My first introduction to Sean Lily Wilson and Fullsteam Brewery was much like many, many other peoples': I heard about it on the internet. Fullsteam has a lot of buzz to be buzzing about, but one of the great stories leading up to the brewery's opening was how cool this brewery and these dudes...seemed. You already knew them because they were hitting social media with a full court press. Fast forward to CBC 2010 and the Storytelling panel that has popped up numerous times in this interview series: Sean's assessment of how social media made Fullsteam a regular name before an ounce of beer hit the market was majorly impressive. Fast forward yet again to the current: Fullsteam's approach to brewing for their community, including their local producers, and lifting many ships with their mighty tide is the feel good story that you may not have heard yet and the story is, in many ways, textbook for how to get your beer on the radar in this digital age. Ok, now rewind. North Carolina pops its 6% abv cap and Sean Lily Wilson was right there in the trenches.
See this man, shake his hand, cheers his beer and get to know Sean Lily Wilson...
With Fullsteam you celebrate and highlight many of the wonderful crops and traditions of the South. Is the brewery the culmination of two ideas coming together: Wanting to open a brewery and wanting to find a way to support your local producers on a large scale or was the idea always to open a brewery that utilizes locally grown ingredients?
Southern ingredients and Southern traditions were always central to Fullsteam’s concept, ever since brewer Chris Davis and I first envisioned starting a brewery four years ago. We changed our mind plenty along the way: our first idea was more farmhouse brewery and restaurant. Over time, we realized that Durhamites wanted a hometown brewery more than a brewpub/restaurant. But the common thread was always incorporating local ingredients in the brewing process.
I love Fullsteam's ultimate goal of a brewery sustained fully by what's within local means. Agriculturally, what would have to change to make that happen? Is malted barley the biggest obstacle?
Yes, our biggest challenge will be obtaining locally-malted barley and local hops, which account for the overwhelming majority of beer’s farmed inputs. It’s one thing to brew with local adjuncts – the most local we go is Carver, which is brewed with 500 pounds of local sweet potatoes per batch (one-third of the beer’s base fermentables). But our goal is to make Fullsteam Southern Lager -- heck, all of our beers – as local as possible. This includes local barley and hops. Yes, it’s ambitious – but with new strains and advances in farm sciences, I see every reason to believe that local hops and local barley is possible in my lifetime.
We want to encourage farmers that if they can grow it, keep it consistent, and price it fairly, we will buy it…and we believe customers will buy local. The biggest challenge I see isn’t in the growing of these items, it’s in the post-harvest infrastructure: the malting and kilning of grain; the threshing, drying, and pelletizing of hops. And, of course, pricing the ingredients competitively.
Our vision is to make distinctly Southern beer. If that means our beer has a slightly different character because we use regional ingredients, then that’s a success in my book. Of course, all this presumes that quality and taste are never sacrificed.
How did you hookup with Brooks Hamaker and Chris Davis? What do each of you bring to the table to make Fullsteam a reality?
Chris and I met at a Pop The Cap dinner I hosted at the Carolina Brewery in Chapel Hill in 2006. We kept talking and scheming, and I have an incredible amount of respect and appreciation for Chris’ patience as we worked to make the brewery a reality.
As we got closer to finding equipment and nailing down a space, it became clear we needed a “been there, done that” professional. A mutual friend of Brooks’ and mine, Dean McCord, introduced us at the 2009 Southern Foodways Alliance symposium in Oxford, Mississippi. Brooks, Chris and I had actually met at the ’08 SFA symposium, but Dean suggested we start talking specifics. Brooks was the founding brewer at Abita and was looking to get back into brewing.
It’s one thing to know how to brew beer, but it’s another skill entirely to know how to set up a brewery. Brooks brings both skills to the table. He also tends to favor more traditional beers, whereas Chris, with his homebrewing background, is more about experimentation and pushing the envelope.
I focus on front-of-the-house tasks like sales, delivery (for now), tavern management, marketing, and social media. Beer-wise, I bring some ideas to the table, and Chris and Brooks generally take them to the next level. For example, while I had the idea for Working Man’s Lunch (a beer inspired by MoonPies and RC Cola), it was Brooks and Chris who schemed up the idea of using a Weihenstephan yeast to throw off some vanilla and banana-like notes to the beer, to mimic the sweet biscuityness of a MoonPie. I wouldn’t have thought of that.
With two product lines representing two different roads you're going down on the brewing side, have you seen more reaction towards the Workers' Compensation line of true-to-style beers or more on the side of Plow to Pint beers utilizing ingredients like sweet potatoes, persimmon, and house-smoked malt?
The Fullsteam business plan states that we “expect to be known for our Plow-to-Pint offerings, but we’ll likely sell a lot more of the Workers’ Compensation beers.” I think we got that just about right. Many people know we brew a beer that smells and tastes like bacon (Hogwash, a hickory-smoked porter), but it’s our only bona fide slow-moving beer. We sell a lot more Fullsteam Southern Lager and Rocket Science IPA. That said, Carver sweet potato lager is a huge hit, and that’s in the Plow-to-Pint series.
Sometimes it’s hard to know how to categorize our beers – like Working Man’s Lunch. It’s not really “Plow-to-Pint,” because the ingredients aren’t really local. We do use local chocolate from a great artisan purveyor out of Raleigh, Escazu. But it’s not a “true-to-style” beer, either…because of that whole hefe yeast thing, which makes the beer more of a dark ale than a traditional stout. And people reading this might think, “whatever, it’s not a big deal,” but it has all these implications, from the eventual look of the label to the type of package it goes in. I guess I just don’t ever want our “series” approach to constrain us. If I want to brew a Black IPA, we should be able to do that. Is a black IPA “true-to-style?” If not, must we make it “Plow-to-Pint?” Our own labels can be a challenge.
I'm assuming there will be some seasonality necessary in the Plow to Pint lineup? How does availability and any inconsistency of raw materials (size, yield, difference in what flavors/sugars you're extracting) each time they're harvested affect the final product and your approach to production?
I liken our Plow-to-Pint approach to that of wine: agricultural products vary from year-to-year. We should celebrate this variance.
At times, it bugs me that most brewers make pumpkin beers from canned pumpkin (or spices that suggest pumpkin) in freakin’ July – when pumpkins are still green – just so the beer can match the season. Now I’m not naïve enough to think that a pumpkin beer should come out in December (after the pumpkin harvest and when the beer is finally ready), because people have been trained to get pumpkin beers in October.
But I really struggle with this.
Our industry marries beer to its social, cultural, and emotional contexts. Not its agricultural roots. It’s part of the reason most people don’t know what beer is made from – they know little to nothing of the harvesting methods.
We’re finishing up a beer called First Frost – it’s a winter ale brewed with 75 pounds of local persimmons. Southern tradition has it that persimmons are best after the first frost: the fruit is nice and sugary by then, and the unpleasant tannins are mostly eliminated. We started picking persimmons after our first frost, which ultimately means the beer won’t be ready until late January – well after the first frost.
Soon enough we’re going to see a warm-up in temperatures, and the last thing we’re going to be thinking about is the autumn frost date. So how does Fullsteam handle this? I don’t want to freeze persimmons to launch the beer the following October. That feels so inauthentic to me. I want to celebrate the harvest. People in the South should know what a persimmon is: when it’s harvested, what it tastes like, where you can find them. Is this a winning proposition for our customer base? Do we risk having a winter beer sitting on store shelves in April because we’re committed to working within the seasons? I don’t yet know. We don’t have a year’s worth of experience to know. But I love the challenge. Sorry for the long answer.
The first thing that sparked my interest about Fullsteam was hearing about the brewery during your panel at CBC and learning how much interest and buzz you'd created online before you were even open. How important was that initial period of raising awareness to your brewery as you built up your site and prepared to open up?
Oh man, that means a lot to me. We are very fortunate that Fullsteam’s build-out coincided nicely with the mainstream acceptance of social media. Not only did blogging, Facebook, and Twitter help us generate interest and excitement, but I know I secured some investors as they followed our story online. It wasn’t as direct as my friend and fellow CBC panelist Erik Lars Myers’ efforts (using Kickstarter to raise money for Mystery Brewing Company), but our online presence helped us raise money more quickly. No doubt about it.
To ramble on this a bit more: I am surprised by how “ordinary” a lot of brewery communication is online. Some of the best ongoing communication with our fans and friends is only tangentially related to beer: discussions on the best music of the year, crazy inventions from 100 years ago, odes to The Room and unintentionally bad movies. My goal is to talk with, not at. I like it, and I can’t think of doing it any other way. Though I admit it is a little jarring for some, particularly those who believe a business’ online tone and timbre should sound like traditional PR.
How many years in the making was Pop The Cap and what prompted you to head the campaign of bringing more sane beer laws to North Carolina?
The short answer: it took three years from wanting to change the law to actually having the law changed. That’s a pretty short timeframe, especially considering the push was to relax an alcohol law in a Southern state.
The long answer:
In 2002, a good friend of mine from business school, JP Cardona, invited me to an after-party. “You’ve never had beers like this before,” he told me. And boy, was he was right: beers I had never heard of…barleywines, corked-and-caged rarities, double IPAs. I thought I knew about craft beer – after all, I shopped at the local grocery store to buy Sam Adams and local beer – but I had no idea this world of specialty beer existed. Out of sight, out of mind, I guess.
That was my craft beer epiphany moment. JP told me that night about North Carolina’s 6 percent alcohol limit. I thought about all the incredible flavors I had just enjoyed and thought, wow, that’s a really stupid law. Especially because our state-run liquor stores sold Everclear. So I thought I’d try to figure out what it took to change the law.
Anyways, I was unemployed at the time. This was after the tech bubble, and I was a technology startup guy. So I was networking a lot, looking for work…and getting increasingly interested in craft beer. As I started networking in the beer world, I quickly discovered All About Beer Magazine and the World Beer Festival, located here in Durham. At that time, the head of both, Daniel Bradford, was also leading the Brewers Association of America (BAA), which has since merged with the Brewers Association.
I called Daniel, introduced myself, and in typical Daniel fashion, he had me working the next day, stuffing envelopes. Here I was talking beer and politics with Daniel, Julie Johnson, and Pete Johnson (now of the BA). It was incredible.
Within a few weeks, Julie and I had gathered a group together of about 40 people disgruntled with the 6% alcohol cap. Many of these folks were homebrewers, though the group also included some retailers and at least one beer writer (Tony Kiss of Asheville). We had enough of a spark from that group to get started, though we were incredibly naïve in knowing what to do. We thought a petition would help. A petition! It’s almost laughable now. We quickly realized we needed a lobbyist to represent our cause, and the inestimable Theresa Kostrzewa took us on as a client.
There’s a lot more to the story, but this is already crazy-long. It’s largely still online at http://popthecap.org.
I am enamored with beer culture in North Carolina. I love travelling there for work and have a lot of friends from up North that have traveled to NC for reasons strictly pertaining to beer. Since I've only visited post-Cap Popping, could you explain a little bit about what the beer landscape was like before the limit on ABV went from 6 to 15 percent?
North Carolina didn’t have the variety and scope, but it had the passion and skill. Breweries like Carolina Brewery, Highland, and many others were in-place and making great beer. The biggest impact was on the store shelves, where you just wouldn’t see the range of beer you do now. Of course, many more N.C. breweries have opened since 2005, but I think that’s generally a function of the craft beer explosion. More breweries are opening up everywhere.
Where would you say beer in North Carolina is headed? With a ton of great brewers, festivals, and a lots of awesome retail options, what should people peeking in from afar be most clued into about the future of beer in NC?
I suspect North Carolina beer is going to get more adventuresome. Our focus is using local ingredients and local traditions to try and define Southern beer. That’s our niche. As new breweries come on the scene, they’ll work to establish their own niche: farmhouse ales, canned beer, session ales, sours, and new approaches and angles. I believe it’s going to bring a friendly competitiveness that will push our state along in terms of beer innovation and creativity. Perhaps soon we won’t be looking westward for trends and ideas, but we’ll be developing our own in-state.
I do hope that, in spite of this inevitable competition, we remain collaborative and upbeat and relatively free of snark. It’s beer. It’s supposed to be fun. It’s the beverage of celebration and community. One of the GREAT things about North Carolina is just how upbeat its citizens and brewers are on craft beer. I’ll be disappointed if North Carolinians become jaded, seeking the unicorn instead of enjoying the moment.
How about Fullsteam specifically? What's on the horizon for the early part of 2011?
We just released our first sour beer, Sour Mashed Sweet Potato, and soon we’ll be releasing First Frost, the winter persimmon beer. Soon it’ll be time for Pastinaak, a farmhouse ale made with parsnips and Liborius Gollhardt, a sour rhubarb ale. Spring and summer can’t come soon enough. Read more!
Friday, February 25, 2011
Posted by Dr Joel at 10:16:00 AM
Friday, February 18, 2011
Billy Mellon (pictured on the left here) is one of those guys whose official job title tells only a small part of the story. Billy recently opened the stunning Manna in Wilmington, NC after a run on the distributor side of on and off premise alcohol sales. Those that know Mr. Mellon though know that he's a constant source of 'everybody wins' ideas to elevate beer, wine, food, music and just about everything in between. Voicemails from Billy in his distributor days usually started with a, "So hey I wanted to get your thoughts on something..." followed by a scheme to get your beer to a new audience in a new way that no one had ever thought of. This is the kind of guy that needed a constant canvas to paint on because he was just too good to leave his mark on everyone else's businesses. He orchestrated one of the coolest beer events I've ever been a part of last year complete with a hidden beer tasting amidst a rock and roll show. If you're in or travelling through the Port City stop in for a meal at Manna.
We met while you were in beer and wine wholesale, but you were in restaurants before that right?
I was "stolen" by the wholesale business from the food industry--nearly 20 years of experience.
How valuable of an experience is it for someone running a restuarant to have spent many of their days selling beer and wine to tons of other restaurants, buyers, chefs and owners?
It makes me understand the business end much better--a lot like when I switched from "buyer" to seller--now I am back as the buyer and I am more dialed into the relationships that occur between the two sides. I know how to better select wines, I am more comfortable with esoteric varietals and regions; I can relate to the salesman's situation much closer and I know the right "questions" to ask with regards to what needs to move and what wines/beers are at discounted prices, sales, etc...
How much of the sales perspective informed your approach to Manna?
Again, now I have the experience of how to get the most from my salespeople. I understand the practice of allocations (when they are available, how much, who's carrying them) and now I am a much better buyer with those key elements in my arsenal: basically, I am more informed=dangerous.
In what ways is the drinks menu at the restaurant is an expression of your fondness and experience with both wine and beer?
I have always been into networks. That said, I have tried to increase the web of those networks within the friendships/relationships that I have derived from the wholesale business. I try to support the artisans and be as local as possible when it comes to selecting wines and beers. I have focused my brands on those people who are in the business of selling "great" products and enjoy what they do--these people tend to work for people with those same goals...goals that I try to maintain within the framework of our concept. It makes selling them to customers more meaningful and the network grows.
The food menu is so descriptive. It's killing me being so far away! I know part of the goal with Manna was to elevate the dining scene in Wilmington and even though you've only been open a short time do you feel like you've begun to reach that goal?
We're on the right track but nowhere near where we want to be. We want to unify the culinary scene of Wilmington to be up there with the likes of the Charlestons, Ashevilles of the world. Hopefully, we can create a scene of successful restaurant groups that have the same goals as we do and make our city a destination for people who love to eat. No "scene" can be like that with limited options for dining.
Wilmington is such a charming city and really unique when compared to a lot of other cities on the coast. What do you like most about it?
It has a "grip" on me that I cannot explain. I moved here in '95 to live for a few summers and I have yet to leave. I've had many chances to leave: SF, Austin, Atlanta, Italy but always found more reasons to stay. I have a large circle of friends that span a vast group of people. it would be hard to replace all of those networks anywhere else. I mean, I have friends in city council, lawyers, doctors, builders, electricians, musicians, the list goes on and on. If I need something, I got a fix in my phone. Besides the beach adds something to the mix, too.
Ok, so Manna closes for the night. Where are you headed out to for a few drinks? And what are you drinking?
Satellite is still my go to spot. They continue to improve their venue--Dusty has added an outdoor movie screen (16 X 20) and a back yard "garden". It still has the best vibe and the best beer. I will typically have a glass of wine that I pair with what the chef makes me for supper and then it'll be a couple of craft beers: most recently, Cold Mountain and Terrapin Wake and Bake. (love to get a shot at picking up some of that New Holland hop tequila....hint)
You've turned me on to a number of bands just through your facebook posts. What's your involvement with Wilmington Unplugged?
I basically am the organizer of the "group". It's a monthly showcase highlighting local talent to perform on one stage with 4 other acts. They get 25 minutes to perform and I've got to meet and witness some fantastic artists over the last 4 years of the event. The monthly has spawned "Super Unplugged" where I branch out to find regional acts to play for a "listening audience" and pair them with the "best of the unplugged..." locals.
What should we be on the lookout for from Manna in 2011?
Hopefully, that we are still open and paying our bills. The goal is to be ahead of the curve in terms of our take on the American restaurant and never being satisfied with being "good"; filled with people who love our product and continuing to get better with every dinner and drink we serve; happy to be doing what it is that truly drives us....making food, beverage and personality "casserole." Read more!
Posted by Dr Joel at 11:05:00 AM
Friday, February 11, 2011
Dean Browell is Executive Vice President at Feedback, an agency that takes Social Media to the next, well... a deeper, well... a more informed and strategical level. Feedback's research and analytical processes allow companies to make social media even more powerful and Dean is right at the heart of the matter. He is the next installment of interviews with the members of the Storytelling panel at 2010's CBC in Chicago and I find what Dean brings to the social media conversation just fascinating. Dean is a Richmond, VA resident and a big music fan. All of these things make him pretty cool in my book. Without anything further, Dean Browell...
The interaction of different age groups online has been a point of study for you, if you had to put all of craft beer into an age group where do we fall in line? In the realm of Social Media, do we get it? Are we getting there? We're hip, right?
I'd say the hipness is growing, but there's still a ton of room for improvement. When you consider how relatively cheaply and easily you can utilize social media to grow an audience (compared to say, TV and print) combined with the fact that the people that would pay a little more for a craft beer are the same people who are likely online and savvy, it's a serious wonder that the entire industry isn't doing it better. Especially since so much about craft beer is about telling your story, this medium is perfect. That's what last year's panel with Charlie, Fullsteam and Erik was about ( http://alewhale.net/ ).
Here's the thing, and it's not at all just the problem of craft beer as many industries are facing this, but the craft beer audience is out ahead of the industry itself right now. It's a really odd thing that the average person knows how to market themselves online better than some breweries. (Can you imagine the average person being able to make TV commercials better than businesses in the 1960's?) My earlier statement about the craft beer buyers being likely to be online - well that's becoming more true for everyone across the board. Look at the Pew research from last summer with people over 50 making up nearly half of all social media users -- when the GRANDPARENTS of college-age drinkers are on Facebook, what excuses are left for not understanding the ubiquity?
There's something else that I want to point out, and I've been skewered in the past for saying it. In fact right before my first appearance at CBC I made a comment on Twitter and got jumped all over for it, but I stand by that initial outsider's observation: The online craft beer community has trended toward the divisive (reviews, critique, cynical fandom) rather than the inclusive. Not everyone is like that, but it doesn't take much prodding around to uncover elitism. And what is so stunning to me, and this is what got me in trouble, is noting that of all things the wine industry has managed to take the opposite approach and somehow be more inclusive. Years ago now there were massive social networks for wine drinkers online, all helping you find your taste, get comfortable in the environment and be proud about your own personal taste. Meanwhile in some craft beer forums you can get your internet throat cut for saying you really enjoy a mild over an IPA. When you see the socialization of wine online it makes me irritated because craft beer, in my opinion, is far more democratic and social an industry, but that's not always reflected. Sure wine snobs are still there and it's not like every vineyard has a Facebook Page. But where is craft beer's Gary Vaynerchuk (@garyvee) ? How did the snobbiest of all drinking pastimes manage to lap the pub crawlers? What's next, absinthe drinkers?
If I'm a craft brewery who's small and making great beer, but limited in the resources of time and availability, marketing-wise is there one thing I should definitely be doing online? Is an active and vocal following on Facebook more powerful than a website that may not get updated often enough? Is there a priority system with these online opportunities?
There are two necessary ingredients to a good social web presence: consistency and authenticity. If your website isn't updated regularly, don't design your website so it looks like it was supposed to be updated regularly (resulting in a "cobwebs" look). People know your website will say nice things about you, so LET IT - let it be the repository for all kinds of information. But then let the discussion and the "person behind the curtain" feel come through in social. The odd photo of the mash, the video of a tasting and reactions, asking your fans what they think of a new release... It's conversational. So what I would suggest is let the website be static if it means you'll have more time to keep the community aspect of a Facebook Page going. Commit to updating 1-3 times a week, even something small. Point people to your social presence from your website. But manage your expectations based on the time you put in. be on Facebook, at least. But take a long look at the geographies you serve and determine WHERE your audiences are talking and how and make an informed decision as to how to proceed. Not every city is the same. That's what we do at Feedback more than anything: research the cultures people serve and make informed recommendations as to how to intersect.
How about a craft brewery who is willing to commit some time and maybe even personnel to marketing and the world of social media, but doesn't know a tweet from a blog post? What services are out there to help them get started?
There are some great 101s out there. But my first bit of advice is do not go out and try and learn everything. Not every tool is probably right for you anyway. The one with critical mass is Facebook so that may be your easiest target. Sign up personally. Create a private group for your key personnel and communicate with each other. Try it out, see what it lets you do. Play. Same way you play with recipes. Get comfortable with the variables and the options.
Knowing that you're a huge music fan and seeing the impact of music's sales and distribution online, how vastly different is the social media game when your product can be fully experienced while sitting at the computer? To keep up, should craft brewers be trying to make beer as interactive as possible? Is there something to be learned from something so quickly gratifying as a download?
Well if there's a single lesson it's how the music industry let their entire audience get so far out in front of them without finding a way to tell their story, while individual artists who took the time to observe and play in the space ran away with the crown and actually made money (see: Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails) while reinventing the fandom and reaping live event money as well.
One thing craft beer can learn is how they can make sure they are encouraging fandom of their beers, brands, stories, even when people aren't sitting in front of a tap or with a bottle in their hand. That one guy from your pub who loves your Belgian White still loves it when he's sitting on an office chair instead of a stool, the difference is he can still be Tweeting and sharing his love for your beer even when he's not drinking it. Goodness knows that at 4pm he's already thinking about drinking it - why not encourage him to make others daydream about the same?
Interactivity is key, but it sounds like it's something new they have to learn - but it's not. It's the same interactions they've been having with new and regular customers their whole lives. We can just see it now. Word of mouth we can see.
When did you start drinking craft beer? Was there one beer or experience that sealed the deal for you?
I was lucky. My Dad is a big fan of trying new food from all over the world and we traveled a lot. So I was influenced very early to try things and not accept the norm. My Dad is still one of my favorite people to drink craft beer with, he recently brought back Andechs from Munich wrapped in his socks from a trip to Germany. Anyway, by the time I got to legal drinking age, ahem, I was also lucky enough to have college roommates with great taste in beer. One was from Malvern, PA and after every break would return with cases of Yuengling which was as "common" a beer we would ever drink - and then we'd go to a little craft beer and wine store called, The Caboose in Ashland, VA (we were at Randolph-Macon) and buy mixed six packs and try everything. So i wish I could point to a singular experience, but it was really just being surrounded by people who didn't accept the status quo and encouraged trying new tastes.
If we're coming to Richmond, VA and we want the following things where should we be shopping...
A meal of great food and great beer:
Capital Ale House (and they have a few in the area). Great food and a ridiculous beer selection.
Great sixpacks or big bottles to go:
The Caboose in Ashland, VA is still around: http://caboosewine.com/
But to be frank we're also lucky in Richmond that Legend is sold in most of our grocery stores.
Vinyl for our growing (no matter how obsessively) record collection:
Deep Groove. Hands down. But also visit Plan 9's basement.
A live show:
The National is a favorite venue for sure, but there's some great little places as well like The Camel. But you seriously can't beat a great show at The National. Read more!
Posted by Dr Joel at 8:46:00 AM
Friday, February 4, 2011
John Haggerty is the brewmaster at New Holland Brewery and someone who I have learned so much from over the last 2 1/2 years. John's brewing philosophy is largely centered around the idea of balance, which is a beauty in beer I hadn't thought nearly as much about prior to hopping on board at New Holland. John's experiences studying beer in Germany have resulted in lots of great stories as well as a very traditional approach to much of the beer brewed at New Holland. With cues taken from the old world German brewers, John's influlence on how I think about beer has been massive. And, as it turns out, he's a really fun guy too. A lover of soul music and good food, Hags brings an excitement to our company that always keeps things interesting.
John is in Philly right now for a string of events through the weekend. Catch us tonight at Iron Hill West Chester from 5pm - 7pm then at Kraftwork tomorrow night for a huge draft and soul music explosion, finishing up at South Philly Tap Room for a pre-Super Bowl Beer Brunch from Noon - 3pm. Come out and say hi.
Bring us up to speed on your brewing career, where did you study? Where did you get your first brewing jobs?
Well as you know, brewing is an accumulation of both practical and formal education. So I think that every brewing experience you have informs the final product. That also means that one continues to learn everyday from the new experiences that any individual should constantly be confronted with. In terms of formal education, I received my undergraduate degree from Miami University, Oxford, OH from the Fine Arts department in Architecture. I received my professional degree in brewing from the VLB (Versuchs- und Lehranstalt fur Brauerei), Berlin, GR – I graduated in 2002. My first professional brewing job was with The Big Time Brewery and Alehouse, Seattle, WA in 1993.
When did you come on board at New Holland and how did the opportunity come about? Do you remember what the job interview was like?
I started at New Holland around Labor Day of 2002, shortly after returning from study at the VLB. The process of getting hired was a little unique in that I didn’t really know anything about New Holland when Brett Vanderkamp contacted me. New Holland was a much smaller interest at that time. Anyway, I had sent a number of resumes out, like newly graduated students are wont to do, one of them landed on the desk of an old colleague, Dennis Holland, who I knew from my time in Washington (He was running the Leavenworth Brewing Co., Leavenworth, WA while I worked at The Big Time so we used to cross paths at festivals, etc.). At this point Dennis was working at The B.O.B., a Grand Rapids, MI based brewpub, and knew Brett and the New Holland crew. When Brett mentioned to Dennis that he was looking for someone to take over the operation of the production facility Dennis suggested Brett talk to me, which, fortunately, he did. So it goes to show you what networking can do for you. Anyway, originally I spent a lot of time speaking with Brett via email since I was in Germany and he was in Holland, MI. When I returned to the states we arranged to meet in conjunction with Brett’s other partners, Dave White (who is still with New Holland and directs our restaurant operations) and Jason Spaulding (who is no longer with New Holland). We discussed what they were looking for out of the candidate for this position and what they wanted for the brewery as a whole. A lot of what they wanted to achieve dovetailed with what I wanted to do – essentially, be heavily involved in the product development and growth of a craft based brewing interest. Anyway, we were all on the same page. The interview was quite informal with us sitting around a table in the pub discussing all sorts of things. In the end, we were talking about the fact that the new pub was being opened (the ‘new’ pub meaning our current pub which is only ‘new’ at this point if you happen to have been around for the ‘old’ one which had been located at the old facility on Fairbanks Ave. which is now Hope College’s soccer field) and that they really were already behind in making a decision regarding this position. My recollection was that we left the meeting more or less agreeing to work together and simply had to negotiate the compensation package, which, obviously, we did. Anyway, we worked it out and I jumped in with two feet – none of this ‘dipping your toe in the water’ stuff. It was full go from the beginning. I inherited one staff member, Jacob Derylo – so he and I ran everything at first. We would work 8 or 10 or 12 hours a day and then when Jacob and I got done making beer I would head down to the pub and put another 8 hours on the clock helping to build out the pub. It was a lot of work but it was great! I got to know Brett, Dave and Jason very well very quickly that way. Plus I was new in town and didn’t really have anything else to do so why not. Anyway, it was great and it has been great ever since.
How would you describe your philosophy or approach to designing and brewing beers?
First and foremost we are trying to create a sense of balance between all the flavor profiles that occur in the beer. Within any given style of beer that might mean that a given flavor may take the lead or fall back depending on what the style calls for. However, every flavor, every ingredient has its place and when done in concert with those that it is working with then we strike the balance that makes for complex, unique and quaffable beers.
What is one thing you wish more people knew or understood about Craft Beer or the beer industry as a whole?
Hmm, that is a tough question. There are a lot of things that I think are misunderstood about what actually goes on in a brewery. For example, it seems that there are a lot of people who think that using modern tools or techniques makes what you produce less than if you are producing according to processes or techniques that are centuries old. I don’t know if I buy that. I think sometimes using older techniques can be interesting but to enslave yourself to those ideas I think is a mistake. But is that “the one thing” I would want to discuss, I don’t know. I guess in the end I would like everyone to know that it is as rewarding as they think it is, it is 100 times harder than they ever would believe it is, and it is nowhere near as glamorous as some people might try to make it out to be. But in the end, I love it so here I am.
Tonight's event at Iron Hill was a direct invite from brewer Larry Horwitz. How do you and Larry know each other?
Well I know both Larry and his wife, Whitney, who works for Victory Brewing Co. Both are just fabulously fun, great people. Anyway, we have shared a number of meals together over the years at various events/conferences. We were introduced to each other via a mutual friend, Lauren Salazar, of New Belgium Brewing. Anyway, I think this all started out from the fact that we all like to drink great beer and eat great food so I guess Larry figured we would be good company to invite out to his pub to share I pint or two with his clientele. I am glad he did and I am really looking forward to it!
We're pouring Cabin Fever at the Iron Hill event. Where did the concept for the beer come from? Why is it a great winter seasonal?
Well, that’s kind of a long story but I will see what I can do to condense it down. . . . .
It started with the sales team requesting we make a ‘brown ale’. They felt that a hole existed in the lineup and what we needed to fill that hole with was a ‘brown ale’. I use quotation marks around ‘brown’ because when I asked Fred, our sales director, if he meant he wanted me to make an actual Brown Ale to style or if he simply wanted a beer that was simply ‘brown in color’. He responded with the latter. That was perfect for me as I have not really been a fan of traditional Brown Ales. I find them to be a little boring frankly but that is me and I certainly do not expect anyone to quit drinking or making traditional Brown Ales simply because I don’t care much for them. Anyway, there were a number of different things I was thinking about at the time that kind of came together in this beer. The first was the fact that we really wanted to try out this new Carmel Rye malt. It has this great raisin-like flavor to it. I had been searching around for something to replace the Special B that De Wolf Cosyn used to make before being sold to Cargill who rolled it into Dingemann’s – which makes great malt by the way, it’s just that the Special B changed when they did that – so, anyway, I found this Carmel Rye malt from Simpson’s that I thought had potential to do that and I thought it would be great to give it a run in this beer. I mean, essentially I could make it taste like whatever we wanted because we weren’t trying to hit a style at all – just a color. So, we had that going for us. We were also looking at a lot of fermentation techniques in regard to lager yeast strains. I had been reading a lot about how Belgian brewers will use lager strains but ferment them warm or even hot in order to get some weird flavors out of them. So we wanted to try that. And finally, we used another Belgian technique of increasing the kettle gravity through the use of sugar. So in the end we found a way to marry all these things together. The beer is really quite big but can drink a little lighter than it might otherwise appear if we used an ale strain. It makes it slightly deceiving. Originally, we fermented it really hot in order to try and funkify it. But after some messing around we found that fermenting it at a more traditional ale temperature actually made the beer much more pleasing. The lager strain really makes a clean beer even in the mid to high 60’s F. So that is where we have left it. It has been a bit of an experiment from when we first introduced it but we seem to have come into its wheelhouse over the last couple of years.
Is there one beer for you that you see as perfection? That one beer that the first time you discovered it just really floored you?
If you mean: do I see any particular brand of beer as perfection then I would say no, that doesn’t exist. At least not every time. I think perfection is very fleeting. You might have a beer paired with the right food to be taken with the right company and it is all occurring in the right atmosphere under the ideal circumstances. At that point that beer might represent perfection. But when I drink it the next day while watching the ball game then maybe it is just a beer. Follow? So perfection is something to strive for and, maybe if you are lucky, achieve for a moment but it isn’t something that you can hold and possess. Now, having said that, I have had beers that during given moments in my life I have been profoundly impressed with (i.e. perhaps they floored me). Do they still continue to do that? I don’t know, but I know I still drink them when I have the opportunity. For example, I am heading to Cigar City Brewing in Tampa during my vacation in order to have a pint of their Humidor IPA (hopefully it will be on tap!) because I had it at the 2010 GABF and it was my favorite beer of the event. It was unique and drinkable at the same time – that can be a very difficult thing to pull off. So, I figure I need to at least pay them a visit and see what is going on over there.
What percentage would you rate the chances of people seeing your dance moves at the Soul Shakedown Party at Kraftwork tomorrow night?
Better than fifty-fifty (you are the DJ after all Joel)
I know it's been a while since you've been here, but do you have any great Philly memories to share?
My friends Guy Hagner and Tom Clark of Berwick Brewing Co. (this was previous to its opening as One Guy Brewing) taking me out for cheese steaks at some random neighborhood Philly joint. How can you beat that? Read more!
Posted by Dr Joel at 9:28:00 AM