Brewing with HopDog

A few weeks ago I wrote a story for the newspaper about being a brewer for a day with Tim Thomas at HopDog Beerworks in Nowra. It was cut quite a bit for reasons of space (which was okay with me as I can be prone to crapping on a bit), so I thought I’d post the story in its entirety.

So you can be the judge of which version is better.


Six o’clock in the morning feels far too early to be brewing beer.

I mean, you’re not supposed to start drinking beer until the sun starts going down at noon, so making it as the sun’s coming up just feels weird. Yet, here I am at HopDog BeerWorks in Nowra at 6am – having left Wollongong just after 4.30am to get there in time to spend the day making beer with brewer and co-owner Tim Thomas.

After stints brewing at Sydney’s Lord Nelson and the Five Islands Brewery (which has since morphed into the Illawarra Brewing Company) Thomas and his wife Therese decided to open their own brewery in Nowra.

That was in August 2011 and, after a nervous first few months, the brewery has developed a strong following among beer geeks for its left-of-centre approach. Among the releases to date is a rum barrel-aged raspberry wheat beer called Red Rum, Steinpunk, a beer brewed with the help of white-hot rocks and a 10.5 per cent barley wine called Super Beast that they make to celebrate each anniversary of the brewery.

And almost all of those beers were started at 6am. Why so early?

‘‘We start early so we can finish early,’’ Thomas explains.
But there’s more to it than that. He and Therese are the brewery’s only employees, so they’ve got to do all the work. That includes answering phone calls, serving customers, guiding brewery tours, bottling beer (each HopDog beer is bottled, labelled and capped by hand), labelling and packaging, deliveries and other assorted tasks.

So, if you start making a beer early, then you can get it well and truly under way before the cellar door officially opens at 10am.

This morning’s brew is the 351st for HopDog – the Alluvial Peach. It’s a wheat beer that gets stored in oak barrels for a while, sharing that space with a load of peaches (yes, the pits are removed first). At this point a brief brewing lesson may be helpful. Beer has four key ingredients – water, malt, hops and yeast – and they get added in that order.

The first thing Thomas does is turn the gas on to heat up 200 litres of water (or ‘‘hot liquor’’ as the brewing industry prefers to call it). While that’s heating up, he then mills 50kg of malted barley and wheat, cracking open the grains.

This is to allow easy access to the sugars in the grain, which will eventually become alcohol. The milling process now takes just 30 minutes courtesy of the brewery’s new grain mill – the old one would take more than two hours to chew through that much grain. And Thomas would have to stand next to it the whole time, adding the grain one scoop at a time.

The grain then goes into the mash tun, and while we wait for the water to reach the optimum temperature of around 78 degrees, Thomas uses a computer program to ‘‘make’’ his beer. What he needs to do is enter all the ingredients in the correct measurements and the program will calculate things like the beer’s expected bitterness levels, the alcohol content as well as the expected starting and finishing gravities (these are measures that are used to calculate when a beer’s finished fermenting).

If the predicted alcohol is too high, or the beer seems too bitter, then it’s just a matter of adjusting the quantity of the ingredients to hit the desired marks.

The computer program also gives Thomas a good idea of how tasty the beer will be. ‘‘I can taste what the beer is going to be like just from the laptop,’’ he says.

‘‘I can work out what it’s going to taste like.’’

Once the water reaches the right temperature, it is pumped into the mash tun (which is basically a 200-litre pot) and left to sit for at least 45 minutes. Known as mashing, this process draws out the sugars from the grain which, once the grain is filtered out, leaves us with a sweet liquid called wort.

The process also leaves us with 45 minutes with not much to do – making beer involves a lot of waiting for things to happen.

‘‘There’s always a lot of standing around in the brewing industry,’’ Thomas says.

He goes on to say that people sometimes seem disappointed when they visit the brewery, because it’s not as exciting as they expect. They think beer is great and assume that the place where they make it must be just as great.

As someone who has visited a few breweries in his time, they’re not some magical Willy Wonka-type place where Oompa Loompas cart ingredients from one place to the next, while singing some infernally catchy ditty. It’s usually just a few guys in gumboots shovelling grain in and out of steel vats, tapping away on laptops, writing things down – and doing a lot of waiting.

Thomas reckons the disappointment he sees on some people’s faces is because people expect it to be like visiting a winery, where they get to see rows and rows of grape vines, often in a scenic location, tractors and other agriculture-related paraphernalia and think ‘‘that’s wine-making’’.

But they never see the machines and the vats involved in the actual process of turning the grapes into wine. If they did, they might find it all less exciting. When they visit a brewery, turning the ingredients into beer is pretty much all they get to see.

That said, HopDog does have a brewing set-up that differs from most. Able to brew just 200 litres at time – which equates to about 600 bottles – HopDog is one of the smallest breweries in the country. That limited capacity has helped with HopDog’s profile – geeks rush to buy a new beer and, before you know it, it’s all gone. And nothing breeds desirability like scarcity.

HopDog is also likely to be one of the only breweries that uses gas burners, rather than electricity, to make beer. The hot liquor tank, mash tun and boil kettle all sit on top of burners powered by a nine-litre gas bottle. Brewing about five times a week, Thomas will go through between eight and 10 of those bottles.

But demand for HopDog’s beer – both from the punters and the pubs – means that gas-powered system is about to go by the wayside. In the next month or so, they’ll be quadrupling their capacity by installing an 800-litre brewhouse.
That will mean more beer for everyone. And perhaps more waiting for Thomas while 800 litres of water heats up.

Forty-five minutes later, the mash is finished and the wort is transferred into the boil kettle. The 45kg of grain is left behind for me to shovel out into several plastic garbage bins while Thomas calls a local farmer to come pick them up – he uses it to feed his cows.

The flame is turned on under the boil kettle, I throw in some hops and the process of making beer continues for another hour. See, I told you it takes a long time.

With a metal stirrer that looks like a paddle stuck in the pot to prevent the wort boiling over, we head next door for what Thomas calls ‘‘breakfast pies’’. That’s basically a pie you have because you got up before 6am to make beer. I choose a nacho pie, which is so good it very nearly makes me feel happy about getting up at 4.15am.

We head back to the brewery for the late breakfast and sit around while the wort continues to boil. After breakfast the first customer of the day turns up at the cellar door and Thomas puts me in charge of the beer. That’s not as much of a high-pressure job as you might think – making beer really only requires occasional human intervention. Most of the time it’s happy to do its own thing.

At any rate, being the boss of the beer involves nothing more than turning off the gas bottle after 10 minutes. And trying to look busy when Thomas brings the customers in for a quick brewery tour.

After the tour, Thomas returns to run the wort through what is called a heat exchanger, which quickly cools it down from about 90 degrees to 20, and then it goes into the fermenter.

It is in the fermenter where the magic happens. That’s where the yeast, which Thomas throws in, begins to turn the wort into beer. The yeast eats the sugars captured from the grain and turns them into alcohol and carbon dioxide. It’s a process that tends to take a week or two, and it again requires little in the way of human intervention.

As brewers are wont to say, ‘‘we don’t make beer, the yeast does’’.

And so with the yeast taking over the work of making the beer, I figure it’s a good enough time for me to finish up for the day. Starting work at 6am, will do that to you. Though I do have the urge to have a beer or two when I get home.

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