Idle Hands + Night Shift
Words by Max Heinegg Photographs by Adam Detour Styling by Catrine Kelty
In a small brewery, the distance between the brewer’s hand and the finished elixir is close enough to taste the connection, the intention and often the tradition. In the last year, two nanobreweries—Idle Hands Craft Ales and Night Shift Brewery—opened in Everett, each creating complex, innovative ales whose inspiration comes from as far away as Belgium, and as close to home as Somerville, Massachusetts.
A nanobrewery brews between 1.5 and 4 barrels at a time. With 31 gallons in a barrel, that’s 46.5 to 155 gallons of beer at a time, making it the size of a brewpub, or a home brewer’s fantasy. At present, there are a mere 82 nanobreweries in America, but with the current craft brew renaissance there are another 50 in the planning stages. A nanobrewery is also a brewery where all the tasks, from milling the grain to bottling the beer and labeling it, can be done by a handful of people, or even just one. At both Idle Hands and Night Shift, everything is done by hand, just like in home brewing.
Both Idle Hands and Night Shift began with home brewing. A lot of it. Though Idle Hands owners Chris and Grace Tkach opened their doors in 2011, Chris had been home brewing for 17 years, winning competitions with his own recipes and studying the art and science of brewing on his way to becoming a certified beer judge. Chris realized that as a cash-poor college student, the only way he could drink craft beer was to make it himself. Little did he know that the beer odyssey that began in his apartment—with a 10-gallon kettle, producing 5 gallons of finished beer at a time—would lead him to opening his own brewery.
Night Shift owners Robert Burns, Mike Oxton and Mike O’Mara made the leap to brewing professionally by home brewing compulsively over the last five years. They brewed with a 20-gallon kettle, producing 15 gallons at a time. This allowed them to take their base wort (what beer is called before yeast turns it into beer) and ferment it in three separate fermenters, to see how different yeasts, spices and fruits changed the original wort. This fascination with experimentation has led them to write and brew over 80 recipes in the last three years, before settling on three unique beers to open their business.
Making the leap from home brewing to a nano means more than just a bigger pot; it means more ingredients, more tools and more work. Scaling up from home-brewed batches, which generally begin with 10 to 20 pounds of malted barley, Idle Hands and Night Shift are using entire 55-pound sacks at a time; where hops were once added by the ounce, now a batch might take a pound; where yeast was added from two small vials or one 11-gram sachet of dried yeast, now the quantity used is tenfold. The water bill becomes a fearsome sight.
The kettles and fermenters scale up as well, and the whole rig is called a system. Idle Hands’ system accommodates 1.5 barrels and Night Shift’s system 3.5 barrels. Idle Hands ferments batches in 60-gallon FDA-approved cylindro-conical plastic fermenters that he purchased from US Plastics and modified himself. Night Shift ferments in 3.5-barrel fermenters and 2.7-barrel fermenters.
Both breweries house these fermentation systems in temperature-controlled rooms, because temperature is everything to yeast. Too hot, and you create solventy flavors and fusels (harsh alcohol tastes); too cold, and the yeast falls asleep and you get barley sugar instead of beer. Idle Hands bought their walk-in cooler and had their friends carry and assemble it themselves. This allowed them to start fermentation at 65 degrees, just where they want it to be.
Then there’s bottling, which home brewers generally preface with an expletive. It’s why many brewers start kegging, but it’s desirable if you want to sell beer by the bottle, and mandatory to achieve the high level of carbonation Belgian styles require. Anyone who has bottled a batch of Belgian beer with corks and wire cages (that need to be twisted just so) knows that it takes at least an hour to bottle a mere 24 750ml bottles. Multiply that by 5 or more and that’s some sore hands.
Once the beer is in the bottle or the keg, nanobrewers have a business to run. While Chris at Idle Hands is brewing, his wife, Grace, helps out on “the marketing and logistics side of the business and is responsible for sourcing, marketing and promotional material, planning for festivals, tastings and other outreach programs.” Chris says, “Her official title is Chief Right Hand & Head of Hired Hands.” And that’s when she’s not working full time as a human resources manager at a small biotech communications company in Kendall Square. She even helps with the bottling. Chris is still working 24–30 hours a week at his job, and personally delivers his beer to places like Deep Ellum in Alston, Atwood’s in Cambridge, the Concord Cheese Shop and Menotomy in Arlington.
Night Shift also splits the work. Rob notes, “We all share responsibilities at Night Shift but we do have more focused roles. Mike Oxton is in charge of sales and marketing, Mike O’Mara focuses on finance and business operations, while I am responsible for brewing and would be considered the brewmaster (I write the recipes, and am the most knowledgeable about brewing) and technical stuff (website, email, etc.). But we are all able to handle a brew session on our own.” They also deliver the beer themselves to places like Prezza in Boston, Cambridge’s Russell House Tavern and Pemberton Farms and Marty’s Liquors in Newton.
In short, these small breweries faced big challenges just to get off the ground, but with the breweries built, the inspections passed, the permits granted, the machinery in place and the beers now flowing, the next challenge is to make a name for themselves in a market teeming (at last!) with quality choices.
Idle Hands stakes its claim with its interpretations of classic Belgian styles. Why Belgian? For Chris, the answer is easy: “When Grace and I were discussing what we wanted Idle Hands to be we wanted to focus on beer and food being harmonious and complementary to each other.” For Chris, Belgian styles fit the bill. The high level of carbonation and dry finish in most Belgian styles is palate-cleansing, making it complementary to any meal.
Idle Hands currently features four beers that range in flavor, color and strength. There’s Pandora, which Chris calls his flagship. “It’s a Belgian-inspired pale ale designed as an introduction to Belgian-style beers for craft beer consumers who have already fallen in love with hops but want to branch out a bit.” Patriarch is a patersbier—the beer Belgian monks would drink during the day; it’s also the “father” of all of his beers because its healthy yeast is harvested for his other beers. Chris takes the style’s “light, grainy malt backbone” and brews it to have “hints of ripe apples and white grape skin that play well with the spicy notes of the house yeast.” There’s Cognition, which describes as an “abbey-style brown ale with garnet highlights. The soft, bready malt backbone mingles with hints of raisins and dates and faint banana and cinnamon aromas.”
Chris’s most recent beer, Triplication, is his take on the Belgian strong style called tripel, a golden ale that is a “melange of banana, peach and pear notes” balanced by the spiciness of his house yeast. It’s a bear at 9 percent alcohol by volume (ABV), but the dry finish (from the use of fully fermentable invert sugar) makes it refreshing, not cloying. The irony in brewing is that sugar (especially in a stronger beer) makes a beer dry, less sweet and more drinkable, but knowing how much to use brings the brewer’s art to bear.
Where Idle Hands draws inspiration from Belgium, Night Shift’s inspiration seems to be one part experimentation and one part Somerville. Night Shift Brewery creates beers that are hybrids of various styles and a desire to use exciting ingredients.
Says Rob, the chief brewer, “At Night Shift, we lean more toward brewing as an art. You need artistic creativity to meld the various ingredients and processes into a complex yet complete, cohesive and balanced beer. But you also need to understand the science behind the process to understand if it’s possible. It is similar to an architect who wants to design an innovative building but still needs to account for technical feasibility.”
Like many other American craft brewers, Night Shift is not wed to one style; innovation and experimentation rule. Rob says, “When we design our beers, we never consider what style it is. Our beers are designed for great color, aroma and flavor profiles. Our beers all use unorthodox ingredients and are usually a hybrid of several styles. We are heavily inspired by cooking and nonalcoholic beverages. Cooking is all about balancing many ingredients and processes to get an amazing combination of flavors, colors and smells. Breweries often seem to forget that there are an endless amount of ingredients that can enhance a beer. At Night Shift, we will never make a simple beer with only the four basic ingredients [water, malt, hops, and yeast.”
The current lineup of beers at Night Shift includes Bee Tea, a mix of green tea with honey and a Belgian-style wheat ale, aged on organic loose green tea from Somerville’s Mem Tea Imports; Trifecta, a Belgian-style pale ale fermented with three different Trappist yeast strains and then aged on vanilla beans; and Taza Stout, which is brewed with roasted chicory root and ginger and aged on organic roasted cacao nibs from Somerville-based Taza Chocolate. The time the beer spends aging on these ingredients allows the beer to soak up the aromas, which are not carried away by the exhalation of carbon dioxide.
Like Idle Hands, Night Shift also focuses on food and beer pairings, paying special attention to local sources. “In addition to using local ingredients, all of our beers have suggested food pairings on the label. Some of those recommendations are for local food products or restaurants. On the Bee Tea label, we suggest pairing it with fresh mozzarella from Somerville’s Fiore Di Nonno; for Taza Stout, we suggest pairing it with Jamaica Plainʼs Batch® Ginger Ice Cream. Going forward, we plan to source even more local ingredients for our future beers.”
Idle Hands sources some of its malt from Valley Malt in Hadley, Massachusetts, and buys its spices from Christina’s in Inman Square. Both breweries give local tastings and are available to the public for growler-fills and brewery tours. A return to local breweries never tasted so good.