Over the past few months, we had the great opportunity to speak with several of our favorite Boston-area craft brewers. We asked brewers from Jack's Abby Brewing, Clown Shoes, Pretty Things Beer & Ale Project, Nightshift Brewing, Idle Hands Craft Ales, Enlightenment Ales, and Aeronaut Brewing Co. a range of questions from how they first got into beer to their best tips for beginner homebrewers and what someone aspiring to follow in their footsteps should know.
In case you missed the previous posts in this series, you can find them here:
- Boston Brewer Panel: On Evolving Tastes and the Creative Process
- Boston Brewer Panel: On the Rise of Women and Beards in Craft Beer
- Boston Brewer Panel: On Homebrew Tips and Lessons Learned the Hard Way
We thought we'd round things out by compiling all of the best answers into one mega-post. So, here you have it. Below is the best of our Boston Brewers Panel.
Most people's first beer wasn't a craft brew. What was the beer that tipped the scales and made you want to really explore the world of beer? Feel free to share any background.
For me, enjoying beer is as much about the social experience as anything else. While I had explored craft beer for some time, the real turning point was on a trip in Germany with my mother. I was completely blown away by the beer culture. I can still remember my mother's expression of horror/awe when our first liters of beer were presented to us at our table. The experience in Germany cemented my desire to go into the brewing industry.
Sam Adams Boston Lager woke me up to what beer could taste like. Then it was Guinness. Then I got my hands on a Saranac mix pack which introduced me to the diversity of style within the world of beer. Harpoon IPA sealed the deal.
As the head brewer, what keeps you awake at night?
Brew scheduling and yeast management. At any given time we can have 3 or 4 strains active and in a brewery with only 7 fermentors and several dry hopped beers it can be a juggling act to make sure tanks are emptying on time to get a new beer in with a yeast strain you want to keep active, coupled with trying to keep varied lineup across our 8 draft lines.
Everything. I used to sleep like a rock when I had a "normal" job. Now I am restless constantly. Business is booming and we can't keep up with demand but there is still so much that goes into running a brewery to worry about. The list is endless from hop contracting, to budgeting, to constant maintenance on all the equipment, to construction management, to employee and hiring fun, to future growth plans and strategies, and lately snow. That's all before you even get to brewing beer. Then you have to worry about are your cleaning processes flawless, wort quality, yeast health, O2 pickup while transferring and packaging beer, shelf stability, cross contamination between sour and non-sour beers, is the beer high quality, is this batch world class. For the most part things go smoothly but every week there are some bumps along the way that cause you to stay up at night.
Walk us through the creative process of coming up with a new beer.
It's kinda weird. For my Enlightenment Ales project I start with an experience in mind that I want to convey. Then I try to imagine what it would be to enjoy that experience, how a beer would convey it to the drinker. Once I have an idea of what the beer should taste like I work backwards and figure out what I need to do ingredients and process wise to execute those flavors. Then I agonize over it for a few months until I brew the first batch.
Usually the idea is already there when we realize that there's an opening for a new beer. Most of the time it's something that I've tasted in Europe or even a mistake I made, or a new raw material that gets me thinking. Then it's about texture and hopefully creating a solid backdrop using things I already know work. Then on top there's probably two or three things that I am curious about and trying for the first time. Subtle things, but new to me and Martha.
How are your customers’ tastes evolving? And where do you feel the craft beer movement is headed next?
Clown Shoes has customers as diverse as the beers we make. We are really fortunate to be making beer at a time when we have such active and immediate feedback in the social space. I am happy that our base enjoys the new flavors that we have been developing with our barrel-aged program. They appreciate that we go out of our way to get quality ingredients--like the choice of the Pierre Ferrand Cognac barrels. In the five years Clown Shoes has been around, the craft beer space has changed dramatically. There are so many great beers being produced and the market is accepting more unique styles. So I think brewers will be able to continue to explore quality ingredients and have a base that is willing to support our short-run unique twists.
That's the million dollar question. I've believed for years that as craft continues to attract mainstream beer drinkers, craft would need more "gateway" or mainstream beers. So far I've been wrong as very hoppy beers continue to grow at a staggering clip. It's hard to tell if extreme hoppy beers are a fad or will continue their upward trend.
We're certainly very firmly in the hop-forward age of beer. Any time we put on an IPA in our tasting room it sells out in one or two weeks. Beyond that as people are getting more interested in craft beer and educate themselves on what's out there they try more styles. With our 8 draft lines we try to keep a varied menu in terms of style origin, light to dark, low to high gravity, etc. to not only cater to individual preferences but also allow a curious drinker to try several different styles. As a movement it seems as though drinkers are interested in trying new ingredients, aging processes, wild fermentations. I think people are also realizing they like drinking multiple beers while socializing so session beers, or beers below 4.5% ABV, are becoming popular on the craft side.
With all of the creativity and experimentation in the craft beer realm, what’s the weirdest beer you’ve ever tried to brew (or seen someone brew), and how did it come out?
Obviously I'm not a fan of gimmicky beer. I brewed some back in the 1990s but I'd rather let that stay in my murky past! I've tasted quite a few awful beers that I think fit the bill: a few pizza beers, that minty beer from Belgium, THC beer, weird homebrew experiments. Chocolate beer is pretty weird and gross. When I worked in Yorkshire I was asked to brew one for some Scandinavian-market's holiday offering. Adding something to beer that's as fatty as cocoa nibs is really a recipe for yuck. Anyway, to each their own!
We have brewed a lot of strange beers throughout the years. Probably our strangest beer to date is a purple carrot, parsnip and sorrel saison. It was very earthy, a little peppery and a touch of citrus. It didn't get much love but why eat vegetables when you can drink them in your beer?
Last year, Clown Shoes did a beer called Bombay Berserker, a stout with ginger and cardamom, which I loved. When I was thinking about doing a winter beer, a style I don’t particularly like, I thought a spiced stout with cardamom would be fantastic. I called it Winter Solstice and I was happy with the result, the cardamom gave it a great smooth and silky body.
How have you seen the role of women in craft beer and homebrewing evolve in recent years? And what do you think the future will be like for them?
I was taught my way around a brew house by Megan Parisi, one of the finest brewers I've had the good fortune to work with. From the moment I entered into the beer industry there's always been a good amount of female brewers, bar managers, and beer enthusiasts. I hope and imagine their representation will continue to grow.
Even in the few years that Jack's Abby has been open we've seen a staggering change in the mix of applicants that apply for jobs at the brewery. It's reassuring who many women are interested in positions at our brewery.
How did your friends and family react when you told them you wanted to be a brewer?
My friends think it is cool. My family is happy that I am following my passion. They tolerate the pay.
When the brewery started I had a "normal" job for the first 12 months. Brewed on nights and weekends and sat at a desk during the week. That was exhausting. But I proposed to my wife and the next day quit my job to work full time at the brewery. Classic bait and switch. She both loved and hated me for doing that.
Well, it was 1990 and I had recently graduated from college with a degree in journalism. I hit it just right though as jobs in journalism seemed to wane and brewing as a career wasn't yet viable. After a few years of suffering from poverty while working in breweries full time, I eventually made it work. These days most everyone I know wishes that they had made this sort of career move a long time ago.
Was there ever a time in your journey to head brewer you felt like giving up? And what was it that got you over the hump?
There were certainly several instances when I was living off unemployment I considered going back into the administration field. In 2011 there weren't a lot of jobs being publicly posted and it was tough getting an interview, let alone a paid job with no direct or related work experience. As I said before, my wife was incredibly supportive and kept reminding me we had made this decision for me to chase down this career change and could continue to make it work. It was also inspiration to talk and listen to people in the industry and how much passion they had for their jobs and taste the unique and well crafted beers they were making.
The thing I love most about brewing is the that I continue to learn new things about brewing everyday. It's challenging, keeps me on my toes, and pushes me to be better. There are days when it feels like the world is caving in and you're a failure, but you have to learn your lessons and be better off for it.
What’s up with so many brewers growing long beards?
It seems like there are a fair number of breweries nowadays putting out beers which resemble milkshakes so these craft beer aficionados appear to have taken it upon themselves to use their beards as a means of secondary filtration.
It's always been a part of craft brewing. Beer drinkers like their brewers to be beardy and tubby. Technically though, if you sport a large beard in a brewery you're meant to be wearing a snood. That's probably why I've been relatively beard-free.
What’s the one tip you give most homebrewers to brew better beer?
Take notes. Record everything you do with every batch so you can look back and compare. Start with very simple recipes and master those before doing something complicated. And for god's sake, actually use the hydrometer! There's a reason it comes with your homebrew kit!
The biggest thing is fermentation. You need to make sure you are pitching healthy yeast, the right cell count, and fermenting at the correct temperatures. That will make a world of different.
What’s the one lesson you think most homebrewers learn the hard way? And how can they overcome it?
Bad sanitation is something people seem to learn the hardway. Despite being told by just about everyone, it seems people need to experience a bad batch or two (or 100) before they realize the importance of basic cleaning and sanitation.
I've been handed so many homebrews over the years. The off-bits I taste are usually down to temperatures post-boil. DMS from not chilling the wort fast enough, high fermentation temp flavours, aldehydes. I've tasted quite a bit of good homebrew in the past few years though.
What is the best piece of advice you’d pass along to anyone looking to follow in your footsteps--going from homebrewer to brewmaster?
Be willing to take any job to get you in the door. I cleaned kegs part time as an unpaid intern for my first job while driving three hours round trip. Understand that for every entry level job posting breweries receive tens in not hundred of applicants. The biggest thing I would say is that a brewing job isn't fun, it's hard work. The reality is much different from the idealist vision most people have about working in a brewery.
Be willing to do unglamorous tasks for long hours and come home physically exhausted. Be ready to take a big pay cut. There are a lot of people looking to get into the industry so if it's something you really want to do get a degree from an accredited brewing school (Siebel, American Brewers Guild, UC Davis, etc.), several of which offer courses online so you don't have to quit your day job. Reach out to breweries in your area and ask about unpaid internships, many small start ups often need some extra hands on bottling days. This will not only get you experience, a reference in the industry, and your foot in the door at that brewery if a paid position is to turn up, but it also shows a perspective employer that you're passionate about brewing and want to work in the industry. Skills such as welding, electrical, plumbing, and kitchen work are also very transferable and desirable so be sure to highlight those on your resume, cover letter and in the interview. Also get to know people in the industry by going to pint nights, visiting breweries, and volunteering at festivals. A lot of times they'll be the first to know of positions becoming open.