By M. Diane McCormick
My high school chemistry teacher would charge students 10 cents for every piece of glassware they broke in the lab. Break a test tube – 10 cents. Shatter a beaker – another 10 cents. At the end of the year, my classmates all owed 10 or 20 cents each.
I owed $1.40. Just my walking into a room makes glasses shatter from fear. Stemware flings itself off the shelf just to get it over with.
Good thing Tröegs Brewing Company didn’t do a background check when they offered to let Adventure Chick help box up their limited-release Master of Pumpkins on a brand-new bottling line from Italy.
Tröegs is a true hometown success story. Brothers John and Chris Trogner share a love for craft beers. Extensive study and planning leads to a brewery in an old Harrisburg warehouse. Craft beer lovers sing hosannas. Time to grow, and Tröegs creates a 90,000-square-foot brewery, tasting room, snack bar and general store in Hershey.
That was in late 2011, and from what I saw in my behind-the-scenes tour, things are going so well that the new space is already filled to the rafters.
“Here’s our wall of wood,” said Jeff Herb, media and communications manager, pointing toward 12,000 wood kegs stacked floor-to-30-foot-ceiling. The kegs are destined for Tröegs’ Splinter Series of barrel-aged beers. There are new wine barrels from different cooperages, Pennsylvania virgin oak barrels and bourbon barrels for a version of Tröegenator Double Bock so popular in its scratch version that it was poised for a return.
“The barrel brings a lot of character to a beer, depending on how long you leave it in,” Herb described. “The bourbon barrels will release notes of vanilla, oakiness, maybe some toasted coconut or other toasted flavors. And the wine barrels will give it a character of oaky tannins like you would normally find in a deep red wine.”
The barrels were beautiful, but the true wonder of this tour was the Monoblockmaster Tronic–RS12/1212. Imagine beer with a champagne-style closure of wire cage over a cork. This is the machinery that does it, part of a comprehensive upgrade that also included a whizbang new bottling line and – a first for Tröegs – a canning line.
Watching the cork-and-closure line – or C&C, as it’s known in the trade – is just plain fun. It starts by labeling the bottles as they spin beside a roll of adhesive labels. Next, the bottles clatter along a conveyor. Appropriately for Hershey, Pa., they’re grabbed by the neck and turned topsy-turvy on a roller-coaster kind of apparatus, to be sprayed with sanitizing fluid.
So how do they decide when to use the cork-and-closure line? This is where they can “have fun and be creative” with small batches in unique flavors, Chris Trogner said.
“It comes to the occasion or the beer itself,” explained Chris Trogner. “A C&C is a thicker glass. The cork holds pressure better.” The higher the carbonation, the greater the need to tamp down the fizz.
Whenever possible, Tröegs uses locally sourced ingredients. It’s hard to find local hops and barley, Trogner says, but the pumpkin for Master of Pumpkins came from nearby Strite’s Orchard. Local equates to fresh, he said. “Our whole idea is getting it right from the ground, brewing it and having it available as quickly as possible. It gives us a more intimate tie to the community if we’re using something grown right down the road.”
During a break in the C&C line’s production, Herb gave me a tour of the rest of the facility. The clamor and organized chaos fell behind us as we wandered past giant tanks and toward the cold storage room.
“This is one area I like because it’s nice and quiet, and it smells amazing,” said Herb, as we stepped into the chilly freshness of a refrigerated room. We were standing amid canyons made by bags of hops stacked to the ceiling.
“We must’ve just gotten in a huge hops order,” Herb said as he looked around at a veritable United Nations of hops.
“Hops are grown all over the world – Germany, the Pacific Northwest of America,” he said. “New Zealand and Australia are some newer areas where hops are starting to explode – some really, really good, fruity hops. I love hops from New Zealand.”
I love hops, period. Fruity, pungent, tangy – give me a hoppy beer like Tröegs HopBack Amber Ale, and I’m happy. Here I was in hops heaven, learning that “hopback” is the vessel that extracts the aromatic essence from whole-flower hops and that pelletized hops – kinda rabbit-food looking – provide a more concentrated hit of hops than whole-flower.
Herb pulled a handful of whole-flower hops from a bale and rubbed his palm to release the scent. He invited me to do the same.
“I want to make a perfume of this,” he said.
“Oh, I need a drink,” I said. Herb warned that I’d have the resin on my hands for a while. Such hardship.
From there, we climbed to the packaging mezzanine for a bird’s-eye view of Tröegs’ wondrous new bottling line. Here, a case starts as a flat, plain box, which is folded and labeled according to the Tröegs product inside. It’s then filled with six-pack holders and slid down a chute. Simultaneously, bottles move along a conveyor. At intersection of chute and conveyor, bottles magically go in the case.
“It’s crazy,” Herb said. “This bottling line is pretty impressive compared to what we had originally.” And as for kegs, “We can fill up one of those suckers in 60 seconds.”
Our tour wound back to the cork-and-cage line. After labeling, sanitizing, filling, corking and caging, via a mechanism that wraps wire around the top of the bottle, it’s time to box. This part must be done by hand. When Tröegs produces a specialty beer, it’s all hands on deck. Jaan Mead, a Tröegs bartender, and Phil Hollen, regional sales manager, manned the boxing area.
“I can put you to work,” Mead offered. She gave a quick tutorial in the art of putting bottles in boxes. Make sure that cork and cage are intact. Check the label for tears or “anything that’s bungled up anywhere.” Eyeball the beer line to make sure it’s not too low.
“Take them off two at a time, and just throw them right in here like this,” Hollen said. “Make sure you don’t catch the labels because they’re wet.”
Here we go. I grab two bottles. Check closures and labels and liquid level. Place bottles carefully in the box. Turn around, and there are more bottles coming every second. It’s not long before I’m feeling like Lucille Ball falling behind on the chocolate-factory line, except I can’t shove a 25-ounce beer bottle down my shirt, and as tempting as it is, I’m not going to guzzle it to hide the evidence. Mead and Hollen pick up the slack, saving this limited release from becoming even more limited by jamming up the line with bottles and shattering in the crush.
During slowdowns, Hollen and I chatted. He enthused about Tröegs’ “really cool” introduction of its popular Troegenator and Perpetual IPA in cans. “This’ll be great for anyone who does outdoor activities – hiking, biking, backpacking, golf, tailgating,” he said.
I told Hollen that I saw Tröegs on tap everywhere during a Jersey Shore vacation. Yep, he said – Tröegs is one of the top three craft beers in their Jersey wholesalers’ portfolio.
So, let’s hear it for Central Pennsylvania and the little brewery that could. Somewhere, someone lifted a chalice of perfectly brewed Master of Pumpkins. They enjoyed the freshness and savored the spices. And, to think, I helped deliver the bottle, and it didn’t even self-destruct in my hands.