Given that Boston Beer brews most of its beer at facilities elsewhere, what goes on at the Jamaica Plain site in Boston?
We have a couple production breweries [Cincinnati and Lehigh Valley, PA], but we still think that the Boston brewery is the most important brewery in our system. This is where we do all our innovation of new recipes, test out new ingredients, re-brew and recheck our existing ingredients and make sure all our recipes are still where we want them to be.
So this is headquarters for all brewing operations. What’s your role?
My official role is Boston brewing manager, so I run the brewery here. That includes duties like developing new recipes, like our Beer Lover’s Choice Program, which we do every summer. It’s a promotion to test two new recipes with our consumers. They vote throughout the summer and the winner goes in the line-up the following year.
We just received our samples.
Perfect. Both those recipes were developed here. We also do things like the LongShot [homebrew competition] Judging here. Once those winners are picked, we talk to the brewers of those beers: we get the recipes, figure out what they were trying to do, and we scale that beer up to our 10-barrel system, then up to Cincinnati size.
Then there’s the really fun stuff, the pie-in-the-sky stuff. We’ve heard of a new ingredient and we want to try it out, we’ve got an idea for a new beer and want to see if it works. We make Utopias here―a whole lot of everything, really.
Take me through the creation of a new project.
One new project―not really crazy, but different for us―is one of the beers you just received in the Beer Lover’s choice, the ale. (We don’t have a name for it, yet.) That’s our first foray into using American hops. I can’t tell you how many conversations there have been about how to use them. We’re using hops from three of the world’s major growing regions: German, English and American.
You’ve really never used American hops before?
Not in a production beer. We use Hallertau Mittelfruh, East Kent Golding noble hops and the old world English.
How did you go about balancing hop use?
I’m from the West Coast. I love American hops and I have my favorite varieties. We talked first about what we wanted this beer to be and how we wanted it to taste, then picked hops that would achieve that end. We wanted to get that American hop character, bright but not too dominant, and still in keeping with the Boston Beer brewing style: keep down some of the big piney, catty character that is so definitive of a lot of beers. To each their own―I like it―but it’s not the Sam Adams way. We were looking for varieties that brought more of the tropical, floral character without the resinous character.
Which ones did you end up using?
Ahtanum, a little Simcoe―a little Simcoe goes a long way. We’re still working on the bittering hop.
How big is your team in Boston?
There are four of us in the brewery every day. We have a well-staffed lab with three people. Then we have the traveling brewer team―Grant Wood, David Sypes, David Grinnell―that’s always involved with whatever goes on here in Boston.
They’re the ones who go between the Boston brewery and the production facilities?
Yes. The production breweries are staffed by very competent people who’ve been there a long time and know their breweries, but it’s our job to communicate what we’re trying to do here, especially in introducing new beers. So we send out kegs to the breweries, we visit, we sit around and taste together. We’ll say, here’s what worked in Boston, and here’s what might work best in your brewery. Then it’s brewed a couple of times until we arrive at the best way to brew that beer in that brewery.
What beers to you produce at the Boston site?
The only beer we produce here is Utopias. Between all of our research projects and development of new stuff, there’s not much time we can devote to production. Utopias is so time-demanding and people-demanding, it will always be made in very limited quantities. That fits this site very well.
I assume Triple Bock was made there?
Yes, and Millennium, as well. That program―those beers that will grow and evolve―those are made here.
You’re from the West Coast. Did you start brewing there?
Yes, at Sudwerk in Davis in ‘95 while I was going to school there, I was fortunate enough to get a job.
So you’re one of the increasing number of craft brewers who knows from the outset he wants a career in brewing and trains professionally from the start?
Yes, and that’s not as unusual as it once was. As the industry has changed, it’s no longer OK to say just because I love making this beer, you should drink it, even if it’s not up to snuff. There is a development toward understanding better how beer is made, and being able to brew it well and consistently.
How did you start at Sudwerk?
I cut my teeth washing kegs and working on the bottling line, and worked my way up to being a brewer. I was there for three years―great experience. I was not great at school; I don’t love scholastic endeavors, so working and being able to apply what I learned while I was working was good: I just took a test about it, and now I going to go figure out why the lauter’s not running off well. It may be glucans, I just read about them yesterday.
The Davis program used to be more interdisciplinary, with both wine-making and brewing combined. So I studied wine-making as well, went and did a harvest out in Sonoma―gorgeous part of the country. Then I moved to 20-Tank Brewery in San Francisco. Unfortunately they closed―dot-com boom, real estate crisis, they lost their lease. I went across the Bay to Drake’s Brewing for a couple of years, then a few years in Santa Barbara at a winery there.
Fermentation of all kinds?
Yep, grape to grain. Then I helped a friend open a brewery in Santa Barbara before coming here a year and a half ago.
You’ve brewed at micros and now at the heart of the biggest craft company in the country. What are the differences and similarities?
I essentially work at a small brewery with a tiny staff, but with ultimate creative freedom. We have some “assignments,” but we have the time to develop stuff whenever there’s an open slot on the schedule and an open tank. The best part about that is that we don’t have to sell that beer, so we have the creative leeway to try stuff, and if it doesn’t work, it’s a learning experience. I love that part.
It sounds like the best of both worlds.
It is. We have resources, people, pretty much anything we need. It’s fantastic. I have found my dream job.
We always have a number of projects underway, most of which never see the light of day, but one of my favorite ones is almost out of the bag. If you visit the brewery, you’ll see wooden foeders [large barrels] in the Utopias room.
The purchase and installation of the foeders, and filling them with beer has been one of the coolest projects I’ve ever been able to work on. We’re playing around with our interpretation of a sour Belgian beer―it’s not lambic, it’s not a Rodenbach-style beer either. We’ve been working on this a long time, and felt like we had our hands around what it was we were trying to do.
Boston Beer hasn’t done much in the way of Belgian-style beers, right?
We have all kinds of different yeast strains here at the Boston brewery, but it is a kind of departure for us.
Belgian yeast strain, soured in wood, Lactobacillus?
It’s a blend of our favorite bugs yeast and Lactobacillus. Getting the foeders here was amazing. We have someone who helps us buy unique wood whenever we need it. He’s helped us source wood for the Utopias program for years: he’s our wood hunter. We told him we wanted to know if there was anything out there in a larger size, something to age a larger volume in for a longer period. He found three large foeders in the Porto region of Portugal up the Douro River where the grapes are grown to make port.
The more we explored, the more interesting they sounded. They were made from Hungarian oak in Italy, and had held Italian reserva brandy in Northern Italy. After they were used there, they were disassembled and purchased by a port wine maker up river in Maduro. From there, they were purchased by a cooperage down river in Porto and we found out about them through our wood hunter in Scotland. So, they’ve come from Hungary, through Italy, through Portugal, through Scotland, to Boston.
…where they will now house beer in the Belgian tradition.
They came here in an ocean freight container. The cooperage sent four Portuguese coopers over here, three of whom didn’t speak English― the master cooper and his assistants. They re-built the foeders, stave by stave, in a matter of a week. They would show up every morning about seven and work until about six. It was incredible to see these guys work together in such an Old World way. We say brewing is very old school, but watching these guys work with just hand tools…They sent the heads of their hammers over here without the handles, and the men made the handles here on the first day. It was fantastic.
I’m really excited that this program has moved into stage two. The foeders have been full of beer ever since [April].
When might we see beer from this project?
We think the beer needs to be in the foeders for six months to a year. It ages differently than it does in barrels due to the size, surface-to-volume rations and air intake. We’re not sure about the final beer, but it will be a special release.
It’s a pleasure to talk about this It’s been so much fun to work on, I couldn’t keep it to myself.