The Brewers Behind the Awards
In his scant nine years as a professional brewer, Matt Brynildson has worked for one award-winning brewery after another: Goose Island in Chicago, SLO Brewing in California, Firestone Walker in California.
Goose Island was an outstanding brewery before Brynildson arrived, and continued to be after he left. SLO Brewing also pulled in awards before, during and after Brynildson’s tenure. For Firestone Walker, however, and the Nectar Ales it brews for Humboldt Brewing Co., Byrnildson has been the head brewer during a white-hot run of medals.
He holds the unique record for winning Brewer of the Year awards from the Association of Brewers’ competitions for his service to three different brewing companies: SLO in 2001, Nectar Ales in 2003, and Firestone Walker in 2004.
“Guess it’s my lucky rabbit’s foot,” laughs Brynildson. Sure, maybe it’s a good luck charm at work, or maybe Brynildson, himself, is the good luck charm.
His winning streak raises the possibility that the brewing awards presented each year are chapters in a longer story. Certainly, a single medal in any of these competitions is a source of pride. But when a beer takes prizes year after year, or a brewery medals in multiple styles, or the records show a large number of wins in a small span of years, these are all signs pointing, among other things, to an excellent brewer.
We were curious about the attributes of top-notch brewers and what qualities they bring to their jobs. But there is no easy way to examine the long-term track record of individual brewers. Ask beer lovers their opinions, and you’ll hear about the current darlings of the brewhouse, but without context. So instead, we trawled through the awards given over the years by four different competitions, looking for indications of excellence (see The Medal Works).
Seventy American breweries stood out in the medal stakes. All had earned at least ten awards over the years; some had earned several times that number. Some showed periods of concentrated activity. And every brewery on the list had to have a really good brewer somewhere in the building.
Of course, medals only tell part of the story: the story of the beers that are entered in competitions. But it’s clear that those who compete and win repeatedly have something to say about the art of brewing.
A popular attitude has grown up among some craft beer drinkers that the big guys simply can’t brew, and that micro drinkers have turned their back on “bad” beer. A glance at the background of some of the most award-winning microbrewers shows they owe a lot to the skills of the mainstream brewers of the previous generation.
Dan Carey, brew master at New Glarus Brewing Co. in Wisconsin, is heavily credentialed. After studying at the University of California at Davis and the Siebel Institute in Chicago, and sitting the Institute of Brewing Master Brewing Examination, he worked in brewery construction.
“I got a little turned off by the whole microbrewery movement for a while: there were a lot of people opportunistically thinking they’d make a lot of money,” says Carey. “I worked for Anheuser-Busch as a supervisor, where I really learned a lot. But I also learned I’m not a corporate guy.”
Firestone Walker’s Brynildson, a later Siebel graduate, credits Rudy Held, a former brewmaster from Stroh’s, and Klaus Zastrow, upper brewmaster from A-B, for some of his most rigorous training.
“Rather than learn from microbrewers per se, I was learning from brewers with decades of experience,” he recalls. “There I was, drinking Larry Bell’s beers by night, some of the most experimental microbrews, and taking Beer 101 from the masters at Siebel. They’d warn us ‘What’s going on at Larry Bell’s place doesn’t usually go on at the big breweries.’”
Other winning brewers have gone the route of the homebrewer-turned-pro, abandoning early career choices for the move into professional brewing. Geoff Larson, founder of Alaskan Brewing Co., worked in gold mining, then the pharmaceutical industry. John Maier, the prolific brewer of Rogue Ales, moved from a job at Hughes Aircraft into his first brewing job at the newly-opened Alaskan Brewing Co. via a three-month Siebel course. And Fredrick Bensch and Kevin McNerney discovered a shared love of brewing at the University of Colorado, and prepared for the eventual opening of Sweetwater Brewing Co. in Atlanta with a series of jobs in West Coast breweries.
In an article called “The Cult of the Brewer,” Dick Cantwell, formerly of Big Time in Seattle and now head brewer and partner at Elysian Brewing Co., describes many converts to brewing as “ill-suited and unfulfilled (and in many cases simply unsuccessful) in whatever pursuits we served before Saccharomyces got under our skins.”
The Brewer’s Role
Many who opt for a career in brewing find that the brewpub sector offers an opportunity for creative independence.
“We own the whole company, so we don’t have to answer to anyone else. Our only investors are friends and family, so no one else influences the decision-making process,” says Fredrick Bensch of Sweetwater.
Bensch and McNerney took on a challenge that wouldn’t have stood the test of a conventional business plan: producing aggressive, West Coast-style beers for a supposedly conservative Southern audience. Despite their success, Bensch says their brewing awards take on special significance because of their location. “We’re in an oasis here in the South where there aren’t a lot of breweries, so it means a lot.”
As a brewing business becomes larger, the role of the brewer changes. When Mark Edelson opened the first Iron Hill with partners Kevin Finn and Kevin Davies in 1996, Edelson was the brewer. Now, each of the five Iron Hill branches has its own brewer and serves six house brands (plus two, usually seasonal, beers of the brewer’s choice).
As head of brewing operations, Edelson now has ultimate responsibility for the quality and consistency of the chain’s beers. Key to that effort are the regular blind tastings of Iron Hill beers he conducts for the staff of the various branches. The panel compares the same house beer as brewed by the brewers at the different branches, looking for variations or flaws.
“We’ve been working on consistency since we were small,” he explains. “As we grew, we emphasized strict procedures and protocol—a lot of overkill when it comes to cleaning and sterilizing.”
As his focus has shifted from recipe formulation to quality control, is Edelson still The Brewer? Ultimately, yes.
Dick Cantwell at Elysian oversees brewing at two Seattle sites, one centrally located, with a 20 barrel system, and the second “neighborhood bar” with a 3 barrel system. “The recipes are mostly mine, “ says Cantwell, “but since I’m pulled away a lot for meetings, writing or something, I’m not the one who sees the day’s work completed.”
“After eight years, we have a long list of beers we’ve made at some point, and there’s always a contingent asking us to bring a beer back, or make one year-round. But the schedule is pretty tight: with the 20-barrel system, there’s not much freedom to fool around. That’s why the small brewery is nice; with a small batch, I can play a lot.”
At New Glarus, Dan Carey has been the brewing force since the company opened in 1993. “I have to emphasize that I am not the founder,” he says. “My wife [Deb Carey] is the entrepreneur. An entrepreneur has a vision and can anticipate what’s around the next corner. When things are hot and heavy, when the bank’s mad and the pressure’s on, she knows the direction we have to go. My strength lies in my ability to mind details, so we’re a good team. I’m literally an employee of the brewery. As it grows, I’m the one on the technical end.”
So, is Jim Koch a brewer? The founder and president of Boston Beer Co., the biggest of the small breweries, is as far as you can get from the hands-on, small-batch brewing of Bensch and McNerney, or other award-winning small-scale brewers like Tomme Arthur (Pizza Port) or Vinnie Cilurzo (Russian River). But in the essential roles common to breweries small and large—concept, consistency and quality—he is as engaged as any other brewer.
“I still taste every batch of every beer we brew. It’s about setting a standard of perfection and trying to reach it. At the other end of the process, when it comes to new brands, I’m in on the conception and on ‘OK, how do we do this?’ And I go to Europe every year and select from each farmer each lot of hops that goes into out beer. There are hundreds and hundreds to check.”
Ask what makes the difference between a good beer and a great beer, and these disparate brewers sound more similar than their differences. The importance of staying true to a greater goal looms large, as does an old-fashioned insistence on the value of hard work. As Dan Carey put it, “I take personal responsibility for every ounce of beer that goes out, and if something’s not right, it hurts. The beer is number one: not profits, not leaving early on Friday.”
Geoff Larson recalls the late Bert Grant’s defiant assertion, “I don’t care if people like my beer. I’m brewing this beer for myself.” Geoff continues “I’m not saying it with that same edge, but it’s true that you have to brew something that you like, not something to please everyone. If you try hard to create a beer that isn’t objectionable…well, that’s not what we do.”
Jim Koch applies a rigorous standard to the decision to launch any new beer. “We don’t want to bring out a beer unless it’s the best of that style available to American beer drinkers. Take steam beer. We could try a steam beer, but I don’t honestly think we could make a better steam beer than Fritz Maytag. So why would I do that? If I do, I’ve added nothing to the quality of choice for American beer drinkers.”
Or, most succinctly, from Fredrick Bensch: “Be true to your self, and your company. Don’t weenie out: trust your taste buds, care for the beer and keep it fresh.”
Teamwork and Community
The mystery brewer, who single-handedly brings glory to any brand he or she touches, is more a creation of the beer enthusiast’s imagination than a reality in the brewhouse. The effort required to bring a beer to consumers in peak condition is a team project: the larger the brewery, the bigger the team.
Gary Fish, president of Deschutes Brewing Co., who does not style himself as an owner-brewer, is adamant: “I know it’s conventional to pay lip service to the team work involved in making a beer, but it’s really true. Things may be different at a smaller facility, but here it’s important to recognize everyone, from the brewers to the cellarmen, to the packaging people, who make this possible.”
Geoff Larson emphasized flexibility from the very earliest days of Alaskan Brewing Co. “We had others brewing right from the start, almost as a point of philosophy,” he says. “We do a lot of cross-training at the brewery: I don’t believe in a strict separation between the different functions. It’s all about getting the best beer to people. If our sales people are out there addressing line cleanliness, they are making sure we deliver great beer, just as sure as the person who selects our hops or stirs the mash.”
Ultimately, the brewer can shine only if the brewery’s beer is treated with respect at every stage until it reaches the consumer. Medals for brewing excellence are only proxies for the most valuable recognition of all: the beer lover who comes back for more.