It takes big men to make Ska Brewing's Big Shikes Orange Blossom Imperial Pilsner
Every day, the guys in rubber waders who do it for a living hump (not that kind of "hump"; c'mon, people) dozens and dozens of fifty-pound sacks of malted barley, rip them open and pour them into a mill. They carry heavy bags, buckets and barrels full of sugar, hops, honey and other ingredients. They run up and down metal stairways to heave open giant doors and peer into boiling pots of beer from slippery catwalks high above concrete floors. Afterward, they spend hours scrubbing the inside and outside of huge tanks and kettles. It's the kind of work that puts you in the mood for a beer. Lucky for them, beer is never far away.
I got a little taste of what a brewer's life is like (see video on following page) in February when I flew to Durango (on my own dime) to help Ska Brewing co-founder Dave Thibodeau, head brewer Thomas Larsen and the rest of the brewery staff whip up a sixty-barrel batch of a new, limited-edition beer called Big Shikes Orange Blossom Imperial Pilsner. It will be served exclusively at Old Chicago restaurants in Colorado from May 16 to June 5. (Join me and representatives from Ska, Old Chicago and the Brewers Association at 5:30 p.m. on May 16 at Old Chicago in LoDo as we toast American Craft Beer Week.)
Thibodeau had invited me to help craft the recipe, as well. But since time was short and ingredients aren't always easy to come by, we stuck with a classic formula that included 2,300 pounds of malted barley -- Rahr two-row and pilsen -- along with seventeen pounds of CTZ hops for bittering and 42 pounds of Saaz and Hallertau hops for flavor and aroma. My only suggestion was honey, and Larsen was able to grab something even tastier: 120 pounds of orange-blossom honey from Arizona's Crockett Honey.
Ska was taking part in a newish program that Old Chicago began last fall, asking some Colorado brewers to make a beer just for them, something special, something that no one else had. Old Chicago's goal was to reacquaint itself with the local craft beer scene.
Aside from Ska, other breweries that have participated include: Breckenridge Brewing, Tommyknocker, Oskar Blues and Boulder Beer (whose intellectual rights are owned by Craftworks, the same company that owns Old Chicago, Rock Bottom, Gordon Biersch, Chop House and others). Each beer goes on tap at all 26 Old Chicago locations in Colorado as part of one of the restaurant's group's three-week Mini Tours.
Founded in 1995 by Thibodeau and Bill Graham, Ska now has a third partner, Matt Vincent, and he is the one who designed the four-story fortress that the company built three years ago in a business park just outside town. The $5 million, 24,000-square foot building includes a taproom and a small homebrewing shop; two canning lines, a bottling line, a massive brewhouse, offices, two walk-in freezers, an additional private tasting room and an empty floor that could one day be used for guest rooms. There is also an outdoor patio and an area where farmers pull up to load up spent brewing grain that they use as fertilizer. And with the addition of three 240-barrel fermenters, Ska plans to ramp up production from 15,000 barrels in 2010 to 25,000 barrels this year.
Ska head brewer Thomas Larsen.