A Major Ingredient of Great Beer is Knowledge

All About Beer Magazine - Volume 31, Issue 6
January 1, 2011 By

It takes a great deal of talent and energy to brew great beer. It also takes a unique set of ingredients to create today’s craft lagers and ales. Some of these raw materials can be spelled out in recipes—hops, malt and yeast—while others, like the knowledge to build a killer beer list and train bar wait staff, are just as vital to our enjoyment of great beer.

As the beer served at American bars has changed during the last generation, so too have the necessary inputs to meet the growing thirst among consumers for more flavorful brews. This means a shift in the supplier networks to meet the boutique needs of brewers. It has also meant the need for a vast increase in the knowledge base of the beer community, with training for servers that rivals what restaurants with a focus on fine wine have considered critical for decades.

The Pursuit of Hoppiness

Ralph Woodall first became acquainted with hops as a teenager when he worked the fall harvest as a seasonal job. Forty years later he is still finding new things to talk about when it comes to the conical flower.

You get hops in your blood,” Woodall says. “You develop a passion for hops. It kind of gets ingrained in you over the years.”

Woodall, 57, took a job with what is now Hopunion in 1983. The company, known as Western Hop Co. at the time, has changed hands five times over the years and along the way Woodall has watched the birth of the craft beer community in the United States.

Back then, the craft microbrewery movement was just starting. We were mainly dealing with Anheuser-Busch, Coors, Stroh’s, Miller, Pabst, Olympia and Rainier at the beginning,” Woodall says. “It was almost like a hobby when we started dealing with Sierra Nevada, BridgePort, Redhook and Pyramid in the mid-1980s.”

Then the craft beer business “exploded,” he says.

We had the inside track on working with craft brewers, knowing the hops they were using and dealing with smaller quantities,” Woodall says. By the mid-1990s, craft brewers had become the major share of the Hopunion business in the U.S.

Woodall worked as a traffic manager at Hopunion in the early days, growing into the position of director of operations responsible for production and warehousing. He could see the explosion happening in the craft beer segment by the daily shipments waiting for the UPS pick up.

We’d have four or five 44-pound boxes going out. When it got to 20 boxes a day, I used to jump in and help get the shipments out,” Woodall says. “Then it got to 40 boxes a day. When it started to get to palleted shipments, I said ‘I’m done.’”

Woodall became director of craft brewing sales for Hopunion’s Craft Division in 1997, a job that allowed him to travel the country and meet scores of brewers.

I was a true road warrior salesperson. We visited breweries and attended festivals and conventions. I would end up visiting 300-plus breweries a year,” Woodall says. “In the early days, you would be on the road and you’d run across start-ups in the middle of a trip that no one knew about. It was interesting to see guys like Bert Grant, the Widmer Brothers and Deschutes in the start-up stages. Now these breweries have all been around more than 20 years.”

Woodall also looks back to hop varieties like Centennial, Columbus, Chinook, Amarillo, Simcoe and Citra, and can trace their success to pioneering brewers and creative beer recipes.

Things really changed when hoppier beers started coming into play. There was a real evolution in beer styles and a new appreciation for hops among brewers and consumers,” Woodall says.

Woodall believes that companies like Hopunion and breweries that led the way in the formulation of today’s craft beer movement have a responsibility to mentor new people coming into the industry and help them to “recognize how we got here.”

Woodall notes that the changes in the hop market during the last couple of decades have not been without challenges. The most notable was the hop shortage that took place in 2007. He said that crisis made it clear to all involved that there is a need for a balance between farmers, dealers and brewers in trading in an agricultural commodity.

Things were out of balance and it took about three years for the crisis to develop. Basically, there was a reduction in the acreage devoted to hops in the early 2000s and at the same time more craft brewers were coming online,” Woodall says. “By 2007, we had a hop shortage.”

The economic downturn in 2008 signaled the end to increased hop demand. However, as prices have gone down, growers again reduced the amount of hops that they have planted. At the same time, beer sales have rebounded.

It was a real difficult last three years, but now we are seeing sustainable pricing for growers,” Woodall says.

According to Woodall, the 2010 crop came back from a cold, wet spring that delayed the growing season. A hot summer meant an average yield, but overall acreage has been reduced by as much as 20 percent in key U.S. growing regions. The result is that there may be some spot shortages of certain varietals, which will be further exasperated by demand for some hops favored for India pale ales. The harvest of imported hops is mixed due to weather conditions in August, but a surplus of hops from the 2009 harvest will help fill the gaps.

Hops have a way of coming through,” Woodall says.

Yeast Affection

Chris White got into homebrewing as an undergraduate at the University of California, Davis. When he came to San Diego in 1991 to go to graduate school he got “lucky” and became friends with some of the future heavyweights of the Southern California brewing scene.

I was just very lucky. If I was not in this city, none of this would have ever happened,” White says. What happened was the start of White Labs Inc., one of the leading suppliers of yeast to craft beer makers, wineries and distilleries.

I felt lucky I was homebrewing with these guys,” White says of his time at the University of San Diego where he spent time working in the yeast lab and making homebrew with the future brewers at Ballast Point, Stone, AleSmith and Pizza Port. “I didn’t expect it would turn into a business that would be selling yeast around the country.”

White Labs now has more than 1,000 customers. In the early days, White sold yeast to a local homebrew supply store in San Diego. Now more than half of the yeast White Labs sells is shipped east of the Mississippi and the company sells to brewers in 60 countries.

White, 42, is constantly on the road, spending just five to 10 days a month in San Diego. Most of the yeast the company propagates is sold to commercial breweries, although homebrewers in the U.S., Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom and Germany remain frequent customers.

White built the company’s yeast inventory by visiting yeast banks in England, Belgium, Holland and Germany. “The strains we have are older than the current breweries that use them,” White says. “We went to the banks to get the pedigree.”

In addition to building a collection of yeast strains that it markets, White Labs also serves as a yeast bank for brewers and distillers. The company stores the frozen yeast as a safety net for brewers in case the yeast at the brewery develops a defect.

It’s been fun because the brewing industry in San Diego has grown up along with White Labs, and the rest of the country has also had remarkable growth among craft brewers,” White says.

White recognizes that many consumers think about hops and malt in their beer but don’t give the yeast much of a thought.

It’s hard to make yeast sexy, but brewers know,” White says. “In countries without a good yeast supply the beer suffers. Yeast has everything to do with the aroma and flavor of beer.”

White says he expects the craft segment of the industry will grow to be more than 10 percent of the market.

I think there is going to be more growth,” White says. “The distribution side of the business is not there yet. It still has to catch up with the growth in small breweries. Right now brewpubs and small craft brewers don’t have access to the distribution system. We already had our downturn in the industry in the 1990s. The breweries making bad beer are gone. There is a real opportunity for growth in the next 10 years.”

Malt Maven

Penny Pickart had no brewing or beer industry experience when she decided to take a job with Briess Malt & Ingredients Co. 14 years ago.

I’m a local girl. I kind of just fell into the industry,” Pickart says, who switched from a career in financial services. She started in the customer service operation at Briess, but soon moved over to sales. Pickart’s job involves working with brewers on beer formulation, answering questions about malt and troubleshooting brewing issues.

I’m the internal voice of the brewer at Briess,” Pickart says.

Pickart, 48, attended the Siebel Institute to learn the science behind brewing and her sensory talents have resulted in her serving as a beer judge during the last six years for both the Great American Beer Festival and World Beer Cup.

If you would have told me I would be judging beer as part of my job a few years ago I would have said, ‘I’m not that lucky,’” Pickart says.

Pickart’s sales territory runs from Michigan and the Dakotas, down through the center of the country to Texas. She spends about 50 percent of her time on the road visiting breweries and meeting with customers.

I taste a lot of beer,” she says. “We taste it to be sure there are no defects. A beer needs to be balanced and you are looking for drinkability. Drinkability is very important.”

There is no other beverage in the world that offers the range of flavors and styles as beer,” Pickart says. “Look at the uniqueness of Belgian beers, the flavors of barrel-aged beers. I could never pick just one beer or one beer style. It depends on the day, the weather and where you are.”

While the trend in hoppy beers may have taken some of the limelight off of malt, Pickart maintains that malt is even more important in building a big beer. “You don’t make a good hoppy beer without using good malt,” she says. “We sell a lot of malt to brewers that make big IPAs.”

Brewers are always looking for something new and exciting,” Pickart says. Briess markets more than 60 different varieties of malt, which she says is the largest selection of any malting company. Most of the malt that Briess makes comes from barley grown within a 20-mile radius of the company’s Wisconsin operations.

Pickart says she was attracted to Briess because of the family atmosphere. “I was drawn to the industry by this company. Monica Briess is a great leader,” Pickart says. “It’s more than just a job.” She says the friendly attitude extends beyond Briess and permeates the industry.

The growth we are seeing in craft brewing is going to continue, even in this difficult economy,” Pickart says. “People are willing to pay good money for good beer.”

We are making some of the best beer in the world right here in the U.S. People should drink local. They should drink fresh beer,” she says.

Certified to Serve

Andrew Van Til knows a thing or two about beer. And he has the paperwork to prove it.

Van Til, who is an account manager with CKL Corp. in Michigan, was the first person to earn the certified Master Cicerone designation in 2009. The Cicerone program for beer servers is similar to the certification process that a sommelier goes through to show a superior knowledge of wine.

I love the basic sales rep work involved in selling beer. We have a great portfolio and great customers,” Van Til says. “But I really like talking to people about beer and educating them.”

Van Til is 33 years old and holds a degree in chemistry. He worked as a bartender and has been around the business for a decade. The Cicerone process has three levels: certified beer server, which is a 60 question written test; Cicerone, with a written exam and blind tasting; and Master Cicerone. The test to achieve the Master Cicerone designation requires two days and includes essay questions, an oral exam and a tasting panel component.

It is a difficult test. You have to be able to identify styles, identify flaws,” Van Til says. “You also need to know about the basics of maintaining a draught system. It is a pretty in-depth process.”

People in the beer industry are so friendly. They all compete, but they are willing to help,” he says. The training process to prepare for the Master Cicerone exam included plenty of reading and beer tasting.

I had a pretty good foundation in beer, but it was important that I set goals for preparation and study time,” he says. Juggling a young family and a busy job made preparing for the exam even more difficult. Anyone considering taking the exam should talk to a local brewer and ask for help in building their understanding of beer.

Van Til loves to talk beer.

It’s fun to talk with people about how a beer is made, the different aspects of the beer style and the history of the brewery, then put the beer in front of them to taste,” Van Til says. “My goal is to break down the stereotypes of what a beer is and what it isn’t.”

He says he is starting to see a greater understanding of beer in the market, which will lead to further growth among craft domestics and import.

We’re seeing changes in the market. People are looking at beer as food,” said Van Til. “Education is a key part of helping to raise the understanding of beer in America.”

The evolving and expanding craft beer segment requires constant feeding. Quality raw ingredients for brewing, trained brewers, educated servers and informed consumers are bringing about a deeper appreciation for both classic and new beer styles.

The future of the industry depends on this fuel to keep the river of great beer flowing.