Exit Bloggist

February 14th, 2014

I was pity-hired by Chris Richards three-plus years ago. Asheville’s job market (the country’s job market) in late 2010 was not exactly boffo, even for–shock of shocks–lit majors with graduate degrees in creative writing. What you did was wring your heart’s blood into CVs, applications, resumes and letters of introduction that vanished into the ether. You made a package of your dreams and kissed it goodbye. You knew you were a compelling story, the trick was to make this clear to everyone else.

You were lucky to get back so much as an acknowledgment of receipt. One after another of these arduously tailored maps of one’s self were sucked irretrievably through a rip in this vale of tears. Scores of folks in my boat know what I’m talking about. When we “walked” at commencement we didn’t realize it was a gangplank.

It’s possible now to believe that the only people who will ever benefit from these campaigns are NSA contractors. If I ever become a subject of investigation, they’ll see that I scorched the region to smoking ruins with applications for faculty and staff positions. The most perceptive among them will detect a note of panic in the subtext, throbbing a little stronger in every subsequent letter. Then one day Chris asked Arielle (who worked the Tasting Room a few days a week) how my job hunt was going, she got emotional (we were broke, y’all), and a minute later I had an open invitation to a weekly paycheck.

I am probably the least mechanical person you know. I am probably the least mechanical person in a fifty-mile radius. And, turns out, a brewery is largely a collection of machines, tended and primped and oiled just so, kept and serviced and tinkered with, jury-rigged, jury-rigged again, jury-rigged again.

Luckily, on the cellaring side (I won’t speak for those loftiest of lofties, our center-fielders and QBs, the artists of the brewhouse), most of the labor is mindless repetition. (Marx would dine with brewers but he’d glorify cellarmen–he’d write about cellarmen.) Specifically, I was brought on to wash kegs and bottle.

Our bottler back then was a rotary job that filled one 22-oz bomber at a time. Took between 25 and 30 seconds to fill a bottle. It had been brought back from the other side so many times they called it Frankenstein. One guy could run it, if every so often someone else would come by and box up the product. I made a rude clock out of the process: so many bottles waiting to be cased equaled so much time having passed. You could arrange the finished bottles into shapes on the grates we laid down over the table: a decent triangle took ten minutes of bottling; a B-2 fifteen. The procedure was: you fill a keg from the brite tank and bottle from the keg. There are two B-2s in every keg; six kegs to a squadron.

One time we had to bottle a massive amount of Wee-Heavy-er, so I just stood there spinning and dropping and loading all day, from 9-5 with a break for lunch, and Aaron Wilson filled the kegs for me and cased up the beer. At the end of the day I’d bottled 90 cases.  (That’s a wing of bombers, for them keeping track.)

Then we got the Meheen, which takes two guys, runs straight off the brite tanks and fills four beers every twelve seconds. We do 90 cases without breaking a sweat and can exhaust an entire batch (about 180) in two and a half hours.

And in such eye-blinks years pass, people come and go, life happens. I’m in politics and real estate now and it’s time to test the gangplank again.

I am so grateful to everyone with whom I’ve worked and to Daddy Mumbles, who, if there must be a boss, is a most excellent one. Daddy doesn’t get a lot of credit around here, or certainly in this blog, so here goes:

Daddy Mumbles brings to mind a distinction in Texas–and maybe in other states, I don’t know–between general law and home rule townships. In Texas, a general law municipality may engage in only those activities explicitly permitted by the massive Texas constitution, whereas a home rule municipality may engage in any activity not explicitly forbidden by the constitution. We’re all home rule types under Daddy’s wide portfolio, which is one of the reasons we’ve managed a weird, sort of invisible and second-hand imitation of thriving the past several years. They hand you the tools and say go ahead. We are told that America used to be like that. We are hopeful that it can be again.

I am so looking forward to being a customer of this ridiculous little place.

 

-D.W.

Selling Out

February 3rd, 2014

Management has had an interesting week.

The ball got rolling with Beyond the Pale, Ken Grossman’s book about starting, growing and running Sierra Nevada Brewing, probably one of the greatest breweries in the world. Really great read, with – as Salinger would put it – Lots of Squalor. There was a fair amount of hand-to-mouth in Sierra’s early days, lots of seven-day twelve-hour-a-day workweeks, lots of substandard housing, lots of stuff nobody would ever put up with from an employer, but some people would cheerfully endure in service of a dream.

Folks who start businesses from scratch are a different breed altogether, folks who start capital-intensive businesses like breweries are a different strain of that different breed, and folks who started craft breweries back in the eighties, when nobody knew what craft beer was, are what plant breeders call “sports” – anomalous beings who function Beyond the Pale, as it were.

Very interesting passage in Mr Grossman’s book about “Project Ocean,” his study group devoted to selling Sierra to the highest bidder and buying a nice house on the ocean. Apparently, he gave quite a bit of thought to cashing in his chips and letting go of his inanimate child, but ultimately thought better of it. We’re all glad, I think, that the Grossman family continues to run Sierra. They’re the classiest act in a classy industry, and Ken’s son Brian will be running Sierra’s new plant in Asheville. Sticking with it and making it better.

Later in the week, we got to see the Pixies here in Asheville. A really good, really loud band, playing their music their way, giving a great show, letting their audience know they’re appreciated for coming out. I’m sure simply signing contracts and licensing tunes as advertising jingles is tempting, but they seem to actually enjoy playing music together, and seem to be making a decent living.

And, the week was capped off with the Stupor Bowl halftime show. We’re too old to know what a Bruno Mars is, but remember the Red Hot Chili Peppers from back in the day. A facsimile of that band performed with Mr Mars in what could be termed a “mash-up” of some kind. It probably paid very, very well.

Making a product you believe in – whether it’s music, beer, or ceramic tile – is a very interesting thing. There’s a lot of information that takes the form of a product, information that can be condensed, pasteurized, fiddled, and produced in volume, resulting in a reasonable facsimile of what the product once was, and some really fat checks for a few people. When the checks get to be a certain size, the word “interesting” tends to disappear, though. We like interesting, and want to keep it around. If we move to a glitzier neighborhood, interesting might get lost, resulting in some sort of Incredible Journey odyssey, as interesting searches – perhaps in vain – to find French Broad, its loving family. We’re not willing to lose our precious, our interesting, so we’re not leaving our barn beside the stream, although those Tesla cars are really cool.

So we keep getting a little bigger every year, in spite of the fact that we don’t really market our product, other than working to get people to try our beers. That simple act – try this! – actually seems to work pretty well, in spite of the fact that our labeling lacks “unity.” Our labels are snapshots of where our collective heads were at when each beer was created, which artist we were grooving on when it came time to design said label, etc. Similarly, we’re clueless about our “demographic,” one of the fundamental building blocks of “marketing,” nor do we seek to understand the anxieties and aspirations of the folks who drink our beer, the better to offer our product as a placebo, a salve, a status icon, a lie.

It’s a hell of a way to run an airline, as they say.

But you see, we’re not an airline. We’re the kind of business you can actually like.

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I just started following someone on Instagram

January 31st, 2014

The someone I’m following is an entity referring to itself as “@frenchbroadbrewing”. Sound shady? “But, faithful bloggist,” I can hear you saying, “why do you call a corporate body a ‘someone’? Did you not watch the pilot of Aaron Sorkin’s ‘The Newsroom’ and were you not moved by his line about how a corporation wasn’t a person because a corporation can’t hold the door open for a lady? Isn’t a corporate body by definition an assembly of someones?”

And so it is, incisive reader: which is why we should not be surprised to find, upon first bringing up @frenchbroadbrewing’s “page” on our Instagram app on our phone, a variety of someones all at work doing brewery sort of things: gazing contemplatively into cold daybreak before milling, performing joyless autopsies on old kegs, grabbing a moment’s reprieve leaning against a pallet of canned Rebels.

Pictured in none of these, but present for all, is Peter “Pete” (“Carbondale”) Batinski, Assistant Brewer, a man who knows his way around a brewhouse. Peter’s as familiar with the lovibond color scale as he is new media. He can help you with your phone; he’s standing behind his in all these pictures, whittling choice moments off the day, popping captions under ‘em, extending them to the world like keys, inviting whosoever has a yen for it right the hell in. There’s a picture of the kettle that makes it look like, I don’t know, a storm is building over an alien landscape, or something. We should market a beer like that, actually.

INTERLUDE WITH DADDY MUMBLES

Daddy Mumbles walks down the steps and says, “Oh hell. What now.”

I tell Daddy Mumbles I’m writing a blog post to advertise Peter’s new Instagram account.

Daddy Mumbles sez, “I maybe just torpedoed our social media profile,” or something to that effect, explaining he’s tweeted something incendiary re: our property taxes (i.e., should he mail them directly to New Belgium?)

[Follow Daddy Mumbles' pithy, incendiary missives at @FrenchBroadBrew]

Daddy Mumbles sez, “You should write something about how I,” he gestures, “whatever you call me, am so behind, I have no idea what you write on these things.”

“You mean, like, Daddy Mumbles is behind the social media regulatory eight ball.”

“Exactly.”

Yes, sir!

END

To paraphrase Norman Mailer, how cruel is life, but how just, that it destroys a man who won’t change. Amid the maelstrom of arguable things that constitute the world and our perception of it here in Craft County, USA, at least these two facts are indisputable:

1) We are the second oldest brewery in Asheville.

2) We are the least marketed brewery in Asheville.

But the new blood doesn’t always fall into lockstep behind the old blood. Sometimes it forces a change. We will poke our heads out from under this great big turtle shell. We will not be pretty or new or endlessly funded, but we won’t hide, either.

We open our door for you.

-D.W.

The Pigeon Episode

January 17th, 2014

Well, seeing as there’s been a lot of talk about helicopters recently I suppose I could relate to you all the wonderful story of the pigeon in the rafters.

While back, we got us a pigeon in the rafters. Just flew right in, did the pigeon, and took up a kind of amiable residence way up over the fermenters, not far from the paper-strewn aerie within which Daddy Mumbles haunts us–the stooped lord o’erseeing his shambling fiefdom. On the daily, lots of barley corn gets scattered outside and the pigeons love it, oh how they love it; they wait patiently up on the power line, so many of them and so quiet it’s The Birds all over. When it’s warm out we leave the big door open and usually one of us will chase them off with a spray hose. When it’s cold you’ll interrupt them, a frenzy of pigeons bearing down on a pile of spilled grain like jackals to carcass. This is the grain gone viral, in a way. People like the grains more when they’re melted into broth, collectivized, anonymous, but pigeons, a pigeon bows to each individual kernel as if it was gold. Isn’t that nice? Well anyway.

They can overdo it, too–particularly when the Rubbermaid cans overflowing with steaming spent grains get parked outside. These the pigeons can actually get drunk on.

Once (and only once, my hand to God) we were molested for the better part of a day by a piss drunk bird of a generally brown hue. There is something unplaceable and weird about how a drunk bird acts: not getting out of your way, weaving a bit, just looking at things. This one was sort of wet all over, if memory serves. You got the impression it was having a bad hair day and was about to die. It was fearless and, in its pigeony way, truculent. It stared down the forklift I was driving like we were in Tiananmen Square. I loved this bird.

At first it seemed death was imminent and would come at any time. That was around nine in the morning. By lunch, it was stronger, though still grounded: it went on expeditions, it peered at things and got in the way, it was possibly scratching items off its bucket list. I had high hopes. But someone said in late afternoon that it was dead, and that was that. So it goes. I think Chris W. handled the corpse, which is one of the things we rely on him for.

Maybe you’ve seen the almost unwatchably funny nature documentary clips in which Serengeti wildlife get hammered on that rotting fruit that ferments in their bellies. All those reeling monkeys. That ostrich. My favorite is the elephant who can no longer stand and isn’t even managing to lie down well, but who’s still trunk-shoveling those things into his mouth with this deranged glee in his eyes. I see I’ve ranged a bit from the point.

So everyone became obsessed with getting the pigeon down from there. The pitchforks came out, the torches. We hoisted brooms, contemplated ladders, thought about throwing things. We turned off the lights and opened the doors and stared into the rafters and scratched our heads. It just sat up there. Someone said, We need one of those toy helicopters. It was exceptionally calm. It occurred to me that the pigeon was possessed of the martyr’s preternatural calm.

The clouds drifted apart and my mind flooded with light.

“This pigeon,” I told everybody, “is a decoy.”

While the flower of the French Broad Brewery’s young, capable, intelligent staff was embroiling itself in a quixotic, unwinnable campaign, the warehouse was left unoccupied, unguarded, the garage door wide open.

The warehouse: the Fort effing Knox of grain.

Even then, a squadron of pigeons was working in concert, clutching with their scores of beaks and talons a single bag of Maris Otter, their frantically beating wings percussive, inspiring, a terror in the cold empty dusty abandoned warehouse. You can see them straining, the fixity of their beady eyes, the bend in their necks. How long did they plot this caper? It had practically torn them apart. To think of it now, this lifetime of precious eats all theirs, if only they’re strong enough…

Finally the bag separates from the cement floor, from the earth, just an eyelash, then a smile’s worth, then an inch–here we goooooooooo!–but the exhilarant wind moves them too fast and they’re falling again, the bag crumpling to the floor. Now they notice, as one, the quiet that’s come over the Brewery, a quiet of no mean moment… They’re on to us… They’re figuring it out. They’re coming! It’s now or never–HEAVE, boys! HEAVE! 

At the exact moment that doom is unavoidable, the miracle: we careen into the warehouse, all us enormous and powerful human beings, just in time to see the bag, sneezing through the air in a cloud of laboring pigeons, at last flying out the garage door and into open sky. The Spirit of St. Louis is airborne; it just cleared the trees.

And what happens while we dumbasses gawk pointlessly outside, having been taken by a bunch of rats with wings? Rafter pigeon, alone at last after a day of torment, dives, takes wing, and flies unharassed to his comrades’ aid. We watch him join up.

 

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

 

-D.W.