It’s early in the day and a leak in a hose has caused beer to spew all over Yazoo Brewery’s bottling factory, soaking one worker and frustrating the rest. The aging Meheen bottler, model year 1995, has proven to be a thorn in the side Yazoo founder Linus Hall, who jokes, “We’re going to start a band called Rage Against the Meheen….When we first got this thing the manual was so bad they said I had Tourette’s.”
In the Yazoo Taproom, the sweat-soaked Hall stands behind the old Meheen bottler. The giant machine wraps around the taproom, serving as the main filling resource. Entranced by his work, Hall oversees the bottling process as he feeds unfilled brown bottles into the machine. Once the Marathon Motor Works factory, the brewery is complete with 11 large liquid storage vats and that damn Meheen. The taproom is buzzing with action, though there are only four workers on the job, all of whom are anxious for the Meheen to stop spewing beer, which signifies the end of the workday. But for volunteers, there’s extra incentive to carry them through a sweaty, beer-soaked afternoon: the promise of a refreshing payback in the form of the very Yazoo blend they’ve been bottling all day.
Not a bad gambit for a Nashville entrepreneur who deals in hoppy currency. In exchange for helping out on the bottling side of the business, Hall’s willing to pay volunteers in beer—the stuff that doesn’t make shipment for one reason or another (from missing labels to stragglers). It’s the right season to get in on that.
On this particular day, there are no volunteers—only paid help who labor over the tedious process. “We have just enough people to be sufficient, but not too many people standing around to get hurt,” says Hall, whose 3-year-old Yazoo Brewery just began bottling on Labor Day of last year.
Hall, who’s passionate about his brews, eagerly describes the bottling procedure and precisely what thirsty volunteers can expect. First, the empty bottles are saturated with a sanitizing liquid before they are loaded in rows of four into the Meheen. On top of the bottler is a jar filled with bottle caps with a magnetic wheel adjacent. As each row is filled, the wheel turns, gathering caps to be shot down and clasped around the bottle in a blink of an eye before the carbonated beer is able to spill over the brim.
“It’s like physics,” Hall says about the most important step in bottling. “Trying to put a carbonated beverage into a bottle as quick as you can.”
After the caps are clamped, the bottles travel through the labeler, which today is pasting the copper Amarillo Pale Ale logo. After the labeling, a conveyor carries the bottles to be packaged.
Hall works efficiently, pausing momentarily to tweak a knob regulating the amount of liquid released through one of the nozzles. Meanwhile, Kelli Johnston packs the bottles into cases and glues them shut, sending them to be whisked away to approximately 40 area groceries and specialty beer stores throughout Middle Tennessee.
Like Hall, Johnston maintains an efficient pace, with no spare time to pause and taste test. While Hall tinkers with the Meheen, Johnston is greeted by a drought at conveyer’s end. Johnston began at Yazoo as a volunteer, but after four months was offered a part-time job.
Whenever the brewery needs help, Hall sends out an email to his listserv, and joining it is as easy as signing up at the Brewery location or emailing Hall via Yazoo’s website. But volunteers shouldn’t expect a complimentary happy hour, with a work schedule beginning as early as 8:30 or 9 in the morning and lasting usually until about 4 in the afternoon.
“It’s fun and all, but it’s also a lot of work,” Hall says. “One lady who came in did the same thing at a winery, and they give you lunch and lots of wine. It’s like a picnic. You can expect that for the first hour.”
Indeed, helping with Yazoo is no picnic. Anything is bound to happen. Like the hose fiasco. Hall notices one of the nozzles is overfilling, and points out the foamy carbonation filling over the bottle. “We fix something, but then another thing goes wrong.”
With the storage tank nearing empty, the Yazoo workers are still toiling well after their usual 4 p.m. stopping time. Their quota is usually 250 cases, or about 6,000 bottles. After a hard day’s work, volunteers typically end up leaving with nearly two or three cases of beer. “We make sure the volunteers don’t go away unhappy,” Hall says.