Friday, March 25, 2011

Week #12 - Stan Hieronymus

This week's interview is a trip down a very long road of beer journeys, beer recipes, brewer interviews, fact finding, and beer tasting. It's a look through pages upon pages that sit on many a brewer's shelf. This week's interview is with the one and only Stan Hieronymus. My first introduction to Mr. Hieronymus' work actually resulted in a huge turning point for me in my understanding of the business side of beer. A wealth of beer writers all turned up to debate in a post on one of Stan's blogs, Appellation Beer, and I proceeded to see the multi-faceted monster that is beer writing. Many people know Stan from his book Brew Like A Monk (or more recently Brewing With Wheat), but I wanted to dig a little deeper so we could know Stan beyond bound pages and blog entries. Ladies and gents...Stan Heironymus.

Since writing is a singular act that's broadcasted out to a world of readers, how has putting beer into your own words affected your personal understanding of your relationship with beer itself? What has writing taught you about the people of the beer world and the places where beer comes from?

I write about beer for several different audiences, notably consumers, the selling trade, the brewing trade, hobbyist brewers - there's obviously a lot of overlap. Doing my job well means thinking about what beer means to the reader - which, when things are going smoothly, might also be what really matters to me. It's a good day when I learn something, and a better one when I can tell other people about something new to them or cause them to think about something else in a new way.

Goofy as it might sound, writing about a brewer isn't necessarily any different than writing about a high school music teacher who began coaching the tennis team because one of his star pupils asked him to (something I did in an earlier life). I enjoy watching people figure things out. One of the best ways to learn about and from a brewer is talking to him (or her) while he (or she) is at work - meaning the brewer may interrupt our conversation to get something more important done.

Place? The best beers come to life in a very particular place and are particular to that place. Of course place can elevate an otherwise pedestrian beers to pretty substantial heights when it comes to life again in the glass, or - unfortunately - wreck the best of beers.

I love the tagline to your blog, "In Search of the Soul of Beer". In your five years of writing Appellation Beer, how close have you gotten to the soul of the matter?

I've had some fascinating conversations with brewers about the essence of beer or what constitutes "soul." A bit surprising because often these are "meat and potatoes" guys, who know the science of beer inside and out. I'm still asking the questions, but one of these years I guess I'll have to come to some sort of conclusion and put it on paper (or a screen, of course). One interesting idea suggested by a brewer who seldom puts his boots on anymore (such is how the business works - supervising is important) is that the energy - soul, if you want - that the people doing the physical labor put into a batch has to “go somewhere.”

In your recent Beer Rules, you write that, 'You cannot know all there is to know about beer', and you're the same guy that gave us 15 chapters on one grain in "Brewing with Wheat". Is it comforting or maddening for you that you can break something down all the way to its core (or multiple cores, I suppose) and still admit that you can never learn everything about it?

It can be liberating. If you waited to "know everything" you'd never be able to write anything. One thing I love about brewing is that there is not just one way to do things. I try to present a range, talking to brewers about the choices they make and why. Of course, it helps if readers are on board with the idea. My books occasionally get panned by people who expect more absolutes.

What was it about brewing with wheat or drinking wheat beers that made you decide to write a book dedicated to brewing with it?

Honestly, it wasn't my idea. Ray Daniels, still the head of Brewers Publications at the time, suggested BP needed a book on wheat. Since our family was planning a sabbatical that would take us through regions closely associated with wheat beers (Belgium, the south of Germany, Berlin, Leipzig, Portland, Kansas City) I wrote an outline.

I had to find a story, or a collection of stories, that wasn't contrived. We talked about a book that might have included "alternative" grains - that is everything beyond barley. Rye is certainly worth of writing about, and there is a spelt subculture that merits at least a magazine article. But wheat, and wheat itself, made a complete story.

The research portion alone for "Brew Like A Monk" seems like a dream come true for many beer drinkers. Was it? What was the process of pulling your material together like for that book?

I wish the research could have been more leisurely. Something you should allot years for.

The monastery brewers totally spoiled me. I went in thinking the book would be American-centric. How Americans brew beers inspired by the Belgians. First, I was surprised that I even got into the monastery breweries. I believed what turned out to be a myth, that everything about brewing in Belgium is secretive. Of course, I benefited in part from the timing. For instance, Rochefort was just beginning (in 2004) to become more accessible. I really don’t know why the monks at Westvleteren opened their doors to me. Anyway, the brewers kept answering my questions so I asked more. They didn’t provide complete recipes, but everything about process (pitching rates, fermentation temperatures, times, bottling regimen, etc) that constitutes the how.

That's what spoiled me. Now when I visit any brewery - be it in Germany, Italy or Texas - I'm disappointed when brewers are reluctant to share what they seem to consider secrets.

Speaking of myths, I learned early on researching the history of monastery brewing how much misinformation was/is floating around. Really, not only history, but facts about current practices and ingredients. Just because you can read something on the internet, and in multiple languages, doesn't mean it is accurate. You need to track down source material, or find references that already have, and you need to talk to the people actually brewing the beer.

Because I thought at the outset it would be focused more on "the American way" I mailed just about every American microbrewery then making an "abbey style" beer to learn more about their approaches. I included an offer to ask the questions they really wanted answers to when I visited Belgium. Understanding what they needed to know, and getting answers when I could - or at least presenting the options - became central to the book. So I did that again for “Brewing With Wheat” and will again for the next book.

Is there a new book in the works? Other than maintaining your multiple blogs, what are you up to?

The next book will be called "For the Love of Hops," so you can guess the focus. It is the second in Brewers Publications' four-part series about ingredients. The first, about yeast, just came out. The others will focus on water and malt. You'll see less writing in my blogs in the next year because this book is going to take most of my time. A lot to learn, then to write about. I’m excited and terrified. It will be out in September of 2012.

Like with "Brew Like a Monk" and "Brewing With Wheat" I'm collecting questions that potential readers would like to see answered. Anybody can pitch in at

The Fantasy Beer Dinners portion of your blog is such absolutely fun reading. Could you give us some insight on the guests you chose for your personal Fantasy Beer Dinner?

Thanks. I picked four who I think would strike up a conversation I could just sit back and enjoy. Much of what I do involves collecting stories. Some great ones to eavesdrop on here.

I started with A.A. Applegate, my great grandfather. He was a berry farmer in central Illinois, and a lay preacher and the local correspondent for two area newspapers. He also ran for local office on the Prohibition ticket. The other choices were Woody Guthrie, Williams Shakespeare and Tom Wicker, who I hope anybody reading this knows wrote (and still writes) excellent fiction and non-fiction. Four masters of communication - you'll have to trust me about my great grandfather - but I expect the ideas they'd discuss ultimately would be more interesting than talk about how they communicated with readers or listeners.

Because of A.A., I was thinking in terms of comfort food, the sort of meal he would be offered in somebody's home after preaching a Sunday sermon. Maybe I should have thought it out better. After all, A.A. didn't drink. Session beers, whatever they are, go well with comfort food. So how about an old-style (meaning one with a little more hops than you get in Munich these days) helles or British bitter with the meal?

Ok, fantasy question of my own here....Bottomless case: What's the one beer you want a case of that will never run dry?

This isn't the only beer I drink from now on, right? And it would always be fresh?

If so, Westmalle Extra, brewed about twice a year for the monks themselves to drink. A little over 5% abv, very dry, wonderful noble hop flavor and bitterness. Simple, but beautiful.

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