Fermenting, flocculation and filtration, oh my

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Visions of Laverne and Shirley watching an assembly line of bottles at the Shotz plant might be the only mental image we have of a brewery, but Rob Bernys has another idea.

Bernys is the wizard behind the malt at Orlando Brewing Partners (www. orlandobrewing.com), open since November of last year and Orlando's only microbrewery.

"Micro" is a fitting term. Literally in the shadow of the Florida Citrus Bowl, the place where The Partners make their magic is an industrial park bay the size of a two-car garage, the kind of space usually used to warehouse wooden kitsch from Bali or repair patio furniture. There's no sign proclaiming this a brewery, which is just as well in this neighborhood, and besides, by Florida law they're not allowed to sell to the public.

Crammed into almost every available inch is the paraphernalia of fermenting, flocculation and filtration. Bags of barley, oatmeal and wheat lie next to grain mill. A giant copper kettle boils a 310 gallon batch (Partners can run up to three batches a day) and looming stainless steel vats hold water and fermenting brew, connected by long steel-reinforced hoses. The hand-printed sign on the wall calls Bernys "Brewer and Hose Hog."

"Nobody touches these hoses except me," he says -- which is good, as a wrong adjustment could mean one of those tanks exploding. Bernys got his start at a local home-brewing club, gathering medals for his ale and lager recipes.

"I wasn't old enough to buy beer when I started," we heard him tell someone in the beer tent at the recent Orlando International Fringe Festival. (Orlando Brewing Partners was a sponsor.) "But I could go to a supply store and get the stuff to make beer at home." His expertise progressed when he signed up as an apprentice at the airport brewery opened by Maine's Shipyard Brewing Company. When the Shipyard brewing facility was closed, Bernys struck out on his own.

When you come right down to the mechanics of it, beer comes from hungry little yeasts eating sugar. So what we drink, basically, is yeast pee. The art of the brewer is to make that appealing, by testing recipes for a balance of bitter, sweet and body. And of course, alcohol. Orlando Brewing Partners makes five of Bernys' own recipes and has contracts to brew nine other brands, including Orange Blossom Pilsner, a crisp and very pleasant beer made from honey. It's distributed by local company Unique Beers, which (oddly enough) also distributes the Shipyard brands.

While there are several microbreweries in the state, the closest thing we've had here is the Hops restaurant chain, which is a "brew pub," allowed to make and sell its own beer, but prohibited from letting it leave the restaurant.

Florida law says that no one company can brew, distribute and sell beer, so Bernys sticks to making the stuff and leaves the selling to others. His beers are served at several area bars and restaurants, including Bodhisattva Social Club, Jax 5th Avenue and Pebbles, which had dropped Killian's in favor of Right On Red, Bernys' deep and smooth Irish ale.

Traveling down the production line, he fills a plastic tumbler from a vat of unfiltered brew. "I like a pure beer, I like the taste of yeast and hops," he says, sharing a chocolate-brown glass of English stout, bitter and cloudy and authentically medieval. The finished product is smooth and more refined.

Bernys is, above all, an enthusiast, even after eight years of brewing. He drinks a beer by first holding the glass tight to his face and smelling the aroma. While he was pulling drinks at the Fringe beer tent taps, he rarely had an empty glass. "I try hard not to," he grins. He talks quite casually about the German Purity Law of 1516, which says that beer may contain only natural ingredients: nothing but malt, water and hops, the fruit of a vine related to hemp. Bernys picks up a handful of bright green hops, thin and fragile as grasshopper wings. "Smell," he says, parting the petals of the tight catkin and crushing tiny yellow lupulin glands full of resin. "Anything familiar?"

There's a hint of potlike aroma. "If you cooked down a whole lot of these, you could probably get a tiny bit of THC." But it's the bitterness and aroma that makes hops vital to beer.

Imported English, German and "insanely expensive" Australian buds go into their respective brews, and five different hops give Bernys' own Tanlines its complex taste, crisp and light, but richer than a typical American pale ale. "That's my favorite," he says, and then retracts the statement.

"Actually, my favorite beer is the one in my hand." Bernys usually goes home every day smelling of beer, and that's OK.

"It's a good job," he says, glass in hand.

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