Some people who are on the 'outside' of the hobby think that home brewers are obsessive. Of course they are right. Take for example the Tribe home brewing club out of Colorado. Last year they set the World record for brewing at the highest altitude when they brewed an extract batch of Barleywine atop 14,433' Mt. Elbert. They called their endeavor "Operation: Hypoxia". That is a safe record you are thinking to yourself, for who in their right mind would want to do that? Well, us.
It all started in January of 1998 when Scott Kaczorowski posted a note on the Internet's Home Brewers Digest stating that if he could find other people as stupid as he we could break this record on the peak of Mt. Whitney at 14,497 feet. Well his comrades in stupidity signed up and we started to plan our covert attack through email correspondence. The group started out strong with numbers growing fast. First four people, then eight people, then maybe twelve.
At first the email correspondence between the group members was fast and furious and everyone had ideas. Imagine a bunch of brewers with ideas? I know, hard to believe. One idea was to do an extract batch like the tribe did in Colorado. Another idea concocted by Olin was to do a stone fired steinbier all-grain double decoction brew. The group, consisting of all-grain brewers, met somewhere in the middle but still decided that if we were going to do this we wanted to do it the best we could. All Grain on top.
Well talk is talk until someone walks the walk. After months of virtual silence within the group as the initial enthusiasm waned, Scott stepped up and got a permit for eight people. Getting a permit to climb Mt. Whitney is no easy task as it must be done six month in advance and requires repeated calling.
As reality set in and conversations turned to the dangers of Hypoxia (A condition of low oxygen in your blood that is a serious concern at high altitudes) and the unpredictable weather at 14,497' many of those brewers who were signed up to go backed out. Ultimately we were left with the five brewers with the least brain cells, Scott Kaczorowski and Mike Cullen of Long Beach, Mike Rose of Riverside, Olin Schultz of Walnut Creek, and Regan Dillon of Clayton.
Sea level preparations included the assemblage of the brewing system, which was designed and donated by Regan and Olin from Beer, Beer & More Beer. The system consisted of two, two-gallon food grade insulated buckets which were used for the mash/lauter tun and the hot liquor tank. The mash screen was a Phil's Phalse bottom that we modified to fit. Sparging was done by hand with a cup.
Recipe calculations had included the figuring of the boiling point of water at 14,497'. This was determined to be about 186F and, given this, hop utilization was calculated to be about one third that at sea level. We used one whisperlite stove and about 11 ounces of white gas. To save time on top, where the weather can turn without notice, several timesaving measures were adopted. These included a 30-minute mash, 30-minute sparge, and a 30-minute boil. Because of the shortened boil and lower boil temperatures, a single first wort hop addition was used. Three test batches were brewed at sea level following these procedures, and the resulting beer was deemed to be quite good.
The recipe itself consisted of 5lbs of Great Western 2-row malt and 1lb. of Briess Crystal 20L. Two ounces of Cascade hops at 5.4% AA were used for the first wort hopping. 1 tsp. of Gypsum was added to the mash water and 1 tsp. of Irish Moss was added during the boil.
On Sunday September 20th the group convened upon the Whitney Portal base camp, which rests at 8,500', to meet for the very first time. Scott had informed us that he had to back out at the last minute due to a repetitive injury aggravated by training but came to see us off anyway. After we mourned his loss over a beer, equipment was distributed four ways instead of five and the pot was strapped to the back of Mike Rose's pack after he lost a game of Row Sham Bow (Just kidding, he volunteered.) We actually drank beer from one of the earlier test batches as we were all getting to know one another. After a couple beers we had your standard Clinitest debate and then we went to bed. (An inside joke for readers who belong to the HBD.)
Monday morning we ascended the mountain. This means up. I mean straight up. After a five hour hike with heavy packs we reached High Camp which rests at 12,000 feet. We spent the rest of the afternoon getting acclimated to the altitude and setting up camp.
Tuesday morning we woke up before sunrise and it was freezing ass cold. It was in the low twenties. This is cold for Californians. We needed to pump some water for the brewing session after we had a debate over the temperatures and time exposure at which giardi would die in a high altitude boil. After no conclusion, (you don't think well at 12,500' at 5:30 in the morning) we decided to pump the water. The problem was Olin had left the water filter in his pack overnight where it had frozen solid. Cripes. Luckily Regan came to the rescue and tucked the water filter into his pants where the temperatures are said to reach near boiling. For a very funny photo of that click here
After filling up close to 8 gallons, or 64 pounds, of water for brewing and drinking, we hit the trail hard with full enthusiasm at about 8:30 in the morning. That enthusiasm waned in about, oh, 30 minutes. Very few people hike to the peak of Mt. Whitney with full blown packs, let alone packs with water, grain and brewing systems. We received some funny stares from other hikers who were checking out our packs, especially the 3.5-gallon shiny, stainless steel kettle that was strapped to the top of Mike Rose's back.
The hike was pretty grueling and it took us longer than expected with all the extra weight. We reached the top at 12:00 noon and began brewing immediately. Some of us were winded click here to see how oxygen is not used merely for oxygenating your wort. The view and experience from atop the highest peak in the continental United States is pretty awesome. When you are on land and looking over clouds you know you are high. Especially when they come up and over the peak and go back down on the other side. You never know what type of weather to expect on top. We had been expecting the worst, windy and cold. We got blue skies and 50-degree weather. We felt quite fortunate to enjoy such great weather, especially considering that the next weekend the peak of Mt. Whitney got 3' of snow.
We mashed in at 175 degrees and it dropped 20 degrees to 155 Fahrenheit. We were aiming for a high mash in temperature to aid in heat retention and quick starch conversion. Our concerns over heat loss during the mash were unfounded, as we had a zero degree drop in temperature over a 30-minute period. We forgot a cup with which to sparge so we had to make one from one of Olin's water bottles. We re-circulated until the runoff was pretty clear which really did not take long. The boil was pretty vigorous given that we were at 14,500 feet and using one whisperlite under a 3.5-gallon kettle.
After the boil we ended up with a little over 2 gallons of wort. We were lucky enough to find a snow/ice patch that was near by and we cooled for about 30 minutes. After we deemed that it was nearly cool enough we pitched a slurry of Whitelabs California ale strain. Regan and Olin put their one gallon in one of the sanitized two gallon buckets and attached a positive fitting lid. Mike and Mike sanitized a metallic wine bladder bag and put their one-gallon of cooled wort into that. We were all finished at 3:00.
All grain brewing in three hours. Everything went so smoothly, that Mike Rose was prompted to say that it was the best, and easiest, brewing session that he had ever had. When you have four very experienced brewers who have all practiced on the same equipment using similar procedures the process does go smoothly, even atop Mt. Whitney.
After we had signed the book on top and claimed our stake to the world record we were ready to get off the peak. Mike and Mike had plans to head all the way down to the car that night and hotfooted it down the hill. Regan and Olin decided to stay Tuesday night at high camp. Their challenge was to keep the beer from freezing with the low temperatures at night. How many of you have slept with your wort?
The beer fermented nicely. The flavor was clean, malty and with nice hop aroma and flavor. This was a good experiment for first wort hopping. The beer has just been bottled at the writing of this article but early indications are that the bitterness is around 20 something IBU. It would be nice to have it analyzed to know for sure.
It was a great experience shared with great people/brewers. After all, how many times in your life do you get chance to set a World Record and brew a batch of beer all in the same day. For the four of us that were on the peak brewing that day it will always be remembered as the day we Brewed Into Thin Air.
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