Oh John Henry!
Ting….TING…Oh John Henry…TING… John Henry was a man…TING…he was a steel…TING… driving man… TING sssssssssssSSSSSSSSBOOM! … Lord lord, John Henry was a steel driving man.
Several months of working behind the bar at the pub opened up avenues for me to help out in other parts of the business at Columbia River, and one of those would be an intimate relationship with the humble golden gate beer keg, a stainless steel version of what most folks think of as a barrel. As a brewery selling only a few kegs a week in the pub, BridgePort was a solely reliant on selling draught beer around Portland, and “cooperage” was probably our biggest single expense.
The 70’s and early 80’s were a time of consolidation in the regional brewing industry, and G. Heileman Company owned all the Northwest regional breweries; Rainier, Olympia, and Weinhards which it acquired in 1982. In 1987, a brash Australian businessman named Alan Bond succeeded in a leveraged takeover of Heileman using junk bonds, (We all suspected where this was heading) and in an attempt to upgrade their draught operations, Heileman breweries began dumping their supplies of old Golden Gate kegs in favor of the newer Sankey style. Truck loads of Golden Gate kegs could be had for scrap value, a serious boon to the fledgling craft brewing industry, and this Monday morning a 48’ trailer was parked at the back dock, loaded to the brim with filthy old barrels from small mid-west breweries I’d never heard of.
Mondays, I was to learn were keg days, and the very beginning of the reclamation from dingy to sparkling was debunging, a process of removing a 1 15/16th inch wooden “cork” from the belly of each barrel through physical coercion and occasionally violence utilizing a 2.5# hand sledge and a 10” cold chisel. Rows of pallets are lined up, kegs piled 3 high on the back dock, and the day long process of reclamation begins with a cup of coffee and a game plan. Being the rookie, I am on point, debunging while Karl moves the kegs inside and Matt and Ron work our home made keg washer. Most bungs are wooden, and I soon learn that if the wood grain is horizontal to the standing keg, I’ll have an easier time. Seated on the rim of the keg with a hand sledge and a cold chisel, I pound into the heart of the bung until I hear the hissing of escaping pressure, then lean back and pry. Most bungs split and pop out a couple of feet away, but heavily pressurized kegs shoot the bung and occasionally the chisel from my hands, across the cobble street. The extra bonus keg is one partially filled with cidery old beer from a distant place and time that geysers out of the bung hole, covering me, the dock and the street, liberated at last from its prison of stainless.
Oh John Henry…TING… John Henry was a man… TING…. A steel driving man….TINGssssssssssSSSSSSSASASBOOM!