Beer On My Shirt: The Three Floyds Brew Pub

J. R. Shirt, September 04, 2014

What follows is a continuation of the Chicago Series, which started with the aptly titled Chicago Day 1. Originally, the plan was for each title of subsequent additions to the Chicago Series to follow a similar format, in an effort to identify them as a continuation of what came before. However, the title “Chicago Day 1, Part 2, Three Floyds' Brew Pub” seemed a bit much and so I opted for something more direct. Personally, I like long, almost inaccessible titles. At least in theory. But then I see them scrunched on the screen of my phone and I feel ridiculous. If title remorse is a thing, I have felt it.

Chicago Day One left off with my brother T-Bone and I eating tacos and drinking Revolution's Anti-Hero IPA. From there, we walked for what seemed like miles to the rental car place. We needed a car. And we got one. A Ford Focus. With extremely sensitive brakes.

And while we had only been in the city of Chicago for an hour or two, we hopped in that Ford Focus, pointed it in the direction of Three Floyds Brewing Company in Munster, Indiana, and headed out of the city. Beer dreams were about to come true.

We made it to Three Floyds in about half the time my smart phone predicted, most likely due to my extreme skills as a driver, T-Bone's suboptimal skills as a navigator (he fell asleep), and a complete lack of traffic. Beer Gods were clearly smiling down upon us.

Once in the parking lot, I took a moment to take in the scene of where I was and smoke a cigarette. I was on vacation and we were early. People were walking out of the take-out portion of the Brew Pub with cases of Zombie Dust. Clearly, the Beer Gods were smiling. And so was everyone else.

I announced via Twitter that we had arrived at Three Floyds and within moments, Andrew Mason (production manager at Three Floyds) appeared in the parking lot to greet T-Bone and I (probably more so to greet me than T-Bone, as the podcast had yet to be released at this point and T-Bone was basically a nobody). This was simultaneously the coolest moment in my life as J.R. Shirt and the most interesting thing to ever happen to me as the result of a tweet. It might also be the quickest response I ever got to a tweet. The fact that the response was in person and happened while I was surrounded by people carrying cases of Zombie Dust made me feel, if just for a moment, that I was either living in a video game or that the Three Floyds parking lot was a some sort of strange energy portal that was manipulating my ability to gauge the passage of time and/or determine what was real and what was my imagination. Similar to Mt. Shasta in California, but less mountainous and in Indiana.

The plan was to get a tour of the brewery once the rest of the BeerGraphs party – namely Eno Sarris, Matt Dennewitz, and a man named Drew – arrived. In the meantime, T-Bone and I were more than happy to wait inside the brewpub and have our first Zombie Dust. It did not disappoint.

Once everyone had arrived and had a chance to have a beer, Andrew came out to the pub, gathered us up, and led us on one of the greatest brewery tours I have ever experienced. Now I will say a few caveats here: First, we may have gotten special treatment. Second, I have only been on a handful of brewery tours. Third, I do not consider myself someone that is super-informed or even mid-level informed about brewing processes, especially in the different brewing processes of actual craft beer brewers. Now if you'll allow caveats to have caveats I would like to say that this experience not only made me want to experience more brewery tours, but also made me want to learn more about the different processes and set-ups that may or may not be unique to different breweries.

What follows is a brief summary, in words and pictures, of what we learned about Three Floyds Brewing Co. on the tour. I highlighted some of the things I found most interesting. Perhaps you'll find them interesting, too.

Pictured above is the hopper, Juan Sanchez Villa Lobo Ramirez*, that houses all of the malt after it gets milled. All Three Floyds' beer starts out with the same base malt profile, which comes into the hopper through the mill. Other specialty malts may be added depending on what beer is being brewed but the flavors and feel of that base malt really shines through in their beers.

The Three Floyds' website states “Even with the wide variety of styles we brew, our ales and lagers will always taste like Three Floyds.” I imagine beyond things like amazing quality control, the common malt profile goes a long way in making this true. Each beer I sampled that day, with perhaps the exception of the Deesko! Berliner Weisse, definitely had a commonality in the malt flavors to support that quote. It also provided a unique tasting experience, in that each beer, while very different from one another (and delicious), had something in common, something that let you know, even though one may have been a American Pale Ale and another an American Mild Ale and the next an Imperial IPA, that you had not strayed from the path and that it was a good path to be on.

From the hopper, the crushed malt goes into the mash kettle (pictured below) and gets mixed with water, creating the mash. From there things move over to the lauter tun vessel, where the wort gets separated from the mash. The wort (and sparge) then heads over to the wort receiver and then onto the wort kettle, where it is boiled. It is at this point that hops enter the picture for the first time, added at the beginning of the boil, for bitterness.

After the boil, the liquid gets pumped over to the whirlpool, the fifth vessel in the process thus far, where it sits on a bunch of hops, picking up a ton of aroma, and solids settle out to the bottom. During my time at the Brewpub and elsewhere while in Chicago, I tried as many different Three Floyds beers as I could, from Zombie Dust and Yum Yum to Pride and Joy to Artic Panzer Wolf and Dreadnaught IPA and the list goes on, and so many of them had such amazing, powerful aromatics that I was blown away each time. I imagine the time the wort spends in the whirlpool vessel has a lot to do with that. I am thankful for this vessel.

The liquid then goes through the heat exchanger to cool it down, gets some oxygen added to aid the yeast, and then heads into a fermentation tank (pictured above). After fermentation, the yeast is removed and the beer sits on some more hops for a few days of dry hopping before heading to the packaging tank, where it is carbonated. Between the fermentation tank and the packaging tank, the beer is run through a giant centrifuge (pictured below, giant in terms of the centrifuges I have seen in my life) to clarify the beer by eliminating any solids that may still be floating around.

The centrifuge kind of blew my mind. Perhaps it was because I had been reading and researching different brewing methods, specifically the extra ingredients that might be part of the beer making process but not necessarily part of the final product, such as those used to aid in fermentation or as part of a clarifying or filtration process after fermentation. So to be standing next a centrifuge, something my cursory research did not reveal as an option, as it worked its magic, removing all that residual muck using only physics, was certainly a highlight for me. I have a thing for things that spin fast. I once lost two days of my childhood sitting alone in my room just winding up the propeller on a rubber band powered balsa wood toy airplane.

From there, Andrew showed us a collection of different beers aging in different barrels and two wooden foeders also aging something, perhaps with blueberries or blackberries or some sort of berry. He showed us a giant cold room and the bottling line. As a group we talked baseball, barrels, and fondly of other brewers and breweries, and then not so fondly of certain Chicago baseball announcers. We headed back out to the pub, our heads spinning just a bit from all the information we had just received, and from choices that lay ahead of us on the tap list and at the take-out counter.

I sampled many things that day, from a few sips of T-Bone's half pint of Dreadnaught IPA to my own pint or two of Zombie Dust, and enjoyed them all. Like I said above, the nose on these beers is just outstanding – that might have a lot to do with the freshness of having them at the brewery, but the bottles of Zombie Dust that made it home with me did not seem to miss a beat.

Beyond Zombie Dust, my favorites from the day were Yum Yum, Deesko!, and Pride and Joy. Typically, I'm not huge fan of Mild Ales and ordered the Pride and Joy only because of the lower ABV, but the combination of the aroma, the creamy mouthfeel, and the bright citrus hop flavors were really enjoyable.

After Matt and Drew said their good-byes, leaving Eno in the loving hands of T-Bone and I, we decided it would be best if we each put a little food in our bellies. I would be terribly remiss if I didn't tell you about the chicken sandwich I ordered, specifically the tempura lemon slice that came on top of it. My goodness, was that delicious.

Zombie Dust, Three Floyds Brewing Co. (17.12 BAR, 144 Style+)

Appearance = 5/5

Golden, orange color with a finger of thick, white head. After the pour, the head maintains a decent layers and the lacing is great.

Smell = 5/5

Tons of citrus and some pine. A little bit of caramel and cookie smell from the malt. But so much citrus – orange, grapefruit, and even some tangerine. Perhaps even catching some tropical fruit. The smell is wet and sticky.

Taste = 5/5

Taste follows the nose. Maybe a bit more resinous and pine bitterness than aroma suggested. The citrus is still up front and the malt flavors build the middle with caramel and bready notes before the sticky grapefruit and pine bite hit in the finish. Like the nose, there could some hints of tropical fruit in there, up front and in the finish.

Feel = 5/5

The beer, somehow, feels balanced the whole way through. The body is a light medium, the carb is medium, and it all around just feels like the perfect thing to deliver the flavors that it does. It starts smooth and finishes crisp with a bitterness that sticks around but doesn't stack up on you by the end of the glass. Goes down surprisingly easy considering the sticky, resinous flavors of the hops.

Overall = 5/5

The hype is well deserved. This beer, whether you call it and American Pale, an IPA, or an American Strong Pale, is delicious. The look, the smell, the taste, the feel. Aaron Neville should sing about this beer. All around, just great.  

A big "Thank You" to Three Floyds for having us and to Andrew Mason for a great tour and for responding to my many emails in which I essentially asked him to repeat a majority of the things that he told us on the tour that I should have written down but neglected to. Stay tuned for the next installment of the Chicago Series, "Chicago Day 1 Part 3, T-Bone Sleep Walks".

*named after Sean Connery's character in Highlander, Juan Sanchez Villa Lobos Ramirez. He's an Immortal.