For some POET team members, work and play share striking similarities.
For some POET team members, unwinding after a day at work means starting the fermentation process all over again.
These folks can’t help taking their work home; their hobby and their jobs share common roots. They are homebrewers, people with POET who apply basic principles of large-scale ethanol production to creating their own personal varieties of beer.
The act of producing alcohol, whether it’s for energy or personal consumption, is the reward.
Che Brindle, Environmental Health and Safety Specialist with POET Biorefining – Fostoria, Ind. has been brewing for more than two years. He values control and intimate knowledge of what he creates, be it ethanol or a new beer.
“Energy production, like beer or food, is much more personal if you have a hand in its creation and can see where it comes from,” he says. “Anyone who creates can see the art in what they do, and by extension what we at POET do.”
Josh Karaus, who took home second-place honors at the 2009 Steele County Fair for one of his homebrews, echoed the idea of playing a role in crafting something special.
“I think a lot of people that dabble in homebrewing have had a thought or a dream of working at or owning a brewery,” he says. “When you come back to reality, there you are in your basement or garage making your very own beer. There is a great sense of gratification once you have a sip of a batch of homebrew and you think, ‘Hey, I made this, and it is pretty good!’”
Despite the similarities between large-scale ethanol production and homebrewing, there are certainly differences. The final products have distinctly different purposes, and that makes all the difference in the approach.
“One’s more of a science, the other is an art,” says Steve Redford, Director of Engineering with POET in Sioux Falls. With ethanol, “you don’t care about the flavor of it, but with beer it’s hard to get the exact flavor you want.”
Redford hosted a POET homebrew day in February, during which four other brewer-colleagues brought vats and buckets and grains to his farm outside Sioux Falls.
On the day of the homebrew, Redford’s barn smells faintly of propane and a soft mix of something like sweet molasses and damp straw. It is the scent of sugars and hops, of alchemy. Three aluminum containers steam silently near the back of the barn and a fourth is on its way—the day will yield 20 gallons of beer. Littering the tables around the room are a variety of small bags and powders, half opened boxes, dark brown bottles and vials containing small, green pellets. It’s an apothecary of sorts, and the elixirs here are almost guaranteed to go down smooth.
For Redford, Fran Swain, Tom Slattery, Dan Machata and Rafe Christopherson, the homebrew day is a chance to swap stories, recipes and ideas with fellow brewers. There’s a sense of curiosity among the men, but also an appreciation for each man’s brewing style.
“Rafe’s making his own wort, so basically, he’s taking hours to do what’ll take me two minutes,” says Slattery, Environmental Health and Safety Manager with POET in Sioux Falls. Slattery, who brews about twice a year, is using a kit, or an “extract” to create a pale ale. If all goes well, each brew made today should be ready to drink by May or sooner.
For Christopherson, Environmental Engineer with POET in Sioux Falls, creating the perfect flavor requires the ingenuity he and other brewmasters at POET utilize during their day jobs. It is this attention to detail and a desire to develop a one-of-a-kind creation that draws connoisseurs to artisan beer, he says.
“Craft beer just tastes better. It’s complex, you can get any flavor you want, create anything you want. You have all kinds of malts, yeasts, honey, anything you want to add.”
Christopherson has been brewing since 1994, when he and college friends found the essential ingredients in a health food store and set up their own brewing facility on campus. “I don’t remember how we boiled it because we were in a dorm room, but we had this stuff just boiling away.” Today he still uses his imagination to plan the next batch.
“People will try a craft beer and want to do something all their own, something they can have some pride in,” he says. “If you have a pumpkin in your garden, you can try to make a beer out of it.”
As the day draws to a close and the men add yeast and contemplate what their final products will taste like, one thing is clear. For those who work in an industry that has, at its core, a tie to nature, pursuing a hobby with a similar flavor turns science into an art.
“Brewing and distilling are a couple of different things,” says Ross Blank-Libra, a member of the Big Sioux Brew Society, a homebrew club in Sioux Falls. “But they involve fermentation and converting sugars to alcohol. So it’s not a big leap at all to see how these guys are involved [in both]. Fermentation is their life.”