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Sweet 15

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This year, six game-changing breweries turned 15. To celebrate, we posed the same five questions to the guys who started Stone, Shmaltz, Arcadia, Firestone-Walker, Three Floyds and Bear Republic; below, a few of their thoughts on the beers that worked, the beers that didn’t, and what they’ve learned along the way.


SHMALTZ BREWING

In 1996, Jeremy Cowan started brewing, bottling and delivering his He’Brew beers by hand; today, his certified kosher brews plus his Coney Island Craft Lagers lineup are available in more than 25 states.

When did you know you had “made it” as a brewer?

I think that’s “to be continued.” I think we are far from secure on a daily basis—we’re always dealing with emergencies and being presented with opportunities. But I think the success of the barrel-aged brew—at the price point we’ve been able to [offer it at]—that’s felt incredibly satisfying. The high ratings we’ve received have felt much more secure than I expected.

What is the single best beer you’ve ever made?

It depends on the weather and my mood! There’s no one best beer, because each year we’re trying to evolve our offerings, whether it’s the newest Jewbeliation, or a new round of barrel-aging on the He’Brew and Coney Island sides. And we did two collaborations this year that were awesome experiments.

What’s the worst beer you’ve ever brewed?

We’ve been really lucky because, as a contract brewer, we don’t have the ability to do test batches. The brewery is a 100-barrel system, and they have to nail it every time. The worst beer we ever brewed has to be from our Midget Brewery in Coney Island; it was a failed experiment. The visiting homebrewer wanted to make a caramel apple beer, and used 100 percent caramel malts, not knowing that it wouldn’t turn into a fermentable batch. It was sticky-sweet and unfermentable.

What advice would you give someone starting a brewery today?

Research, research, research—and then take huge risks and make your beer something very special. Unless you’re in a small area with very limited craft beer, the world doesn’t need 700 new standard pale ales. But the world does need endless creativity and imagination and experimentations and excitement.

Where do you see yourself in 15 more years?

At 57 years old, I see myself drinking even more spectacular beers that we haven’t even imagined yet. I’m looking forward to a lifetime of challenges and shtick.

 

STONE BREWING

Original arrogant bastards Steve Wagner and Greg Koch started California’s Stone Brewing after bonding at a weekend beer intensive at UC-Davis. Fun fact: They’ve left the brewery website’s original history page—written in 1997—totally intact, here.

When did you know you had “made it” as a brewer?

I felt that way when our beer first went on tap at the Del Mar Race Track in San Diego. I had spent memorable times there with my brothers when they were at UC-San Diego, and later with a friend whose father was a professional gambler. It was an important personal milestone for me to have a Stone Pale Ale at the track; I knew I had “made it”! Didn’t hit the exacta, unfortunately, but came away with one of the five rules I live by: Never bet on a horse named “Speedy.”

What is the single best beer you’ve ever made?

I would say the Stone Imperial Russian Stout. It was inspired by the old John Courage recipe, with my own twist added. That one ages, but never gets old!

What’s the worst beer you’ve ever brewed?

Probably that Date Beer that Greg talked me into brewing when he was my homebrew lackey…  I’m sure you can make a fine beer with dates, but that wasn’t it.

What advice would you give someone starting a brewery today?

Get twice the brewhouse capacity and four times the square footage that you think you’ll need!

Where do you see yourself in 15 more years?

Our mission statement will never change: World domination and wheelbarrows full of cash. Or is that a vision statement? I never could tell the difference between those two. Apparently we need more consultants.

 

ARCADIA ALES

Tim Suprise’s Battle Creek-based Arcadia Ales has quietly dominated Michigan beer palates with English-style beers brewed on a British system with Ringwood yeast.

When did you know you had “made it” as a brewer?

The first set of repeat orders from a distributor outside of Michigan; that would’ve been in 2001.

What is the single best beer you’ve ever made?

The next Arcadia in my hand that tastes better today than the previous batch of that same beer.

What’s the worst beer you’ve ever brewed?

We did a fruit-based pale Ale in 2003 called Berry White; not our finest moment.

What advice would you give someone starting a brewery today?

If your commitment to a superior-quality product leads to happy and enthused customers, and that feeds your passion more than making money, continue on your quest.

Where do you see yourself in 15 more years?

Continuing to lead Arcadia, but managing a bit more saltwater fishing into my schedule—together with a fine Arcadia Ale or two.

 

FIRESTONE WALKER

Together with his brother-in-law, David Walker, Adam Firestone launched the Paso Robles, Calif., brewery that would eventually change the pale-ale game; prolific head brewer (and barrel-aging genius) Matt Brynildson joined the team in 2001.

When did you know you had “made it” as a brewer?

Firestone: I remain unconvinced that we’ve “made it.”  Perfecting a singular style of beer—pales—is a life’s work.

Brynildson: Honestly, we have been so busy concentrating on making better beer that I can’t really say when or if we ever “made it.” If we have made it, then it is a real honor to be a part of the wonderful fraternity of craft brewers, who I have learned over years are some of the best people in the world. Despite all that’s going on in the world today, it’s a great time to be a brewer.

What is the single best beer you’ve ever made?

Firestone: Firestone DBA (current version). Disclosure: I am NOT the brewer, never have been and never will be. My formal title is “Reinvigorator.”

Brynildson: I love all of my children. I think the breakthrough beer for our brewery was 10—our 10th anniversary barrel-aged beer we blended with the help of our local winemaker friends. That beer paved the way for a lot of risk-taking and creativity.

What’s the worst beer you’ve ever brewed?

Firestone: Firestone DBA (inaugural version).

Brynildson: Again, I love all of my children. Of course, we have made some mistakes, but Jim Crooks, our Quality Manager, who I have had the good fortune of working with for the past 12 years, has an amazing catcher’s glove, and we haven’t let much slip through.

What advice would you give someone starting a brewery today?

Firestone: Focus more on what’s inside the bottle and less on how the bottle looks.

Brynildson: You can never have enough drains. And make sure they’re stainless steel. Hire good people and give them room to work. Build a beer library and taste your beer everyday. Remember the golden rule.

Where do you see yourself in 15 more years?

Firestone: Still trying to perfect DBA.

Brynildson: Adam and David have built an amazing brewery here with room to grow and we have been blessed with an incredibly talented staff. I see myself here in the Central Coast working and creating side by side with the same team who helped us build this company. I really don’t want to think about it another way.

 

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