Written by Jake Miller
Before I got to Saint Somewhere, I had worked for two other small breweries. Days were long; I was the only production employee for both. I liked that—I had built a life in each cellar and knew barrels better than friends. Grain bills and hopping rates had become my language. I loved what I did, but I was exhausted. I was also nurturing an unhealthy cynicism for the industry.
Craft beer, whatever that means, was quickly becoming a hoax. The rebels, fist shakers, river rats and outdoor enthusiasts I had known in my early 20s had been replaced with marketing demigods. Greed, ego and line lust seemed to be pushing out all sense of honesty and artisanship. The arms race for wild and spontaneous beer programs was well underway, and balance and nuance were quickly becoming casualties. Bottles of Beaujolais were cheaper than American sour beer and 4-packs of IPA. A dollar an ounce was commonplace. I was completely lost. I needed to look at things through less weary eyes. I needed to have a conversation with someone I could trust. That’s when I emailed Bob.
Bob doesn’t know I’ve been up for a full day when I land in Tampa. I get a text at the baggage claim: He’s outside waiting for me in a Mazda SUV. Within minutes, we pull into Cigar City—heard of this place? We have a couple of beers and move on to 7venth Sun. They’re having a bottle share. Justin Stange introduces himself and holds up a bottle of Prairie’s 4th Anniversary: Talk to me about this. I haven’t been at Prairie since the 3rd, I tell him. I don’t remember much else.
Bob tells me I’ve got the next three days to myself. Explore the town, chill out, go to the beach, we’ll start on Monday. I walk to the sponge docks, nearly a dozen old wooden boats manned by old Greek men, thousands of sponges covering their decks and the sidewalk. It feels like it’s centuries ago. I order lamb orzo from a small place, and something labeled Greek light beer. The orzo is good, the beer is miserable.
It’s 6:30 a.m. on a Tuesday—November 22. Florida pays no attention to the month. It’s 75 degrees, and the sun hasn’t even begun to show itself. We stack bags of Dingemans pilsner malt. Bob says the early start should give us good groundwater temperature for the transfer. We’re brewing a table beer. After a long boil on an old kettle, we get set up for the transfer. I can’t help but smile as we gather chairs, garden hoses and a couple of homebrew-sized heat exchangers. This is exactly what I needed. I ask Bob where his oxygen tank is. He thinks it’s broken—we’ll just let the wort fall from the top of the tank. Of course.
I ask Bob if he wants me to CIP the fermenter. He nods yes. I strip the tank and soak all the parts in hot detergent water. I ask what’s in the detergent—equal parts OxiClean and TSP (trisodium phosphate)—and what made him decide to use it (It works, I wear flip-flops when I brew, and you can get it at a hardware store and a grocery store on your way to the brewery). Most of Bob’s processes have more to do with how old his brewery is than anything else. Yesterday, he was telling me how he used to have to mail in his labels for federal approval.
I’m putting the valves back on the tank when Bob tells me to hold on. He brings over a blowtorch and lights it up, running the flame over every port, crack and opening on the tank. I have never in my life seen or heard of anything like this, and I ask him about it. He shrugs and says there was a time a couple of years ago when he had eight batches in a row go bad—he had to dump every single one. He would pull up to the brewery the morning after a brew day and smell sulfur before he even opened the front door. He tells me he’d tried everything and didn’t know what else to do. He thought he was going to lose the business. Desperate for a fix, he decided to try hitting the tank with a blowtorch before running the wort in. He hasn’t smelled sulfur since.
It’s Christmas. I haven’t been home for one in a while. Bob picks me up in a Mercury cop car, and we haven’t gotten five minutes down the road when we both agree that we don’t have enough beer. We become those people that we hate and pull into a Walgreens on Christmas Day. We walk out with a lot of Sierra Nevada. Gifts are exchanged, and we all eat until there’s nothing left. I meet Bob’s parents; they’ve been married more than 60 years. We all take turns wearing a virtual reality headset. Bob gives me a card with a $100 bill in it. The card has Saint Nick’s reindeer careening into a shithouse with a caption that reads I said the Schmidt house.
We’re kegging our second beer today. It’s an easy-drinking saison with heaps of jasmine tea leaves. Taking a sample, I stand over it for several minutes and end up finishing the entire pour. It’s loaded with soft white nectarines, dried late-season grasses and the infant stages of Brettanomyces. What really gets me is the mouthfeel. There are subdued tannins, and it takes me a minute to realize there’s also an oak presence. Not the vanilla, coconut oak notes that brewers typically strive for, but just the aspects of aging that lend to a fuller body. I love this. I ask Bob if this always happens. Yep. I guess even marvels can become mundane after so many years.
Bob’s mom died last week. I can tell it’s been really hard on him. There’s a ton of family around, and I haven’t seen him for a few days. He’s good about sending me texts letting me know that he won’t be around. I put the last of my Fantôme bottles in the fridge. Nothing eases the pain of a parent’s death, but I know he’ll appreciate the gesture.
We spend a lot of nights like this, pulling bottles of old saisons out of the fridge and talking shit. It’s incredibly healthy for me. I hope it is for Bob, too—basing a brand off of saison and never wavering feels a lot like living on an island. Everybody thinks you’re living the dream, but really you’re just isolated.
I read an article yesterday on spontaneous and wild fermentation. I show it to Bob; he shakes his head. We talk about how some of the people interviewed haven’t even produced the things they’re talking about. I ask him why he doesn’t get interviewed on wild fermentation. I can tell I’ve hit a soft spot. He talks about how he didn’t even get interviewed for an article written last year about packaging in green bottles. I know he’s not asking me to feel sorry for him, he’s simply wondering what the hell is going on.
It’s Tampa Bay Beer Week: a time where people fly in from all over the country to drink DIPAs and adjunct stouts in 97-degree heat with 97 percent humidity. We take refuge in the few kölschs and saisons offered. Like the Great American Beer Festival, the highlights of the week are the events surrounding the main event. Brewers and owners from the most followed breweries in the country make the 45-minute trek out to Saint Somewhere. Bob has pulled a few strings and landed some esoteric Fantôme bottles, and Jeffrey Stuffings has earmarked some highly sought-after Jester King. We all share stories about the first time we had a Bob beer—there isn’t a person in the room who doesn’t think of him as a mentor, a legend or a close friend. We sell through four cases of Fantôme bottles, almost all the Jester King and several kegs of Saint Somewhere. Bob is beaming.
Bob and I both drink a lot of XX Bitter. We order multiple cases at once, and I think we both know who is drinking most of it. We talk about it dogmatically: firm and deliberate bitterness that follows the whole taste profile, occasionally bending toward maltiness but never letting you forget it’s a Hallertau story. There are no words for how perfect this beer is. Like most brewers, we can’t help but want to try and brew something similar ourselves. We put together a straightforward grain bill and decide that we’re going to use Aramis instead of Mittelfruh. After a week, we take our first sample. It smells incredible. We take our second sample a week later. Before I even get the glass to my nose, I can smell the pedio. What the hell? We both swirl the glass continually in disbelief. We look fermenter to fermenter, making sure we’re even sampling the right tank—we haven’t had anything get this sour yet. Swirl. Drink. Swirl. Drink. It’s been a long time since I’ve been completely blindsided by the direction a beer has taken. I can tell this came out of nowhere for Bob, too. We both decide this is a cool open fermentation story, a lack of lab intervention in the cellar leading to a head-scratching result. We dry hop it a little later on and eventually package it. We throw the first keg on draft. It sells faster than any beer we’ve made so far.
My friend Nick Danger has been in town the past few days. Today is his last day, and we’re kegging a batch. As we set up, I ask Bob if he wants me to CIP the kettle before we transfer the finished beer into it. He says to just spray it out with water. I look over at Nick and smile. These little industry defiances will make any brewer’s heart swell.
It’s my last week in Tarpon Springs. It’s bittersweet; I’m eager to get to work on my next project, but I know I’m going to miss Bob. He’s throwing me an Occupy party tomorrow. I’m hungover just thinking about it. I’m also incredibly honored to participate in one of Saint Somewhere’s most hallowed events. I’ve heard stories from several people about these nights, and all of them include blurry reminiscence of mash tun hot tubs, whippets, and infinite bottle counts. Honored and terrified.
I’m given an Occupy Jake shirt by Bob Lorber, one of the many members of the Bob Squad. These guys are all at least 15 years older than I am, but there isn’t a chance I’ll keep up with them tonight. Bottles are opened in stages. Someone reaches into the crate of reserve bottles and is immediately informed that those bottles will be opened once the bottles on the table are finished. There is another table with a Crock-Pot full of hot dogs. I remember two hours ago thinking I would never touch those. I’ve already had two. A cake makes its way to the table. Bob gathers everyone around and gives a speech. He gets choked up at the end, and so do I. It’s hitting me hard that this will all be over in a few hours. Some friends and I scheme a last visit to Johnny’s, our local bar specializing in wings and Mexican lagers. I look over at Bob, and he’s got the water hose out, spraying off his feet over the floor drain and saying something about flip-flops. We walk across the street to the bar for a final order of wings and lagers. And just like so many other nights in Tarpon Springs, I struggle to remember the rest.
Jake Miller has brewed at Prairie Artisan Ales in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Wolves and People Farmhouse Brewery in Newberg, Oregon. Along with Zach and Melissa French, he is a co-founder of Heirloom Rustic Ales, opening this fall in Tulsa. During the winter and spring of 2017, Miller spent six months as a brewer in residence under Bob Sylvester of Saint Somewhere Brewing Company in Tarpon Springs, Florida.
Edited by Molly Bullock