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My Worst Brewing Experience

Copyright (c) by Teri Fahrendorf

Story written in June of 1999.
The accident occurred on May 1, 1989.

How bad do you want to be a brewer? What does it mean to be a professional brewer? What does it take to be a brewer? What does it take out of you to become a brewer? And, is it worth it?

Those were the questions running through my head. I thought I had already answered those questions months before, but now I found myself in a hospital bed, knowing that tomorrow morning they would wheel me into surgery, shave my head, and try to rebuild the skin that had been permanently burned off my left foot and leg in a serious on-the-job brewing accident.

I didn't know the answers to those questions anymore.

I was young. I was scared. My family was 3000 miles away. My best friend told my boyfriend that somebody had to be at the hospital the whole time I was under general anesthesia. So she took the first shift, and he was there when I woke up from surgery.

It took some time for me to answer those questions again. It was obvious that brewing was a very dangerous job. It appeared that the dues I was being asked to pay were much higher than I had anticipated. The lyrics from the James Taylor song, "Sunny Skies," went through my head then, and many times since then, "I am wondering if where I've been is worth the things I've been through".

What events precipitated the accident I had suffered? Several come to mind. One, I was not properly trained. Two, the tanks themselves were not properly designed. Three, the brewery was designed for looks, and not for brewing. Four, I was given bad advice from the tank manufacturer. And five, I did not stop to take an actual visual check.

I had started that job two months earlier. It was an existing brewpub that had gone bankrupt, and new owners taking it out of bankruptcy had hired me to be the brewmaster. Perhaps I bit off more than I could chew. Perhaps my britches were a bit too big. My only previous actual experience was on two 5-gallon homebrew systems and one 5-gallon pilot brew system. The new owners had promised me I would be trained by the previous brewmaster. When I got there, the previous brewer told me he'd had a bad experience working for the previous owners, and he refused to set foot in the place.

The brewery was beautiful. It was known as the cathedral of brewing. Unfortunately it was not designed to function in a safe manner. Not only was the tank layout bad, but the piping and pumping were not properly laid out either. To top it off, the tank manufacturer insisted that the system was a 10-barrel system, and I was too new and too naïve to argue.

Now I know better: it was a 7-barrel system, and no brewer had any business trying to brew 10-barrels in a kettle with no headspace for the boil.

So how did it happen? To make 10-barrels on a 7-barrel system, I would set the kettle full of hot water in the morning. Before mashing-in, I'd transfer that hot water to the non-heated liquor back. Then I'd put 50 more gallons of fresh water in the kettle to pre-boil it. I'd need the 50 gallons of pre-boiled (sterile) water to top-up the kettle post-boil.

Then I would mash-in. After the 50 gallons in the kettle came to a boil, I would transfer it over to the liquor back, which now had room after mashing-in.

Unfortunately, the kettle slope and drain were not designed properly, so to ensure the most concentrated wort in the kettle during the boil, I would then empty the kettle of the last 2-3 gallons of water that could not properly drain out. In order to do this, I had to remove a six-inch cap and tri-clover clamp, and let the water drain out, then put the 6-inch cap and clamp back on.

Part of the brewery design problem was the fact that the brewery had one pump, and all pipes led to it. This in itself is not a problem; however, the draws were too long and were not sloped properly. Also, the pump switch was about 25 feet away from the pump, up some steps and down the hall. When the pump drew air, it cavitated loudly. Considering there was no glass between the brewery and the customers, it was imperative to stop the noise of the cavitating pump.

May 1, 1989: On this particular day, two months after the brewery opened, and one month after I got my first beers on tap, I did my usual routine. I had mashed-in and was pumping the 50 gallons of boiling water over to the Liquor Back. After a reasonable period of time, the pump began to cavitate, a familiar sound, which signaled to me that the 50 gallons had been moved over. I ran down the hallway to turn off the pump switch, grabbed my rubber gloves, and began to take off the 6-inch tri-clamp. I did not stop to look into the manway at the top of the kettle.

The pressure of the water behind that 6-inch cap pushed my hands back, steam poured out, and time suddenly slowed down. Instead of 2-3 gallons dribbling out, I had 50 gallons of boiling water gushing right at me. I dropped the 6-inch cap and squeezed into the corner between the kettle and the railing. The brewery, built for looks, had no escape plan, but stairs and railings everywhere. I moved to go around the railing and up the steps and got hit. Hard. With boiling water.

I squeezed back into the corner again. The boiling water had filled up my left rubber boot. I was trapped. I knew if I didn't get out of there, I would die. What probably took six seconds felt like 20 minutes. I could see two older men at the bar through the steam, worriedly watching me. I tried slipping between the bars of the railing. Luckily I was small enough to make it. I got up the steps and immediately took off my boots as I walked down the hallway, disrobing and calling for help. My legs were bright red, the skin hanging in drip-like formations. I thought my left foot was cooked like a chicken. I couldn't move it. I thought they would have to amputate it. The 10-minute ride to the hospital was the longest 10 minutes of my entire life.

I had begun homebrewing less than 4 years earlier. My happiness with my job as a systems analyst was deteriorating, and my hoped for move into project management was not materializing. An unprecedented idea to spend my hard-earned pay and vacation time at the National Homebrewers Conference in Denver, had fortuitously introduced me to Charlie Papazian, John Maier and Don Outterson. Previous to John and Don, I had never heard of the Siebel Institute. I had never heard of any brewing school, and had never even considered it, nor the possibility of becoming a professional brewer. After all, there were no women brewers. Or were there? At the same conference, I watched Mellie Pullman, head brewer for Schirf Brewing Company in Park City, Utah, walk up on stage and receive a medal at the Great American Beer Festival. Wow! Girls can do this job. It was June of 1988.

On May 8, 1989, I went into surgery. As I came out of my anesthesia-induced stupor, my boyfriend was sitting there. It was about noon and I hadn't had anything to eat or drink in over 15 hours. I was thirsty and I felt like I had to pee but the anesthesia was still affecting my physical properties. I kept asking for more water to drink, thinking it would cause my bladder to function and unload. They gave me a bedpan. It was so small I laughed. I asked for a larger one. They told me not to worry, this one would be fine. I winked at my boyfriend and said, "Watch this." When my bladder finally worked, I overflowed the bedpan like crazy. Normally I try not to say, "I told you so," but I was still doped up enough to actually say it to the nurse. My body was still pretty frozen from the anesthesia, so when they came to remake my bed, they rolled me from side to side as they made up one half at a time. I cracked up with laughter. I motioned to my boyfriend to look down, as my boob was poking out of the armhole of the hospital gown but I couldn't move and there was nothing I could do about it. You learn to lose your modesty in a hospital. You must let it go - it's a Zen experience.

Nearly a year earlier, after returning from the Homebrewers Conference, I applied to the Siebel Institute and attempted to take a three month leave of absence from my job. They denied my leave, so I gave one month notice and quit. Hey, if John Maier could leave a good-paying techno-job like Hughes Aircraft and make it, I could certainly leave Unisys Corporation. As far as making it, that remained to be seen.

Before surgery they shaved my head, later taking the skin grafts from my scalp to apply to the third degree burns on my left leg and foot. My girlfriend told me the rest of both my legs looked like raw hamburger meat, but I thought, "At least the skin is alive and will grow back." The previous night a nurse had told me I was being dramatic by having them shave my head, but from my limited information gleaned from other nurses, it sounded like I would have scars both from my burns, and at my donor sites. I figured scars under grown-back hair would be hard to see. In hindsight I did the right thing. Your scalp and head are some of the fastest healing parts of your body because of the rich blood supply routed there for your brain.

Hindsight. In hindsight I did the right thing by staying in the brewing business after my disaster of an initiation. At the time though, there were few breweries, and fewer jobs. Mendocino Brewing Company in Hopland, California was brewing 500 barrels a year, now they are brewing 100 times that or more. Who could have predicted the growth of the industry? Nobody could have seen the future in their wildest dreams.

So why did I stay in brewing? What were the words that went through my head those three weeks in the hospital as I lay there, wondering if my hair would grow back, wondering when I would be able to walk, much less run again, wondering if I'd have a limp or a drop-foot, wondering if men would ever find me attractive again. The words of courage I had to find, and that I have repeated to myself many times in these last ten years are, "I have not yet accomplished what I set out to do in brewing." And now, ten years later, I can honestly say, that yes, I have accomplished all I set out to do, and more.

* The End *

This article was first published under the title, "Brewery Disaster" in American Brewer magazine, in about 2001. Copyright is held by the Author.


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