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‘The more I travel the more I realize how little I know’

Here we are again. Boak & Bailey have invited bloggers to “go long” and I must once again turn to Plan B, which is digging something out of the archives. This is a story written in the fall of 2010 for American Brewer magazine about beery lesson brewers have learned from their travels. Visit Boak & Bailey’s Beer Blog for more #beerylongreads.

Jason Oliver brews a pretty mean Vienna-style Lager in Roseland, Virginia. Likewise Alastair Hook in London.

Two questions immediately come to mind. How did they learn to brew such beer, and why do they bother? Oliver has never been to Vienna, nor had he been to Germany before a trip in November. Hook traveled extensively on the continent and trained at Germany’s famous Weihenstephan brewing school. But he knew full well when he started brewing lagers they didn’t attract much an audience in the United Kingdom. After the first brewery Hook worked at closed, famed British beer writer Michael Jackson wrote, “One the problems was that the beers were too good: drinkers in Britain have become accustomed to the notion that lager should be tasteless, as most of the ‘famous’ international brands intentionally are.”

Their stories are a bit different, but share much in common with scores of others who have left home to drink beer, even to explore other breweries, and come home having learned lessons they weren’t looking for.

After Oliver graduated from college in 1995 he traveled across the country. He drank more Busch Natural Light than anything in college, but on this trip looked for local beers, quickly noticing that beer from old line Midwest regional breweries tasted different than beer in Virginia and from beer in the state of Washington. “I remember picking up a six-pack of Wheathook (from Redhook in Washington),” he said. “It was the neatest thing. Here this hazy cloudy beer.”

He and friends soon took the ferry from Washington up to Alaska. “Pitchers of Alaskan Amber cost the same at Budweiser,” he said. He was hooked.

When he returned to Virginia he had no idea what he might do with a degree in history. He found a book that listed unique careers. “Brewer” was listed at the end of the Bs. “That’s as far as I got,” he said.

He didn’t know he’d be drawn to brewing with a German bent, but that course was set by the time he completed the California-Davis professional brewing program in 1998. “I like the precision of it, the process,” he said. He was drawn to methods not commonly used in American brewpubs. ‘I wanted to learn those old techniques,” he said. Six years-plus with the Gordon Biersch chain of restaurant breweries prepared him well. Devils Backbone Brewing Co. opened in 2009 and won four medals at the Great American Beer Festival in both 2009 and 2010 as well as four at the 2010 World Beer Cup.

Hook was only 17 years old when he stuck Jackson’s “Pocket Guide to Beer” in a back pack and went beer exploring all over Europe. “I learned that the whole CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) mantra was bunk,” he said. During the 1980s he trained first at Heriot-Watt in Scotland, then at Weihenstephan.

It might be just as important that he traveled regularly to California, also during the 1980s, among other things becoming a lifetime member of the Boys and Girls Clubs of San Francisco. He visited New Albion Brewing, and got to know the beers of Anchor Brewing and Mendocino Brewing. “It made me make look at beer in a different way,” he said.

He continued to do that before opening Meantime Brewing in 2000 and has managed to since. He recently began brewing a beer called London Lager made from East Anglian malt and Kentish hops, serving an unfiltered kellerbier version at the brewery.

Hook talks about technical excellence with the enthusiasm of any Weihenstephan-trained brewer, but reserves the same passion for “the creative spirit of the U.S.” It wasn’t easy for him to turn down job offers in America, where his technical skills are in particular demand, but it wasn’t really hard. “As much as my creative instincts are with America, I’m a Londoner. You can’t take London out of a Londoner,” Hook said. “If you grow up a fan of the Charlton Football Club your ultimate dream is to go back you play for that club.”

Oilver’s and Hook’s experiences illustrate that a traveler never knows what lessons he or she will bring back. Here are ten from a few such brewers.

1. Beer tastes different in its own home.

Ted Rice, director of brewing operations at Marble Brewery in New Mexico, had never tasted a Kölsch before he brewed one in 2003 that won gold at the Great American Beer Festival. He laughed when asked to compare that beer with what he eventually drank in Köln. “I can see some similarities,” he said.

Drinking Kölsch in Köln or Helles in the south of Germany put the classic styles in perspective. “You see how delicate and refined they are. What happens when a number of breweries around a town or region all focus on one style they elevate it,” he said. He drew an analogy to Double IPAs in southern California. “Even a simple. . . ,” he said, pausing to consider his choice of words and making certain there was no misconception is this discussion of pilsner, “everyday beer gets better.”

2. Beer culture is different in its own home.

Southampton Publick House brewmaster Phil Markowski had only recently started homebrewing when he first visited Great Britain, the Netherlands and Belgium in 1986. “I wouldn’t go so far as to say there were any beer epiphanies, but it solidified my suspicions about the culture,” he said.

“Seeing the social aspect of large glasses of weak beer with flavor,” he said, his voice dropping off. “Twenty-five years distant this is really the only beer I get excited about.”

That trip finished in Belgium, where he saw what’s much more common knowledge today. “Every beer had to be served in the proper glass, even in the most mom and pop bars,” he said. “It was an indication of how entrenched beer is in their culture.”

3. Techniques don’t give a hoot about style.

In 2007, Matt Brynildson of Firestone-Walker Brewing traveled to England to brew a batch of beer at Marston’s, the last UK brewer to use a union fermentation system similar to Firestone’s. In Paso Robles, F-W brewers transfer beer from stainless steel to wood one day after fermentation, then blend it back with beer fermented in steel a week later. At the time Brynildson was working on the recipe for Union Jack IPA, a beer he thought might lean on British malts and contain a measure of beer fermented in wood. Ultimately Union Jack went another direction, featuring leaner American malts and no wood, becoming a hallmark of the “West Coast” style.

Brynildson didn’t return home with any genuinely new ideas. “It all reminded me of the party-gyle system so many brewers used to use. Fuller’s makes three beers off one mash,” he said. Firestone’s Big Opal (a wheat wine) and Little Opal (a low alcohol saison) draw on that approach. “We started thinking in terms of first wort beers, then using the second wort in another place.”

At the Westmalle Trappist monastery, Markowski was struck when he learned the brewers aged Westmalle Tripel cold for four to six weeks. “I realized they were carrying over techniques from their training with lager brewers (the dominant style on the continent),” he said.

4. It’s alive, no matter where you are.

Brynildson recently traveled to Russia, to Brazil and to Germany representing the Hop Growers of America. “For me it’s an excellent education just hearing what their challenges are,” he said. “(In Russia) for craft beer there is this really interesting approach right out of the gate. This is ‘live beer.'”

Beer is packaged in PET bottles and stored cold in grocery stores. Consumers are taught that craft beer has a short shelf life. “We (Americans) never did that,” Brynildson said. “I don’t know how I take this home and use it. How do we teach this to our consumers? I never think it is too late.”

5. You don’t have to produce beer in a clean room.

On this first trip to Belgium Markowski learned, “You can brew beer with all sorts of things you didn’t think you could brew with,” he said. Visiting Franconia years later he discovered you can make beer on all sorts of equipment you might not think you could brew with. “The revelation was that some of the breweries were pretty unsavory looking,” he said. “That things seemed far from ideal and far from German.” One of the reasons, of course, is the training required to brew in Germany, considerably more than in the U.S. (or Belgium). “You can’t find a poorly made beer in Germany,” Markowski said.

6. Remember to dance with the one who brung you.

A brewer sometimes learns something about his own brewery visiting another. “It made me focus,” Brynlidson said of his trip to Marston’s. “We’d migrated away, a bit, from talking about our barrels. We emphasized that we were the expert on pale ales. I went fully back the other direction.”

7. Imitation is not always the sincerest form of flattery.

Jean-Marie Rock – brewmaster at Abbaye d’Orval, one of Belgium’s six Trappist monastery-breweries – has become the consummate host in recent years, opening his brewery doors to many visiting Americans. But he’s also fond of playing the role of brewing curmudgeon, admonishing Americans to quit trying to imitate Belgian-brewed beers.

In the fall of 2008, New Glarus Brewing co-founder Dan Carey stopped at Orval on the way home from Germany. A conversation with Rock inspired him to make Crack’d Wheat. “He said, ‘I don’t know why everybody wants to copy my beer. They should invent their own style.’ So Crack’d Wheat is my beer.” It is much different than the very traditional hefeweizen Carey also makes. Cascade and Amarillo hops on top of Hallertau Tradition, including a solid dose of dry hops, turn make it what could only be called “an American beer brewed with wheat.”

8. The more often you brew a beer the better the beer it gets.

Returning to the lesson Rice learned about everyday beers, he was talking about both appreciating and brewing them regularly. “When you taste those beers (in this case Kölsch) you get layers of hop flavors. But also the malt; everything is so balanced. There are no flaws,” he said. That’s one of the advantages of making the same beer over and over. “We (American brewers) try to make a broad range for everybody. That’s what we excel at. The things we make every day we do better.” At Marble that’s an IPA that accounts for about half of production.

9. The Germans still know a little about brewing.

There’s a reason that Carey makes it to Germany almost every year – other than the fact he loves drinking in and around Bamberg – and that others like John Mallett of Bell’s Brewery and Brynildson annually visit Brau Beviale, a giant trade show. “The Germans are light years ahead of us when it comes to equipment, plant design, saving energy, how to build a brewery,” Carey said.

The influence of English brewing is obvious in most American breweries. However when Brynildson travels to countries now looking to American for inspiration he sees something else. Craft brewers in Russia, Brazil, Japan and other countries undergoing a beer renaissance initially focused on German styles. “It’s the German who have more influence sparking interest in craft beer in other countries,” he said.

10. Be humble.

Leonardo Di Vincenzo, founder of Birra Del Borgo in Italy, is a man of some experience. He has brewed collaboration beers with Sam Calagione both in Delaware and his own brewery outside of Rome. He’s one of the brewing partners in the brewpub project atop Eataly in New York City, and he blended beers at Cantillon in Brussels.

Standing at Cantillon he talked about beer with other Italian and American visitors. The American took a sip of something Jean Van Roy had hauled out of the cellar. “Humbling,” he said. Di Vincenzo smiled, the look of a man who already knew what he’d be told.

“You can’t get to New Glarus from anywhere,” Carey said, talking about the challenges of traveling from Wisconsin and back home. Yet he’s a frequent visitor to Bamberg as well as other destinations associated with beer. “You stay home and you brew beer. It’s incestuous,” he said. “You think you are better than you are. The more I travel the more I realize how little I know.”

One Response to ‘The more I travel the more I realize how little I know’

  1. Matthew Murpgy November 29, 2014 at 9:47 am #

    Great stories. While its not quite the same as visiting great breweries around the world, I have always found listening to great brewers talk about their craft to be inspirational. It fires up the imagination and reminds you what great beers can be created and that we can always be better.

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