You're a huge fan of local craft beer. You've been to the tasting rooms, attended the festivals, bought the T-shirts, taken the tours and spread the word about Florida beer to your out-of-state friends.
But when was the last time you actually got hands-on with the beer? Sure, you might try a sample fresh out of the bright tank during a brewery tour, but for the most part, your role in the production is strictly that of a spectator. The exception is Saint Somewhere.
Saint Somewhere was founded by Bob Sylvester in 2006, with distribution following a year later. Since then, Saint Somewhere has become Florida's most widely distributed beer, landing on beer shelves in 43 states (including Hawaii, the latest addition to the list), as well as Quebec and Denmark.
Filling orders for such wide geographic distribution sounds like a daunting enough task, but the fact that Sylvester pulls this off seems downright incredible once you actually see where the beer is produced. Saint Somewhere beer is brewed, fermented and packaged in a tiny storage space in the middle of an industrial complex just down the road from the sponge docks. Throw in the fact that there's no bottling line, and it's a real head-scratcher.
Sylvester's solution? Volunteers. People like you, and as of last week, me.
Here's how it works. Head to the Saint Somewhere website (saintsomewherebrewing.com) and email Bob Sylvester to let him know you're interested in volunteering. When a bottling day draws near (these are unpredictable, determined by when Sylvester feels the beer is ready), you'll receive an email. You'll need to be fast; Sylvester typically needs around eight volunteers per bottling session, and spaces fill up quickly.
After a few months of not responding quickly enough, I finally landed a spot to bottle last week. I showed up a few minutes after the 10 a.m. start, only to find that the day was in full swing, with volunteers working different stations. The first step is unboxing and sanitizing bottles, followed by filling them with beer from a massive tank in the corner. The bottles are then manually corked, secured with a wire cage and finished with adhesive labels and loaded into boxes.
I started on cork duty, which involved loading the filled bottles onto a corking machine and manually pressing the cork into the bottle, where I then sent it to be caged. It was quite a workout. We took a short break around the halfway point, after which I switched to the bottle filling station.
The plan was to bottle around 90 cases — more than 1,000 750ml bottles — of Lectio Divina, a peculiar hybrid of the Belgian saison and dubbel styles. All of Saint Somewhere's beers are inspired by Belgian farmhouse ales, and Sylvester's process is similarly rustic, often involving open and spontaneous fermentation, the addition of exotic fruits and spices and an embrace of wild yeasts, which can lead to big differences from batch to batch.
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Over the course of the day, I learned a little about the other volunteers. Some were regulars and friends of Sylvester, while others had just recently started volunteering. Some came from Tampa, others from Largo. Two of the volunteers were a couple from Minnesota who heard about the opportunity through a Florida friend.
At the end of the bottling day, around 2 p.m. in our case, we were treated to lunch, delivered from a local restaurant. And since we were thirsty, we were told to grab a glass from the office and help ourselves to Saint Somewhere beers on draft. We sampled Saison Athene, Été Sans Fin, Soleil Rêverie and Vierge — the latter a beer that's currently available only on-site.
The work was fun, and it was great to be able to play an active role in the production of a beer that will be enjoyed all over the country (and maybe even internationally). As I got ready to leave, Sylvester invited me to pick up my "pay" for the day: Six bottles of the beer we just finished packaging.
Lunch and beer for the day, along with a souvenir to drink in a couple of weeks. And as you share the bottle with friends, feel free to brag: "Oh, you like this beer? Yeah, I bottled it." It'll taste that much sweeter.