How did you get into brewing?
I was fortunate enough to go to Kalamazoo College, in Kalamazoo, MI in 1990. By that time Larry Bell was fairly well established at his brewery, so my first microbrew experiences were some of Larry Bell’s creations. I started homebrewing shortly after moving there. I also had the opportunity to spend some time in Europe. I think between being exposed to beers in Europe, being exposed to Larry Bell’s beers and taking up homebrewing, that’s how I got the bug.
What were you studying?
I was planning on going to medical school, so I was in health sciences, primarily organic chemistry. I did my senior project at Kalamazoo Spice Extraction Co. [KALSEC], and I ended up getting picked up by them when I graduated from college. Fortuitously I was placed in their hops lab. I spent all my working hours exposed to the brewing industry. That pretty much sealed the deal.
There were some amazing people at KALSEC. The owner, Paul Todd, is a master brewer in his own right. He’s one of the inventors of some of the more commonly used hop extractions in the brewing industry, like Tetra, so he holds a number of patents.
Another gentleman who worked there was a guy by the name of Rudy Held, who was a brewmaster at Stroh’s for many years. I call those two mentors, but I don’t know if they thought they were teaching me anything about brewing or hop chemistry. Any time I had a question I could go to them.
So your background is highly technical.
I started out on the lab side. I was hired at the lowest level in the hops lab, but was immediately exposed to pretty high-end hop chemistry. I spent my days learning about the science of hops and going home and trying to apply that to my homebrewing. I had a pretty steep learning curve as a result.
They sent me to a short course at Siebel to learn more about brewing to be able to interface better with our customers. Unfortunately, that quickly ended my KALSEC career, because as soon as I got to Siebel and discovered I could become a paid “professional” brewer, that was it!
I went to Siebel in ‘95 right as Goose Island was building their production facility in Chicago. I remember about halfway into the course, Christopher Bird coming into the class and saying “Hey, Goose Island is accepting resumés for a brewer.”
Was there a great rush for the door?
I was set on meeting Greg Hall and putting my name in the hat if I could. At the point, Greg had had who knows how many Siebel students approach him for a job, and he kind of took the attitude “I’ve seen a lot of people come and go. We’ll see if you can work or not.”
He offered me an entry level position in the brewery and it was the perfect opportunity for me. Here was a brand new production facility, with amazing demand right out the gates. For all of us working there, it was trial by fire: we needed to learn how to operate on a larger scale really quickly.
Siebel was right there in our back yard, so any time we brewed ourselves into a corner, we had a wealth of knowledge to draw from. As long as you were brave enough to ask the question, you usually got the right answer.