Q and A with Tommy Kelley
Q: Any common denominator to Free State Beers?
A: We happen to be hop heads down here. We really, really like our hops, but we make something for everybody.
Q: What is your favorite beer?
A: Hands down the Copperhead (Pale Ale). Like I said, I am a very hoppy beer drinker. Ultimately, if you can get me a great IPA (India Pale Ale), that’s where I am going to be happy and content.
Q: What is a good beginner beer?
A: Ad Astra. It’s a little more approachable for a beer novice. Wheat State is what everyone would want for the lighter part, but when people are actually looking to try something new, I say, “Try the Ad Astra first.”
Q: Anything bother you about your job?
A: I kind of get annoyed when people come in and ask for a Budweiser or Miller product, but I say, “If you like that, well why don’t you try this?” I try to be their guide in directing them to better beer.
The process: Brewing beer
Tommy Kelley agreed to distill how he produces beer into an easy-to-understand process.
- First, he mills or grinds the grain that serves as the base for the beverage. Each beer has a different combination of grains, often wheat and barley.
- The grain is then combined with hot water. The combination soaks, making mash. The water releases sugars and starches in the grains that later will create alcohol.
- The liquid from the mash, known as wort, is drained and boiled for an hour and a half. During this time, hops are added.
- The wort is knocked out, or cooled, and yeast is added. The yeast will ferment the sugars and starches, eventually turning the mixture to beer.
- The beer then goes into fermentation tanks. The time it takes for the beer to ferment depends on what kind it is. For an ale, it takes 10 to 14 days to finish fermentation. For a lager, it takes about 21 days.
- The beer is then filtered and poured into a nice, cold glass.
Sociable. Beautiful. Wonderful. Bright.
Tommy Kelley’s face lights up as he says these words. He’s clearly a man in love — with beer.
Some people may spend all day drinking beer. Kelley spends all day brewing it for Free State Brewing Company, 636 Mass.
“How many people get to wake up and say they enjoy going to work every day and look forward to it?” he said.
Kelley’s hands have likely been on each beer that foams from the brewery’s bronze taps. That will be about 4,800 kegs this year.
“I’m responsible for making beer, filtering beer, basically anything to do with beer we’re all about,” he said.
Kelley also gets to do plenty of product sampling. He actually gets paid to drink beer at work. This gig might sound like a golden ticket to Willy Wonka’s Beer Factory, but it also involves barrels of elbow grease.
“Our job is 85 percent cleaning,” he said. “Beer janitors is what we are.”
Kelley constantly cleans tanks, lines and machinery, often with steaming hot water and caustic chemicals. Throw in thousands of gallons of beer at high pressure, and the process becomes a bit dangerous.
“You can get hurt if you’re not careful and don’t know what you’re doing,” Kelley said.
Making commercial beer’s not just dangerous but fairly complicated, and it takes years of training and often a microbiology degree. Kelley majored in finance.
“It’s not your normal brewer’s story, to be sure,” he said.
Kelley had always loved beer — from drinking Miller products with his “redneck uncles” on hunting trips, to falling in love with craft beer after his first Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.
So working at Free State Brewery in college seemed like a natural choice. Kelley began as a bus boy, became a waiter and then a bartender. After graduating college, “the economy stunk,” so he took a year off, became friends with some other brewers at the company and began going to beer festivals.
“I was like a sponge soaking up all the information,” he said.
And then he got the phone call to be a brewer two years ago.
“It took me two hours to think about it and I took him up on it. I would have never gotten as cool an opportunity as this one,” he said.
What Kelley lacked in experience and training he made up for in passion and motivation. Beer-making isn’t just a job to Kelley, it’s an art to be perfected.
“I always say anyone can brew beer,” he said. “Not very many can brew great beer.”
To brew great beer, Kelley and the other brewers start with the obvious.
“We drink a lot of beer,” he said.
After he or the two other brewers find a style they like, they hone in on its attributes. And if all is successful, a month or so later Free State has a new beer to serve.
“It’s really rewarding, especially when a newer beer comes out and you get to pour a guy a fresh pint and see his eyes light up,” he said.