It’s a rainy January day and the air has that distinct Charleston chill that makes even your bones feel damp. The solution? Hey, I know what you think I’m going to say, but it’s not always beer; sometimes its conversation…and beer, which is exactly the order of the day. I’m meeting with Ahren of Southend this afternoon for the foamy details on his position as Brewmaster and resident soccer fanatic (more on that later).
As I enter the high-ceilinged dining room of Southend I am thankful to be out of the ominous thunder outside, and pleased to see that the furrowed brow of the sky doesn’t show on Ahren’s face; compact, dark and witty, he’s there waiting for me by a tall glass door, the only opening of the glass-encased brewery in the center of Southend’s ground floor. Consequently, the door is right across from the bar. “Buy you a drink?” he asks with a smile and I know the afternoon is looking up.
Talking to Ahren is easy and, sipping cold beers (I had the Ironman Wheat and Ahren enjoyed a tasty Pale Ale, which he says is his favorite, unless there’s a Stout around) incites a short walk down memory lane. Ahren attended Furman University, studying Psychology and with plans to attend graduate school and delve into neuroscience. While at Furman, he worked with a Brewmaster at a microbrewery part time and furthered the education that his father, a home-brewer, had begun many years previous. At that time, brewing was a part time passion for Ahren, helping with the bills and fueling his imagination, but it wasn’t his main pursuit. He graduated from Furman with his Psychology degree and then worked for several years as a chemical engineer in Summerville before stumbling upon his job at Southend, which did not start out as Brewmaster. “Oh, I was just like all these guys,” Ahren tells me as he sets down his beer, “I did whatever was needed: waiting tables, cleaning, food, you name it.”
He stands and walks towards the front of the restaurant to examine the new grain shipments, which were received that morning. I forgot to mention that, as I entered the dim, yet welcoming space, I was greeted with huge bales of grain packaged in 25 kg bags and stacked like Lincoln logs to chest height. “Five and a half years I’ve been working here,” he says, “and about four and a half of those have been spent brewing. I’m very lucky.”
Brewing! Exactly what I came to talk about. I ask if he’ll give me a little tour of the brewery and he enthusiastically obliges. Now, bear with me here, I’m no chemist, so I’ll just do my best to relate the important stuff. Ahren trained under Jay, the previous Brewmaster at Southend, and was originally hired to “fill the gap” between Jay’s departure and the arrival of whomever the new Brewmaster would be. His good attitude and quick uptake, however, made him perfect for the position and he’s been Southend Brewmaster ever since. “This is the Lauter Tun, which accepts the mash and allows it to settle,” Ahren explains, “and sometimes you have to get in, to help clear out the remaining husks and spent grain.” The size of the kettle is demonstrated to me as Ahren laughs and climbs inside of the enormous copper pot through a set of small doors, and giving me a great photo op.
The Brew Kettle is equal in size to the Lauter Tun, but I can’t convince him to climb inside again, so I concede to take pictures while he tells me that the Brew Kettle is where the hops are added, and Ahren really love hops. The distinct bitterness that accompanies a hoppy beer is a mark of good breeding for him and one of his signatures in a brew. “Can’t have sweet without bitter;” no indeed sir.
I’ll admit that I got a little distracted while he was relating the functions of all the various handles and displays, and my photos show it. It was really beautiful in there! He pushed some buttons, turned some knobs and hot water (over 200° C) begins to spray into the kettles from within, cleaning and sterilizing the equipment for the next brew. For more of the technical stuff, visit Southend’s Microbrew page and Launch the Brewing Process.
Lured back out of the brewery by a refreshed glass, Ahren imparts his feelings on brewing: “It’s fulfilling, rewarding and fascinating, with an intricate level of chemistry and engineering involved. It can be frustrating too, and teach you how to problem solve, quick. At one point, the heat exchanger fouled up and caused quite a situation. I had a deadline and didn’t have too long to figure out what the problem was. Jay (former Brewmaster) was gone and I had to work through the situation with diagrams, research I had gathered myself and just a raw desire to correct the situation.” Luckily, he came through intact and better for it. Ahren gained the respect of Southend’s owner and, about a year ago, he was requested to “revamp” the beers, including name and formula, for a new taste at Southend Brewery. Ahren came up with the current Southend seasonal, the coconut porter, which was a labor of love on his part and what he considers “a personal accomplishment.” Many new changes are taking place with something of a beer reconstruction underway. Very soon Southend is expecting spankin’ fresh labels, tap handles and more for their newly branded Southend brews (a little hint, the names are very rock n’ roll inspired, ie. Love me Two Times Blonde).
Ahren begins to tear into the clear plastic packaging around the pallets of grain sitting around the bar and, between lifting the great sacks, he says: “this isn’t just a job for me. It’s a hobby, a pastime, hell, a passion that I get paid for. It doesn’t even feel like work most days.” Which is hard to believe, as I drain the last of my glass and watch him heft the weighty shipment towards the glass elevator, to be carried up to the Mill. “You know what, though? You know what my favorite thing is?” I eagerly await his answer as I pause in packing up; what could he possibly like more than brewing? “Soccer. It’s my first love and my real love. Don’t tell the brewery,” he adds with a wink. Apparently he plays soccer year round in multiple leagues in the area, spending as much free time as he can out on the field, fulfilling his need to move and compete.
My ride honks from the street, letting me know that it’s time to conclude this interview and stop drinking all of the delicious beer (boo!). Ahren doesn’t miss a beat: he shakes my hand, thanks me for my time and continues shifting the grain as I head for the door, out into the rain and the rest of it all. I slam the car door shut against the torrent and my fiancé asks me “how’d it go?” “Well, I spent the afternoon learning about beer, drinking beer and talking about beer, with a guy who makes beer, so pretty good I think.” “Yeah,” he responded with a smirk, “sounds pretty good.” “He’s so lucky!” I sighed, to which my fiance balked and replied “I think you are too, babe.” And for the first time in a while I stopped and thought, yeah, I am. I’ll cheers to that!