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Dogfish vs. Hurricane Irene: Planning for the worst

Tue, 08/30/2011 - 12:16pm

As the rain stopped and the wind died on Sunday, Dogfish Head's Patrick Staggs kept getting the same two text messages back to back.

First, everyone asked if Patrick and his family had made it safely through Hurricane Irene.

Then came the followup: "How's the brewery?"

Irene brewpub: Dogfish Head Brewing & Eats boards up before Hurricane Irene.

Dogfish Head Brewing & Eats boards up before Hurricane Irene.

As the operations director, it was Patrick's job to protect the three key branches of our Milton brewery: the people, the property and, of course, our off-centered ales.

"We talked about people first," says Patrick. "Are we going to be able to get everyone out so they can take care of their own personal lives? Then it was the structures. The whole front of our building is glass and right in front of that we have a big steel treehouse, so everyone was thinking of that. And then it was the beer."

The good news for Dogfish Head's extended family and friends is that all three are intact. Irene's impact was weaker than expected, but the storm still brought a three-hour power outage and wind gusts near 70 mph. We lost five shifts of production, but not a drop of beer, and after playing a little catch-up in the next two weeks, our round-the-clock brewery should be back on schedule.

"We didn't know how bad it was going to be," Patrick says. "But we planned for the absolute worst."

The first step was getting the right team together. Co-workers from operations, brewing, quality control, maintenance, scheduling, safety, IT and water treatment started laying out precautions midweek. By the end of the workday Thursday, the team was feeling good about its plan and ready to put it in motion on Friday. But when Gov. Jack Markell declared a state of emergency Thursday evening, the plan had to be fast-tracked.

"Come Thursday night when the state of emergency was declared, I was on the phone for three hours," says Patrick. "It was tough rearranging the whole plan via phone and text."

Brewing and packaging were cut off around 10:30 p.m. Thursday, and a skeleton crew started a controlled shutdown. The bottling lines were cleared, empty fermenters were filled with water to keep them anchored and non-essential equipment was powered down.

"During storms like this you could have massive electrical surges if not direct lightning strikes, so we unplugged everything that wasn't mission critical," says Chief Operating Officer Nick Benz. "Phones, computers, copiers, fax machines, coffeemakers, toasters, anything electrical that wasn't needed."

But the cellars, where fermentation takes place, were a different story. There was too much beer at risk. If the power was cut and the supply of coolant was disrupted, the primary fermenters could quickly reach 80 to 90 degrees, changing flavor profiles and ruining the batches.

"Yeah, you can fry a really expensive piece of equipment," says Nick. "But if we took it offline, we'd lose a lot of beer. Any beer that we brewed on Thursday rolling into Friday we would've ended up dumping."

Thankfully, it never came to that, and by about 2 p.m. Monday, a Dogfish-wide effort had the brewery back at full capacity.

Down the road in Rehoboth Beach, co-workers at Dogfish Head Brewing & Eats popped the plywood out of the windows and were grateful to find dry floors and an intact brewpub.

"I was quite surprised by the lack of water in the building," says General Manager Jason Weissberg. "We were very lucky."

By Tuesday morning, it was as if the week that sleepy lower Delaware saw a hurricane, a tornado and an earthquake had never happened.

"Ah, the smell of hot mash in the morning," Patrick said. "It really is a beautiful thing, isnt it?"