LAKEWOOD - By the time I got to my desk at the paper Friday, I'd already gone through a lot of beer.
I had been grabbing bottles all morning - challenging myself, in fact, to see how quickly I could get to the next batch of them.
It's not what you might think, however: I hadn't suffered some mental breakdown and spent the morning boozing in my kitchen. Rather, I'd enjoyed a couple hours with the staff at the Southern Tier Brewing Company in Lakewood, getting my hands into the bottling process and learning as much as I could about how the brewery's high-quality and world-renowned beers are made.
Nathan Arnone, the company's media relations specialist, was our tour guide for the morning as we wandered the facility and gazed in wide-eyed wonder at the machinery and manpower that must go into each bottle of delicious Southern Tier brew.
Nathan started our tour by introducing us to Phin DeMink, co-owner of the company along with his wife, Sara.
Placing beer bottles in their proper places inside cases isn’t as simple as it might seem, as I?learn during my visit to the Southern Tier Brewing Company in Lakewood. Employee Megan certainly had the upper hand on me, as I?clumsily attempted to keep up with her at the end of the bottling line. For more from my visit, including videos, go to www.post-journal.com and click on the ‘‘Lifestyles’’ tab.
P-J photos by Aimee Frederick
In 2002, Phin and his father-in-law, Skip Yahn, purchased a defunct brewing company in Massachusetts and moved it to the Stoneman Business Park in Lakewood. From humble beginnings with three 40-barrel fermenters and regional distribution in New York and Pennsylvania, Southern Tier Brewing Company now produces more than 30,000 barrels of beer annually and is distributed to 27 states as well as Canada, Denmark, Australia, Japan, the Philippines and Singapore.
Last year, in the effort to keep up with the growing demand for Southern Tier beers, the company purchased a top-of-the-market bottle line mechanism manufactured in Germany and Italy. The amazingly complex and computerized machine is the most state-of-the-art device of its size in North America, Nathan told us, and is able to label, rinse, fill and cap up to 12,000 bottles an hour.
During our Friday morning visit, the machine was only running at about half-speed, pushing through an average of about 100 bottles each minute. It still was fast enough to make one's head spin, watching bottles twirl and twist around the brewery floor, though, on their way to their eventual destination - a case ready to be shipped to some distributer, near or far.
Two workers at one end of the line start the process by pulling empty bottles off massive pallets and placing them on the conveyor belt. From there, the bottles travel down the line and through a labeling mechanism, which affixs the stickers that denote which of Southern Tier's 30 varieties they will be filled with just moments later.
After the bottles have gone through a rinser to get them sparkling clean inside and out, they are filled to capacity with beer and the machine clamps a bottle cap to the top of each. Then, at the other end of the assembly line, two more workers feverishly grab bottles four at a time and drop them in their final resting places.
It is a process that goes on throughout the day at the brewing company in the shadow of 16 massive fermenters - four 100-barrel capacity and 12 200-barrel capacity - that each hold a different variety of Southern Tier beer. Nathan took us to the center of the line and introduced us to an employee named Joe, who was monitoring the operation.
Joe gave me a once-over and I could tell right away he didn't think I was bottle-line material. Despite this, he heeded Nathan's suggestion to allow me to take a spot in the operation for some time.
END OF THE LINE
I saddled up next to a worker named Megan at the end of the line and asked her how to best approach the task of placing bottles into 24-packs quickly and efficiently.
She showed me the technique of how to easily grab four bottles at a time - two in each hand - with the bottlenecks between her fingers, and drop them seamlessly into their designated slots in the case. Watching back on the videos that were shot during our visit, I can time Megan as filling cases in about 19 seconds. And that's while she's answering my stupid questions about what it's like to work on the line at the same time. Pretty impressive.
By the way, in one those videos, I overheard Aimee Frederick - my editor and cameraperson - apparently harkening back to our past visits to Fancher Chair and Miles Machine as she comments to Joe that I've ''never been very good at the (assembly) line.'' As if that weren't painfully obvious to Joe already.
It was somewhat comical for me to come back to the office and watch the videos, as I didn't feel as though I had been working that slowly on the line. But the shot clearly shows Megan filling two cases and getting to work on a third in the time it takes me to awkwardly transport two dozen bottles of 422 Pale Wheat Ale from the conveyor belt to the box.
Megan told me that it was fortunate I had arrived on the day I had, as the previous day the line had been filled with 22-ounce bottles, which she said are much more difficult to handle. I was having a hard enough time with regular 12-ouncers - I couldn't imagine the backup the might have occurred on the line had I needed to try to pick up several big boys at a time.
At our feet lay what Nathan had called the ''Easter egg basket'' - a boxful of bottles that were pulled off the line at the end because they were not properly filled, had improperly placed labels, or were otherwise unshippable. Megan told me that while she is placing bottles in cases, she is also looking at each one closely to make sure it is up to par.
We didn't find any ''Easter eggs'' during our time on the line together, but we did box up quite a few cases of 422 Pale Wheat Ale. However, Nathan told me that in the days to come, those bottles will be removed from the cases that Megan and I placed them in and inserted into Southern Tier variety packs called ''Packs of Pales.''
All that hard work, just to have my cases disassembled.
Moving backward, I then headed to the beginning of the line to join employees Patrick and Andrew, who were supplying the conveyor belt with its seemingly endless supply of empty bottles.
A forklift provides the workers with a stack of pallets loaded with bottles, which Patrick and Andrew load up onto the assembly line by the handful. I jumped in and tried my hand at helping out for a while.
I grabbed five or six bottles and turned around to place them on the belt. I thought my eyes must have been deceiving me when I spotted Andrew standing next to me with at least 13 or 14 in his grasp.
''How does he do that?,'' I asked in amazement to Patrick, who responded that he has seen Andrew take up as many as 18 at a time. He must have just been warming up.
I pretty much just tried to stay out of the way as Patrick and Andrew filled the line with dozens of empty bottles in short order, and I put a few on here and there. I did get adventurous and picked up eight at one time once, but I was so afraid I would drop one on the floor that I didn't try that stunt again.
I later told Aimee that I clearly didn't have the hands for that job. She agreed, saying they are far too dainty and feminine. I told her that she could have just said ''small,'' which probably would have been sufficient, and avoided hurting my feelings over it.
There were a couple broken bottles on the floor under the belt, I couldn't help but notice, so I asked Patrick about them. He told me it happens all day long - allowing me to breathe a bit easier, but not easily enough that I wanted to be the cause of the next break.
With three of us working on the line - even though I wasn't working very quickly - the number of bottles on the belt grew large quickly. We needed to slow up to avoid having them back up beyond the barriers that hold them on the belt and keep them from careening to the ground below, so I stepped back and wrote down a few notes while Patrick and Andrew continued the work.
Again, I'm sure my involvement or lack of involvement wasn't making that much of a difference. They were probably just happy to have me out of the way.
We met up with Nathan once again, who walked us through the process of brewing the beer.
Unfortunately for us, no brewing was actually taking place Friday morning. However, Nathan was able to give us a rundown of what happens to turn grains, hops and yeast into Southern Tier beer.
He gave us a tour of the brewhouse, which has also undergone major expansion in recent months, more than doubling its capacity to brew beer.
Gazing down into huge mash tuns, Nathan told us about the process by which ingredients are added to hot water in the first stage of the beer-making process. After a couple hours of mashing in this mechanism, an unfermented liquid called wort is extracted and drained into a kettle, he said.
The wet and heavy grains that remain must be removed from the mash tun before the next batch of beer can be brewed - a process that was until only recently done by hand using a large hoe and a shovel, but is now done at the push of a button using newly purchased technology.
Nathan said that while much of the brewing process is plumbing, with liquids draining from one vat to another to be heated or cooled to proper temperatures, there are many other aspects to it as well. Hydrometers are used, for example, to measure the specific gravity of the beer during the brewing process to gauge its alcohol content by volume. And agriculture is an important part of the process as well, as the brewery has cultivated its own strain of yeast that is used in all of its beer.
In fact, that special strain of yeast is part of what makes Southern Tier beer so special, Nathan said.
''It's one thing that is a distinguishing mark of Southern Tier, but it's always overlooked,'' he said. ''It's not easy to point out or notice ... (but) different yeast produces different alcohol.''
The brewing company has its own science lab, Nathan said, where cultivated yeast is kept in Petri dishes to ensure the strain remains alive, should anything happen to the yeast that is stored in the brewery itself.
There are many different jobs inside the brewing company, Nathan said - more than anyone could possibly imagine when idly sipping upon a finished product at a bar or at home.
Or in Europe. Or in Japan.
A SUCCESSFUL DAY
Before we left for the day, Nathan took us to the former home of the brewing company, nearby in a different building in the same industrial complex.
Still owned by the company, the building is now used for storage and tasks such as box assembly. Nathan said that it began being used again by Southern Tier shortly after the bottle line and brewing machinery was moved, simply because the company's rapid expansion quickly necessitated the space again.
We also paid a visit to the Empty Pint, a pub located at the brewery. With 14 Southern Tier beers on draught - and guest craft beers often in house, Nathan said - the bar is open Thursdays through Sundays for patrons to enjoy. It also features pulled pork sandwiches, as well as a patio to be enjoyed in the warmer months.
The Empty Pint will be host to a Craft Beer Week Beerfest on May 21, Nathan said, at which seven breweries from across New York state will be featured. For further details about the event, visit the brewery's website at www.southerntierbrewing.com.
It was time to say goodbye at the end of our morning at Southern Tier. We bid Nathan adieu, collected our belongings and made it back to the office - not smelling nearly as much like beer as I'd hoped we would when we arrived. I always like to make my co-workers jealous whenever possible.
Our visit to Southern Tier was successful - no broken bottles, and once again a vast increase to our knowledge of the inner workings of a local business - and we felt accomplished. Aimee said she would be celebrating with a return visit to The Empty Pint during its business hours for an Unearthly IPA or two.
Me? Well, I'm not much of a beer drinker. That's right. I managed to keep it a secret through our whole visit, too.
Aimee tells me I've tried Southern Tier's Raspberry Wheat beer in the past, however, and enjoyed it. I'll take her word for it, and make it a point to crack another the next time I have the chance, remembering the folks who work so hard to fill so many bottles every day.