Heart surgeon's brew is good for what ales you
Surgeon Robin Brown's micro-brewery resembles an operating theatre. Photo: Angela Wylie
Heart surgeon's backyard brewery is the perfect remedy for work stress.
THE old man's heart is deflated, emptied of blood and quite still. Robin Brown cups the globby orange organ in his left hand and props it up with some swabs. ''Normally it is firm like holding a bicep but now it's soft and placid,'' he says.
Over two decades he has performed perhaps 5000 coronary bypasses, such that severing the breast bone and stopping a heart has become routine. Etta James sings on the radio as he grafts arteries to the aorta of a wizened 80-year-old heart at Melbourne Private Hospital. ''At laaaaaaaast, my love has come along.''
Robin Brown reckons there are neat parallels between open-heart surgery and beer brewing. Photo: Angela Wylie
Two days later, cardiothoracic surgeon Brown, 50, is busy with an altogether different operation in his backyard brewery in Brighton, filling 500 beer bottles with American-style ale. Author Ian McEwan once wrote that we study a surgeon's hands for ''the hope of reassurance''. Brown's hands are strong and his fingers steady, his nails gnawed and his skin nicked and cut, not from surgical blades, but steel kettles and kegs.
He started Black Heart Brewery in 2011 with perfusionist Brad Schultz - whom he met in the operating theatre over a heart-lung machine - and now supplies beer commercially to about two dozen pubs and bottle shops across Australia. Brown, who has a shaved head and runner's frame, has cut back surgical work to brew beer in a converted shed by his pool.
He fell in love with beer as a young boy, smelling the malt and hops rising from the basement brews of his physicist father - before home-brewing was legal. Brown, a former state champion brewer, reckons there are neat parallels between open-heart surgery and beer brewing. ''It's very scientific, from the malting to the enzyme process and fermentation.
''It's all about attention to detail and minimisation of contamination. My surgical side is good training in that I am very anal and meticulous and clean,'' he says.
He wears gumboots on the polished resin floor of his brewery, which resembles an operating theatre with its gleaming instruments, whirring machines and tubes pumping liquid to essential parts. In a strange way it seems more technologically sound than the surgery, where bodies are still sewn up with thread and a needle the size of an eyelash.
In the brewery, hands on the knees of faded blue jeans coated in flour, Brown watches beer flowing into sterilised bottles. He wears the same intense stare in the operating theatre while prodding a heart with forceps to start it beating again. ''It's a stressful job because there is so much at stake,'' he says. ''We do operations every day so it becomes routine. But when a patient dies, it tears my heart out.
''The heart is as tough as buggery but even when I do everything perfectly, complications still happen. Perhaps brewing beer is a stress release. The whole beer world is quite chilled and relaxed compared with what we do normally.''
The most satisfying part of medical work is helping someone get well, he says. In brewing, it's seeing your beer on tap in a pub.
Black Heart Brewery, one of dozens of micro-breweries that have opened across Victoria in recent years, produces 500 litres of beer a week. Brown and Schultz do everything from mopping the floor to brewing the beer and delivering it at nights and on weekends. Brown hopes one day to brew full time. Wouldn't he miss saving lives? He takes a long pause. ''I have saved enough,'' he says, smiling. ''I love brewing. There's no money in it, it's really hard work, the only reason you do it is if you are passionate about it.''