A Letter To My Son, Who Makes My Beer

A Letter To My Son, Who Makes My Beer


By Donovan Wheeler of Indiana On Tap 

We pour everything we have into our children. By their very nature, they become the embodiment of all that we think we are, all we hoped we could be, and the best of which all humanity can offer.  And even though it’s currently en vogue to ridicule parents who live vicariously through their children—especially dads—especially dads through their sons—if you are a dad, that’s what you do.

And if we’re going to stand in line and own up to it, then let me be the first.  When my son was born, I started fitting him for his first set of golf clubs.  I grew up on a course my late grandfather had built, and I’d played the game since middle school.  And because I had failed to live up to my own dreams I decided that I would right that wrong through Jim.  From a “skill of the game” perspective, I pulled it off.  Right-handed with the pencil and fork, Jim always seemed more natural swinging the stick from the left-handed side, so left-handed he became.  And by the time he finished high school he could play the game magnificently, belting deep tee shots into narrow fairways; throwing darts onto well-bunkered, undulating, kidney-shaped greens; and draining putts on surfaces with rolling speeds somewhere between ice and oiled glass.  It was, as they call it in the sports pages, a great ride.  If I could do over all those long, hot summer days watching him play junior tournaments at places like Coffin, Pleasant Run, and Smock…I would.  Throw in the proverbial “in a heartbeat” for good measure.

Then, as it almost always happens, it all came to an end.  First he told me that he wasn’t going to play in college.  Then he walked off the last hole at the Hickory Stick Regional with a one-over-par 73…missing a trip to the state finals by two shots.  For the next three years, life after golf proved a vacuum, and we replaced the game which bonded us with hard words and hurt feelings.  By the time we spent the spring of 2014 on a father-son brewery tour in the Circle City, many of the holes which had formed between us had been patched up, and we went into the excursion looking forward to some happy times together, and for the most part we thought the trip would be little more than that. Neither of us, however, fathomed the degree to which something like craft beer would change our lives.  

Inspired by the experience, Jim eventually went to work for Bloomington Brewing Company.  Today he puts in full days at the 40-barrel production site, and even though he often describes in great detail what he does when he makes beer, I never fully appreciated it until I finally stopped by not long ago, and watched him do his thing.


Donovan and Jim.
Some days are “brewing days” at BBC, and others are “canning days,” while still other days concentrate one facet of the production and marketing of craft beer—such as kegging and shipping.  On the Friday I arrived, Jim and his co-worker (BBC’s assistant brewer, Chad Huffman) were in the midst of what they called an “Everything Day.”  The mash-tun, the enormous mixing tank which houses a series of rotating, hollow agitators sat still, silent, and pristine.  Everything is cleaned, and it’s all cleaned multiple times over.  A scrubbing, an acid wash, another scrubbing, a hose-down.  Making beer is 10% art, 50% dishwashing, and 40% janitorial work…and that’s in places like BBC, where Jim and Chad still do much of the math by hand.  At the more automated joints…sure the beer is probably a tad more consistent, but most of that has been lovingly made by IT geeks watching readouts on laptops.

Across from the mash-tun, the boil kettle stirs a semi-clear light brown cleaning solvent.  This is where the product of the mash-tun’s work (the wort) is transferred, and here the mixture is brought to infernally high temperatures where it bubbles for an hour—or some variation of that depending on the type of beer in the hootch.  Once finished, Jim flips on the contraption sitting under the two tanks, a rectangular device called the heat-exchanger which functions as a sort of radiator for the boil kettle.  Gradually—and quite quickly compared to how long the process would take naturally—the kettle’s contents drop to something under 70-degrees.  Then, Jim and Chad move the wort to the fermenters, those signature tanks with the cone-shaped bottoms.  Once there, time and yeast steps in.

As the brews ferment, the boys monitor each batch closely.  One of the most important measurements they take is a reading called the PLATO, a European designation which defines the amount of sugar in the wort.  The higher the number, the higher the alcohol content, and depending on the beer, the PLATO stopping point varies.  Jim walks over one of the half-dozen fermenters arranged opposite the mash-tun/heat-exchanger/boil-kettle complex.  Separating the two rows of tanks is an open walkway—roughly five feet wide.  The tile floor spots a few drains up and down its length.  The floor is always—ALWAYS—either soaking wet or at least coated with a slippery film of water and brewing residue.  Jim and Chad clean it constantly.  They apply the squee-gee, get it bone dry, so that it can become damp—then wet—all over again.

Jim stops at the fourth fermenter from the far end, here a batch of BBC’s Ruby Bloom is approaching its final stage.  When they first boiled it, the PLATO reading hovered around 14.6, but as the yeast/time/fermentation process moved along, that number dropped.  Jim draws from a valve welded into the steel casing just above the rim where the cylinder transitions into a funnel.  He fills a long, plastic tube—something like the tubes I used to mess with in high school chemistry—and then sets it on the floor.  After a trip over to one of the many work benches scattered around the site, he drops a long, enormous “fishing bobber” into the tube.  It’s a PLATO thermometer, for all intents and purposes, and this is how the boys determine when Ruby Bloom hits its magic number.

“Other breweries use computers to do this,” Jim explains.  “And they can get their PLATO numbers down to the precise hundredths or thousandths.”  He doesn’t comment beyond that…doesn’t editorialize which method is better.  Something tells me he kind of prefers the way he’s doing it.  The humanity to it.  And so do I.  You can call Sam Adams and Fat Tire “craft beers” if you want to, but where’s the “craftsmanship” in punching buttons and letting pre-charged algorithms make your beer?  It’s like the difference between listening to your favorite band play in the Hi-Fi or the Vogue versus all that lip-synched crap on Saturday Night Live.


Jim doing his thing, and doing it well during an “Everything Day” at BBC.
​Jim whips out the bobber, carefully wipes the beer from the surface, and reads it.  I don’t remember the exact number.  I didn’t write it down when I watched him, and I’m not going to misrepresent what he’s doing by throwing out a random number.  I do remember the smile on his face though.  The pride he carried knowing that what he was making was nearing perfection.

“Close,” he said.  “Almost there.”

As I moved up and down the array of tanks, Jim and Chad had me try many of the beers out of the tank.  Some were under-carbed at the moment, but flat beers in the early stages still taste delicious.  Sipping it made me think about all those beer drinkers from the pre-prohibition era who downed pints drawn from pump-action taps.

Across from the vessel of Ruby Bloom, another fermenter held a batch of Back Woods Session IPA, and after a brief conference, Jim and Chad agreed it was ready to be “dry-hopped.”  While Chad rummaged among the hop bags, looking for the one he wanted, Jim turned a valve releasing a torrent of CO2.

“We have to take the pressure off the top of the tank,” he explained.  “It’s filled with CO2, up there, and if you open that while it’s still charged up then things can get pretty sketchy.”  After several gauge readings, he closes the valve, and he and Chad position a 20-foot step-ladder against the tank.  Chad shows me the hops bag, a five-pound sack holding little green pellets shaped like rabbit-turds.  The smell is distinct.  Last summer I enjoyed a lot of Back Country, and that moment of realization that the smell for certain, and the flavor most likely, comes from those pellets astounded me.  Handing Jim the bag, Chad anchored the ladder as my son climbed to the top of the fermenter, opened a small four-inch port at the top, and carefully emptied the hops into the tank.

“This part can get a little sketchy,” Chad said.  Sketchy.  Must be a ubiquitous brewers’ code word.

The hops added, Back Country would continue fermenting for another week, as the new dry hops seasoned the beer and sharped its flavor.  As he talked to me about the kegging work ahead of him and the big double-brewing week he and Chad were facing, I couldn’t help but marvel at how the young high school golfer who hated school, obsessed over girls and video games, and didn’t hold a care beyond the next weekend would transform into a young artisan.  A craftsman sporting jeans and steel-toed work boots hauling heavy sacks of grains up one set of ladders and even heavier hoses down others.  Five days a week, he and Chad spend hours winding their way up and down that narrow spit of open workspace under the shadows of the tanks walling them in.  And as patrons sit in front of their turkey subs or their barbecue pizzas at Lennie’s on 10th Street near the IU campus, they no doubt fail to give a thought to the young men who make the beers they savor among friends.

Walking back to my car, leaving Jim and Chad to the final two hours of their day, I realized that being a proud father isn’t watching your high school kid knock down a tricky birdie or thread a tight fairway with a bladed three-iron.  Being a proud father is watching your kid work.  Watching him take pride in that work, and embrace it not just as a man punching in time on the clock, but as a craftsman creating a something akin to art—all 30 IBU and 5% ABV of it.


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