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Brewing my first beer in the Caribbean

Most people just don’t move to Mexico for a few months to work at a brewery. Brewing craft beer in the Caribbean wasn’t even a dream of mine. It was a dream of someone else. But I knew that person. And when he asked me if I wanted to come help him for a couple months, I was the guy that said yes. It was an example of life presenting you with a unique travel opportunity. I found someone to sublet my apartment back in Vancouver and put my “real life” on hold and went to work at a brewery in Mexico.

I have never brewed beer before. For me, it was a chance to move somewhere sunny and warm for a few months and avoid another rainy winter back home. My friend Jeff had just opened up a small craft brewery in Playa del Carmen and had a spare bedroom. It didn’t need much more of an invite than that. I was supposed to stay for a month or two. It turned into a 5-month journey of self discovery or something like that. One thing is for sure, it was a lot of fun.

Jeff is now a well-traveled beer judge and experienced home-brewer who had just started his own brewery. He had already lived in Mexico for quite a while working at another Brewery. I told him I had some spare time and he offered to teach me how to make beer.

Moving to Mexico

When you’re about to move to Mexico, people think you’re crazy. When you get to Mexico, you realize everyone has their own “how/why I moved to Mexico” story. There are many types of people who end up in Mexico and everyone has their own story. Turns out, moving to Mexico isn’t nearly as crazy as you expected.

Carmen Beer Co. 2017.

My “why I moved to Mexico” story goes back to 2005, when I first met Jeff. We shouldn’t be friends and we shouldn’t know each other, but the universe had other plans. We met each other over 10 years ago in a hostel in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Jeff is originally from Pittsburgh and I am from Vancouver. With the help of social media, the two of us stayed friends.

In January 2017, I hopped on a plane to Mexico. Jeff was going to teach me how to make beer. I have worked in bars and restaurants for the last 10+ years, and figured some of that experience might help with the brew pub. There would be something for me to help with. The brewery was located in Playa del Carmen, at the aptly named Carmen Beer Co.

They had opened in October and was just starting to brew craft beer in an emerging Mexican beer market. Jeff couldn’t pay me, but I wasn’t there for the job anyways. “All the beer you can drink” and a free place to stay was already a pretty good offer. Plus, it was like a free apprenticeship in case I ever choose “brewmaster” as a career.

Brewing my first beer in the Caribbean

The first time I made beer, it was an 1800 liter batch of Dry Imperial Stout, known as the Carmen Negra. This is a lot of beer. I have never brewed a beer before. I like drinking beers. Over the years i had learned to appreciate different, fancier and more expensive beers. I knew other friends that brewed beers. It was my turn to learn.

There would be something for me to help with. There were lots of parts about living in the Caribbean that were amazing; but brewing beer was the highlight.

In the process of brewing my first beer. 2017.

The day before we had to make sure everything is clean, sanitized, organized. First we double checked our recipes, and made sure we had all of our massive bags of grain prepared. We counted our ingredients; yeast, grains, and hops. We then checked the equipment and made sure we had enough water. The Brewery had invested in a high tech and sophisticated water system to ensure high-quality beer, so we had to make sure our tanks were full.

How do you make beer?

Making beer is a whole day process. From milling grains, mixing ingredients, brewing and eventually moving the beer to the fermentation tanks.

I got to watch and help with every step along the way. I milled the grains myself – which covered me in a layer of dust from broken husks of grain, and of course, required a shower afterwards. We mixed our ingredients in a massive mixing pot – the macerator – and slowly added water. Once everything was mixed we transferred into the kettle, raised the temperature to begin brewing beer. This is when you add the hops.

Ingredients (Yeast, Water, Grains & Hops). 2017.

From there, once you have brewed for the right amount of time at the right temperature, you have to cool the beer and add the yeast. We ran the brewed liquid – not quite beer, but almost beer – through a massive radiator, going from near boiling to cold in a matter of seconds. Through the same line you slowly add the yeast – the active ingredient that takes the sugar and makes alcohol – as you transfer the now cold liquid into a massive tank.

Now you wait for it to ferment.

“Working” at a Brewery in Mexico

After we finished brewing our beer, there is a long wait before you can drink it. The process of making beer is 95% fermenting and only 5% brewing. I started going into the brewery every morning check on our beer. It would be several weeks of waiting.

Every day I had to check our beer. After a day or two, it begins to bubble and you know you’ve done something right. Slowly, over a matter of weeks, the sugar is digested by the yeast and you begin to get a liquid that tastes and acts like beer. You get to be a scientist for a few weeks testing and tasting your beer. You check for gravity – as it slowly becomes less sweet you “assume” through science that it is now alcohol.  Eventually it starts tasting less sweet and kind of delicious.

You tell your boss it’s time to keg it.

My first beer. 2017.

There is a lot that goes into the production side of the brewing process. This starts with cleaning. Lots and lots of cleaning. Shortly after we brewed our beer, they had just finished fermenting a batch of Imperial Stout, so soon we would be moving from the large tank into a more drinkable format (kegs and bottles). This again involves a lot of cleaning.

Exploring the Riviera Maya

When I wasn’t “working”, I was exploring. The Mayan Riviera has much to offer, beaches, ruins and cenotes – massive sinkholes that are great for swimming and snorkeling. The nice thing about having a “job” with no real responsibility, is that you don’t have to feel bad about not going in.

We went on weekend trips to further away destinations like Isla Holbox or Bacalar. Both of these were more amazing than I could have ever pictured. There is a lot to do on the Riviera Maya. I haven’t been so inspired by a destination in a long time and ended up taking hundreds of pictures during my 5 month stay. Even just the city of Playa del Carmen is amazing; the restaurants and hidden gems found just a few steps away from the touristy 5th Avenue were more than enough to keep me excited about everything that surrounded me.

On location in Tulum. 2017.

I even got to be the star of a couple promotional videos that were posted onto facebook. I spent most of my time in the brew pub. My experience working in restaurants was an asset here. There were ways I could help; creating new menu ideas, building a cocktail list and even came up with some new bar snacks.

Working hard or hardly working?

We did a little bit of everything. I can’t stress enough how much of the brewing process involves cleaning. You have to wash and sanitize the bottles, the valves, beer lines and all of the associated equipment. We cleaned kegs – with the fantastically named “Keg Commander” – in preparation for the day when the beer would be transferred into kegs.

The Keg Commander. 2017.

All this work paid off, because tapping that first keg, and pouring off the first beer was one of the most satisfying rewards for a few days hard work. It wasn’t all “hard” work. Many days we had to go to the beach.

We helped to install a draft system at a small beachfront hotel in Tulum, who were hosting a big part for their grand opening. They would be selling our beer, but they were only getting foamy beers, so we had to help them set it up. I had to make a work call to check about a CO2 problem, and couldn’t find a signal. The worst part of the day was trying to get reception at the beach.

After about an hour of setting up the system, the beer was finally flowing like it should. We had to spend the rest of the day hanging out on the beach, drinking beer and listening to live music, just in case they had any more problems with their beer. Once the sun had set, and the beer had been flowing for a few hours with no issues, we allowed ourselves to head home.

Five Months in the Caribbean

This was my life for 5 months. I tested beer; quality control is important. I installed draft systems on the beach. We ended up brewing several more batches of beer, including cream ales, IPA’s, imperial stouts and more.

Advertising for Carmen Beer Company. 2017.

Everyone who walked in those doors shared a common love; beer. I was the Carmen Beer Mascot. My job was often to be the guy sitting at the bar on my laptop willing to talk about beer to any stranger who walked in the brewery. I gave unofficial tours and taught anyone who was willing to listen to what I had learned about beer. I met lots of amazing people through the pub, talking to regulars and visitors. It was an unforgettable experience.

During this incredible experience I also met Norma, who was working at the brewery at the same time that I was visiting Jeff. We hung out at work a few times before hanging out a few times after work. It is the diamond at the top of the pile of riches I earned from my time at Carmen Beer Company.

Carmen Beer Company

Carmen IPA. 2017.
Carmen Beer Company. 2017.
Empty Kegs cleaned and waiting for the fermentation process to end. 2017.
Carmen Beer Company. 2017.
Getting ready for our next brew day. 2017.
Brewing Day. 2017.
Ready to pour and reflecting the Caribbean. 2017
Carmen Beer Tap Room. 2017.
Carmen Beer Company. 2017.
On tap. 2017.
Tough day at the office responding to emails. 2017.
Fermentation Tanks. 2017.
My first ever batch of beer was this Carmen Negra. 2017.
Carmen Beer Company. 2017.
Sitting in my “office”, learning about beer. 2017.

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