Tuesday, April 7, 2009

It Takes a lot of Beer...

I think back to one of my first days working harvest out in Oregon, which was also my first experience working a wine harvest; everyone was well spent from a long day of bottling the wine from the previous vintage and during cleanup the winemaker came down to the cellar with a twelve pack of microbrew and told everyone to stop. It was beer time! I had already been quickly romanticized with some of the rather unromantic and tedious aspects of winemaking, but for my boss to demand that I pause my duties to take some time to enjoy a fine brew seemed rather surreal. I would soon come to find that beer drinking amongst winemakers is not only commonplace, it is essential to survival amidst the chaos and confusion of the time of year we call ‘harvest’ (or vintage in other parts of the world). The old saying goes something like “it takes a lot of beer to make a little bit of wine.”

When I tell people about my experiences traveling and learning about winemaking, one of the first comments they usually make hints at the fact that I must get to drink heaps of good wine. While I will admit that finding a bottle of wine to accompany dinner or simply sip while reading at the end of the night is not usually a problem, more often than not I find my recycling to be weighed down more with empty brown beer bottles than heavy skeletons of burgundy. Don’t get me wrong. I love wine; it’s the reason I’ve embarked on this self-educating-travel-work chapter of my life, but after a long day of picking through grape bunches on a sorting line or what often seems like never-ending cleaning, there’s something to be said about cracking open a cold brew (or two). Harvest is an interesting time of year for winemaking in that an eight hour workday is considered short. When the day has been dragging on you know it’s getting close to time to finish up when you see a co-worker coming down the stairs with their hands full of bottles to spread amongst the troops . The work refrigerator is (hopefully) usually stocked with a stellar array of good microbrews. Beer’o’clock is also a great excuse to take a break and recap on the highs and lows of the previous day or share in conversation and camaraderie with the people who practically become family during the solid month or two that are Harvest. Last year I remember talking to one of the guys who had just delivered a truckload of pinot noir to our winery and asked him how his harvest was going. With a smirk on his face he quickly responded, “it’s been rough lately, not enough beer!”

Interesting enough, the two places I have chosen to work harvests have also been renowned for their hop-growing industries. The Willamette Valley in Oregon is responsible for a large part of domestic hop production in the United States. Nelson is New Zealand’s only viable hop-growing region at the moment. Driving past hop fields gives somewhat of a surreal and eerie feeling, Kafkaesque if you will; the plants grow quite tall on trellis systems, row after row after row after row. Not to mention that the aroma of hops being harvested and dried in vast kilns is nothing short of ecstasy. It makes sense then, that these two regions also have quite the array of breweries as well. (Interesting Fact: Wisconsin, my home, also known for its brewing industry was once at the center of the world’s hop growing industry. Check out an interesting article for more about the green aromatic: http://www.jsonline.com/business/29442239.html)
Portland has no shortage of breweries and brewpubs, and hitting them up by bike is a great way to see and taste the city’s output. Nelson has more breweries than any other region in New Zealand. Last weekend I was fortunate enough to attend Marchfest in Nelson city. See the link: http://www.marchfest.com/page/1/MARCHFeST.html
It was a celebration of the hop harvest, local food, and local music. I’m sure I wasn’t the only traveler in attendance (my drinking buddy for the night was a fellow American who I met up with at the hostel I was staying at for the night), but it sure did seem like it was an event made by and for the locals. One of the coolest parts was that most of the beers on tap were all brewed in small quantity especially for the event. I was even treated to a free pint after striking up a conversation with a guy in line for the tap who I would find out was a hop farmer who grew a large portion of the hops that went into many of the beers that were being poured that night.

It’s not surprising that many of the same people who make wine are also quite adept at brewing beer. Many of the winemakers and cellarhands I’ve met and worked with have quite interesting and successful beer brewing setups in their homes. When I was in Oregon we used to congregate at the apartment of our assistant winemaker on our off-nights, and some fantastic homebrews were created as a result. One of my favorites was a holiday spiced ale that was, by agreement, not allowed to be opened until after Christmas. When I opened the growler (64 ounce container) on Christmas Eve with my family, it made for a great opportunity to share some of my stories about the people and good times I had spent during the previous four months. More recently, I was invited down to the home of one of my current co-workers (shortly after he came on to work for harvest) to enjoy some of his home brew on a Saturday afternoon. It’s a pretty cool to experience the excitement of a home-brewer as they open a new bottle for you, describing the fruits of their labor whilst attempting a perfect pour into some sort of souvenir pint glass they’ve amassed over the years. Not only did we break the ice over a crafty pint, but the drinks were a mere social lubricant for me getting to know him and his wife and sharing stories of our travels and similar life/work experiences from around the world.

Just as every part of the world has its own distinct winemaking tradition, the same goes for beer. Whether you find yourself enjoying some fermented fury in the vast historically rich brewscape of Europe, sipping a watery lime infused Corona on a beach in Central America, a complexly crafted ale in one of the hip cities of the US, or in good company drinking a house specialty at a local establishment in some other corner of the globe, there are enough options out there that you might never again consider a casual bottle (or can) of watered-down corporate ‘lite’ or ‘bitter.’ Life is too short to drink bad beer (or wine for that matter). So cheers, drink up, and next time you are going out or picking up some brews for a get together, think about the source, quality, taste, and locale before quantity, and imagine the stories of all the hands that went into making the glory in the bottle that is your beer.