First I place a heating element on the floor and screw in the tube connecting it to a propane tank. Next a stainless steel container of about 20 liters (5 gallons) in volume goes on the heating element (not yet turned on). One of my coworkers lugs a five gallon plastic bucket across the cold warehouse floor and we dump its contents into the "kettle." The liquid is fermented agave juice and water. Next I place a rubber gasket on the circular opening of the kettle and attach a cylindrical pipe to it with a metal clamp. The pipe or "column" has a copper mesh in it. What this copper mesh does I have only vague ideas involving increased surface area, and it for some reason is greatly beneficial that it is made of copper specifically. These obscure secrets are perhaps the reason you usually need a chemical engineering degree to get hired as a commercial distiller.
On top of this column I place a second gasket (which I would later forget in a subsequent run, nearly blowing myself up), and attach a second column. This second column has a hole on top in which I place an electronic thermometer through a rubber bung, and a smaller tube runs off the top of the column (see Fig B above). To actually make tequila we would need to NOT attach this second column as it makes the still TOO efficient and strips all the flavour out of things until everything becomes vodka. Not that we could have possibly made tequila anyway (tequila, like champagne, is only "tequila" if it comes from Tequila, Mexico, it turns out). I'd figure this out eventually, but this was my first time putting it together.
Apparently my coworkers had tried to run the still before, while I was off doing something else for awhile, and had no success (note they also tried to brew coffee while I was absent...). So I return to work at what is ordinarily a beekeeping operation to find my boss has a new project for me: "Kris, make the still work."
As the only one at my workplace with a college degree they often seem to have infinite confidence (way more than myself anyway!) that I am somehow imbued with the ability to figure out and understand anything complicated. My college degree has a lot more to do with understanding why Russia invaded the country of Georgia and who's the rightful president of Honduras than anything to do with science (though I did take "intro to brewing" for my science breadth requirement).
I was one of the few people I know to never change my degree in college. I went in as an international relations major and came out still excited to work for the State Department or United Nations. I came out all excited to get a job related to my major ... and apparently you need "experience" for even the lowest rung positions so I became a beekeeper.
I'd been feeling relatively unsuccessful in life, and the only college friends who are really noisy about what they're doing with their lives on facebook are those announcing they've passed the bar and progressing from aspiring esquirelings to full blown esquires. But I've also noticed lately a lot of peers quietly adding "graduated culinary institute" or other such vocational programs onto their education list. As the saying goes, "the college degree is the new high school diploma."
So I've been working as a beekeeper. At least I'm given special projects and my employer seems to like special projects.
After another year of working "in the bee mines" I recently became infected with the wanderlust again and discovered that a craft brewery I deeply respect was interested in adding beekeeping to their various agricultural pursuits, so at their invitation I recently traveled up there to meet with them.
I'd contemplated a career as a brewer or distiller in the past, going so far as to look into it a little bit and determine that chemistry degrees were usually required. Imagine my surprise, then, to find that the brewery didn't want to hire me as a full time beekeeper -- they wanted to hire me as a brewer, distiller, AND sometimes beekeeper. There'll be training of course, and I'll be one of several brewers & distillers working at their main facility, but apparently the specific combination of special projects my beekeeping boss had had me tackle had piqued the brewery's interest and may be setting me off on a whole new career direction.
"And there's one other thing I think I'd like you to do" said the master distiller, my main contact, "I have this special project I want to get started. We just got this roaster no one knows how to use yet..."
Life: some assembly required.
The commercial 100 gallon still which might be my new occupation (picture courtesy of the internet. I didn't want to look like a tourist-noob and take pictures during my interview)
A sign I found hanging on the wall in a cafe in a small seaside town on the coast
See Also: my official report on the interview (it's friends-only but if you're interested I'll add you)
In Unrelated News: I was supposed to ship out to Nigeria in two days for beekeeping aid work. That has been postponed due to current unsafe conditions in country, and could be scrubbed completely if it can't be rescheduled in the window before I begin working at the brewery ):