Brewery disasters highlight the dangerous side of beer

by DGO Web Administrator

One of my favorite songs to listen to in the brewery is “Swimming Pools,” by Kendrick Lamar. The hook of the song goes:

Why you babysittin only two or three shots?

I’mma show you how to turn it up a notch

First you get a swimming pool full of liquor, then you dive in

Pool full of liquor, then you dive in

I wave a few bottles, then I watch em all flock

All the girls wanna play Baywatch

I got a swimming pool full of liquor and they dive in

Pool full of liquor I’mma dive in

I just imagine myself throwing open the doors to a fermenter or brite beer tank open and then swimming in beer and foam. Well, that’s pretty much what happened in London, in the fall of 1814, but it wasn’t so joyous or jovial. A 5,000 barrel beer vessel, massive even by today’s scale, burst and the resulting waterfall of beer toppled the other vessels in the brewery, creating a 12,500 barrel flood of beer. The river of beer, approximately 25,000 kegs worth, rushed through the surrounding neighborhood, killing eight, destroying the brewery and making a mess of the streets.

This may be the worst disaster in the history of a brewery, but every brewer I know has either seen first-hand or heard about brewery disasters big and small. Some have seen old janky tanks get so full that they leak like the inside of a Russian submarine. Some have seen the bone-headed mistakes of new brewers who leave a tank closed up during fermentation, warehouse workers smashing a stack of beer while jacking around on a forklift or forgetting to close the doors to their truck while making deliveries (The Great Durango PBR Spill of 2014). Sometimes it’s as simple as a hilarious and delicious beer shower, sometimes it’s a sad tragedy like losing a fellow worker, but these stories are known and shared in the brewing community as warnings and as a form of camaraderie.

There are three basic no-nos for working in a brewery (and this is kind of my mantra): don’t hurt yourself or others; don’t break anything; don’t break the beer. The London Beer Flood is a prime example of all three, but there are a lot of ways to do all of them even in a small brewery.

The most common of the three is breaking the beer. Live mice usually have a hard time getting into the beer (a la, “Strange Brew”), but lots of things end up in beer that shouldn’t: Foreign bacteria, cleaning chemicals, the wrong yeast, other beer, and it’s through QC/QA that this kind of mistake is caught.

But the most common way the beer gets broken is by accidentally dumping it out. Almost every brewer I’ve talked to has been at a brewery where lots of beer is dumped out of the bottom port of a brite beer tank or fermenter (usually this happens because the valve on the bottom of a tank is removed, thus removing the ability to quickly close the tank and end the spill). This type of disaster is almost always operator error, but rarely leads to other disasters, just a bunch of sticky brewers. And just like the London Beer Flood, the cleanup often involves pitchers of beer (No joke. At least one of the fatalities of the flood was because of excessive drunkenness).

Equipment can also lead to casualties in the brewery. In the case of the London Beer Flood, the metal bands that held the vessel together failed. I’ve found that this is 50-50. Machines and equipment fail and can be catastrophic. The key to this is regular maintenance, using the right tool for the right job, and observant and well-trained operators. The mistakes of this nature that I’ve made or seen were because someone wasn’t paying attention, or someone was operating a machine they weren’t supposed to, or some aspect of the machine’s operation changed and that info wasn’t passed on to workers. This type of mistake or failure is either a near-miss or leads to an injury or death.

Yeah, death. Brewing is a dangerous job. I take that aspect very seriously. I always make sure I get as much sleep as possible and keep my head as clear as possible, because death is a possibility in this industry. A worker at Stone was killed because of a forklift accident (the most common source of injury in production brewing). A worker at Redhook was killed because a plastic keg exploded (breweries are now quickly phasing out reusable plastic kegs). Seven brewery workers were killed in a Corona brewery in Mexico, likely because of an ammonia leak (ammonia is still used as a coolant for brewing vessels, though mostly at older brewing facilities).

So yeah, brewers are risking their lives for our beer. Is it worth it? I think so.

Robert Alan Wendeborn puts the bubbles in the beer at Ska Brewing Co. His first book of poetry, The Blank Target, was published this past spring by The Lettered Streets Press and is available at Maria’s Bookshop. [email protected]

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