brewing my first beer in the caribbean
I get it. Most people just don’t move to Mexico for a few months to work at a brewery. Brewing craft beer in the Caribbean wasn’t even a dream of mine. It was a dream of someone else. But I knew that person. And when he asked me if I wanted to come help him for a couple months, I was the guy that said yes. I had just gone through an awful breakup, and it was just life presenting me with a unique travel opportunity. It was a chance to move somewhere sunny and warm for a few months and avoid another rainy winter back home. I found someone to sublet my apartment back home and put my “real life” on hold and went to work at a brewery in Mexico.
I have just returned from this epic 5 month journey to coast of Mexico, learning to brew beer from Jeff – a good friend i met 12 years ago while traveling through Argentina. Jeff is a well-traveled beer judge and experienced home-brewer who has just started his own brewery. I brewed my first ever batch of beer – a 1800 litre batch of Dry Imperial Stout; the Carmen Negra – and many more afterward.
The Brewpub Entrance. 2017
I have never brewed beer before. I liked drinking beers. Over the years i had learned to appreciate different, fancier and more expensive beers. I had other friends that brewed beers. I decided it was my turn to learn. I have worked in bars and restaurants for the last 10+ years, and figured some of that experience might help with the brew pub. There would be something for me to help with. And along the way I would learn to brew some beer.
Ingredients (Water, Grains & Hops). 2017
In January I moved to Mexico to learn how to make beer. Located in Playa del Carmen, the aptly named Carmen Beer Co, was just starting out brewing craft beer in an emerging Mexican beer market. Cancun Airport – under an hour’s drive north – is the second busiest in Mexico and sees a lot of tourists coming and going into the area. There are only a few small breweries in the region, so it was a good chance to capitalize on the market.
In 5 months I learned how to do a little bit of everything at the brewery. There is a lot that goes into the production side of the brewing process. This starts with cleaning. Lots and lots of cleaning. When I arrived they had just finished fermenting a batch of Imperial Stout, so soon we would be moving from the large tank into a more drinkable format. This involves a lot of cleaning.
We began by washing and sanitizing the bottles. We cleaned everything; valves, beer lines, all of the associated equipment. We cleaned kegs – with the fantastically named “Keg Commander” – in preparation for the day after when the beer would be transferred into kegs. All this work paid off, because tapping that first keg, and pouring off the first beer was one of the most satisfying rewards for a few days hard work.
It wasn’t all “hard” work. Some days we got to go to the beach. We spent one day at a small beachfront hotel that was installing a draft system for their grand opening. They would be hosting a party and selling our beer.The worst part of the day was trying to get reception at the beach. I had to make a work call to check about a CO2 problem, and couldn’t find a signal. After an hour of setting up the system, the beer was finally flowing like it should. We had to spend the rest of the day hanging out on the beach, drinking beer and listening to life music just to make sure they had no problems with their beer. Once the sun had set, and the beer had been flowing for a few hours with no issues, we allowed ourselves to head home.
Maceration and Boiling Tanks. 2017
There were lots of parts of the job that were amazing, but of course, brewing beer was the highlight. I remember the day when i finally got to brew my first batch of beer. We would be creating a dry Irish Stout. The day before this day we had to make sure everything is clean, sanitized, organized. We counted our ingredients. We checked our recipes, and made sure we had all of our massive bags of grain prepared. We checked the equipment and made sure we had enough water – they had invested in a high tech and sophisticated water system to ensure high-quality beer. And then we made beer.
Making beer is a whole day process. From milling grains, mixing ingredients, brewing and eventually moving the beer to the fermentation tanks. I got to watch and help with every step along the way. I milled the grains myself – which covered me in a layer of dust from broken husks of grain, and of course, required a shower afterwards. We mixed our ingredients in a massive mixing pot – the macerator – and slowly added water. Once everything was mixed we transferred into the kettle, and raised the temperature to begin brewing beer. This is when you add the hops.
Fermentation Tanks. 2017
From there, once you have brewed for the right amount of time at the right temperature, you have to cool the beer and add the yeast. We ran the brewed liquid – not quite beer, but almost beer – through a massive radiator, going from near boiling to cold in a matter of seconds. Through the same line you slowly add the yeast – the active ingredient that takes the sugar and makes alcohol – as you transfer the now cold liquid into a massive tank. Now you wait for it to ferment.
Testing the Beer. 2017
And then you clean. And you wait. Every day you have to check your beer. After a day, it begins to bubble and you know you’ve done something right. Slowly, over a matter of weeks, the sugar is digested by the yeast and you begin to get a liquid that tastes and acts like beer. You get to be a scientist for a few weeks testing and tasting your beer. You check for gravity – as it slowly becomes less sweet you “assume” through science that it is now alcohol. Eventually it starts tasting less sweet and kind of delicious. You tell your boss it’s time to keg it.
Tasting Board. 2017.
When I wasn’t working, I was exploring. The Mayan Riviera has much to offer, beaches, ruins and cenotes – massive sinkholes that are great for swimming and snorkeling. We went on weekend trips to further away destinations – like Isla Holbox or Bacalar – which were more amazing than I could have ever pictured. I haven’t been so inspired by a location in a long time and took hundreds of pictures during my 5 month stay. Even just the city of Playa del Carmen is amazing – the restaurants and hidden gems found just a few steps away from the touristy 5th Avenue were more than enough to keep me excited about everything that surrounded me.
This was my life for 5 months. I tested beer. I installed draft systems. And i made beer; we ended up brewing a few different batches of beer, including cream ales, IPA’s, imperial stouts and more. I even got to be the star of a couple promotional videos that were posted onto facebook. But I spent most of my time in the brew pub. My experience working in restaurants was an asset here. I helped with creating new menus, building a new cocktail list and even came up with some new bar snacks. I met lots of amazing people through the pub, talking to regulars and visitors. It was an unforgettable experience.
Everyone who walked in those doors shared a common love; beer.