Friday, March 18, 2011

Week #11 - David Gonzalez



Keeping up with the Charlotte Craft Beer Week theme of last week with Darrin, this week we're talking to Dave Gonzalez of Alternative Beverage in Belmont, NC. Managing operations and brewing on the store's Brewmagic system, Dave continues his role as an important member of North Carolina's expanding craft beer landscape. Another story of a from up North finding his home in the South, Dave's brewing career began in Maine at Belfast Bay and continued with the Gordon Biersch Group where he called Rock Bottom his home for a good many years. Now homebrewers and curious beer fans have full access to his knowledge and expertise at Alternative Beverage.

You've been up and down the East Coast a bit so far in your brewing career. How did you get your first apprentice gig in New York and what led you up to Maine for those early brewing years of yours?

Yeah, I'm from Long Island, New York, and that's where I got my start. I went to college (SUNY-Stony Brook) to become a History teacher. After I graduated, and waiting for the fall to start teaching, I got a job in a beer distributor. We literally had 100's of different beers on our walls. So, every day, I would go home with 2-3 different ones to explore the world of beer. One day, I was in a coffee joint near where I went to school. I was wearing a sweatshirt from a brewpub (now defunct James Bay Brewing Company) across the street that I had gotten. When I turned around to leave, the guy behind me was wearing the same shirt. So, we started chatting and bs-ing. Turned out he was one of the owners and Head Brewer. When I told him about my interest in beer and brewing, he invited me to spend a day with him. So, I did, and got hooked. I was spending any available time there. Eventually, after a year, I gave up teaching and was working at the distributor and brewery all the time. After some time, they convinced me to go to brewing school (Siebel). So, I did. By this time, this brewery was closing, so I went back to the distributor full time. What led me to Maine was my folks. They had gone up there on vacation. One of the guys I worked with at James Bay had moved up there to start up a place. I told my folks that if they were in the area of his brewery (now defunct Rocky Bay Brewing Company) to stop in and say hi for me. Well, they did; And my Mom wanting me to get a gig suggested that I work there. So, I did. I was there for a few months, then went to Belfast Bay Brewing Company (I actually was living in this town: Rocky Bay was located in Rockland; 30 miles south of Belfast). By the time I took that job, the girl that I was living with (from NY too) and I had decided to move to North Carolina due to friends and family being in the state. btw- she is not whom I am married to (LOL).

I had known someone at Carolina Beer and Beverage (right when they were first starting). He invited me down for an assistant brewer's interview. I didn't get a definitive answer from them, but was moving to the area. I walked into Rock Bottom and got hired on the spot. The rest is history.

How would you describe Siebel's effect on your approach to the craft? Did the Brewing Technology short course give you more of a fine tuning of the knowledge you in with or did you walk away with a head full of new information?

I took Siebel's Short Course in Brewing Technology in June 1997: A long time ago. When I did, I had only apprenticed (worked for beer) at James Bay BC. So, I had only been in a small brewpub. When I took the class there were folks from Miller, Coors (seperate at the time), Guinness, Heineken, etc. So, the class was geared towards the bigger guys. But, I did take the info I learned and applied it to the smaller scale. Even though I had done a bunch of reading (being a homebrewer first), I was still new to the industry and making beer commercially. That being said, a lot of the information was new. Though, like I said earlier, some of it I could apply and use. For me, the best, and favorite, part of it was the sensory evaluation classes: getting to know off-flavors and why. Theory is theory and hands on is hands on.

Are there any mistakes you made as a young brewer that you think back on now and just shake your head?

Of course! Everyone does it. If they don't they're lying (LOL). I have recently made mistakes and said the same thing. Being a brewer is constantly learning and adapting.

What can you say about brewing under the 'corporate structure'? A younger version of myself was definitely guilty of avoiding Rock Bottom for a while, until I realized that one of my area’s really great brewers was working there. Is there a lot of stigma behind brewing for a chain or is there still a lot of room to express yourself with the beers?

Corporate brewing has its advantages and disadvantages (though, any situation has this). I'll say it was interesting. I remember when I first started with Rock Bottom/Gordon Biersch, I was telling a well known beer writer (that I'm now very good friends with), and he saying, "Why would you want to go there? They go through brewers left and right." I was shocked. Though, my career with them lasted 11+ years. Yeah, there are a few corporate brewing chains out there, but to be honest, they have mostly great brewers that make great beers. I thought the same way as you about Hops. I have a friend who still works for them who makes great beers. You just have to go in, get to know the brewer and try their beers for yourself. Everyone, and beer, deserves a chance.

As far as part two of this question, it depends on the corporate structure (look at the give a beer a chance statement above). With my last employer, there was some that was mandated, and some creativity. It all depends on the situation.
To this day, what's the best batch of beer you've brewed or your biggest personal accomplishment as a brewer (...or both)?

I never like to pat myself on the back. Though, there have been times (LOL). One day, my wife and I were sitting at Rock Bottom's bar sipping on a pint, and I said, "Man, that's really good". Nikki said, "See, you do make good beer." It was a Belgian Witbier that I had come up with the recipe (btw- that batch lasted 7 days!) There are a few others. The Spiced Pumpkin Ale I made for a few years I take pride in. The reason being was that my boss at the time HATED pumpkin beers, so I had to convince him to let me do it (show him the numbers of how that style of beer sold in this market). he eventually "caved" and let me do it. There were also a few cask beers that I'm proud of: The Mexican Devil (Jalapeno Tequila Pilsner), and The Yeti (Bourbon Stout) (this one I won a Gold Medal with). I also brewed a batch of Prospector's Pilsner that won a Gold Medal that I'm proud of. When it was announced, it was the first Gold Medal of the night, and the other folks in the room I think were caught off guard. I think I got a lot of respect that night (LOL).

I know you've got some beer distribution experience under your belt as well. What do you like about that side of the business?

I actually like that side of the business a lot. The place was a small mom & pop, but did decent business. I liked the work and people there. I still have good friends that work there (12 years after I left).

As far as that side of the business, even though you have competitors, there's camaraderie. Though, in brewing, I call it fraternal. Most everyone will help each other out. So, there's that difference there.

You have been in Charlotte for over a decade now. Just from what I know of conversation, Pop The Cap, changes in the market, etc there has been a great deal of change in beer culture in North Carolina. How has Charlotte adapted with that change? Has Charlotte come into it's own yet in the beer realm?

I think Charlotte, as well as the rest of the state, has expanded it's taste buds because of Pop The Cap. There are so many more beer places, more variety of beer in the market and being brewed in the market because of it. Even at Rock Bottom, when I first started there, the Light Lager out sold any of the other beers. Over the past 5-6 years, I noticed a change in the product mix of the IPA, Brown Ale, etc moving up, as the Light Lager went down and then the numbers became equal. There were many times, then these other beers out sold the Light Lager and such.

Though, I still think Charlotte has some room to grow. I've heard it referred to "Nascar Country" and "The Bible Belt". So, there are plenty of folks who love their lighter beers, or no beer at all. It's changing, but I still think it has a ways to go.

Can you explain your involvement with Charlotte Craft Beer Week? What are some of the goals that the committee has for 2011?

I am on the Board of Organizers for Charlotte Craft Beer Week. This coming year will be year #2 for us. There were a few other "beer weeks" in Charlotte in the past (that I advised on), but CCBW is different: Better, more diverse.

You ask a good question. I think basically educating Charlotte and it's surrounding areas of what a great beer place it can be. Having educational, fun, and great events that go well and are well attended. Getting the name that Charlotte is a great place for beer!

If you could have one beer always waiting for you in the fridge after a long day of brewing, what would it be?

A cold, free one (LOL). That's the typical answer. Seriously, there are many. I'm not necessarily a fan of specific beers, but styles. Yes, I have beers that I absolutely love, but I constantly like to try beers that I haven't had before or not in a long time. I guess one beer would be Olde Hickory's Bardstown Brand. It's freakin' unbelievable! But, I don' t know if I'd want that after a long day of brewing.

To answer this question, there's a time and place for almost every beer. What I like is beer memories. I remember playing softball with a company my Dad used to work for. At the end of the inning, on a hot summer day, I went to the cooler, dug my hand in the ice water and grabbed out a can of Budweiser. I chugged 3 cans before the inning changed, and it tasted fantastic. Though, I will RARELY go to a bar and order one (I can't remember the last time I had one). It's all in the time and moment.

Everyone in the business is somewhat of a "beer geek". I guess I am too. Ever since I was 18 (shh...don't tell my folks) I have kept a list of all the beers I've ever had. I think I am currently around 3,800 different brands.

1 comment:

dan said...

"Beer Memories", never really thought of that before, but I remember the time back in 1994, sitting in Holmes and Watson in Troy, NY with David. I bought him a pint of Buffalo Nut Brown Ale. We spent the rest of the evening trying some of the 300 beers they had on the menu.