Big Bend brewers make “living product” with love

By Marlys Hersey, Editor

“As brewers, we don’t make beer. We make sugar water, then turn it over to the yeast.” So sayeth Amy Oxenham, brewer and fermentation enthusiast extraordinaire at Big Bend Brewing Company.

On one level, brewing beer is really that simple, a lot like making a giant batch of coffee, Oxenham explains when I visited the brewery on a hot afternoon in late August. A giant vat of dark, malty porter (1000 gallons?) filled the brewery with its aroma.

In essence, making beer is just a matter of pouring really hot water over grains, letting that cool, and then adding yeast to the liquid in an airtight container, and letting nature work its magic to turn sugar water, or “wort,” into beer. (As the Joy of Homebrewing puts it, “If you can boil water, you can brew beer!”)

On the other hand, getting everything just right to create the ideal conditions for all the ingredients to turn into the flavorful alcoholic beverages for which our local brewery is known is a fairly remarkable feat. There are so many variables: the type, quality, and amount of grains (usually barley, but sometimes wheat, as in Hefeweizen); the temperature of the water; the amount of time the beginning beer is left to boil and cool and ferment; the type and amount of yeast and hops (to give each beer its distinct level of yummy bitterness and its aroma, and to help preserve it), and when those are added to the mixture; keeping unwanted microorganisms out of the beer…. And surely dozens more details I am leaving out.

Brewing excellent, replicable beers is a multi-faceted, complex process.

Brewer Amy Oxenham climbing down into the mash tun, where the remains of milled barley, used in the brewing process, must be manually pushed out of the container. “It does sort of have a sauna effect,” she notes.  “If it didn’t smell like grain, it would be perfect.” The barley is then donated to local veterinaarian Dr. Ray Allen, who retrieves trailerfuls of the grain from the brewery to feed to some local cattle. (Marlys Hersey, photo)
Brewer Amy Oxenham climbing down into the mash tun, where the remains of milled barley, used in the brewing process, must be manually pushed out of the container. “It does sort of have a sauna effect,” she notes. “If it didn’t smell like grain, it would be perfect.” The barley is then donated to local veterinaarian Dr. Ray Allen, who retrieves trailerfuls of the grain from the brewery to feed to some local cattle. (Marlys Hersey, photo)

Meanwhile, there are already-made batches of beer in various stages of fermentation which need monitoring, as each type of beer and each individual batch matures at a different rate to reach the desired flavor and alcohol content, and then the optimum carbonation.

Mark Hinshaw uses a Zahn Nagle instrument to determine the level of CO2 in some porter that has been fermenting for a couple of weeks. (Marlys Hersey, photo)
Mark Hinshaw uses a Zahn Nagle instrument to determine the level of CO2 in some porter that has been fermenting for a couple of weeks. (Marlys Hersey, photo)

The brewery now has thirteen fermenters, to allow for multiple batches of its signature Tejas Lager, Terlingua Gold, Big Bend Hefeweizen, La Frontera IPA, and No. 22 Porter—plus its seasonal brews—to come to fruition. In late August, the brewhouse had two enormous (120-barrel) fermenters delivered, requiring part of the roof to be temporarily removed and cranes to place them onto the warehouse floor.

And when it’s finally done, all that beer has to be put into kegs or canned. As Oxenham explained to the small crowd on a brewery tour, “It’s really important we get this awesome product in a package we can move around this desert.”

Currently, the brewery distributes its five standard beers to be sold in bars, restaurants, liquor stores, and grocery stores from Santa Fe, New Mexico to Brownsville, Texas, and from Truth or Consequences, NM to Houston. Until earlier this year, the brewery handled all of its own distribution. “Now,” mused Oxenham during a brewery tour, “L & F Distributors pull up in giant red trucks with ‘Budweiser’ on the side,” just one of a few distributors that help move the microbrew to its near and far-flung vending locales.

Then there’s all the cleaning—the endless cleaning. As you might imagine, when you make 800-1100 gallons of sugar water at a time, then transfer it through a heat exchanger and into a fermenter, add yeast to the fermenter, then eventually move all that into a bright tank to allow for carbonation, then transfer that foaming mass of liquid into kegs or cans, that’s a lot of moving liquid from one container to another, and some spillage is a given.

(At one point while Amy was showing me the “old timey” way to measure the sugar content of the wort, we heard an auspicious sound elsewhere in the brewhouse. “What’s that sound?” she called out to fellow brew staff. It turned out to be nothing of concern, yet with a vat of porter still in the boiling kettle, the hypervigilant brewer was on alert. “It has happened,” she clarified. “The kettle can boil over, and you get a rain of boiling hot sugar water pouring from the upper deck!”)

And, as with any fermented food or beverage, keeping all the equipment sterile is crucial, to prevent bacterial contamination, and spoilage.

That’s what the relatively small crew at this brewery, arguably the most remote brewery in the United States, does nearly every day of the week at its remarkably clean 30-barrel brewhouse on the western outskirts of Alpine. Plus, they often make more than one batch of beer per day.

Just a part of the staff of Big Bend Brewing Company in Alpine, in front of a few of the ever-expanding brewery’s many fermenters (L to R, back row): John Anderson, Rob Eldred, Matt Walker, Henryk Orlik; (front row:) Mark Hinshaw, Amy Oxenham. (Marlys Hersey, photo)
Just a part of the staff of Big Bend Brewing Company in Alpine, in front of a few of the ever-expanding brewery’s many fermenters (L to R, back row): John Anderson, Rob Eldred, Matt Walker, Henryk Orlik; (front row:) Mark Hinshaw, Amy Oxenham. (Marlys Hersey, photo)

Even without fully understanding every aspect of production, it takes little time to be in awe of the finely-tuned logistics of this operation.

Much of the credit for this smooth operation goes to Steve Anderson, brew master, and Henryk Orlik, brewery manager. Anderson, brewer for the first microbrewery in Texas, Waterloo, and then for Live Oak Brewing in Austin, has been Big Bend Brewing’s visionary and head brewer since it opened in late 2012.

Oxenham explains the two men’s roles in bakery terms, since those are easier for us laypersons to understand. “It’s like Steve is this master baker who has been making awesome bread for twenty-plus years; he’s the dude with the intuition.”

“Henryk is like the Cordon Bleu graduate. He’s the mad scientist, the numbers dude.”

Between the two of them, and the dedicated, hard-working staff, Oxenham says, “we’re pushing out a phenomenal amount of beer, and still maintaining its integrity.”

Oxenham started at the brewing company as “hospitality manager,” which involved, in part, giving brewery tours and serving beer samples. Because of her longtime fascination with all things fermented (sparked initially by her reading Sandor Katz’ Wild Fermentation, which, she says, “blew my mind”), her desire to learn more about the brewing process to better field questions from beer geek enthusiasts, and her willingness to show up at work at 4 am when the daily brewing usually starts, brew master Anderson took her “under his wing, and taught me every step of this process.”

Oxenham uses a spectrometer to measure the sugar content of some “wort,” or sugar water, the barley malt, hops, and water mixture that is the basis of beer, on which live yeasts will work to convert sugars to alcohol. The fermentation enthusiast, former professional baker and cook, and current gardener, mother, and student in biology and chemistry at Sul Ross calls beer “a happy accident” of human history. (Marlys Hersey, photo)
Oxenham uses a spectrometer to measure the sugar content of some “wort,” or sugar water, the barley malt, hops, and water mixture that is the basis of beer, on which live yeasts will work to convert sugars to alcohol. The fermentation enthusiast, former professional baker and cook, and current gardener, mother, and student in biology and chemistry at Sul Ross calls beer “a happy accident” of human history. (Marlys Hersey, photo)

Finally, this spring, Oxenham was promoted to assistant brewer, and over the summer, earned her full “brewster” credentials via online course from the Siebel Institute in Chicago, America’s oldest brewing school, where Anderson also earned his creds.

Oxenham also works side by side with fellow brewer Matt Walker, former chef and recent transplant from Chicago. Under Anderson’s guidance, they are “figuring it out as we go,” says Oxenham.

Brewery staff Hinshaw, Walker, and Oxenham confer on the precision of one of the many steps of the beermaking process, the injection of the yeast and oxygen into a batch of  No. 22 Porter Oxenham made that morning. Though most beer has just four ingredients (water, barley, yeast, and hops), amounts, temperature, timing of each batch and the cleanliness of all the equipment overlap to make for a complex brewing process, especially when making high quality beer for its loyal, discerning customers. (Marlys Hersey, photo)
Brewery staff Hinshaw, Walker, and Oxenham confer on the precision of one of the many steps of the beermaking process, the injection of the yeast and oxygen into a batch of No. 22 Porter Oxenham made that morning. Though most beer has just four ingredients (water, barley, yeast, and hops), amounts, temperature, timing of each batch and the cleanliness of all the equipment overlap to make for a complex brewing process, especially when making high quality beer for its loyal, discerning customers. (Marlys Hersey, photo)

Oxenham, who has worked in several restaurants and bakeries, says fondly that the brewhouse is “the biggest kitchen I’ve ever worked in….which is the biggest asset—and also the biggest challenge” for the brewers.

“We’re constantly tweaking the process,” she notes, trying to hit the “Goldilocks” standard for getting every step of the beermaking process just right, with as little waste as possible. “Beer is very much a living product,” emphasizes Oxenham. Particularly with this unfiltered, unpasteurized version of the ancient beverage (unlike many mass-produced American beers, which hasten the beermaking to prioritize efficiency and cost over flavor and quality), Oxenham is proud to be part of this brewing team. “We’re really big fans of making un-fooled-around-with beer,” she says with a big smile.

Moreover, in the midst of this intense ongoing process, everyone working there is really friendly to drop-in visitors interested in glimpsing the brewing process and tasting its outcomes. The brewery has set hours for visitors, but people drop in at other times, and I am always impressed with how welcoming the staff is, even when in the thick of the brewing or cleaning processes—or oftentimes, both.

As she said at the end of her last brewery tour, “If I impart nothing else, I hope you get how much love goes into making this beer.”

If you are even in the slightest bit interested in our local brewery, in how beer is made, in the history of beermaking, or, as Oxenham says, “if you are ready to have your mind blown by science,” visit Big Bend Brewing Company. Tours and tastings are available for $10 per person Wednesdays – Fridays at 3 pm, Saturdays at 1 pm and 3 pm. And on the first Saturday of each month, the brewery hosts an open house from 1-6 pm. The brewery is located at 3401 W. HWY 90, Alpine. For more information, call 432.837.3700 or visit: www.bigbendbrewing.com.

Oxenham starts a brewery tour during a Saturday afternoon open house. (Marlys Hersey, photo)
Oxenham starts a brewery tour during a Saturday afternoon open house. (Marlys Hersey, photo)

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