From The Source – Wicked Weed

Note: This story originally appeared in Issue 78 of BeerAdvocate Magazine. It is reproduced here without the work and revision of my editors.

 

England’s King Henry VIII wasn’t exactly a hophead. The 16th century monarch declared that hops were a “wicked weed,” destined to ruin beer.  About 500 years later hops are more prominent than ever, and many American drinkers can’t imagine beer without them.

Certainly, they stand in the spotlight at one of newest brewpubs, Wicked Weed Brewing. There, brash and hoppy American Ales are celebrated and featured alongside old-world Belgian styles all the while praising a local culture that is quickly becoming one of the most impressive beer cities in the world.

 

Brewing Epicenter

Few cities have dominated barstool conversations the way Asheville has over the past several years. Not only has the city repeatedly been dubbed “Beer City, USA” in online polls, it has enjoyed an explosion of local breweries opening within the city limits and surrounding areas. Bigger brewers such as Oskar Blues, Sierra Nevada and New Belgium have announced plans to expand their operations into Asheville and the surrounding area as well.

While Ashville and Buncombe county can’t compete with regions like Portland, Oregon, San Diego and others in terms of quantity of breweries, it matches, and perhaps surpasses, those regions with passion about beer.

“There’s just no way we could even compete,” says Wicked Weed co-owner Walt Dickinson. “There’s 12-13 breweries in Buncombe county compared to 25 in Portland doing amazing things. But that’s not what the survey was about, it was about communities that loved and supported craft beer.”

Conventional wisdom might suggest that the Asheville market is heading toward oversaturation, and that the local brewers should be worried about each new arrival or expansion. Instead, the local community has embraced breweries like Wicked Weed – in large part because Wicked Weed embraced Asheville.

The pub is loaded with beautiful, hand-crafted work from local artists and artisans. Hop bines grow alongside custom metalwork on the pub’s casual back patio. Patrons sit at the bar crafted out of a 200-year-old piece of gumwood that still carries embedded musket balls from the civil war. Wood in the rafters came from an old Ashville Hotel, and exposed brick came from demolition sites around the city.

The downstairs pub feels like a craft-centric beer pub with its chalkboards and brick, while the upstairs side has the air of a more traditional restaurant, but still has 14 beers on tap.

“Everything is about pairing what we think is good craft beer, well-executed and creative with good, creative elegant bar cuisine,” says Walt. “We’re really trying to challenge people to think differently. This week we’re putting six new beers on tap. We put at least two to three new beers a week on. We’ve done around 86 batches since we’ve opened, and 45 of those have been new recipes. We always try to put new things on and challenge ourselves, and we encourage the kitchen to do the same.”

 

Collaborative Effort

A big part of Wicked Weed’s embrace of Asheville includes collaboration with local restaurants and breweries – and even a local teahouse. Collaboration is nothing new in Asheville, or the beer industry in general, but it is essential to Wicked Weed’s operation.

The brewery was the brainchild of brothers Walt and Luke Dickinson, but it was little more than the dream of a couple of home brewers in a basement before they got in touch with their lifelong friend, Ryan Guthy. Together, they approached Ryan’s parents, Rick and Denise, as potential investors.

The original plan was that Luke and Walt would start the business in Chatanooga, Tennessee—where Walt had a business partner and ties to his wife’s family. They hosted a paired dinner with their beer and food from the chef they planned to employ, and the Guthys loved it, but there was a catch.

“Two days later, (Denise) called me and said ‘Look. I love what you guys are doing. I think your beer is exceptional and really interesting and this idea you have is great.’” Says Walt. “’But we love Asheville. We’re invested in Asheville and we want to do it in Asheville. If you come back to Asheville, we will back the entire thing.’

“The amount of money Luke and I had was pretty minimal. Anybody who is trying to open a brewery knows it isn’t cheap. And they’ve just been very quality-oriented. They really believe in our vision of craft beer. They’re supportive in embracing our ideas.”

 

Old Meets New

The brewery’s personality is split between hoppy American Ales and Belgian-style beers, particularly Belgian Saisons. Luke, who described his brother as the “big-picture guy” and himself as the one who hammers out recipe specifics, and Walt wanted to brew the beers they loved. Rather than focus on a niche that might be able to set them apart in the Asheville market, the Dickinsons simply said, “why not do both?”

Wicked Weed’s name stems from an appreciation of hops, and beers like Zealot, a 7% ABV IPA and Freak, an 8% Double IPA, both tickle the palates of hopheads. But what sets Wicked Weed apart from many small breweries is its dedication to Belgian styles.

“First off, my brother and I, we’re just beer geeks and we love Belgian beers,” Luke said. “We love the great Belgian beers – the Rocheforts and the American beers from Allegash and Ommegang are wonderful. But I’m a huge hophead and love hoppy beers. My bro and I both grew up our younger years in Los Angeles. We have these ties to the west coast.

“With the beers on the west coast, they know what they’re doing. East coast IPAs are good, but we felt especially in Asheville, the west coast IPAs are missing, and that’s something I love to make. We were hit with this dilemma of do we do one or do we do the other, and we thought: why not do both?”

Of course, this is where the benefits of having understanding investors come in. The Dickinsons were able to act out on their brewing fantasies because of a financial flexibility that many startup breweries can’t afford. For example, few new breweries have a room set aside for open fermentation complete with a HEPA filter on the ventilation system and a glycol-cooled open fermentor.

“We do all our Belgian Saisons in that room, and that’s all we do in that room,” Luke said. “With those, we tend to hold it right around 70 degrees for the first two days, and then we let it go. Our Saisons are getting up to 89 degrees in there and our Belgians are in the high 70s in there.”

The idea to employ open fermentation at Wicked Weed came from a trip to Belgium while Luke was completing an internship in Germany. He noticed that a lot of Belgian brewers were still using open fermentation, and thought that it added something to the beer that American beers lacked.

Still young, the brewery opened just before the start of 2013, Wicked Weed is constantly expanding with a barrel program and sour ale program still in its infancy.

King Henry VIII probably wouldn’t approve of a lot of what happens at Wicked Weed, but Asheville has fully embraced the newest players on the scene.

Advertisements

Country Boy Brewing – FTS #76

Note: This story originally appeared in Issue #76 of BeerAdvocate Magazine. It is republished here without the brilliant editing that BA Mag gives me every month, so please excuse any typos or silly mistakes.

For anybody that still needs proof that beer brings people together, head to Lexington, Kentucky and sit down at Country Boy Brewing’s bar. Grab a pint poured from one of their 24 taps. Chat with your neighbor, ask them what it’s like to be into craft beer in Lexington (here’s a hint: it’s good, and getting better all the time).

Then know that this is not the result of a single man’s dream. Understand that the beer you’re drinking was not crafted within a narrow sphere of influence, but that its roots span the globe. Finally, you can recognize that that same global product is making a major local impact.

 

Beer Community

Just a few years ago, Lexington did not have much of a beer scene.

“We were a craft beer wasteland for the last 10 or 15 years,” says Country Boy co-owner Daniel Harrison. “There was a place here in the 90s that tried to make a go of it – they were a big brewpub. The south is a quirky place, man. Good beer is hard to do here because most people here are not into craft beer. The things they have out in the Northwest and California – that’s not here.

“Mark Twain said when the world ends he wanted to be in Kentucky, because everything happens here 10 years later, and he’s right.”

But Harrison figured that the reason Lexington wasn’t a haven for craft beer had more to do with the fact that it had relatively few options. So he, as well as partners Evan Coppage and Jeff Beagle, decided to do something about that.

The city known for its nearby distilleries and thoroughbred farms already had Kentucky Ale – a relatively large brewer focuses its flagship, Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale, but little else. Harrison, Coppage and Beagle felt like it was time for something new.

“We wanted to be the experimental, small place,” Harrison said. “We all started as home brewers. We wanted to be a more experimental place.”

And as they started down the path toward creating a craft beer scene in Lexington, others quickly joined them. Around the same time Country Boy opened – February, 2012 – so too did places like Lexington Beerworks, a craft beer bar that doubles as a bottle shop and homebrew supply store, and West Sixth Brewing Company, a community- and environmentally-conscious brewery nearby.

“All these places were opening within give months of each other,” says Harrison, “and it’s helped create a craft beer renaissance here in Lexington, and it’s just been amazing.”

 

From Numazu to Lexington

Even to an outsider like Chris Poel, the scene in Country Boy’s taproom seemed remarkable.

“I’ve just been blown away just the two nights I’ve been here – it’s just been wild,” says Poel. “It’s packed with people and all different kinds of people. Different ages, young men, young women, old guys that look like they’re on their last beer – it’s wild. We really don’t have anything like that in Japan, yet. A good night for us and a good night for them here – there are two different levels.”

Poel, the lead brewer at Numazu, Japan’s Baird Brewing Company and a Michigan native, was back in the U.S. to brew with the folks at Country Boy.

On the surface, it seems strange for the two breweries from different continents to work together. But dig a little deeper, and the connections become apparent.

Harrison, known as “DH” to his friends – and everybody he meets is his friend – spent three years in Japan after college.  With essentially no beer culture in his home town, it was in Japan that he fell in love with beer.

“I’ve never experienced meeting a brewer, drinking fresh beer in site and being infected by the passion this guy had,” says Harrison about the first time he met Baird Brewing founder Bryan Baird. “Anybody who knows Bryan – he infects you with the passion he has. So we said we can make a go of this brewery thing in Lexington.”

Upon his return, Harrison teamed up with Coppage and Coppage’s brother on an immense home brewing operation. What started as a passion quickly mophed into an obsession.

The self-described country boys had an eight-tap keezer in their basement, and they kept it full by brewing as much as possible.

“We started balls-to-the-wall a huge homebrew system in our back yard,” says Coppage. “We’d brew 20-gallon batches, sometimes 40 gallons in a day. We actually brewed more than our legal limit in our first year… we brewed like 370 gallons our first year.”

But opening a brewery was still just a dream – something they kicked around with friends over pints on a brew day. Until Beagle, a fellow member of the homebrew club BOCK (Brewers of Central Kentucky), finally gave them the kick in the ass they needed.

“He was like ‘Hey, if we’re going to do this – let’s quit talking about it,’” says Harrison. “’Let’s do it.’ If we hadn’t met him we’d probably still be in the back yard. It’s kind of like the right people in the right place. Lexington was just dying for a craft brewery.”

 

As They Like It

Poel and Country Boy collaborated to brew Angry Amos – essentially an imperialized mashup of Baird’s Angry Boy and Country Boy’s Amos Moses. A lot of the details were fluid, but Baird did send along one specific request from Japan for the beer destined for aging in bourbon barrels.

“My boss, Bryan, said, ‘If you’re going to do Bourbon, get some Maker’s Mark barrels,’” Poel said. “Originally, Evan and people here said we can’t do that, Makers sends all their barrels overseas, we can’t get them. Two days later, DH said ‘I made some calls and we’ve got Maker’s barrels.’”

Lexington is in the heart of bourbon country – a source of great pride for Kentuckians – and the barrel-aging program has certain enviable qualities that brewers in beer Meccas like San Diego or Portland (either one) could only dream about.

“Breweries around the country cry trying to get the barrels we get here. We’re swimming in barrels,” says Harrison. “They’re not a rarity here. The fact that we can get different bourbons with different flavors on them plays a lot into our process of barrel aging.”

That availability allows Country Boy to brew a rye beer, then age it in Sazerac Rye bourbon barrels. Basically, Country Boy gets to brew the beer they like, then do whatever they want with it after it’s done – which is just the way they want it.

“We like to make beer that we like to drink,” says Coppage. “We don’t brew anything to style. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just not our approach. We brew things that we imagine in our head how we want it to be.”

That includes beers like the wildly popular Jalapeno Smoked Porter – made with 20 pounds of freshly chopped and de-seeded jalapenos, or Shotgun Wedding, a Vanilla Brown Ale aged on whole vanilla beans.

The Country Boys, though they gladly pay homage to those who inspired them, proudly do their own thing. And as they go their own way, an entire community is starting to go along with them.

Alpine Brewing Company

Note: This story originally appeared in Issue 75 of BeerAdvocate Magazine. Since then, Alpine has announced that it will contract brew some of its beers at Cold Springs Brewery in Minnesota.

Inside Alpine Beer Company, Pat McIlhenny fiddled with some spare parts and tools as he gave a guarded interview. Outside the small brewery, a line was forming.

Nobody made any announcements, but somehow word got out that Alpine was releasing the highly-desired Exponential Hoppiness – a Triple IPA that bursts with hop flavor and aroma. Back inside, McIlhenny, the brewery’s founder and brewmaster, and general manager Steve Lejman gear up for the onslaught inside the small storefront that used to house a TV repair shop.

This is life at the front of the American Beer Revolution, and it’s forced McIlhenny to do things differently than he ever imagined.

 

Expansion

Alpine Beer Company looks like you might imagine a small brewery in a small mountain town might look like. The location is unassuming and snuggled in tight next to an old and quaint bookstore. The site oozes with charm and the scenery is Southern California in all its glory.

This was a dream location when McIlhenny opened it, with his son Shawn as a brewer, in 2002. It was the perfect place to fulfill his very simple goal.

“I opened this place to take care of the town of Alpine,” McIlhenny said. “What it turned into is not of our doing. We don’t advertise. We never will. That’s part of our business philosophy. We let the beer speak for itself. If you like it, great. If you don’t, there’s plenty of other places you can try out. Make good beer. Everything else takes care of itself after that.”

Pat and Shawn have made enough good beer that demand has far surpassed supply. When asked how hard it’s been to keep up, Pat’s response was just one word: “Impossible.”

With an eye toward satisfying demand, McIlhenny decided to find a way to brew more beer. A physical expansion within Alpine’s city limits is still on the distant horizon, but in the meantime he has begun the process of signing a contract to brew 5,000 barrels of beer at a yet-undisclosed location.

“Pat’s been sort of forced into it,” Lejman said. “I don’t think it was ever his intention to have to go this route, but demand obviously you can see if you look out the door there is demand for the beer. It’s much better than the supply. We’ve been telling people no for new accounts for the past five years. We can’t even satisfy our existing accounts – we’ve had to put limits on them.”

McIlhenny was loathe to give up any details of where the beer would be brewed because the contract was not signed yet, but Shawn and he both said it would take place at a location with a water profile very similar to Alpine’s. McIlhenny also said the only beers brewed out of town will be Duet, Nelson, and Hoppy Birthday. All three are in high demand, and none make use of Alpine’s hopback – which will not be available at the contract location.

“I can tell you that the place has a phenomenally good water supply, and that’s the primary reason for picking it,” McIlhenny said. “The water profile will ultimately be very similar to what’s here.”

 

A Simple Approach

McIlhenny, a retired fireman, started Alpine as a contract operation in the corner of a cold box at AleSmith Brewing Company in 1999. He had been a home brewer for years before, but this was not a willy-nilly foray into the beer business or an attempt at a quick grab of the burgeoning better beer segment.

“In 1983 when I decided I was going to open my own brewery some day, the steps were being put in place then,” he said. “It started by my home brewing. I didn’t look at home brewing as a la-de-da oh geez we’ll see how this turns out – it was purposeful and done with an intent. I took good notes and made entries into competitions and took the judges’ notes on how to improve the beer until I was winning awards. Then I would try to perfect the next style the same way – take notes, perfect it as much as possible, and win it won a significant-enough award I would move on to the next one. I had eight solid beers before I ever opened the doors.”

This calculated and methodical approach did not include a steady and progressive expansion. Many breweries that have been operating since the late nineties have grown in staggering ways since their inception. But Alpine remains settled in its little nook of San Diego County in the same building it’s occupied for the past 11 years.

Part of that is due to McIlhenny’s desire to stay small, part of that is certainly due to the fact that a previous attempt at expansion was thwarted when a 30-barrel bright tank was stolen off a piece of property where Alpine Brewing hoped to build its new brewhouse. But in truth, Alpine remained small for so long because getting big was never McIlhenny’s focus.

“We make good beer. That’s the philosophy,” he said. “It’s not earth-shattering. There’s no revelations there. The thing I learned from my dad is quality always sells. If you make a good, whatever-it-is, you should be successful. You can look at many, many other examples of that in today’s world.

“Is General Motor’s going to go out of business any time soon? Probably not. Their general line is probably mediocre at best, but they have Cadillac. They’ll forever be successful because they have a good, high-quality car that they’re going to sell. Even if their other dogs don’t, they’ve got one that will. That’s kind of the philosophy behind that. It doesn’t have to be any more complicated than that either.”

 

 

Pure Hoppiness

That good beer that they focus on making, it’s in demand for a reason. As the beer revolution has swept across the United States, the West Coast has become synonymous with strong, hoppy ales. Be it brewed in Portland or San Diego, a West Coast IPA brings to mind bursts of citrus and herbs, with a sweet caramel backbone.

When it comes to hoppy beers brewed in that West Coast tradition, Alpine does not disappoint.

“We are a bit hop-centric here,” Shawn McIlhenny said. “We do enjoy our IPAs. We like our hoppy Pale Ales and we enjoy the stronger side of IPAs too. But as far as the beers go, we try to use the highest quality malt we can find, as well as the yeast. Having a good, clean water supply doesn’t hurt either.”

According to Shawn, it is the water at Alpine that makes their beers so special. Beers like Pure Hoppiness, a West Coast Double IPA that utilizes Alpine’s giant hopback to get a massive hop aroma; Duet, a standard IPA made with Simcoe and Amarillo hops; and Nelson, a Golden Rye IPA generously hopped with Nelson Sauvin hops bring the hop heads to the brewery in packs.

There are other beers too. Good beers. Beers like McIlhenny’s Irish Red and Captain Stout, and Oatmeal Chocolate Stout, balance out the rotation. But when a line forms outside Alpine before the brewery even announces a release, it’s forming there because hop heads are coming, and they’re coming in droves.

 

Market Garden Brewery

Note: This story was originally published in Issue #74 of BeerAdvocate Magazine. Some parts have been edited, as there were errors in the original version.

 

There was a time when the city of Cleveland was a vibrant and bustling beer town. The neighborhood of Ohio City was the heart of the brewing district then, and it is emerging as a must-visit for beer drinkers once again.

Part of that revival includes Market Garden Brewery, which opened in 2011 by a group of business partners looking to expand from beer bars to brewing.

In The Blood

Founder Sam McNulty started his first restaurant when he was 21, an eatery and beer bar on the Cleveland State campus – where he was a student. Since then, he has taken over a small stretch of West 25th street in Cleveland’s Ohio City neighborhood—just across the river south of downtown Cleveland.

It started in 2005 with the opening of McNulty’s Bier Markt, a Belgian beer bar, but continued to grow with Bar Centro, an Italian restaurant and beer bar; Speakeasy, a pre-prohibition style cocktail lounge opened in 2009; and Market Garden in 2011. Along the way McNulty has added to the ownership group to include Foran, Mark Priemer, and brewmaster Andy Tveekrem.

“I always wanted to have a career in beer, which is why at 21 years old I opened up my first restaurant and beer bar on Cleveland State campus,” McNulty said. “That was 17 years ago. It’s always kind of been in my blood, literally and figuratively. All jokes aside about enjoying drinking, I see beer as part of the social fabric of civilization. That sounds all grandiose and crazy, but I think beer plays an extremely important role in the cultural life of cities and neighborhoods. If you look at pub culture and all the great things that have transpired and conversations and ideas that have grown out of people enjoying beer together and entering into this melting pot, it seems like wow all these places and at last count we’ve got over 200 taps just on this street alone.”

Following the opening of Market Garden, McNulty’s group introduced Nano Brew—a former biker bar turned into a bicycle bar, complete with a covered bike corral out front and tools for bike repair behind the bar, where Tveekrem and his brewing team can experiment on a 20-gallon system.

“When the firsts several places opened up, people asked ‘why are you doing this? You’re just going to cannibalize your own business,’” McNulty said. “After the fourth place opened up people stopped saying that. Every time a good place opens up on this street, and not just our place we’ve had a lot of other restaurants and bars open up in Ohio City in the seven years since we’ve been here, every time a new place comes the rising tide lifts all ships.”

 

In The Garden

There are two things that set Market Garden Brewery apart from your typical brew pub. The first, and most important, is Tveekrem. Tveekrem started his career at Great Lakes and eventually made a name for himself as the brewmaster for Dogfish Head.

“Anybody going into the restaurant or brewpub business, 90% of the time they have problems it’s beer quality or beer consistency,” co-owner Mike Foran said. “To bring a guy like Andy in we just knew from Day 1 that the beer was going to be great, so it allowed us to focus on other elements of the brewpub to make it successful.”

Around the time McNulty and Moran were looking to open a brew pub, Tveekrem was back in town looking to open up a brewery of his own. The two took Tveekrem out to dinner at their Bar Centro location, and convinced him to join forces with them instead.

“We were looking around for places to start a brewpub and out of the blue I get a call from Sam and his partner Mark,” Tveekrem said. “They were thinking about this project, they had the land already purchased. It was across the street from their Italian restaurant. We met and had dinner and kind of hit it off, which was the main thing.

“I could just see the potential for letting it grow. It started a brewpub, but it could go beyond that and that’s always intriguing to me. It didn’t take me too long to figure out maybe I should put my money in with these guys and see where it gets us.”

With Tveekrem at the helm, Market Garden’s beer was all set. The next step was creating the write atmosphere to drink said beer. That’s where the second defining characteristic comes into play, as Market Garden proudly claims to own Cleveland’s first American-style beer garden.

“We do a few things that are different than the European tradition,” McNulty said. “We embrace communal tables, which of course they also do in Europe, but ours are cocktail height. And on the surface that seems like a minor distinction, but if you think about the difference of the reality of standing or leaning on a bar as opposed to hunkering down on a bench at a picnic table – the American version allows for a little more mingling. You’re more likely to meet more people.”

 

Playing Within Limits

Even with the playground/laboratory of Nano Brew at his disposal, Tveekrem doesn’t produce radical ales. Instead of exploring odd ingredients or techniques, something that his previous employer is known for, Tveekrem’s focus is more customer-oriented.

“Usually my focus is on drinkability,” he says. “How can I construct it so that it’s actually going to be all the flavors I want in there, but they’re actually going to be something I want to have another pint of or maybe two. It’s not just about packing as much stuff in a glass of beer as possible, but it’s about finding a way to round it out and have it all work together.

“I’m an old-school beer geek I guess. I went through the Beer Judge Certification Program and all that so I’m always kind of looking at styles and what makes a beer correct for a certain style and how to play within that range.”

With an emphasis on approachability in the forefront, beers like Pearl Street Wheat, a traditional Bavarian-style Hefeweizen with plenty of banana and clove notes, are among the brewery’s most popular. So is the aptly named Cluster Fuggle IPA, an English-style IPA brewed with, what else, Cluster and Fuggles hops.

“It’s not a west-coast hop bomb,” Tveekrem says. “It’s got a good malt backbone and there’s Fuggle hops in the end.”

That’s not to say that Tveekrem is averse to hops, as Viking Pale Ale is every bit an American Pale Ale designed to showcase the Cascade hops.

With its focus on drinkability and creating a communal atmosphere, Market Garden Brewery is an example of what a brewpub can accomplish when it keeps its customers at the heart of its decision-making process. The end result is one more step toward revitalizing a neighborhood that is becoming known once again for its high-quality beer.

Thai Me Up

Note: This profile originally appeared in issue 73 of BeerAdvocate Magazine

 

There aren’t too many places in Wyoming like Thai Me Up—the cozy, dimly-lit Jackson Hole brewpub that pairs West Coast IPAs with Thai food and two big screen televisions featuring Kung Fu flicks. Never mind Wyoming, there aren’t too many places like Thai Me Up anywhere.

Now, with three Great American Beer Festival medals in his back pocket, owner and founder Jeremy Tofte has the hardware to prove what he’s known all along: there’s something special about the quirky little brewery.

 

Gold Standard

Thai Me Up’s brewer, Kirk McHale, is no stranger to winning at the GABF. As a former brewer at Pizza Port’s Carlsbad and San Clemente locations, he had more than his fair share of success at the annual festival. But 2012 marked a new experience for him and his brewery, as Thai Me Up claimed the coveted Alpha King award to go along with two golds and a silver medal.

The recognition was enough of a surprise that Tofte, who was in town for the celebration, wasn’t even around to hear the announcement.

“We were supposed to be at the Alpha King, but we got caught at a dance club and lost track of time,” Tofte says. “Yeah, we got a text from Mark Silver at Barley Brown’s that said ‘You just won the fucking Alpha King.’ When I got out of the club I was like oh, sure we did. We went to another bar and heard people talking about it and whatnot, and thought maybe we should go over there and check it out. That was really cool, winning that. It’s a wonderful crowd that Kirk’s in with right there.”

That was just the beginning of the celebration. The next day saw Thai Me Up called to the podium three times – first, for Cherry Freak, a fruit beer that McHale had been perfecting for years.

“I tried for years to beat New Glarus,” he says. “I tried for 13 years to beat New Glarus and I finally beat them, and I finally figured out what he was doing at New Glarus. I do it differently, but I finally figured it out. There are so many cherries, its’ ridiculous. In one batch of beer there’s almost 300 pounds.”

Then Thai Me Up was brought to the stage once more, as the brewery’s Melvin IPA – a beer so popular at the pub that Tofte sometimes leaves it off the tap list so that there’s enough for the locals – took gold in the Strong Pale Ale Category.

“It was really cool getting that award, we were hanging out in the back back with all the guys from Texas for some reason,” Tofte says. “When they announced us, the Snake River guys were back by us, and they jumped up the same time we jumped up and started waving the Wyoming flag. We went down there and high-fived all the guys and hugged it out. We told each other no hugs, but it happened.”

By the time he was called again for the 2×4 Double IPA, Tofte said he was beginning to understand “what Pizza Port must feel like,” and that his neck was getting sore from carrying all those heavy medals. He later learned from veteran award-winners at Bear Republic that the trick is to keep the hardware in his pockets – that way he will have the added pleasure of showing them off once more when he takes them out one-by-one at the airport for the flight home.

 

Good Friends Make Good Beer

“The only reason I came out here is because I’m really good friends with Jeremy,” McHale says. Indeed, the duo first met about a decade ago through mutual friend Adam Carruth of San Diego’s Carruth Cellars. Tofte had tried to pry McHale away from Pizza Port, but had to wait until the California brewer decided that it was time for a change of scenery.

When he came out, he helped change the brewery in big ways – starting with an upgrade to the brewing system from the small half-barrel glorified homebrew system that Tofte started with to the current 3-barrel system McHale installed.

McHale also brought along his West Coast style.

“I think we changed the whole beer scene in Wyoming is what we did,” McHale says. “They weren’t used to hops. I love Snake River. I really love Snake River, but they were used to lagers and double bocks and so on and so forth. We brought the IPAs up here and the cherry beer and our crazy strong beers. We just decided to go in a different direction.”

Snake River, Wyoming’s most popular brewery, comes up a lot when discussing Thai Me Up, but as the celebrations at GABF showed there is nothing but love between the breweries. Tofte and McHale don’t try to emulate what Snake River does, and never had any intentions of doing so.

Although Tofte had originally wanted to open a small production brewery, the local city was against it and few investors were willing to take a chance on a 25-year-old homebrewer. Instead, he found his own way into the industry.

“As a joke, on my 20-gallon homebrew system, I decided I’m going to apply for my federal license to see what happened,” Tofte says. “They gave me a federal license, and the state gave me a license, and the city had no choice but to give me a license. Maybe they just grew up a little bit, but they thought how bad could it hurt our reputation in this little cowboy town, Jackson Hole.”

 

Ain’t Nothin’ to f* With

When asked to describe his approach to beer, McHale summed it up in two words: “West Coast.” He readily admits to wanting to brew like Russian River Company’s Vinnie Cilurzo, but says that his real influences come from Staten Island.

“The Wu Tang Clan rules my syle,” McHale says. And he means it, the East Coast rap supergroup is often blaring over the speakers when he brews.

That’s not a problem for Tofte, who has been nothing short of amazed by his friend’s brewing prowess. Tofte calls himself the “backseat brewer,” because he’s always adding his input for new ideas and on finished products, but rarely has the time to put in all the work.

He leaves that to McHale, who has helped shift the perception of what good beer can be in Wyoming.

“Snake River is really good, and we don’t mess around with the German and English beer because those guys can do that over there,” Tofte says. “For our first Belgian IPA, we came in in the morning and said what can we do? What should we do? Well, we have this Belgian yeast over here, let’s make a Belgian IPA. And Kirk is just a master, everything he does comes out awesome. Not only can I remember a beer that we’ve had to throw out, I can’t remember a beer that hasn’t been mouth-watering incredible.”

The brewhouse is small, but Tofte doesn’t worry about running out of beer because he always has guest taps, and most of his beers are big (usually above 8% ABV); big enough that customers don’t need to quaff back seven or eight pints to get a feel for the place.

Thai Me Up isn’t like any other place. It is what it is – and that’s just the way they like it.

Brewery Vivant

Note: This profile originally appeared in issue 72 of BeerAdvocate Magazine

 

With its high-arching ceilings and stained-glass windows, the pub at Brewery Vivant looks more like a cathedral than a home for a Belgo-Franco brewery, and for good reason – it used to be one.

Rather than start fresh in a warehouse space on the edge of town, co-owners Jason Spaulding and his wife Kris repurposed an old funeral home livery stables and chapel to house their small, niche brewery in the East Hills neighborhood of Grand Rapids. It would have been easier, and cheaper, to lease space in an industrial park, but the Spauldings chose to purchase and renovate the historic building because it fit with their desire to build a business with environmental and economic sustainability in mind. And the neighborhood location worked best for a very simple reason.

“We wanted people to be able to walk to the brewery instead of drive,” says Jason Spaulding.

 

Taking Care

This is not Spaulding’s first foray into the beer business, as he was a co-founder of the New Holland Brewing Company in Holland, Michigan during the 1990s. But this experiment would be different, as his green-minded wife came on board for Brewery Vivant – which opened in December, 2010.

She brought along her expertise in the sustainability field after working in that department for the Herman Miller furniture brand, and the desire to fit the brewery into an environmentally- and socially-conscious model became an integral part of the business plan.

“She kind of brought that passion, and of course she liked beer – that’s why I married her,” says Spaulding. “When I left New Holland, I had some things figured out, but it took a while to sort everything through. We were writing this business plan together and figuring out what we wanted to do, and more importantly what we didn’t want to do, but within that the sustainability piece was really crucial and important to us. “

The brewery boasts myriad ecological talking points – including water-efficient landscaping, low-flow toilets, rain-water runoff cisterns that take a load off the city’s water treatment plant, an oversized glycol cooler that efficiently cools the fermentation tanks as well as the draft beer system, and a canning line among others.

These considerations helped Brewery Vivant become the first-ever brewery to garner Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification from the U.S. Green Building Council (although Spaulding readily admits that there are many other breweries in the U.S. that share Brewery Vivant’s commitment to sustainability).

In addition to environmental concerns, the well-thought out plans have also led to a more cost-efficient system that allows the brewery to operate at a profitable level by cutting out waste at every possible level. It is the kind of attention to detail that has pulled in highly-dedicated employees, such as bartender Jon Ward, who has been with the brewery since it opened.

“I think that a lot of people come there because they know it’s going to be something different,” Ward says. “They know its’ going to be owners that care about the neighborhood, care about you, won’t be looking to expand infinitely and want to do stuff that will be good for you and good for the brewery.”

 

Stay Small

Although Brewery Vivant, which operates as a packaging brewery with an attached pub separated by a thin wall, recently expanded into the Chicago market, it has no desire to grow with unchecked abandon.

The plan is to produce no more than 5,000 barrels of beer a year and to maintain a focus on its niche market – which is Belgian-style farmhouse ales. This strategy would have been laughed away when Spaulding first got into the industry, but times have changed.

“When we started New Holland, we had to explain to people what a Pale Ale was; what a Red Ale was,” Spaulding says. “Fast forward to where we are now, people are a lot more developed. We kind of took a read of where we saw craft beer going, and decided to focus on a smaller slice; a little more niche. It gave us an opportunity to focus on what we are really passionate about.

“We’ve always loved farmhouse-style beers. And when we were opening the brewery we were considering what people would be able to accept that that’s what we exclusively make. I remember talking to bankers that thought it was a risky move, but we thought it was going to be fine and people would be excited to try the beers. I think craft beer drinkers are far enough along that it did work and people are excited about it.”

 

Tradition With a Twist

Head brewer Jacob Derylo didn’t grow up in rural farmland in the South of Belgium. Nor did he spend much of his prior brewing career focusing much on Farmhouse-style ales. Yet he revels in the chance to experiment with traditional styles in ways that others might not consider.

“We just kind of think about what we want to drink and what we want the beer to be,” Derylo says of the creative process at Brewery Vivant. “We’re not trying to brew to style at all – we’ve kind of thrown the style book out the window. I tell myself, ‘Focus on the flavor.’ We’re not necessarily creating Belgian beers because we’re putting an American twist on it using American hops. We’re fusing styles together and having fun with it”

Derylo brews Triomphe, a Belgian-Style India Pale Ale that smacks of citrus aroma and bitterness from American hops to complement the complexity of the Biere de Garde yeast. Then there’s Zaison, an Imperial Saison Ale that clocks in at 9% ABV.

There are also traditional ales such as Solitude, an Abbey-Style Ale brewed with tradition in mind and Vivant Tripel, which is described simply as a classic Tripel.

Then there is Trebuchet, a 9.7% Double IPA brewed with candy sugar and copious amounts of hops then fermented with a Belgian yeast. It is the kind of beer that a traditional Belgian brewer might scoff at, but keeps curious customers coming back for more – not to mention the employees.

“I wouldn’t be there still if I didn’t look and see that we were straddling the line between the evolution of beer as well as looking back at the tradition of beer and knowing the heritage that we’re coming from,” Ward says. “It’s a place I believe in and I’m passionate about”

In addition to finding a fusion between Belgian and American styles of beer, Derylo is constantly tinkering with new ways to add depth and complexity. Like so many American breweries has a small barrel-aging program with spirit and wine barrels that frequently see inoculations of brettanomyces and lactobacillus cultures. There are no limits to his experimentation, and if he wants to brew a beer with loads of hops and dark candy sugar then throw it into a cognac barrel for aging, then he does it.

Through experimentation and innovation, Brewery Vivant has found balance between creativity and tradition, as well as environmental responsibility and profitability. Yet the remarkable thing is that it was not accomplished through delicate tip-toeing around issues, but through a sort of ideological collision that resulted in an harmonious fusion visible in everything from the restored architecture to the diverse portfolio of beers.

10 Barrel Brewing

Note: This profile originally appeared in issue 71 of BeerAdvocate Magazine

 

Bend, Oregon is something of a beer drinker’s paradise. It is home to over a dozen breweries, and with one brewery for every 9,111 people it boasts the most breweries per capita. One of the staples of the Bend brewing scene is 10 Barrel Brewing Company.

The production brewery, which opened in 2006 under the name Wildfire Brewing Company before trademark issues forced partners and brothers Chris and Jeremy Cox forced them to change it. It was originally opened as a place for experimentation and celebration of beer, and has evolved into something of a brewer’s playground. But instead of monkey bars and swing sets, the brewing team at 10 Barrel gets to mess around with hop backs and expensive German grain mills.

 

Spirit of Experimentation

The brewery was founded with one 10-barrel brewhouse, which worked well for a small startup, but its output was quickly reaching its maximum potential as the brewery’s popular Apocalypse IPA and other mainstays were dominating the production schedule. In order to continue its growth, 10 Barrel upgraded to a 50-barrel system.

But instead of discarding the old system, 10 Barrel decided to keep it and install the two brewhouses side-by-side. The brewery coupled the brewhouse expansion with a move to a larger facility, and by March of 2012 was pumping out large batches of their IPA on the large system and toying with more experimental recipes on the 10-barrel system that can supply the brewery’s nearby pub with small-batch beer.

“For us it’s not about barrelage,” Chris Cox said. “We don’t have a number that we want to do. We don’t really want to be a real large brewery. We just want to produce really cool and really good beers. I think that’s why we’re okay with all these small 10-barrel brewhouses is because we have a lot more fun brewing on those brewhouses. The 50 just allows us to brew our production batches.”

What that means for the brewing team, headed by brewmaster Jimmy Seifrit, is more room to play. Seifrit is something like a playground supervisor, where he watches over the playful experiments of R&D brewmasters Tonya Cornett and Shawn Kelso—the latter of whom has moved to Boise, Idaho, where 10 Barrel is opening a brewpub with a new 10-barrel system of its own.

“For lack of a better word I’m an enabler,” Seifrit said. “When I look at my job it’s to facilitate the ideas that the brewers have, grow those ideas and hopefully see them come to fruition in the bottle. I do that either by providing them with the materials to work with, the knowledge, or the guidance.”

In addition to having the freedom to experiment with recipes, the 10 Barrel facility also contains a climate-controlled barrel cellar and a dedicated sour cell to keep the funkier microorganisms in their proper place.

“I’m trying to get away from just being bourbon,” Seifrit said of his collection of barrels. “I do have some brandy barrels that are tucked away in there. We’ve got some cab barrels tucked away, we have some pinot barrels tucked away – all these different things. I’m always trying to find new, cool stuff to work with.”

 

The Main Attraction

As screaming children flock to a good playground, so too have brewers found their way to 10 Barrel. The brewery opened with Paul Cook, now with Ninkasi, but continued forward with several brewers before Seifrit recently took the helm. Prior to that, Seifrit had been a brewer at Deschutes for 15 years, where the task of brewing Mirror Pond and Black Butte Porter over and over again was beginning to wear on him.

“When these guys came to try to pry me there, I told them no multiple times because Deschutes is a great company to work for,” Seifrit said. “They take care of their employees and it really did allow me a lot of freedom. But what I liked about it was being able to recreate what I had at Deschutes.

“I liked the prospect of being able to be small again and feeling like you’re gaining customers again one customer at a time.”

Cornett also praised the creative environment at 10 Barrel as a major draw that helped her leave her post at Bend Brewing Company in January.

“I love recipe development,” she said. “In my last position at Bend Brewing Co. I could brew what I wanted. However, I found between the mainstays and seasonals the time to be creative was dwindling each year. The focus of my position at 10 Barrel is research and development. I also mentor the junior brewers in recipe design.”

Along with Cornett, Seifrit and Kelso, 10 Barrel also has a team of junior brewers in Bobby Jackson, Ben Shirley, and Marlowe Hoffman. Hoffman, unlike the others who were recruited from other breweries, had interned at 10 Barrel and turned down other opportunities to stay there.

That is exactly the kind of environment Chris Cox and his brother tried to foster with 10 Barrel. It doesn’t hurt that the ownership team was more than willing to supply the brewers with the kind of brewing technology that makes the job easy and appealing.

“The 10 barrel system has a few upgrades over others I have worked on,” Cornett said. “It is a luxury on a small system to have rakes and a jacketed mash tun. I also benefit from being tied to the 50-barrel brew house in that I have a 4-roller mill, hot liquor that never runs out, a PD pump, fork lift, kegs that are washed and filled for me, a barrel room, a sour room, and space for projects like barrel fermentation.”

 

In the Bottle

Creativity is fine, but brewing is still a business. It wouldn’t do much good if the brewers got to play around all day but never put out a drinkable product. Fortunately for 10 Barrel, that hasn’t been a problem.

10 Barrel’s Apocalypse IPA is the brewery’s best seller, and according to Seifrit is a good example of what the brewery aims for with its beers.

“When we moved to the new facility it was also a chance for us to take a fresh, new look on the IPA and we really brightened that beer up,” Seifrit said. “We stripped out the biscuit malt out of it, added just a little bit of crystal malt, and used a little bit of Maltose Dextrose to dry it out and we just doubled the amount of hops we put in the beer. The doubling effect came in the back end of the beer and dry-hopping of the beer. We coupled that with a hop back we added to our system, and in the hop back we use whole-leaf hops, which I like because it adds a little more of a hop complexity to our IPA. We didn’t want an IPA that smashes you in the mouth and leaves you hurting. We wanted an IPA that has a little more dexterity and a little more complexity, and I think we got that with Apocalypse.”

That falls in line with the other mainstays of 10 Barrel, such as S1NIST0R Black Ale, which Seifrit describes as a “drinkable dark beer” and the ISA – an India Session Ale. Both beers bring a straightforward approach to the drinker without bringing anything crazy. A simple, yet elegant malt backbone and a boatload of hop flavor and aroma on the tail end.

Those beers fill the tanks at 10 Barrel, and help pay the bills – which gives the brewing team the ability to experiment on the smaller system. The experimental beers occasionally find their way into production as seasonals, but are most often sent to the pub or to favorite accounts as a special offering.

 

Port City

Note: This profile originally appeared in issue 70 of BeerAdvocate Magazine

 

Bill Butcher and John Reeves did not build a small brewery. They did not set small goals, and they did not make small plans. No, they had ambitions as grand as anybody in the Capitol Building when they took over an old wedding supply warehouse and built Port City Brewing Company in Alexandria, Virginia – just outside the nation’s capital.

“It was always tied into the plan from the beginning to build a state-of-the-art brewery so we could brew great quality beer from the outset that could compete with well-established breweries from all over the U.S. and all over the world,” says Butcher, who owns Port City along with his wife Karen.

 

So Ambitious

Reeves, who serves as the brewmaster for Port City, has been with the brewery since the consultation phase in 2010 when he helped the Butchers plan and design their space. He was with them in 2011 when they broke ground to retrofit the building’s utilities to accommodate a package brewery, and he was there with a purpose – he wanted to make a good living in the beer industry.

“Unless you’re working for a big chain like Gordon Biersch where they have brewpubs all over the country, you really couldn’t move up,” says Reeves, who bounced from brewpub to brewpub since 1995. “You could only move so far up, so just beyond ambition I feel like I had reached a point at brewpubs where there was only so much more I could do. I wanted to get into kegging and bottling and I wanted something that was a challenge.”

In a city where a lack of ambition is seen as a personal defect, Reeves and the Butchers understood that success could only come at a price. That’s why they built their brewery in a 10,000-square foot warehouse, and it’s why they had a custom-built JV Northwest brewhouse installed in the facility.

Although Port City currently uses only about a third of its available space, that extra room will come in handy as inevitable expansions approach.

“I planned out the facility,” Reeves says. “I wanted to basically make it modular so that I could add things on. Every aspect of the brewing process I can add things to it. I planned out the milling facility so I could use super sacks later on and I could add a silo. I planned out the brewhouse so that I could add other vessels. Right now we’re able to do four or five turns in a day, but if need be I have the ability to add other vessels to go to maybe seven or eight turns in a day. The goal was to design a brewery that we could start off and do what we wanted to do in the first year, which was 3,000 barrels, but we designed it so that we could max out at at least 25,000 barrels.”

Butcher was ambitious as well. He avoided the cheaper route of hiring an advanced homebrewer or a young apprentice, and tabbed a then 15-year veteran of the brewing industry to run the show. Butcher understood what he wanted from his brewery, and he knew what it would take to achieve it.

“Our beer has to be good – not just from a local perspective, but it has to be good enough to stand up quality-wise with beers all over the world,” Butcher says. “People will try our beer once because we’re new and local and craft beer drinkers are always looking for the latest thing to try, so we knew we’d get a trial in the market. But we also knew that if we wanted great quality right from the outset, people would try us once and go back to drinking whatever they were drinking before.”

 

Local Ties

Even with the great ambitions of key figures at the brewery, this is not a story about a lust for power and money. For Butcher, whose family has lived in Alexandria for over 100 years, Port City Brewing was an opportunity to bring something that had been lacking to the local community. The Metro D.C. area is by no means a beer desert barren of options, but few of those options actually came from within the beltway.

“We noticed that all the beer we had been buying was coming from the west coast or far away,” Butcher said. “We saw that as kind of an anomaly and started looking for more local options on the east coast. We saw that there seemed to be room for more choices for craft beer. The more we looked at it, we saw that the Metro D.C. area was the only major metro area in the country that didn’t have a packaging brewery. So it just seemed like there was a need there.”

And so Butcher, a former Mid-Atlantic wine representative for the Mondavi family, brought his knowledge of the alcohol industry and turned it toward beer. He set about with the goal of becoming a producer of great beer that above all else supplied its own market with beer before expanding elsewhere.

The result has been an outpouring of support from the local community. Beer drinkers in the D.C. area, who range from 21-year-old college students to seasoned Capitol Hill workers and longtime locals, know their stuff. And they know when they find something worth drinking.

“The D.C. Metro, it’s very educated,” says Jenn Chace, who manages the tasting room at Port City where they sell pints and growlers. “With that comes sophistication as far as food and drink. As we all know, the craft beer industry has blown up over the past three years and it’s grown in D.C. They’re very excited to have us there and we joke in the area that people cross the bridge from D.C. to come see us in Alexandria. It’s been great.”

 

The Beer

None of the key players’ ambitions or local connections would matter much if Reeves did not know what he was doing in the brewhouse. For this reason, Port City’s primary focus does not lie in branding or marketing, but in brewing quality beer that can be enjoyed by all drinkers.

“I’m not trying to do Reinheitsgebot or please CAMRA or do things exactly as they’d be done in Belgium,” Reeves said. “Beer is not wine. Beer is beer. Wine is a delicacy, and cheap wine is kind of a condiment that you can have at a meal like ketchup or mustard; where beer is more like a staple, like having bread with your food, or it’s refreshing.

“I don’t have like a special La Chouffe goblet that I keep wrapped in a velvet box that I pull out to drink my beers. I want people to enjoy themselves when they drink my beer. I don’t need them to feel like they’re getting ready to bungee jump naked.”

As Reeves says, Port City’s beers are traditional, but “with a twist.” With the exception of Port City’s Porter, which Reeves has been perfecting since he was a home brewer, his beers seek balance between innovation and tradition.

The Monumental IPA, which calls attention to Washington’s myriad monuments, recently won a gold medal at the Virginia Craft Brewer’s fest, and features American Hops in a balanced IPA that more closely resembles British IPAs than the West Coast hop bombs in favor with American drinkers.

Similarly the Optimal Wit, which Reeves describes as a “labor of love” and which he originally brewed to get his wife away from Adjunct Lagers, blurs lines between the traditional Belgian style and aggressive American versions.

And like any ambitious man should, Reeves continues to strive toward perfection with each successive brew.

“One of the good things about brewing for a package brewery as opposed to a pub brewery is that I’m brewing the beers over and over again,” he says. “I’m very concerned about brewing them as well as I can.”

 

Millstream Brewing co.

Note: This profile originally appeared in issue 69 of BeerAdvocate Magazine

 

Beneath a sloped roof in the corner of the small town of Amana, Iowa, lies the beating heart of the village. There, Millstream Brewing Company sits amongst a bevy of historical sites and artisans’ shops where it quietly churns out some of the finest beer in the region.

The little brewery has found an harmonious blend between traditional German lagers and experimental American Ales, and it is getting harder and harder to keep the place a secret.

“People have to know we are there to find us, and they do,” says Teresa Albert, who is part-owner along with her husband Tom and brewer Chris Priebe.

 

Community Roots

Amana was founded as part of the Amana Colonies – a string of seven villages in the area that were originally designed as self-sufficient communities that separated themselves from the rest of society. Church services, and many other activities of daily life, were conducted in German.

The colonies became more open to the general public in the early 20th century, but many of the locals still speak German, and the community remains tight-knit.

Tom Albert was born in nearby East Amana, just about two and a half miles from where he would eventually own a brewery. As an Amana man, he understands the nuances of functioning in a small community. He was able to call on his neighbors for help with building the indoor seating area at the brewery, and returns the favor with events for the community.

“We started a beer festival, the Iowa Beer Festival, and we get 1,200 people at the brewery,” Tom says. “It’s just Iowa products and we do have some homebrew clubs that come to it as well. We also do a bike ride, (the Tour de Brew), and that money comes to the bike trail. We’re involved with (the community). We’re just pretty big here in Amana. It’s fun.”

As the village is something of a mid-western tourist attraction (it is often compared to Amish communities because of its self-sufficiency), a lot of Millstream’s business comes from tourists. However, the locals have grown to love the hometown product since it first arrived in 1985. Part of that is because the locals love the beer, but also because the brewery is working to make Millstream an exciting spot in the community.

“We did live music and food every weekend this year,” Teresa Albert says. “A lot of that was for the locals and the community. They show up every Saturday. I think one Saturday (in August), half the crowd was locals. That’s something we can do for them.”

Perhaps Millstream’s biggest contribution to Amana is what it supplies to the town’s annual Oktoberfest. The German celebration is one of the most popular events in the region, and the traditional German Märzen Priebe brews is the official drink.

“There’s a big barn (in town) that they renovated and they call it the Fest Hall,” Tom says. “That’s the hub of the Oktoberfest. There’s straw bales all over, and it’s really cool… They pretty much exclusively do our beer. We go through maybe 40 kegs on that Oktoberfest weekend. That’s just there. That’s not counting the restaurants and here (at the brewery).”

 

In Good Hands

Priebe and the Alberts are not Millstream’s original owners. The brewery was founded by Carroll F. Zuber and his partners James and Dennis Roemig. Under the guidance of Joseph Pickett, a legend in Iowa brewing for his rehabilitation of the famous Dubuque Star Brewery, Millstream opened in 1985 as the first brewery in the Amana Colonies since prohibition.

Another couple purchased the brewery from the Roemigs and Zuber, but lost interest shortly after when their son decided that he did not want to brew there. Priebe was working there as a brewer, as was Aaron Taubman. Tom Albert was still trying to figure things out after being laid off from the Amana Refrigeration plant, and had taken a job in Millstream’s tasting room.

The interim owners were prepared to sell, and Teresa saw a perfect opportunity to fulfill a long-held dream of owning her own business.

“I have always, always wanted to own my own business,” Teresa says. “I said (to Tom), ‘so wouldn’t it be cool if we could afford to buy the brewery?’ We approached the brewers the next day and talked to them. We said we are interested, but we will not buy it if you won’t buy in with us. We don’t know anything about making beer. And they said that was fine because they didn’t know anything about selling it.”

Tom, Teresa, Priebe and Taubman joined forces and purchased the brewery on January 1, 2001. Taubman eventually moved on, leaving Teresa in charge of sales, Tom in command of managing production, and Priebe at the helm of brewing operations.

“It was just kind of one of those things where you have this tragedy in your life and you turn around and a lot of positive came out of it,” Teresa says. “We just love it. We work together so well. Chris brews, and I sell, and Tom is the glue that gets it from the tanks to the distributor’s truck.”

 

Tradition + Innovation

Priebe understands that there are few sins worse than rushing the lager process for traditional German beers. In an area replete with locals from German lineage, that sin would be glaringly obvious to everyone.

To ensure that the beer is not rushed, Millstream boasts 28 fermenters for its 20-bbl brewhouse.

“That’s kind of our identity,” Priebe says of the traditional lagers. “It’s very important to us. I found that if you shorten the lagering time it’s detrimental to the beer. Our Schild Brau Amber, because of the amount of caramel malt in there and the lager yeast we’re using, it has a lot of sulfury harsh flavors in it when it’s done with primary fermentation and maybe after three to four weeks. It notably smoothes out up to five weeks.”

Schild Brau, a Vienna Lager, serves as the flagship beer for Millstream. It fits in nicely with the locals’ tastes, and has garnered accolades from many sources with a gold medal from the World Beer Cup in 2010 and four medals from the Great American Beer Festival since Priebe has been the brewer. Prior to his tenure it claimed three GABF medals, including gold in 1989.

Millstream’s portfolio includes a bevy of German beers, such as the seasonal German Pilsner and widely popular Oktoberfest, but also drifts into the realm of experimental brewing with some of Priebe’s Brewmaster’s Extreme Series beers.

The special edition lineup was designed to celebrate 2010 legislation that raised the cap on ABV for beers produced and sold in Iowa from 6% to 15%. It allows Priebe to brew beers like his Pumpkin Imperial Stout, which tipped the scales at a modest 7.6% ABV. It also allows him to experiment with unique ales that might not otherwise see production – such as the upcoming English-style Barleywine made with smoked malt that he has planned for the holiday season.

“Generally don’t like smoked beers, so I’m going to try to brew one I like,” Priebe says. “It’s sort of the beers I get to play with.”

 

Drop In Brewing

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.”

 

Lifelong Learner

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.”

 

The Beer

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