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It takes big men to make Ska Brewing's Big Shikes Orange Blossom Imperial Pilsner

Hop to it.
Hop to it.

Brewing beer is physical work.

Every day, the guys in rubber waders who do it for a living hump (not that kind of "hump"; c'mon, people) dozens and dozens of fifty-pound sacks of malted barley, rip them open and pour them into a mill. They carry heavy bags, buckets and barrels full of sugar, hops, honey and other ingredients. They run up and down metal stairways to heave open giant doors and peer into boiling pots of beer from slippery catwalks high above concrete floors. Afterward, they spend hours scrubbing the inside and outside of huge tanks and kettles. It's the kind of work that puts you in the mood for a beer. Lucky for them, beer is never far away.

I got a little taste of what a brewer's life is like (see video on following page) in February when I flew to Durango (on my own dime) to help Ska Brewing co-founder Dave Thibodeau, head brewer Thomas Larsen and the rest of the brewery staff whip up a sixty-barrel batch of a new, limited-edition beer called Big Shikes Orange Blossom Imperial Pilsner. It will be served exclusively at Old Chicago restaurants in Colorado from May 16 to June 5. (Join me and representatives from Ska, Old Chicago and the Brewers Association at 5:30 p.m. on May 16 at Old Chicago in LoDo as we toast American Craft Beer Week.)

It takes big men to make Ska Brewing's Big Shikes Orange Blossom Imperial Pilsner

And while that's not a long time, it works because the guys at Ska did me the honor of naming the brew after me. Which rocks!

Thibodeau had invited me to help craft the recipe, as well. But since time was short and ingredients aren't always easy to come by, we stuck with a classic formula that included 2,300 pounds of malted barley -- Rahr two-row and pilsen -- along with seventeen pounds of CTZ hops for bittering and 42 pounds of Saaz and Hallertau hops for flavor and aroma. My only suggestion was honey, and Larsen was able to grab something even tastier: 120 pounds of orange-blossom honey from Arizona's Crockett Honey.

Ska was taking part in a newish program that Old Chicago began last fall, asking some Colorado brewers to make a beer just for them, something special, something that no one else had. Old Chicago's goal was to reacquaint itself with the local craft beer scene.

Aside from Ska, other breweries that have participated include: Breckenridge Brewing, Tommyknocker, Oskar Blues and Boulder Beer (whose intellectual rights are owned by Craftworks, the same company that owns Old Chicago, Rock Bottom, Gordon Biersch, Chop House and others). Each beer goes on tap at all 26 Old Chicago locations in Colorado as part of one of the restaurant's group's three-week Mini Tours.

Ska head brewer Thomas Larsen.
Ska head brewer Thomas Larsen.

Founded in 1995 by Thibodeau and Bill Graham, Ska now has a third partner, Matt Vincent, and he is the one who designed the four-story fortress that the company built three years ago in a business park just outside town. The $5 million, 24,000-square foot building includes a taproom and a small homebrewing shop; two canning lines, a bottling line, a massive brewhouse, offices, two walk-in freezers, an additional private tasting room and an empty floor that could one day be used for guest rooms. There is also an outdoor patio and an area where farmers pull up to load up spent brewing grain that they use as fertilizer. And with the addition of three 240-barrel fermenters, Ska plans to ramp up production from 15,000 barrels in 2010 to 25,000 barrels this year.

Ska Brewing is set in beautiful Durango.
Ska Brewing is set in beautiful Durango.

Before we could start, though, we had to wait.

Larsen and company had started brewing two batches of Ska's Ten Pin Porter that morning, and the process -- which relies on timing, expertise and the intimate knowledge of a bazillion knobs, levers and hoses -- was backed up.

The quality control team.
The quality control team.

So, while we waited for the mashtun to become available for our brew, we drank -- of course. That's what brewers do. First I tried a couple of tasters, one of Ska's One-Eyed Monster, a black IPA on draught in the taproom, and another of Nefartiti's Fugly Nibs, a firkin of Ska's Nefarious Ten Pin which had been cask conditioned with coco nibs.

Later in the day, we tried some more beer, this time at a brief meeting of the quality control committee, which includes whoever is around and wants to compare batches of each beer to see whether they have held their flavor and consistency. We sampled four different batches of Modus Hoperendi and four of True Blonde.

Barley-tastic.
Barley-tastic.

When it was finally time to brew, things went quickly. The grain is poured, bag by bag, into a massive crusher, which then transports it the the mashtun. From there, hot water is added in a complex, well-controlled fashion. Once tha'ts done, the wort is transferred to another giant kettle where the hops are added at various intervals to the boiling mixture.

After several hours, the beer was finally ready to be transferred to a fermenter where the yeast was added. I would have seen its first few bubbles, but by then I was out drinking at Lady Falconburgh's Barley Exchange, a Durango beer bar -- a fitting end to the day.

It takes big men to make Ska Brewing's Big Shikes Orange Blossom Imperial Pilsner

The next day, Thibodeau and Larsen discussed the yeast (it had only just begun) and whether the beer should have more sugar, which would increase its alcohol content.

Larsen wanted to be careful since pilsners are delicate beers that magnify any added ingredients, like big hops or orange blossom honey. Thibodeau just wanted a big, bold beer, a double pilsner that was worthy of the Ska name.

When it was all said and done, the beer took twice as long to ferment as expected, but the alcohol content is up there at 8.7 percent, about twice as much as the normal pilsner. So you can bet that Big Shikes will put Big Shikes on his ass before it is all over.

Follow Westword's Beer Man on Twitter at @ColoBeerMan.

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