Monday, November 12, 2007

Papua New Guinea: The SP Brewery

When it comes to beer, South Pacific is really the only game in Papua New Guinea. Luckily, it is an excellent beer. The SP Brewery is in Port Moresby, and I immediately placed touring it on my list of things to do during my stay in PNG.

Tours of the brewery are only given by appointment Monday through Friday, so I booked one for Veterans Day, a Monday holiday.

In the weeks before the tour, I invited my colleagues at the Embassy to join me, and when the dust had settled, 15 fans of free beer had stepped forward. This was a pretty high level of interest considering there are only about 50 people total working at the Embassy.

On the day of the tour, I rode down to the brewery with my colleague Bill. We were the first two people to arrive, so we signed in at the guard booth, received visitor badges, and waited for the others.

Bill and I had arrived a few minutes early, and as the starting time approached, a few more people trickled in. Of the fifteen people who had signed up, only seven showed up. One person who wasn't on the list also showed up, so we at least had eight people.

I'm sure that the eight people who didn't turn up (both Americans and Papua New Guineans) all had good excuses. I wouldn't know, however, because only one of the no-shows bothered to offer any explanation.

Part of the problem was that it rained on the day of the tour. Many of the Papua New Guineans who had signed up for the tour had intended to walk to the brewery. The rain obviously put a damper on those plans.

Rain or not, though, I was a bit soured by the whole experience, and I don't foresee organizing many group activities in the future.

I had arranged our tour through a woman named Gorethy from the brewery's marketing division. She met us at the gate, and after waiting several extra minutes for any stragglers, we entered the brewery offices.

There we met our tour guide, Kuri, the brewery manager.

Kuri gave us a bit of general information and then led us to the production floor. Actually, we were on a walkway overlooking the floor, and down below, a variety of machines and their operators were cranking out scores of refreshing bottles of beer. I've been to several other breweries and factories, and I never tiring of seeing them. It's fascinating to me to see all the specialized machines doing all their specialized tasks, and to know that people invented them all.

Kuri left us to gawk at the bottling works for several minutes before he started into his narrative. Unfortunately, I couldn't hear much of what he said. I don't think anyone else could either because we were all standing around him and everyone was leaning in trying to hear him better. The problem was two-fold: The machines were very noisy, and Kuri was speaking very softly.

After a few minutes of this, I tuned out and didn't bother trying to listen.

When he had explained all that there was to know about the bottling process, Kuri led us away from the production area. Then I could finally hear him talking again.

The next stop on the tour was to the brewery's laboratory. Of all my brewery tours, this was the first time I could ever remember going into the lab.

There were a handful of technicians in the lab performing various tests on beer samples in flasks, beakers, and test tubes. One guy was taking careful measurements of bottle caps. These had arrived from a new supplier, and he was checking that they were up to par.

For the lab portion of the tour, Kuri turned things over to the lab manager, whose name was Henry I think. He explained some of what was going on in the lab and a bit about the brewery's quality control program.

The SP Brewery was established in 1952. In the sixties, a competing brewery affiliated with the Asahi Brewing Company of Japan was built in Port Moresby. A few years later, Asahi pulled out of PNG, and San Miguel took over their operation.

In the seventies, San Miguel and SP found themselves in what became known as the beer wars, as they fought tooth and nail for market share in PNG. Eventually, SP prevailed and bought out San Miguel. Today SP is a member of the Heineken group.

This is all pertinent because the lab quality assurance program at SP is based on the Heineken model. In addition to its in-house testing, SP couriers monthly samples of its beer to Heineken headquarters in Holland for evaluation.

SP's beer tasters are trained by Heineken, and there is also a Heineken representative on staff known as the chief engineer. At the end of our tour, we met the current chief engineer, a Dutchman named Jaap, but I already knew him socially. Before taking up the role of chief engineer, Jaap had sought to be a beer taster. Unfortunately, the final exam in beer-tasting school is very difficult to pass, and Jaap was never able to successfully identify by taste more than eight of the thirty-two ways that a beer can go bad.

Anyhow, after Henry spoke a bit about quality control, he explained the process of brewing to us. To supplement the lecture, he passed around jars filled with hops, yeast, and the rest. Then he fielded questions.

One thing that came out of the Q&A session that I found particularly interesting was the fact that nothing in the SP beer-making process is locally procured except for water and cardboard boxes. Everything else – ingredients, glass bottles, labels, label glue, bottle caps, aluminum cans, etc. – is imported.

Call me a nerd if you must, but the laboratory was a highlight of the tour for me.

Once that portion of the show was finished, Kuri led us to the area of the brewery where the beer itself was made. He walked us through the barley malting, the cooking of the wort in copper kettles, the addition of hops for bitterness, the filtering, the fermentation, the second filtering, and the carbonation.

With much less ambient noise than in the bottling room, it was considerably easier to hear Kuri as he explained these processes.

Then it was time for the best part of all: the sampling.

Kuri and Gorethy led us to the Brew Kettle, a very nice bar with a lot of hardwood and brass. Every Friday, the managerial employees of the brewery were treated to a happy hour at the Brew Kettle. (The non-managerial staff members were also treated to a weekly Friday happy hour, but theirs was in the brewery’s outdoor beer garden and not at the Brew Kettle.)

In any case, our tour guides turned us over to a pair of very capable young bartenders. These ladies were on top of things, serving up ultra-fresh ice-cold beer in chilled glasses. We had the place to ourselves, and the bartenders were quick to refill us as soon as we finished a glass.

As we drank and snacked on chips and peanuts, Bill and I chatted with Gorethy. After Bill called her Dorothy a few times, I mentioned to him that it was actually Gorethy with a G.

Bill pondered this for a second or two and then asked Gorethy where her name came from.

“It's from the Bible,” she told him. “I'm Catholic.”

Both Bill and I are Catholic, but neither of us had heard her name before. We all decided that it must have come from a different Biblical translation than the one Bill and I were accustomed to.

Our discussion meandered on through various other topics, and the beer continued to flow as cold and delicious as ever. Since we were there as representatives of the Embassy and the U.S. Government and all that, I “limited” myself to like eight glasses of beer in the hour that we were there. Man, it went down easily!

I didn't do anything embarrassing, though, and I wasn't driving, so I had no qualms with getting a little buzzed.

When I got home that evening, I topped off the experience by cooking myself a bratwurst for dinner.

Every rainy Monday should be so good!


Steve Bennett said...

Indeed Chris, The Brew kettle is easily the best bar in Moresby, I recall wasting a few Friday evenings in there... and the SP Brewery in Lae is also worth a visit, to meet the guys and gals who make the beer.


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