The Men in the Big Rubber Boots
If you love the beers of Rogue Ales, take a moment to thank the inhospitable environment of Los Angeles. If John Maier had not found the sprawling city unbearable, he might not have left a lucrative job in the aerospace industry, might not have gravitated to brewing, and might not have made Rogue the innovative brewery it is today, under Maier’s stewardship as head brewer.
Maier is at the top of his field, not just in the view of his admiring customers, but of his colleagues. He was the first of ten men whom peers have honored since 1997 with the Russell Scherer Award for Innovation in Brewing, given annually by the Craft Brewers Association. A glimpse at the careers of these brewers forms a composite picture of where American brewing is today, with leadership of the modern revolution still substantially in the hands of its first generation.
Like Maier, for many of the current generation’s leading brewers, their history is a string of “if not fors…” Only one of these ten brewers planned for a career in beer: the other nine trained for other occupations at a time when a position in brewing generally meant a place in one of the country’s small number of national or regional companies. The American brewing world has changed radically since then—and these brewers have been both the agents and beneficiaries of that change.
Three engineers, a writer, a broadcaster, an anthropologist, a contractor, a theater major, a phone company employee…and one formally trained food scientist. The backgrounds of these ten award-winning brewers are a clear reminder that the American craft beer field is still very young. These men, now in their forties and fifties, took a career step into the unknown when they accepted jobs in the infant craft beer industry.
Rogue Ales master brewer John Maier has just brewed his 10,000th batch, since his start with Rogue in 1989. The former Hughes aircraft engineer laughs about the landmark: “Yeah, and I did that all on my own—no, that’s really that’s our very active marketing department. I shouldn’t get credit for the whole thing.”
Nevertheless, Maier is a prolific creator of beers, with some 60 to his credit, both at Rogue and before, at Alaskan Brewing Co. in Juneau. But, he protests, “I only named one beer in all the years I’ve been here—Brutal Bitter. Jack [Joyce, Rogue's owner] didn’t like the name, but it sort of stuck.”
The fundamentals of brewing keep Maier fresh. For a famously quiet man, he becomes almost voluble on the subject: “The process: I love the process, the sight of bubbling wort. You know, when school kids get a whiff of wort, they hold their noses, but I love the smell.”
Mark Carpenter toured the Anchor Brewery in San Francisco in 1970, and found it “a wonderful place.” Looking for a change from his nine years with the telephone company, he secured an interview with owner Fritz Maytag. They talked, discovered a shared passion for motorcycles, and Maytag gave Carpenter a job.
“In those days, we were a very small brewery,” Carpenter recalls. “I think the first year I was there we did a thousand barrels or under, so you don’t have to brew very often to achieve that! It was all being done by about three people, all the steps, all the way. So the brewery itself was like a brewing university.”
Anchor had just begun bottling, and produced only Steam Beer initially, but Carpenter would be on hand as Maytag, craft beer’s original antiquarian, re-introduced one near-extinct beer style after another to the public.
“When we first brewed our porter, there was not one left in England, and here we were brewing a real porter with dark malts and the whole works,” says Carpenter. “Then we brewed Liberty Ale in seventy-five, which was the first dry-hopped beer in the United States.”
Then came the first use of Cascade as an aroma hop, the first American barleywine, the first modern wheat beer, the first American Christmas beer: thirty-six years later, Carpenter happily recites all the “firsts” that made up his beer education, and graciously gives Maytag the credit.
The Homebrew Connection
Predictably, a fascination with homebrewing is a common element in the histories of many of these brewers, and sometimes the main source of their education.
When Dick Cantwell was caring for a baby daughter at home, he could no longer set aside time for writing fiction. Instead, he remembers, he “got maniacal” about homebrewing. “I was taking care of her during the day, and that was the time I’d devoted to writing before,” says Cantwell. “With homebrewing, I was able to find some sort of happiness: it was something that was creative, but I was able to be with her.”
When he and his family moved to Seattle, Cantwell took samples of his homebrew around brewpubs as his portfolio, and landed his first brewing job at the Seattle Brewing Co. Today, the daughter is in college, and Cantwell is one of the city’s leading brewers, overseeing brewing operations at three different branches of Elysian Brewing.
Cantwell was an early convert to Belgian-themed brewing, partly thanks to his wife, an art historian whose specialization in Flemish painters took them to Belgium often. He was similarly ahead of the crowd with his jasmine IPA, which he brushes off as “old news now.”
The growth of Elysian has given him freedom to experiment. He says “I’m able to brew small one-off batches of beer. I don’t have to worry so much about commercial viability, so that’s one thing that has helped my ability to improvise and come up with new ideas.” Among the new ideas, supplying as many as half a dozen pumpkin beers for Elysian’s Halloween festival.
The demands of a family also persuaded John Mallett to turn to brewing full time. He’d turned from engineering to brewing—“I was in college as a chemical engineer, and I decided to leave chemical engineering because I didn’t want to watch liquids flow through pipes for the rest of my life,” he explained, wryly. But after a spell on the brewing side, he specialized in brewery equipment fabrication and installation, which kept him on the road.
He recalls the day that brought that to an end: “One day I was at Yuengling—I’d been up there a lot. I was driving home, and I stopped and got a hair cut. And my then three-year old daughter didn’t recognize her father walking in. I thought, ‘You know, there’s a lot of ways you can measure success. I think I should go and do something at one brewery for a while so I can successfully raise my kid.’”
Mallett and Larry Bell of Kalamazoo—now Bell’s—Brewing saw a mutual opportunity. Bell needed someone to lead the technical side of his brewing team; Mallett needed stability. Today, Mallett’s main job is translating Bell’s inspirations into hard reality.
“Much of my charge is to figure out how to turn fanciful, creative aspects into actually getting liquid out the back door. So, Larry has come and said ‘We should make and bottle ten different stouts in the month of November.’ And you realize, it’s not like you can stop the production of everything else while that is going on.”
Mallett’s technical mastery has served the industry beyond his position at Bell’s. The other RSA winners point to his generosity with his knowledge, and the lessons in “accessible science,” as he puts it, they’ve learned from him.
A Formal Background
In a complete contrast to all the other brewers, the most recent recipient of the Russell Scherer award has a classical curriculum vitae in brewing. Dan Carey, founder and head brewer of New Glarus Brewing Co., always knew the a career in food would be his future.
Long before he obtained a degree in Food Science from the University of Davis, he’d acquired an appreciation of food, thanks to his family. “I grew up in San Francisco and we would take vacations, car camping in the station wagon,” says Carey. “We’d visit breweries and wineries and cheese factories. I was always enamored with food—the sights and smells—and breweries in particular. Breweries like the Olympia Brewery: the copper kettles, the tiled floors, the shiny stainless. Even when I was very little, I always loved the taste of beer.”
Having selected brewing over cheese-making—both fermentation, after all—Carey held an apprenticeship at the Ayinger Brewery in Germany, worked in brewery construction, came top of his class at Chicago’s Siebel Institute, and passed the Institute of Brewing and Distilling Diploma Examination in 1990, as well as the Master Brewer Examination in 1992.
Carey also has experience in the world of mega-brewing, as a production supervisor for Anheuser-Busch.
Where the other brewers’ stories sound romantic or bohemian, Carey’s is solidly professional. “I liked the cleanliness, the orderliness, the taste, and the tradition of beer. There was an Old World alchemy. The science, the art, the technology and the engineering—it seemed like a neat thing to me.” He makes it clear, though, that he is not, and never has been, a homebrewer.
Among his craftbrewing peers, Carey’s status as the most highly-credentialed makes him seem paradoxically non-conformist. He also seems to take some pride in going against the craft beer grain in other ways.
“We also make a light American-style lager in the summertime, which I just love,” he says. “I laugh because average people—read “paying customers”—love it. It drives the beer geeks nuts. I don’t build my life around the beer geeks; they’re a very fickle group, but they have it in their heads that the more hops you can stick in a beer the better it is. So just for fun we said ‘Oh, yeah? Sometimes a light lager tastes pretty good on a hot day.’”
He continues, “This is not something I say lightly, because I try to be a humble person, but I don’t think there’s a brewery anywhere else in the world that makes a Brettanomyces sour brown ale aged in oak, a strong aromatic IPA, and an American light lager all in the same week. In our own little world of Wisconsin, I think people think we’re a lot of fun.”
If Carey is stimulated by the classroom, Vermont brewer Greg Noonan delved so deeply into individual brewing education that he felt compelled to turn his efforts into a book others could consult.
When he turned from carpentry and contracting to brewing, he already had a family and a full-time job. Unable to afford brewing school, he read Fred Eckhardt’s occasional newsletter and relied on libraries, going back to the basics.
“It just happens that if you look hard enough in libraries, there’s a ton of brewing books,” Noonan says. “Even common libraries and university libraries had some of the old brewing books.”
“A lot us were self-taught back in that time. There just was nobody to learn from. There was Siebel Institute, or you could go to Germany if you spoke German,” he remembers. The new brewers learned to improvise, and learned from each other. “Look at Ken Grossman. A whole first generation of brewers learned to build their own breweries from dairy kegs, thanks to Ken Grossman.”
Eventually, Noonan amassed enough information for a manuscript. He carried it to a regional conference in Boston. “I walked up to Charlie Papazian and handed him a ream of paper in a box with the return postage, and said ‘If you guys ever consider going into publishing…’ The look on his face was pretty funny. I gave him this box, and he was thinking ‘Oh, boy what is this?’ None of us every got rich writing brewing books, that’s for sure…”
However, the book, Brewing Lager Beer, was the start of Brewers Publications, the publishing wing of Papazian’s Association of Brewers.
Noonan opened the Vermont Pub and Brewery in 1988. At first, he wasn’t sure whether to open a brewpub or a bottling brewery. “My first inclination was a bottle brewery,” he says “but I decided to open a brewpub for a hilarious reason: all the bottling breweries at that time were brewing one, two, possibly three beers and I thought, ‘Know what? I don’t want to be bored out of my mind brewing the same brand. I want a brewpub where we can brew many different beers.’”
In his writing and at his brewpub, Noonan explored techniques that others would embrace. “I suppose we introduced decoction mashing when most brewers didn’t know about it; brewing liquor adjustment; sour mashing is a little more off the wall—nobody had done those things. Brewing with Brettanomyces, we started doing that in our brewery. Beer styles—we were the first commercial brewery to brew a wee heavy, to brew a Tibetan chang—it’s an acquired taste, different from the flavors we’re used to.”
Some miles to the south and a few years later, Phil Markowski—another reformed engineer and homebrewer-turned-pro—began work at the new Southhampton Brewery on Long Island. He found brewing inspiration locally.
“It was apparent to me that there area a lot of wineries out there,” he says “and I liked the idea of doing a hybrid of beer fermented with wine grapes and aged in wine barrels. So that got us a lot of attention. That was called Peconic County Reserve. I originally wanted to call it late harvest ale, but ATF wouldn’t have it—they said it suggested a wine.”
Markowski’s brewed with edible flowers, and helped introduce barrel aging, “Although I’m sure there were others,” he adds. “As you know, it’s now rampant, and it’s something I don’t’ even bother with anymore unless I’m doing a Belgian style ale. The idea of just putting something in a bourbon barrel just for the sake of getting that flavor—it’s a kind of been-there-done-that thing for me.“
On the other coast, John Harris could be the image of Pacific Northwest brewing: raised in Portland, he walked away from a theater major in college—“technical theater, lighting, sound, so I was already attracted to the technical side of life,” he notes— for a beer career that started at the first establishment opened by the brothers McMennamin. From there, to Deschutes, where he developed Black Butte and Mirror Pond, to Full Sail’s research and development facility, he’s left a legacy of fine, original beers behind him.
But he speculates that his 2001 award had more to do with his contributions to the profession, serving on national technical committees for the Association of Brewers. “And I was the first microbrewer to be put on the Master Brewers Association of America’s technical committee. No microbrewer had ever sat on that committee. Boy, that was a tense day,” he laughs. “For so long craft brewers were not taken seriously by the large brewers. It took a long time for us as an industry to be taken seriously.”
Harris considers the importance of the Russell Scherer Award for Innovation in Brewing. “Trust me, it was a total honor to win that award. Garrett always adds ‘and Excellence in Brewing.’ That’s such a Garrett word, ‘excellent.’
Harris is referring to Brooklyn Brewery brewmaster, Garrett Oliver, the Beau Brummel of the brewing community. Though Oliver makes award-winning beers, he is probably best known for bringing media attention to the pairing of beer and food, through his writing and television work.
A student of broadcasting and film, Oliver fell in love with traditional beer and pub culture during a year in England, and felt compelled to create the beers he’d enjoyed on his return to the States.
“In July of 1989, I went from a well-paid job in an air conditioned office to a job in a room full of boiling liquid,” he says. But even as he mastered his new trade, he was drawing on old skills, presenting beer to audiences at tastings and beer dinners. He has become a regular on the Food Network. “The fact that I have a television background means that I know what they need, and how the process goes.”
With the publication of The Brewmaster’s Table, Oliver successfully bridged the worlds of fine beer and fine food, bringing the subject to new audiences. “It’s kind of funny how having a book sort of cements what you’ve been saying all along,” he says. “You can say the same thing over and over for many years, then there’s this big block of wood and—you’re a genius! A book coming out changes how people pay attention.”
Moving Far Afield
How far can a career in beer take a person? Is Singapore far enough?
Fal Allen travels in the widest orbits of brewing. Raised in Hawaii, he moved to the Northwest after studying anthropology in college. While tending bar in Seattle, he started to homebrew. Then began a succession of jobs at well-known West Coast breweries: Red Hook, Pike Place, Anderson Valley. Then, in 2000, he accepted a job with a mission: the construction of the new Archipelago Brewery, in Singapore, starting with a green patch of grass and ending with a 30 hectoliter production brewery. Now in charge of brewing at Archipelago, Allen is bringing American craft beer sensibilities to audiences in Asia, where some of the early buzz of the US craft beer movement is being replayed.
If Garrett Oliver has helped move beer and food closer together, Allen is finding a whole new culinary palette to play with. “The food in Singapore is perfect for beer,” he notes. There is every flavor imaginable and people are very serious about good food and eating. Food is such an integral part of life here that a very common greeting is ‘Have you had your _____ yet ?’—fill in the appropriate most recent meal.”
He finds the Singaporeans open to new flavors, and he, in turn, is receptive to new ingredients unique to the region and its cooking heritage. “We are hoping to try a fruit beer made with local fruit, maybe mangosteen or possibly champara, a cross between jackfruit and durian. We are looking at using Bunga Telang or blue flower, like used in Peranakan cooking or maybe pandan leaves.”
Who knows, after highly-hopped beer, sour beer, barrel-aged beer and beer with jasmine, are Americans ready for the flavors of Asia in their brew?
What’s certainly clear is that the culture of American brewing will permit the best brewers to share what’s new with one another. All ten Russ Scherer winners spoke with affection and gratitude for what a life working in beer had brought them—not just personal achievement and a degree of fame, but camaraderie. The brotherhood—and sisterhood, perhaps—of brewers who will be recognized by peers in the future will all be the beneficiaries of this professional generosity.
Julie Johnson Bradford
Julie Bradford is the editor of All About Beer. In 1991, she and her husband, Daniel, were honored to have had their wedding ale brewed by Russ Scherer, who decided, since the wedding was in December, to toss in a bunch of oranges. Russ created a very luscious, beautiful beer.