What’s your current position at your brewery, and how did you get started in the craft brewing industry?
Head brewer is the one I talk up; expansion planner, troubleshooter, IT geek, cat herder, and jack of all trades are a few of my other hats [at Free State Brewing Co. in Lawrence, Kansas]. I’ve always thought that I completely lucked into this career. When Free State opened in 1989, I had just finished college and was taking a year off before going back to grad school. I picked up a bartending job at the brewery as a second job and within a couple of months, the owner and original head brewer, Chuck Magerl, asked me to start training as the first full-time assistant brewer. I’d always enjoyed craft beer (not that anybody called it that back then) but unlike many of my fellow brewers, I had never tried to brew my own. It didn’t take long for my career path to be an American history professor to get derailed.
What’s new at Free State?
We’re just about to release our first specialty four-pack. It will be our Ironman Imperial Stout and I’m really looking forward to having it in bottles. We’re also in the early stages of a pretty significant expansion that will nearly double the footprint of our production brewery. It will include a new bottling line that will have the potential to quadruple our line speed and allow us to add a large-format bottle to our lineup.
What’s the best part of being a part of the craft brewing community?
I’ve been waiting for years for craft brewers to get all secretive and tight-lipped about what they do and how they do it. Amazingly, even with continued growth, proliferation, and competition, craft brewers are still incredibly generous about sharing their experiences, good and bad, with whoever asks. My wife used to work for an artisan chocolatier. The first GABF she went to, she was blown away by the openness. When she was in chocolates, they’d go to the fancy food show and people were taking off their name badges and sneaking around to get a look at what the competition was doing. Brewers just walked up to the table and asked—and they got answers too!
What do you like to do in your time away from the brewery?
I like projects on my old house and my slightly-less-old motorcycle. I’m a fair-to-middlin’ carpenter and mechanic. I enjoy getting outside for hiking and canoeing. I seem to be shying away from some of the higher impact sports like climbing and mountain biking these days—must be getting old. It might surprise you to know that I’m also a fairly accomplished classical music singer.
What’s your favorite food and beer pairing?
When we pair for our beer dinners, we always try to have at least one pairing that will surprise people. A couple of recent combinations that I liked were a robust porter with a salad that included blue cheese and candied nuts with a citrus dressing. The roasty, dry character of the porter really worked with the sweet nuts, salty cheese, and tangy citrus. Also, a basic custard flan with a citrusy American pale ale. The caramel in the flan blended with the caramel malts in the pale ale and the hops made a nice contrast to the sweet, rich, creamy flan.
What’s your biggest accomplishment unrelated to your job?
The jury’s still out, but probably the ongoing collaborative project with my fabulous wife to civilize two great boys.
What’s your favorite beer that your brewery does not produce?
Oh man! If asking a brewer what the favorite beer he makes is like asking them to name their favorite child, this is like asking them to pick a favorite niece or nephew. I’m going to cop out and say it’s the one that I haven’t tried yet that’s just waiting to blow me away.
What’s the most memorable travel destination at which you’ve had a chance to sample the local beer?
Nothing terribly exotic in recent years, I’m afraid. I suppose that if I look back on it, a high school church choir tour of Great Britain. I had just turned 18 and it was pretty eye-opening to get a chance to try some beers that were unlike anything I’d ever had. The first night we were in London, my buddy and I got assigned to stay in a house along with our Cornish bus driver. After dinner, Peter trooped us down to the local and taught us about pub culture. We thought he was pretty cool.