Monday, September 07, 2009

On Labor Day, a brewer's remembrance

The Manayunk Brewing Company sits on the bank of the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in the Manayunk district of the city. In 1996, I was the brewpub's original brewer.

The pub opened to the public in October of that year. Lunch patrons were unaccustomed to the pungent sweet aromas of cooking barley. In deference to their sensibilities, the pub's owner had asked me to finish brewing before noon.

So, I would arrive in the dark well before dawn. I'd start a pot of coffee, and then begin the mash.

The pub's system was only partially automated. In the malthouse, I would hoist several 55 lb bags of malt at a time into the mill, and then run across the alley to the 15 barrel mashtun, where I would mix the grains and hot water with a long boat paddle. The mechanical mixing blade supplied by the manufacturer was not up to the job.

Then, it was back across the alley to hoist in a couple more bags, and then quickly back to the brewhouse to stir. Back and forth, and back and forth, until the several hundreds of pounds of barley malt had been doughed in.

Now, the mash would rest for an hour, while enzymes, inherent in the barley, would silently convert malt starches into malt sugars.

The pause afforded me an opportunity to have that cup of coffee. I would walk with it outside and sit on a retaining wall, overlooking the spot where the Manayunk Canal emptied into the Schuylkill River.

The steam would rise from the coffee, and also from me. In October 1996, the early morning air along the river was crisp. The sweat from the exertion of mashing would evaporate from the top of my head.

In my reverie, though, I was not alone.

Every morning, a majestic bird, a crane, balancing on one leg, would perch itself on the far bank of the canal. The sun would rise behind us, and she and I would seemingly acknowledge each other, wordlessly, siblings of the dawn.

Throughout October and into November, we would repeat our early morning encounters. The crane would be there, as if waiting for me.

One cold, drizzling morning just before Thanksgiving, I mashed in as normal, poured my coffee, and sat on the wall. I looked about, but the crane was not at her perch. She would not be there the next brew morning, nor the next, nor the next. She would never return.

In the days following her disappearance, the brewpub experienced its first successful weekend. Had my silent avian companion actually been Nikasi, goddess of beer, made manifest, there to bless the brewery, I mused? Over a decade later, the brewpub, now called the Manayunk Brewery and Restaurant, continues to thrive.

I left Philly the following year for a different brewing opportunity, but I still vividly remember that bird, and the metaphysical marvel of those mornings, long ago.

Happy Labor Day to all brewers, and to all who produce for us.

By the way, the name of the river is pronounced SKOO kll, almost swallowing the 2nd syllable.

1 comment:

  1. Great write-up Tom.

    The wife and I lived just a few minutes north of Manayunk when I went to work in Philadelphia. The Manayunk Brewery and Restaurant was our go-to spot. Nothing beats drinking a hand crafted beer, on a big deck overlooking a large river.

    I had no idea you were the original brewer. You helped start something great!


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