What are your influences as a brewer of amazing indie beers?
Prior to when I started work for Triumph —next month will be five years, I worked for another company which had two facets in the different styles of beer they made. One was a lot like Triumph in the sense that they made ales and a few lagers with some seasonals throughout the year, and the other side of that company was more Germanic styles. I spent about half of my tenure on each side, so about three years doing each one. Because my analytical side dominates, Germanic beers are very straightforward as opposed to say Belgian, English or American styles. They're all not very hoppy beers and they're more malt accentuated. I love all styles of beer, but it's actually harder to make something thats more simplistic because usually the flavors you get out of it are very exposed. If there are any off flavors they stick out like a sore thumb.
Where did you learn how to make beer? —were you formally taught or did you cultivate the skills?
I apprenticed. There are few educational institutions here in the U.S. that offer some sort of certificate or degree of some kind. I happened to work at a place just like Triumph in Nashville, TN. I bartended during college, and literally within weeks of the business season their brewer quit. They told me I was a shoe-in, I had the knowledge, plus I wanted to do it! I just learned by doing through that summer and had to make a choice between bartending and brewing at the end of the summer. I chose brewing, so I've been doing it ever since.
What's the one ingredient you could not live without?
That would be yeast. And you can't live without it either. Because yeast, no matter where the sugar comes from —apples for cider, grapes for wine —yeast converts it into alcohol. Otherwise there would be no alcoholic beverages. There's always been this kind of argument between brewers of what's the most important ingredient in beer. "If it wasn't for water then you couldn't get sugars out!" "But if it wasn't for hops, then it would be something else." "If it wasn't for grain there'd be no sugar!" But I think it's yeast, because without it then it's just malta.
What is your favorite season?
Fall. I sweat a lot.
The New York Cookbook by Molly O'Neill. It has traditional dishes from different neighborhoods with a New York spin on them. I don't usually cook for myself because I don't have a lot of time. But because of my background in brewing I wouldn't want to take the easy way out and just use a lot of pre-mixed ingredients. I'd want to buy fresh, because I know it's better. I've worked my entire career in pubs and I know they don't use a lot of frozen things and reheated food. I know the difference between processed foods and the real stuff.
Favorite Microbrew beer or wine?
I would probably pick my own. Then again, I'm probably my own worst critic. For beer, I'd pick our German Pilsner. For wine, it's not so much a brand name, but I like the style of pinot noir. Particularly Willamette Valley pinots.
Favorite music to listen to while cooking?
I have two actually, depending on what I'm doing in the brewery. Some form of hard rock, is good for when I'm doing very vigorous like scooping all the leftover grains or scrubbing the floor. There are other times I'm doing things that require more of a delicate hand. Believe it or not, when I was a kid, my mother would play classic music on the 8-track (I'm older than you!). Being more soothing, it puts me in a mood that caters to the job I'm performing at the moment.
Most memorable character you've ever met in all your travels?
A couple of individuals from our company went to Bavaria, particularly the Franconian area of Bromberg. And we met this guy, Fritz Hebendanz. We were waiting around for him to show up, and our guide learned Franconian and had set up a brewery tour with this guy. We're just milling around in the middle of November, waiting for this guy. We see a huge poster on the wall, thinking "Wow, that's old school German. Some big brood of a dude holding a big wooden barrel." We thought it was from the 20s or 30s, and it turned out to be Fritz. Eventually he came up on this bicycle wearing a jumpsuit like mine, but covered in patches. He gave us a tour and he was cracking jokes all the time.
What advice do you have to others who wish to start their own local brew movement?
Homebrewing's a good start. It gives you an introduction to what it takes to actually make beer. At the same time, when you're doing that it would be a good idea to at least look at what local breweries are in your area and make friends with them. There are so many people who want to get into the industry —whether they just love beer or have been homebrewing for years and really really want to do this —some people are willing to work for free. So if I were to get an apprentice or assistant, that would be the route I would go.
What is, in your opinion, the appeal of microbreweries?
It depends on the market. I know because of where we're located, in Old City, that the beer happens to be probably the first thing that brings people here. Some people will stick around for a while for a few hours, so food is going to be a part of it. Triumph wants to appeal to as many people as possible with our beers, but at the same time there's one rule of thumb you can have in the restaurant industry which is: "You try to be everything to everybody and you'll be nothing to nobody." We could have one hundred beers on tap, but the odds of having one hundred stellar beers would be very difficult to pull off. We limit the number of drafts we have, but at the same time compete with a diverse selection for the guest that comes in.
Why is local, independent food better than the chains?
When it comes to food, look at it this way: The bigger you get, the harder it is to be able to have that local identity. People go to McDonald's because they know exactly what they're going to get: "I gotta have that Bic Mac!" But I don't want just a cheeseburger. I want a burger with Roquefort cheese and apple wood-smoked bacon —you get the idea. I think the consumer for craft beer and the consumer for indie food are the same in the sense that they're willing to try something new and different.
—Rebecca Troutman, Associate Editor, email@example.com