with Jason Oliver
Devils Backbone Brewing Co.
What do you bring to brewing from your early background in history and philosophy?
That’s a great question, and one I’ve thought about a lot, funnily enough. My approach to brewing is…almost like a “liberal arts” approach. I like to look at different relationships. I use science and craft to help me get there, but the way my mind works is by looking at relationships that go on in brewing.
Is that an historian’s view?
Probably more of a philosopher’s view. I like how things come together, and I like the manipulation of the brewing process. I’m a creative person in general, and what gets me going more than, say, recipe formulation is tweaking the process of each and every brew. There are so many variables in brewing. I like to get the most out of the beer through these subtle changes, so each beer has its own identity. You know you can put human qualities onto inanimate objects? I like to do that with beer.
In your study of history, did you look at any of the famous brewing cultures?
Primarily my degree was in American history, but when I discovered the history of the cultures where the major beer styles originated, it became more than just something to drink. That really clicked.
I love to do historical brews. I’ve done a few here, which were a lot of fun. I did one just recently with Ronald Pattinson [English beer writer and historian, barclayperkins.blogspot.com], who brought a 1930s brew log from Barclay Perkins brewery in London. It’s sort of an early English dark lager, almost like a dunkel, but with a really English approach. It had crystal malt and roasted barley in it, as well as English pale malt. It looks so much like a dunkel, but the flavor profile is definitely different: it doesn’t have a lot of the Munich malts that a traditional German dunkel would, but it’s an interesting approach.
When I was discovering beer and reading about it early on, I found it to be very transcendent: you can have a beer and it takes you somewhere. I can be sitting, drinking a bitter or a stout, and for a moment in my mind I’m transported to England. You can go into a brewpub and have someone’s interpretation of a German beer or a Belgian beer, and it takes you on a little bit of a vacation, without having to leave.
Do you have a fondness for German and Middle-European styles? You brew a lot of beers in that vein.
Yes, I do. Over half my career was focused purely on Germanic-style brewing. And half my heritage is Eastern European. While there aren’t a huge number of styles that originate there, this is the fourth brewery where I’ve brewed a Baltic porter. It’s sort of the closest thing to an Eastern European beer I can find, so I love to brew it, particularly because of my family heritage.
I love German beers for their technical side. German-style brewing has a couple more steps thrown in. As a brewer, that has appealed to me ever since I finished brewing school at UC Davis.
My first brewing job was at The Wharf Rat in Baltimore, on a Peter Austin system, and we brewed all English-style beers. Now, it’s nice to be here and be able to continue with some of the Germanic beers, but also return to the English styles I cut my teeth on.
How did you make the initial leap into brewing?
A book called Unique Careers. I had just graduated with a degree in history and modern philosophy and I didn’t know what I wanted to do. This was 1995. I was paging through the book and came across “brewmaster.”
So you get through about ten pages…
And I only made it to the end of the Bs. I was standing in the University of Maryland bookstore with my mom looking at career books. I didn’t even go to the University of Maryland, and I didn’t buy the book: I just copied down the information!
A light bulb went off and you announced, “Mom, I’ve got it”?
That was about it. My parents were hugely supportive. My father was a research chemist for the Department of Agriculture. He loved his job, and he encouraged me to find something I loved, as well. They’ve both been great in helping me get on this road.
Between that bookstore and UC Davis, how did you focus this goal?
I toured a lot of breweries and talked to a lot of brewers. I was at Clipper City shortly after they opened up—I think that’s Heavy Seas now—talking to the first brewer there, Tom Flores. He gave us a great tour and told me that he went to the UC Davis program. I think he’s he one who sealed it for me: I really wanted to go there. But, coming from a liberal arts background, I didn’t have enough science pre-requisites to get in. Even though you don’t need a degree to get into the master brewers’ program, you do need a certain level of science. I went to community college at night, studying chemistry and microbiology. I started homebrewing, knowing that I wanted to be a professional brewer.
What was it that attracted you to brewing, if you didn’t have experience in science and you weren’t a homebrewer?
It just seemed right. After college, a buddy and me drove out to the West Coast and up to Alaska. I made it a point on that trip to try as many regional beers as I could, whether they were from the old regional breweries in the Midwest or some of these hot new craft breweries. When I was in Washington State, I remember in a supermarket being blown away by the number of different beers they had. When we took the ferry from Bellingham, WA, to Alaska, they had a little pub on the ferry. Pitchers of Alaskan Amber were the same price as pitchers of Budweiser! Those were the little experiences that were in my mind, way back, and when I read that job entry, it all fell into place.
Where did you work between Wharf Rat and Devils Backbone?
After Davis, I got a job at a brewpub called Virginia Beverage Co. in Old Town Alexandria. It’s no longer there, but I worked there for about three years. I worked at Ellicott Mills Brewing Co. in Ellicott City, MD, for about six months before the Gordon Biersch job opened up, and when I found out about that, I moved to DC. I was with Gordon Biersch for about six and a half years.
Then I saw a job announcement for this place. They wanted someone who was knowledgeable about German brewing techniques, because the system here was designed in Germany. I loved the job at Gordon Biersch and the people I worked with, but I missed some of the freedom I’d had in earlier jobs, so this was a good opportunity to come here and build something from the ground up.
You are the first brewer at a very young brewery.
Yes, we’ll be three years old in November. We’re a brewpub, first and foremost, but we’re building a production brewery in Lexington, VA. Hopefully that will be up and running for the first brews in January/February, 2012.
When Devils Backbone opened, what were the challenges?
It was kind of fun to put the system back together. It had been sitting here in pieces for about a year. It was amazing that we got it put together and it worked right away. Some of it was a jumbled mess. I was underneath the platform hooking up valves for about four days—really complex pipework—and after the first day, I just chucked out the labels and made them fit.
The brewery has done very well and won a lot of awards in just three years. How did you shape that?
I’m a big fan of very drinkable beers. I guess my philosophy is to have something for everyone, sort of a dream come true for me. I have four year-round beers and six seasonal beers at any one time, for a total of ten beers. Only four are ones I’m making over and over—a gold lager, a Vienna lager, a hefeweizen and an American IPA. Even though three of the four house beers are Germanic in nature, the seasonals often are not: I always want to have a dark beer, a Belgian-style beer, and a session beer. The rest are all over the place. It’s a lot of work, but it’s a lot of fun. I figured out on our last anniversary that I’ve probably brewed 50 types of beer here so far.
Give me an idea of your typical line-up.
Right now we have a dunkel on draft, a Belgian-inspired strong golden, an English-style summer ale, and our Four Point Pale Ale—what I jokingly call my “imperial session beer.” It’s almost a light IPA, with a little over 4% alcohol and a ton of hops. We also have our house IPA, which is dry-hopped with a different hop each time. I have small 70-gallon tanks where I can take a portion of a beer and do something with it—dry hop it or wood-age it. Then I have my first foray into coca nibs with an English mild/Scottish ale.
This is the hardest I’ve ever worked, since I have such a sense of ownership about the beer. If this were a corporate job, I might not be here nights and weekends, but these beers are a large part of me, so I go the extra mile.
Julie Johnson is the technical editor of All About Beer Magazine.