with Scott Vaccaro
Captain Lawrence Brewing Co.
I hear you started homebrewing in high school.
Yeah, I did. My entire life changed my junior year in high school in 1995. I went over to my friend’s house after school one day, and I walked into the house to say hello. His dad and a friend were making beer on the stove. And I said “What are you doing?” and they said “We’re making beer,” and I thought, that’s pretty amazing—you can make beer at home? It was mind-blowing. I asked if he would show me how to do it. He said, “You’ve got to ask your parents, and if they say yes, I’ll show you how to make beer.”
I went home and I still claim to this day that my parents weren’t paying attention to me when I asked them, but they said yes, sure, go learn to make beer.
Did they think it was a better alternative than other things you’d get into?
Yeah, I guess so. They were very open-minded.
What hooked you about brewing?
I was 17 years old, and I won’t say that I wasn’t drinking beer when I wasn’t supposed to be. But just the thought that something that was so taboo was something I could make at home, a magical elixir that we tried so hard to get. I wasn’t thinking I’d learn to make craft beer, I just thought that if beer can be made at home, that’s amazing.
I brewed my first batch from Charlie Papazian’s book. It was cranberry celebration ale, and I’ve saved a bottle to this day, I won’t open it, I’m sure it tastes like crap. But it was the beginning for me. I brought it home, made labels on the computer and slapped them on Corona bottles. They said “Captain Lawrence Brewing Co.”—that’s the name of the road I grew up on, Captain Lawrence Drive, and that’s where the name of the brewery comes from.
I immediately began buying all the books I could and reading up on everything I could on the subject. I homebrewed throughout my senior year in high school.
After high school, I took a little detour to Villanova to follow in my father’s footsteps and become an accountant. I played lacrosse, and my first semester there I went to the seniors on the team who lived in houses and I’d make beer on their stoves. Ferment it in a plastic bucket in the basement, bottle it with some of the other guys on the team, then throw it in the back of my 1978 Delta 88 and drive it around until it was carbonated.
I was still only about 18 years old at the time, so this probably wasn’t the smartest thing…
One day when I was reading Brewing Techniques instead of doing my accounting homework, I came across UC Davis. That’s when I realized I did not want to become an accountant. I couldn’t believe you could actually become a professional brewer. One thing led to another: the first thing, I couldn’t believe you could brew beer at home, then I was falling in love with it; then, wow, you could actually go to college to become a brewer. That was my epiphany.
After that came convincing my parents it was OK to leave Villanova where I was going to become an accountant like my father, and go to California to study a beverage I was legally not allowed to drink.
How did you convince them?
We had a lot of interesting conversations, but I told them this is where my heart was, and this what I really want to be doing. They said this is it. We’ll support your decision, but if you drop out of this one, you’re on your own.
I went to California, found a place to live, and it was UC Davis, here I come. I spent my first two years in the Bay Area taking the pre-requisites in junior college and establishing my residency. I was working at Fermentation Frenzy, the local homebrew shop. I worked there basically for free, because at the end of the day when I’d taken home all my brewing ingredients and kettles, I’d worked 20 hours a week and I still owed them money.
While I knew how to homebrew at that point, I was still extract-brewing. After I got the job at Frenzy, I started all-grain brewing, and I started brewing close to five gallons a week. I ended up having so much beer in my closet. I didn’t care about drinking it; I was just brewing something different every week.
And you still weren’t old enough to drink? You hadn’t had time to experience much of the world of beer personally.
I admit I procured myself identification that said I was 21 years of age, and I’d go to Beverages and More, this amazing beer store in California with an incredible selection. I’d go pick and choose individual bottles. I wasn’t supposed to be drinking, but I was drinking good beer. It was research and development!
Can you remember the most eye-opening beers?
Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale. I remember my freshman year in college getting a fake New Jersey ID and going to the local shop with a couple of my friends. They were buying 20-packs of Bud, and I spent $38 on a case of Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale and they thought I was nuts. I peeled off a label and it’s still attached to my homebrew log, which I still have, listing every batch of homebrew I ever made.
The greatest inspiration was just reading Michael Jackson’s books. The way he wrote about beer—even beer I’d never tasted, the lambics, the Trappists, German alt and Kölsch—they sounded so interesting, I wanted to try everything I read about.
My senior year at Davis, we went on a field trip to Sierra Nevada. After the tour we had a tasting in the pub, and I said to the head brewer, “Wow, this is the most beautiful brewery I’ve ever seen in my life. It must be pretty hard to get a job at a place like this.” He said, “We’ll be expanding soon, Send me your resume.” By the time I graduated, I had a job waiting for me.
Your parents must have been delighted.
They were ecstatic. Right out of school, and I was at Sierra Nevada. Ken Grossman is a hero of mine.
What brought you back east again?
Like any homebrewer, I had a dream of opening my own place. I’d been in California for six years, but it was time to go back. I didn’t have a job lined up, so first I wanted to go to Europe. After I left Sierra Nevada I drove across the country and stopped at a bunch of breweries—New Belgium being one, New Glarus being another. Then went to Belgium, Germany and the Czech republic.
For my summer internship at Davis, I spent six weeks at Adnams in England, learning about real ale: everything from cleaning the casks to riding with the salesman and everything in between, including delivering the beer by horse-drawn carriage. Real ale blew me away. It tastes like so much more than a 3.2% beer; they really can pack the flavor into those little beers.
I worked at a brewpub in Danbury, CT called the Colorado Brewery and Steakhouse for the last six months it was in business, and that was the first time I had carte blanche with the whole brewing process, got to write my own recipes and get feedback directly, and that was very rewarding.
When they closed, I put together a business plan, got some loans from family and friends, and opened Captain Lawrence in January of ’06.
Instead of you following in your dad’s footsteps as an accountant, it looks like he’s now following in yours.
Yeah, he and my mother are working at the brewery every weekend. If you’d asked them three years ago how they thought they’d be spending their Saturdays, they last thing they would have said would be “pouring beer in a brewery tasting room.”
You’ve got a strong experimental streak. You brew sour beers, barrel aged beers—these are exciting, but they’re hardly middle of the road, and may not be money makers. How do you decide what to offer?
I tell people I still have the mentality of a homebrewer. A lot of the beers I make, wine-barrel aged or the sours—were the beers I wanted to make as a homebrewer, but it just wasn’t practical. I couldn’t buy a 60-gallon as a homebrewer! It’s easier now on a larger scale, even if economically it may not be the smartest thing.
I’ve always been intrigued by the lambics, microbial fermentation, wild yeast, and I can play with those ideas now that I’m calling the shots. While we do have a bottom line, if no one’s telling me not to, I’ll experiment. We bought an 800-gallon oak tank from Napa, CA, filled it up, pitched it with Brett and lactic acid bacteria and, who knows? A year from now we’ll probably be bottling something out of that tank.
We have a winery on the same street as us, so we have an almost unlimited supply of wine barrels just emptied that day.
New York allows brewers to have what they call a brewer’s retail permit, so we can give out samples and we can sell growlers and 750s. The cuvée, the one that won the gold medal, we only made 80 cases of it this year, and we sold 70 of them in 75 minutes. So some beers may not make economic sense, but when we hit a winner, we make enough to sustain the process.
We sell an enormous amount of beer out our tasting room, which I’d never even factored into my original business plan. We don’t bottle our beers except for a small amount of the specialty beer. Now our draft sales have reached a reasonable level, but the tasting room got us through our start-up.
You’ve come a long ways in a very short time.
Yeah, I had to. When you’ve put everything you have into it, including your family’s money, you have to learn pretty quickly.
From high school brewing adventures to your first gold medal took you how many years?
Let’s see, 12 years. We won that gold medal in our second year of professional brewing.
What do you do when you’re not brewing?
Nothing! I love skiing and I haven’t skied in three seasons.
What music do you listen to in the brewhouse?
The Grateful Dead (laughs). You can ask anyone at the brewery tasting room multiple weekends, they walk in and that’s what they hear. I only caught them live at the very end, but I prefer their seventies stuff.