All About Beer Magazine - Volume , Issue
July 1, 2007 By Julie Johnson

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.

Then was it straight to Firestone Walker?

I spent a little more than four years, from 1996 to early 2000, at Goose Island. I started as a cellarman and rose through the ranks,. Greg made me head brewer and the brewery was growing. Then I got a call from United States Beverage, USB. They were looking for a headbrewer to take over production at SLO Brewing Co. in central coastal California. SLO Brewing is part of what I affectionately call the “88 crew,” all these brewpubs that started in ‘88. Goose Island is one, Deschutes is another.

SLO started as a brewpub and in 1998 they built a production brewery. It was similar in scale to Goose Island. It was one of these deals where they fly you out and show you around. I’d never been in central California before. You’re on the coast, you have this brewery at your disposal—I couldn’t say no.

Greg and John Hall were always real good to me, and gave me a lot of latitude, but the opportunity to have full creative control was one I couldn’t resist.

Of course, if I’d done my homework a little better, I would have realized that SLO Brewing wasn’t as stable a company as Goose Island. Shortly after joining, I realized, wow, I left an unbelievably strong brewery with a great reputation to go to a kind of unknown brewery struggling to get it going. But, again, it was a great learning experience.

I only spent a year and a half at SLO Brewing Co., but I had the opportunity to reformulate not only all their production brews, but go into their brewpub and for the first time really play around on a ten-barrel system. Gosh, we formulated so many beers in that year and were rewarded for that work by winning Small Brewpub of the Year.

They had kind of taken focus off their brewpub and were focused on their production company. Steve Courier was the brewer there. No one had ever sat down and really gone over the 101 of brewing: he’d had to learn from the last dishwasher they’d promoted to brewer. He was just like a sponge, the light bulb came on, and we had excellent chemistry working together. We taught him on the production brewery and then went back and applied all these recipes to the small system and it really worked.

Adam [Firestone] and David [Walker] purchased the production facility at Paso Robles, and asked me to stay on as brewmaster for Firestone Walker. It was a seamless transition.

SLO Brewing had built a brewery that was far larger than demand, so they took on a decent amount of contract work. One of those was Humboldt, which are now Nectar Ales, so they kind of came with the brewery.

The other contract is with Trader Joes. David and Adam weren’t really keen on contract brewing, but it was good business and we stayed with it. We have a really good relationship with Trader Joe’s, and Nectar Ales has been very successful in northern California where Firestone Walker didn’t have a lot of penetration.

Do you distribute beyond California?

Ninety five percent of the beer we ship is right here in California. It’s really an Old World sort of approach: from a brewmaster’s perspective, it’s ideal, in that most of our beer only trucks one day away.

We take the shelf stability and long-term quality of our beer very seriously. We cold-store everything at the brewery, and we require that our distributors cold store all our product. We ship everything on refrigerated trucks wherever we go. Not every distributor is willing to do that.

Long term, I’m sure our sights are set on doing some distribution outside of California, but this state is larger than a lot of European nations, so there’s still a lot of potential here.

What do you do when you’re not brewing?

I do a lot of traveling that turns out to be beer related. I’m always carrying a camera, so I guess my other passion is photography. I’ve never gotten heavily into fancy photographic equipment, but I just love capturing images—not only of breweries. I live in San Simeon, which is right on the cusp of Big Sur, so my girlfriend and I spend a lot of time hiking and camping there.

What music do you play in the brew house?

I’m known to turn on reggae more times than not when I’m brewing. There’s lot of jam band music. I guess if times get tough and I’ve got to turn on the Superman button, I’ll put on some heavy metal, but if I’m just flowing along and running the brewery as it should be, I try to keep the mellow mood going.

Do you have a philosophy of brewing?

There are brewers out there like Vinnie [Cilurzo] who are true artists. He conceptualizes flavors and really has a handle on his art, kind of like a wine maker. I think, because I started on the lab side of things, I really concentrate on process and consistency. That sounds a little sterile, but I kind of geek out on better ways to make things flow through the brewery. I think that’s why I’m so well suited to the production brewery world. I love designing recipes, but I feel like I’ve created an environment where we can input a recipe and consistently put out a really good, clean product.

But the key to that—and I can’t emphasize this enough—is the team. Brewing is a team sport. Even if you’re a brewpub brewer, you have a team of suppliers.

In the small amount of time I’ve been in the industry, I’ve build strong relationships with my suppliers so I can count on great raw materials. And I’ve always brewed with my best friends. I’ve hired some great people—I don’t know if you’ve seen when we win a medal, but there’s a swarm of people who come up!

Hopefully I’ve never made an enemy in the business. I’ve kept friends who are great brewers. Whenever a hole opens up on our team, we always get the first round draft pick, I always say. We keep a really young team, and as a result a lot of these guys go on to be head brewers in their own facilities.

I like to think that once you’ve been a brewer here at Firestone, you can go on and apply that to just about any brewery at any level. It’s that team thing that keeps it going—I could never do this alone.

You’ve just received the 2007 Russ Scherer Award for Innovation in Brewing. When I interviewed the ten earlier winners, they were clearly of an earlier generation. John Harris [Full Sail] told me “Some day someone will win this award who didn’t know Russ: that day probably isn’t that far away, but it hasn’t come yet.” So, did you know Russ Scherer?

No, I didn’t. I only read about him. All I could think about when I got the award was, gosh, should I be on the list with these guys? I remember sitting in the office at KALSEC [his first job] twelve years ago reading in New Brewer and Brauwelt about these guys and they honestly were—they are—my heroes.