Judy Noonan and Janet Summerour work in a madcap realm of exploding glass, screaming machinery and the incessant clink-clink-clink of millions of empty bottles scuttling along a conveyor belt that has no end.
A real-life Laverne and Shirley, they report each day to the world's third-largest brewery--the Anheuser-Busch plant, a hulking cluster of factory buildings along the San Diego Freeway in Van Nuys that belches steady wisps of dull-gray steam from its rooftop chimneys.
On good days, the duo can bottle enough beer to inebriate a small country. And then there are the shifts from brewery hell: Like the sudden bottle blast that left a shard of glass jutting from Noonan's protective goggles like an errant arrow. Or when Summerour mistakenly glued the labels upside-down onto more than 800 cases of Budweiser bottles.
Worse yet, brewer Mark Roberts has seen snafus that have caused steaming billows of 212-degree foam to ooze from the big cooker kettles, spreading across the brew house floor like The Blob.
But, for 1,500 employees laboring in this frenetic industrial city, it's all in a day's work helping to feed America's insatiable appetite for the heady, thick-bodied brew that's at least as old as Egyptian civilization.
Last year, Americans drank 5.8 billion gallons of beer, spending more than $52 billion, according to the Washington-based Beer Institute, a trade association. That's 41 six packs--or 1 1/2 kegs--for every man, woman and child. Moreover, beer makes up 80% of all alcoholic beverages consumed by Americans, followed by wine at 14% and distilled spirits at 6%.
Beer-making has been big business for generations in Southern California, which just a decade ago produced more than anywhere else in America, including Milwaukee or St. Louis.
That tradition, however, has since gone a bit flat as local factories making beers such as Lucky Lager, Brew 102, Stroh and Schlitz beers have closed their doors--along with some newfangled microbreweries from Downtown to Pasadena.
Now two giant contenders remain--the local Anheuser-Busch factory and the Miller Co. brewery in Irwindale--where heavily unionized workers such as Noonan and Summerour labor on shifts that run around the clock to sate a thirsty public.
The Anheuser-Busch brewery, which exports to beer drinkers from Central America to the Far East, ranks in size only behind the Coors facility in Golden, Colo., and the Anheuser-Busch home office in St. Louis.
Although Anheuser-Busch last week announced plans to downsize its 12,000-strong white-collar salaried work force by 10% nationwide, Van Nuys officials expect the move to affect only two dozen of its staff--who would take early retirement--and none of the unionized workers.
Opened in 1954, the 90-acre Van Nuys facility once included a signature theme park, Busch Gardens, complete with rides and performing macaws. In 1979, the demand for beer moved the company to pave over the gardens for more production space.
Today, the plant produces about 12 million barrels daily--or 174.4 million cases. That fills at least two dozen rail cars and 325 tractor-trailers.
It's a self-sufficient city that never sleeps, engaging in the painstaking task of mixing the oatmeal-smelling hops and yeast with tons of barley, corn and rice to make more than half a dozen varieties of brew.
In the bowels of the place, humongous cookers and kettles perform a lengthy brewing process that involves turning whole grains to liquid, adding hops and yeast before aging the mix in cavernous cellars holding skyscraper-like tanks and stainless-steel vats.
About five weeks after the beer-making process begins, the end comes in a stadium-like, 18-acre warehouse where the finished product is canned, bottled and kegged in an atmosphere of controlled chaos.
Along with goggles, workers wear earplugs to shut out the drone of the huge packing machines, where blasts of air push the empty cans along the assembly line amid the nonstop rattle of the bottles. The din forces workers to communicate in sign language.
Supervisors scurry about on rickshaw-like bicycles and motorized scooters, pausing at vast intersections of machinery and stored cases--confluences with circular ceiling mirrors to warn of oncoming traffic.
In this industrial jungle, chemists in white lab coats dissect the finished product--using test tubes and special machines to examine color, flavor and alcohol content.
But no test or safety device can mask the smell--the overwhelming sour aroma of spilled beer--that permeates the bottling warehouse like the morning after a Saturday night frat party.
Still, on hot days, even workers who don't drink beer are tempted by the brew's allure. "You start sweating in that place and you look down at all that beer going by and you think, 'Gosh, that looks good.' And I don't even drink the stuff," Noonan says.
With their bubbling brew kettles and teeming production floors, both breweries in the region embody the spirit of the blue-collar, beer-drinking way of life.
With the exaggerated flair of a wine connoisseur, Van Nuys brew master Bob Mueller stands in the tasting room--the brewery's spiritual epicenter--pouring a beer as slowly as a glass of molasses.
He holds the product to the sunlight, sniffing its foamy head, swirling the bottom of the glass. Then he takes a sip.
Unlike with winemakers, he swallows to savor what is known as the beer's "full taste profile."
"Look at that head!" Mueller crows, his waistline offering testimony to his craft. "It gives a glass of beer such a picturesque appearance. When you see a beer without a head, what does it remind you of? To me, it looks like ginger ale. And this certainly is no ginger ale."
At 3 p.m. each day, Mueller samples his beer, not just the finished product but also specimens taken from about a dozen stages along the production line--from the filtered water to murky bottles of nonalcoholic fluid known as wort, so sweet that some workers pour it over pancakes.
Trailed by his managers, Mueller walks down a row of 20 bottles lined up like soldiers for a spot inspection. He also tastes the hops, the grains of corn and barley. What does not meet his standards is taken away, back to the beer-brewing drawing board.
Part scientist, part artist, he's a beer-lover with strong opinions about the current political climate that he says lumps together drugs and alcohol:
"It irritates me. . . . We're a legitimate business that has been part of this country since its inception. Our forefathers made and drank beer. It's just hard to take when they compare us in the same breath with drugs."
In recent years, beer manufacturers have taken steps to control consumption within their industry--reversing a time-honored tradition among brewery workers that provided free beer during lunch and breaks.
Last call at the local Anheuser-Busch plant came May 1, 1986, when free on-the-job suds were replaced by two monthly cases given to each employee for home consumption.
Concerns over alcohol, Mueller says, have added to lukewarm industry sales over the last three years. But beer manufacturers know that their craft will always be in demand.
So Mueller continues to brew, test, sample and sell.
And each day in the taste room, after consuming several glasses of his product, he undergoes a test mandated by Anheuser-Busch: He blows into a Breathalyzer.
In their worst dreams, Noonan and Summerour become Lucy and Ethel--a slapstick pair of overwhelmed candy factory workers unable to keep pace with the endless conveyor line of chocolate.
"Even in your sleep, you hear buzzers going off and you want to go fix the problem on the assembly line," Noonan says.
Both are bottlers in the brewery's packaging section, a world where people mind machines. Everywhere, mechanical arms reach to pluck empty bottles--24 at a time--from their cases like the device that sets up bowling pins.
Noonan works Can Line 61, one of the plant's four canning and five bottling lines, where she oversees the armies of empty cans that hurtle down a conveyor line to a wagon wheel-like machine that fills 130 cans at once.
Then the speeding missiles are capped with aluminum lids by a second machine and ushered off to a pasteurizer, where they are heated and then cooled to kill bacteria.
Every few minutes, the Noonan, 44, must feed new lids into the insatiable machine--sliding tops from cylindrical paper sleeves 372 at a time.
Meanwhile, cans whiz past on the conveyor at 1,800 a minute, or 30 every second. The line runs 24 hours a day, six days a week. Each eight-hour shift, Noonan supervises the filling and packaging of 24,000 cases of beer.
With a flick of a wrist, she plucks a can from the passing blur of aluminum to check for dents or labeling goofs. A wrong move can send cans flying.
All the while, she watches out for the punctured cans that might spray her with foamy beer, or the splashing oil from broken machines.
"As the technology improves, the cans move faster and faster," she says. "Even though, they want the same quality. If everything doesn't come out just right, shift after shift, it reflects on me."
On the seventh day, the brewery rests.
Sunday is the one time when the huge packaging plant is silenced, closed for its weekly scouring.
Workers welcome such house cleanings, a break from the grueling day-to-day battle to get the beer out.
And when work is through, they drink nothing but their own product--especially when out on the town. If a bar or restaurant doesn't serve their label, they'll ask why.
Sometimes, though, Noonan needs a great escape.
"Everywhere I go, I run into the Budweiser image. On delivery trucks. Billboards. Baseball caps. You're glad, because that means job security. But sometimes you just want to get away.
"If just for a while, you want to get away from the world of beer."