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Birth of a NoDa Brewery beer

Following the path of Hop Drop 'N' Roll from grains to can

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My alarm screams at 5 a.m. and I somehow fly out of bed. I'm not used to early mornings; my night's sleep was more of a quick nap. The sun's not even up yet as the radio tells me today's high will be 90 degrees. There's no relief to be found in NoDa Brewery's production area; brewhouse temperatures run 10 degrees hotter than the outdoors. Humidity is also brutal, courtesy of boiling over 2,360­ gallons of liquid over the course of a day.

Chad Henderson, NoDa's head brewer, is on site to greet me at 5:45, and he's not even the first one here. Fellow brewer Bart Roberts got here at 4 a.m. to start the first batch. The uniform of the day seems to be a NoDa Brewery utility shirt & cargo shorts, with a requisite blade clipped on the belt. Back here, fashion takes a backseat to function.

Chad: My morning routine usually starts with a series of extremely loud and horrifying alarms with different ring tones going off all around me until my failing to shut them up wakens me around 4:45am. I don't have many rituals other than to grab any food I've prepped for the day or swing by the local gas station to pick up a breakfast protein bar then head into work. There's a substantial amount of metal music in the car to ultimately get me a little more motivated on the short drive to the brewery.

Cans of Hop DropN Roll come fresh off the canning line at Noda Brewing Company. (Photo by Jeff Hahne)
  • Cans of Hop DropN Roll come fresh off the canning line at Noda Brewing Company. (Photo by Jeff Hahne)

We pick up the day's brewing in the midst of one batch's process. Some future Hop, Drop 'n Roll already rests in the mash tun, a vessel used to convert grain starches into sugars for fermentation. Today, four brewings of this gold­-medal-winning elixir will flow into a single 60­-barrel fermenter. A closing brew of Ramble on Red bookends the day. Four­ or ­five daily brews is the brewery's new normal at the North Davidson Street, although production capacity will increase greatly at the new location on North Tryon Street, scheduled to open in October. Counting by the number of fermenters filled, as opposed to individual brew sessions, today marks the 678th batch of Hop, Drop 'n Roll.

At this point, the mixture of cracked grain and hot water (mash) sits in the mash tun, smelling of baking bread and resembling oatmeal. It's been resting, a step necessary for the conversion currently in process. Without the sugars created in the mash tun, the yeast will have nothing to eat and we'll have no beer to drink later down the road. The resting process — no such luxury for the brewers — comes to an end and creates wort, or sugared water.

We begin the vorlaufing process now, as wort recirculates in the vessel. It's drained through slotted grates at the bottom of the mash tun and it re­emerges through the top, causing the grain husks to settle. The husks will compact to form a filter bed against the grates. The wort passes through this grain bed, top to bottom, until it's free of husks. It can then be transferred over to the boil kettle. Additional water is added to the mash tun to further rinse any remaining sugars from their former husked confines.

A gravity reading, which measures the potency of the brew by the content of dissolved sugars in the water, is taken from the kettle. The first runnings of wort are always the most potent, diminishing as additional rinsewater is added. When the target gravity is hit in the kettle, the transfer stops. Steam flows through jackets surrounding the kettle to bring the wort up to a boil.

Chad: We've had stuck mashes which slow everything down and effectively may force you to reschedule the day and week since the whole day is based on a certain time frame per each brew and we use almost every hour of the day. Losing power is awful as well and we've had that happen midway through a batch too. Kinda hard to do, uh...anything without being able to engage any pump or add any steam because the boiler won't work or control your fermentation temps because your glycol chiller isn't up.

Attention shifts back to the mash tun, which is now full of grain remnants. Devoid of their desired sugars, only a thick sludge remains of the grain. A valve opens to allow what little liquid remains to flow down the floor drain, leaving barley husks behind. Then the hard work starts.

The brewer positions a large white bin before the mash tun, and turns a crank to open a manway door. Spent grain that was leaning up against the doorway falls with a wet thud into the bin. It's a good start, but only accounts a few pounds of the thousand plus that need to come out. The rest will have to be retrieved.

Rakes in the mash tun slowly start to spin; they were last used at the beginning of the mash, when the star-crossed grains and water first met, ensuring an even consistency. The brewer repeatedly thrusts a hoe through the manway to extract spent grain within. Timing is crucial; one wrong move, and the hoe disappears into the mash tun to tangle in the unforgiving rakes.

With the first bin now full, it's pushed off the platform and wrangled to a waiting forklift, eventually to be taken to a nearby farm and continue its everlasting life cycle. A second bin takes its place. Spent grain levels are finally low enough to allow a plow to drop in front of the rakes, and removal becomes smoother.

7:18, and we've hit "hot break," the boiling point on the first batch. It's a dangerous time; hop solids and grain proteins collect and foam on the surface of the boiling liquid like angry pea soup. If care isn't taken, this rolling mixture can bubble up through the kettle's opening and cause certain injury to those on the platform. The entire brewery smells different now, less like baking bread and more like herbal tea.

Chad: I've had a couple of over-boils but not since the earlier days. They are very exciting to be around because they usually want to come and greet you as you're spraying out the mash tun. So you're sitting there with the upper half of your body dangling in a mash tun when all of sudden something jumps up and bites you in the calf and then you have to turn into some weird liquid fire-fighter and pray you can smother the boiling foam with water long enough to toss a dab of FermCap into the kettle.

Hop additions go in later in the boil and affect flavor and aroma. The longer hops spend in the boil, the more they contribute to a beer's bitterness. Hop, Drop 'n Roll sees six hop additions occurring at specified times throughout the boil. Another hefty dose later goes straight into the fermenter to contribute solely to aromatics. The mash tun is finally devoid of spent grain detritus. It's time to start the day's second batch, as the first boils merrily away.

Chad ascends a ladder and perches on a platform atop a four­roller mill, which can be described as a large grinder for grain. Multiple 55­-pound bags of grain are opened and fed through the mill. In total, 1,164 pounds of grain are cracked for each HDR batch before falling into the awaiting grist case below the mill. An eighty-foot conveyor called an auger transports this cracked grain from the back of house and up to the now­-empty mash tun. Here, a blast of strictly temperature-­controlled hot water greets the grist. If the temperature is too high, you'll get too many unfermentable sugars, the body becomes too thick and the potential ABV drops. Too low, and sugars are too easily fermentable, and the opposie happens.

Not far away, the canning line is in full swing. Land of the Sky, an Asheville-­based mobile cannery, has set up their equipment in the narrow gap between two fermenter rows. Five people tend to this process as an equal number of can pallets wait to be filled with fresh Hop, Drop 'n Roll. I'm offered one straight from the line; the ambrosia helps alleviate my early wake­up woes. The whole brewery is abuzz with a cacophony of glorious noise. I notice I've started to sweat. On a normal day, I'm not yet awake.

Back to the kettle; it's time for another hop addition. Most additions go in during the last chunk of the boil time. Several more pounds of hops and several minutes later, the boiled wort is sent over to the whirlpool. Here, it's rapidly spun, causing any proteins and hop solids to collect and settle at the bottom of the tank.

Chad: I still fear pulling stuff out of the brew kettle, large stuff, like heavy sacks of pumpkin or coconut. On our first batch of Gordgeous, our pumpkin beer, as I was pulling the several hundred pounds of pumpkin out in sacks I slipped and was nearly drug into the boil by the last bag...I still get chills when thinking about how that would have felt.

The first batch's wort spins and the second batch rests in the mash tun; time to connect to the fermenter. Brewery hoses don't resemble what's in my backyard. These transfer hoses are 3 times the diameter of a garden hose, and well insulated. They don't bend much either, and it's hard to move this length of stubborn hose through fermenter rows. They only even harder to handle once the sanitization process starts, during which 190-degree water passes through for 20 minutes, ensuring a sterile environment for wort transfer. Insulation does little against such heat, at the cost of manual sensation for anyone holding on. Chad heads back to pull bags of grain for the third batch. It's still only 8:30 a.m.

Time's up on the whirlpooling now, same for the sanitizing water cycle. Wort begins transferring to the fermenter, passing through a heat exchanger before the maze of hoses. Cold water runs through the heat exchanger in the opposite direction, absorbing the heat from the wort. The hot water now makes its way into the hot liquor tank, destined to become mash water for a next beer brewing. The wort temperature has dropped from 200 degrees to 63.

As the chilled wort travels into the fermenter, yeast is introduced. Controlling fermentation temperature is key: too cold puts yeast to sleep, and too hot means dead yeast. Temperatures of the fermenting beer are controlled throughout the process with the above-mentioned glycol chillers. Gravity readings are also taken along the way to track the fermentation progression, measuring the sugars being converted to alcohol and carbon dioxide.

This sort of work is nonstop all day. If we're not mashing in, we're boiling and preparing for the next batch. If we're not mucking out spent grain, we're transferring wort to the fermenter. Hop additions, along with everything else that's happening, must be carefully measured and timed. Cans must be fed through the line before being filled, sealed and packaged. Delivery trucks arrive to unload empty kegs before being filled up with pallets of cans and kegs by the dozens. The keg cleaner is in full swing after the canning line shuts down for the day, getting the barrels ready for tomorrow's filling.

Chad: The hardest part is doing all that you have to do, following all the established methods to make the beer the right way, while also thinking of the next step that needs to happen. You want to try and maximize the efficiency without jeopardizing the quality of the batch. But also you have the added stress that not every batch is going to act the exact same, so you can't get in a rhythm.

3 p.m. is finally here. Chad disappears to pull grain for the day's last brewing. I retire to a corner to gather my notes. A multitude of fans have been running all day in the brewhouse, but there is little solace from the heat. I measure time in drips of sweat only to find it immeasurable. An hour later, I announce my surrender to the elements and retreat to the air conditioned sanctuary of the taproom to rehydrate, cultivating a fresh batch respect for those working behind the scenes.

A few hours and a much needed shower later, I find myself 10 blocks north at Salud Bottle Shop. Feeling sentimental from my day, I reach in the cooler and pull out a can of Hop, Drop 'n Roll. Curiosity gets the best of me, and I flip the can upside down to determine when it was canned. "That can't be right," I think, checking my phone to ensure I have the date right in my head. Yep, hours old.

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