. Bottles like to drop off of the pallets as they're being positioned. Caps get stuck in the crowner which sets off a loud horn reminiscent of an elementary school fire drill. Labels indiscriminately decide to stick to everything but the bottles. The case packer occasionally performs its classic bottle-drop-into-no-case routine. Any slight misadjustment to any of the machinery can cause one (or more) of the above. And with some of the equipment being 45 years old, things tend to slip out of adjustment on a regular basis. During our first several runs the learning curve was steep and we were running from one machine to the next trying to figure out what in the hell was going on, usually in more than one place at once ("Hey, I need your help over here"..."No, I need YOUR help over HERE"). A bit of blood flowed but nothing that some duct tape and Band-Aids wouldn't fix. We also learned that "Machine Can Start At Any Time" labels are worth noting and that an arm pressed to about half it's thickness is only interesting if it's not attached to your body...we needed a bigger Band-Aid, painkillers and professional assistance for that one. As the months went by things began to settle down though, as we figured out that turning that big bolt just a wee bit would set things right again on the case stuffer, that the glue pumps work better with just a bit more air pressure, and that Vise-Grips clipped in just the right spot would keep bottles from crashing to the floor. Referring to the machinery manuals (if we had one) could be both frustrating and enlightening: sometimes the machine had been modified so much by a previous owner that the manual was useless, yet we also learned where critical parts had been removed and needed to be reinstalled to fix an issue.

So bottling days are slowly becoming tolerable, we're getting more beer into bottles and less on the floor, and we're starting to think that we're the shit again. The new run "record" is a little over 2,000 cases (a cakewalk), and a thousand case run is looked at with disdain. Drink up, people...we're almost ready to shift the beast out of first gear.