Note: This profile originally appeared in issue 69 of BeerAdvocate Magazine.
Steve Parkes’ vision of quality control is a little different than the typical small brewer. For many, the most technologically advanced instruments used in the evaluation process are the human eyes, ears, nose, and mouth. When they see, smell, and hear gas coming out of the blowoff tube in a fermentor, they know the yeast is viable. When the samples taste good, they know the yeast did its job and made beer.
Parkes knows better than that.
As the co-owner and lead instructor of the American Brewers Guild Brewing School, Parkes stresses the value of quality assurance to his students. As the co-owner and Master Brewer at Drop In Brewing Company, he demands the same attention to detail out of himself.
“We’re not going to send product out without being confident of our product ourselves,” he said. “It’s something we teach every student of the school, so we’ll be living that message ourselves.”
How It’s Made
Visitors to the Middlebury, Vermont brewery may not notice much different about Drop In from its tasting room and the kind of quality beer the spoiled locals have come to expect from their brewers. However, the beer is just the secondary product produced at Drop In.
The primary goal of the brewery is something a little less tangible. As Parkes said, the “product of the day will be education.”
The brewery will serve as the home of the American Brewers Guild Brewing School as well as a fully-functioning commercial brewery. After years of working with other breweries for a week-long, practical education on how an actual brewery functions, students will spend one week in Middlebury as the culminating experience of the 28-week correspondence program.
“We’ve got lots of experience at arriving at somebody else’s facility,” Parkes said. “Here, we’ll have the capability of training people at our own facility and the implications of that are tremendous. The priority goes back to being education as opposed to making that other brewery’s beer… In this case, the emphasis of the day will be learning to make a batch of beer, and not the product itself.”
The facility, which had all the makings of a perfect brewery location: accessible water, a built-in trench drain, and plenty of space; contains a tasting room, a lab, a classroom, and of course the brewhouse itself. Parkes holds court in each area, but it is in the brewhouse where he is most at home.
“Steve needs to brew,” said Parke’s wife, Christine McKeever-Parkes. “It’s something that’s important to him, so the decision to brew and sell beer was an easy one.”
Parkes and his wife, Christine McKeever-Parkes, took over the brewing school in 1999, but his career in beer began long before then. A native of the United Kingdom, Parkes studied brewing science at Hariot-Wyatt University in Scotland before embarking on a 30-year campaign that took him from the British Isles to both coasts of the United States.
Over the years he opened new breweries, and he helped pre-existing breweries grow and adapt with the ever-changing industry landscape. When he and his wife took over the brewing school, Parkes’ job was to pass on his knowledge to up-and-coming brewers who have since gone on to open breweries of their own around the globe.
Brewers such as Surly Brewing Co.’s Omar Ansari studied under Parkes when he owned Otter Creek in the early 2000’s, as did others who went on to open breweries around the world. The experience of a lifetime in the industry is a major selling point for Drop In.
“There’s a lot of breweries in Vermont, but Steve, honestly, Steve and his expertise and his experience and his education in brewing is really something that is going to set us apart,” McKeever-Parkes said. “All the breweries in Vermont are fantastic, but being a teaching brewery and having Steve at the helm is really something we want to stress.”
It is possible that Parkes may get to know those brewers even better, as he recently founded his own distribution company in order to self-distribute Drop In Brewing’s beers in a state that requires brewers to sell to distributors. Although Pint-Size Distribution’s only current brand is Drop In, Parkes left the possibility of distributing other small brands in the area open: “We have the ability to, so we’ll see.”
Over his 30 years in the business, Parkes is confident in his abilities as a brewer. He no longer shies away from being labeled as a Master Brewer, and he trusts his own palate enough to know when he is making good beer. He feels that is the case with the brewery’s flagship beer, Sunshine and Hoppiness.
“We built the beer, and then tried to describe what style it is,” Parkes said. “We call it a Belgian Golden Ale, but really it isn’t. I sat back for a long, long time about how people perceive characteristics in beer and what characteristics people enjoy the most. I’ve long believed the malt character from German Pilsner malt is more enjoyable, so we use that for the base. It’s got a bready, biscuity taste that I enjoy.”
The ale is hopped with Cascades, a hop Parkes enjoys for its versatility in all phases of the brewing process.
“It’s not dull and astringent, it’s not sharp, it’s just clean bitterness,” Parkes said. “It’s simple and you only need the one hop in the beer, but it expresses itself in other ways.”
Although Sunshine and Hoppiness has what Parkes describes as “massive hop complexity,” it is evident that he focuses on making a balanced beer, not just a hoppy one.
“It’s (about) drinkability, but also complexity,” he said. “There’s no point in making a beer that somebody has to choke down. Although, there’s a point to challenging people with beer, and I get that and we will do that. I like the idea of challenging beer drinkers with things that might be extreme.”
At 52 years old, Parkes’ definition of extreme is a little different than those of a younger generation that might be more willing to experimentation with odd ingredients and methods. Don’t expect Drop In Brewing to produce the kind of beers that seem better-suited for a two-ounce pour at a festival than a pint or two at the pub.
“I’m not as extreme as some of the brewers that are punks about things, although I was a punk in 1977, but I wasn’t much of a rebel,” Parkes said. “I believe in the drinkability of beer, although that can get simplified. A beer like Budweiser didn’t arrive there by accident. Thought went into every characteristic over that beer… it’s not just throwing ingredients together and seeing what happened.”
That dedication to interesting, yet well-balanced and approachable, beers is apparent in the brewery’s lineup. Whether he is brewing a Belgian IPA or an Scottish 80 Shilling, Parkes’ attention to detail is strict in every step from recipe formulation on to carbonation and service.
That is the kind of quality work he demands out of those who come to him for an education in brewing. He expects nothing less out of himself.
Sean Lewis is a freelance writer and homebrewer and is currently working on his first book for St. Martin’s Press