Beer Today, Brew Tomorrow

By Kyle Marksteiner

You know the story of the talented amateur player who is discovered one day and moved up to the big leagues? That’s kind of what happened with Wellhead brewer Chris Sexton.

It was about a year ago, in the fall of 2014, and the beer enthusiasts of Artesia’s Wellhead Restaurant and Brewpub were starting to get a little bit nervous. The restaurant’s previous brewer had moved on, and the levels of some of the beer casks were starting to get a little low.

That’s when the Wellhead’s management discovered Sexton. Sexton, a mechanical engineer with the Department of Energy’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad during the weekday, had been active on a county-wide internet page about home brewing beer.

“I used to work at a pub when I went to the University of Louisville (Kentucky),” he shared, noting that he worked in the restaurant but visited with the brewer whenever he had the time. “There were lots of little pubs around, but when I moved out here there were not that many.”

He moved to Carlsbad from Kentucky about five years ago, and home brewing beer had become a pretty big hobby.

A friend of Sexton’s had been helping at the Cottonwood Winery, Eddy County’s other commercial brewing location, and knew about the Wellhead’s vacancy. The friend passed on Sexton’s name to Wellhead manager Emily Bills, and the two connected.

“They said they were without a brewer, and they were looking around for some local person to help out,” Sexton recalled.

He decided to give it a try. There was much rejoicing.

“All the regulars were really excited,” he noted. “I think they were getting nervous.”

Sexton confessed that he was a little nervous, too, but signing on did mean that he was granted access to the Wellhead’s recipe book. It’s a file that was put together when the restaurant first opened that details the instructions for making each beer. He got to work.

That was October of 2014, and Sexton’s first batch of beer was apparently very well received by Artesia’s beer enthusiasts. “I didn’t have any complaints,” he laughed. “I think things went off relatively well, almost without a hitch.”

Because the restaurant was closed for Labor Day weekend, Sexton was the person on hand during my visit to the Wellhead on a Saturday of this year. His shirt, which read “These Machines Kill Fascists,” came from the microbrewery he worked at while he was in college, he explained, and the machines pictured are identical to the ones around him in the Wellhead’s brewery room, located next to the pub’s patio.

Sexton said he makes the drive from Artesia to Carlsbad a few times a week to handle one or more components of the brewing process.

In a nutshell, brewing at the restaurant level seems to involve pouring liquid and grains together in one tank, doing something to them, then moving the concoction on to another tank for the next phase. And so forth. Until you have beer.

Everything starts out in the mash/lauter tun, a vessel with a false bottom designed to extract the sugar from the grains that will be used to make the beer. Based on item names, much of the equipment, unsurprisingly, appears to be German in origin.

The process isn’t really that much different from beer-brewing in the Middle Ages, give or take a few monks. 

Sexton was working on a large vat of the Wellhead’s wheat beer at the time, the popular Indian Basin Wheat.

“Basically, it’s a hot water tank,” Sexton gestured. “I’ve got 240 pounds of grain and 100 gallons of 150° water. Whatever kind of grain you are using is the base flavor of the beer.”

Sexton stops periodically through the process to check to make sure the grains are doing their thing. There’s a visual inspection first, followed by an examination through a specially-designed microscope. That records sugar level. The liquid is cycled through the mash several times, but once Sexton rules that phase to be complete, he turns a pair of valves and the mixture is pumped over to the kettle.

In the kettle, the mixture is boiled for at least an hour, with some variance based on the type of beer. This is where the beer is sterilized, and it is also where some of the bitters and spices are added to give the beer its unique flavor.

After time in the kettle, the wort (a combination of liquid grain sugars and water) is transferred to one of three fermenting tanks, where it will sit for four to six days after the yeast is added.

“There’s a rest period and a cleanup/cool-down period where you crash it,” Sexton revealed.

Then, everything is pumped across the hall into the actual restaurant, where it is placed into one of several brite tanks or kegs inside the freezer. This is where final filtration and carbonation take place and also where the beer is poured by the staff’s servers.

Sexton said he was a little nervous making the jump from home brewing to working at the restaurant level, but it turns out the principles are all basically the same. “It’s a big scale up,” he admitted. “But ultimately, it’s just that you have better equipment.”

Even though it’s a part-time gig, Sexton is an employee of the Wellhead. He is reimbursed for mileage, and he will usually visit the restaurant after he finishes his work. The Wellhead would have likely had to contract with a brewer from outside the area had he not been recruited to help.

Brewing, he maintained, is a lot of waiting between the different stages of the process. “It’s really not that glamorous,” he added. “I think it’s probably 90% cleaning and waiting. Oh, and you are constantly either soaked or almost soaked.” He mopped the patio floor during one waiting interval. Another shift change involved gathering leftover grain for a local farmer who has worked out a deal with the restaurant.

While he’ll follow the Wellhead’s playbook for the restaurant’s perennial beers, he also looks forward to a little creativity for various seasonal beers. Sexton said he isn’t a huge fan of fruity beers, though he understands that others find them popular. He finds the recent trend of “pumpkin-spicing” everything to be amusing.

What’s his favorite Wellhead beer?

“I like everything, but I’d really go with the IPA (Indian Pale Ale),” he declared. “I’m a hop-head. An IPA is a good way to get a feel for a brewer.”

He also would like to participate in more beer festivals and other events.

For Wellhead brewer Chris Sexton, a weekend hobby has become a way of life.