Words of Wisdom and Cautionary Tales From the Brewmasters of DFW
Allison V. Smith
Behind Dallas' booming craft beer scene is an eccentric (and exclusively male) batch of master brewers, former engineers and lawyers and homebrewers who have devoted their life to getting you tastefully drunk. Over the last few months, we sat down with the head brewers at 11 area breweries, to learn how their businesses were built, what consumers don't understand about brewing, and how to break into the beer game. Their answers have been edited and condensed. Read responsibly.
Rahr & Sons Brewing Co., Fort Worth
It was Fritz Rahr's great-great grandfather who, after immigrating from Rhineland, Germany, began homebrewing, a hobby that grew to a major malting company that now supplies malt and brewing materials to 90-percent of breweries in the United States. Rahr started the Fort Worth-based brewery in 2004.
Franconia Brewing Company, McKinney
Wehrman grew up in Nurnberg, Germany, with a rich family-brewing tradition. His great-great grandfather owned a local brewery and his mother was brewery lab technician. Dennis started working in a brewery at age 12 and, after graduating from Doemans Brewmaster School in Munich, moved to Texas and founded Franconia Brewing in 2008.
Deep Ellum Brewing Company, Dallas
After moving to Austria to finish his studies and become a priest, Hunt had a divine intervention: he discovered great beer and a great woman. He came home married and a brewer. After working at both Mercury Brewing Company and Redhook, he studied under Sam Calagione at DogFish Head Craft Brewery before being recruited to Dallas.
Peticolas Brewing Company, Dallas
It was Mom who first introduced Michael to the ins and outs of homebrewing and what it meant to share a beer made at home with friends. Now operating on a large scale, Peticolas has amassed a nice collection of hardware for its beers, including a gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival for its English Pale Ale, Royal Scandal.
Revolver Brewing, Granbury
Though Grant Wood came to the brewing outpost of Granbury by way of Samuel Adams Brewery, he got his start as a lab technician at Pearl Brewing Company and Lone Star. The Irving native then spent 16 years at Samuel Adams before returning to North Texas to work as head brewer at Revolver.
FireWheel Brewing Co., Rowlett
After getting laid off from his job, founder and brewer Brad Perkinson took a gamble and opened this small brewery in Rowlett on a shoestring budget. For the first two years of operation, it was a one-man operation, sustained with the help of friends. He recently hired his first official employee, got a brewery dog, and plans to expand soon.
Lakewood Brewing Company, Garland
As a boy, Bens often traveled to Belgium for family vacations, and over the years developed a taste for the local beers there. After graduating from SMU, he settled into East Dallas, dug the vibe and started homebrewing. Soon he enrolled in a program with the American Brewers Guild, had an apprenticeship at Rahr & Sons, and opened Lakewood in 2012.
Four Corners Brewing Co., Dallas
Prior to his job at Four Corners, Petty homebrewed for almost a decade and learned a lot about the trade while working at the local mecca of all things homebrew-related, Homebrew Headquarters in Richardson. He took over the job as head brewer at Four Corners last year after studying under previous brewmaster John Sims.
Community Beer Company, Dallas
While studying culinary arts in Europe, Fulton discovered the finer art of craft beer. Upon returning home, he enrolled in brewing courses through University of California at Davis, interned at Blue Star Brewing in San Antonio and returned to Europe once again to study at the Doemens Academy in Munich. He then worked at The Covey in Fort Worth, where he started producing award-winning beer, and is now doing the same at Community.
Martin House Brewing Company, Fort Worth
Formally trained in engineering, Martin started homebrewing just over a decade ago. He worked in environmental engineering before giving notice and opening a brewery on the banks of the Trinity River in Fort Worth.
Grapevine Craft Brewery, Grapevine
It was Dad who first introduced homebrewing to Caton Orrell, a Denton native. He moved out of state to hoppier pastures, but made a beeline back to Texas to work at Grapevine Craft Brewery. He worked at both River City Brewing Co. in Wichita, Kansas, and Boulevard Brewing Company in Kansas City, where he worked on the Smokestack Series.
What's the greatest misconception about being a brewer?
Petty: A lot of people think we sit around and drink beer all day. A majority of the time I'm a glorified janitor. It's a lot of cleaning. You have to clean and sanitize to get to each process, then you do the process, and then you clean and sanitize once you finish the process.
Fulton: That if you can brew great beer at home, you can do it in a production brewery. Being a brewmaster is loosely the equivalent of being a chef. Just because you can cook it up with the best in your kitchen at home doesn't mean you're cut out to run a professional kitchen. It's even more true for brewing in a professional production brewery. Besides managing the logistics of the processes, much of my job is troubleshooting broken or malfunctioning equipment, and you seldom encounter the same problem twice. Brewing beer is the easy part.
Wood: That we drink all the time. Not true. We taste all the time. Also, people seem to think that we all have beards and tattoos. I couldn't grow a decent beard if you held a gun to my head.
Orrell: The greatest misconception I find is that we are akin to Willy Wonka's Oompa-Loompas who are let out to run about the factory all day, singing silly songs and sampling the wares. This stereotype is somewhat offensive, and absotively, posilutely, normally untrue.
In 2010, there were only a few local craft breweries. Now there are more than a dozen. What happened? Is the growth sustainable?
Petty: Beer drinkers in North Texas are getting more educated. Even in my time working at Homebrew Headquarters, I saw how much that knowledge base grew. Customers knew what they were looking for. Once you start to step out the box of the big three, you discover new things and people get hooked on certain styles of beers and discovering more of what they like.
Martin: I think the growth might be sustainable. We're already seeing a change in the market where tap handles and shelf space are harder to come by. I think that craft beer enthusiasts will keep up with the breweries as long as the retail establishments keep making craft more and more prominent and available.
Wehrman: I think it is great to see the market turning and getting some different beers. Coming from the biggest beer region in the world, Franconia [northern Bavaria], it's nice to see this trend here. We just have to be careful not to over-exhilarate it in too short a period of time.
Fulton: I think the market can sustain most of the breweries that are opening. Craft beer lovers in North Texas are really getting behind the phenomenon, and that's obviously the key factor for the success of craft brewing here. The quality has to be there, though. If a brewery's beer is not on par or better than beers coming into our market from elsewhere in the country, the brewery is not going to last. While people love supporting local, they will ultimately choose quality.
Wood: I do think the growth is sustainable, or I wouldn't have left my previous brewing position to come here and build a brewery. There are more craft brewing enthusiasts all the time. A good portion of what we do is educate the beer drinker to appreciate full-flavored local craft beer.
Perkinson: It is a glamorized lifestyle. I don't know if all these people getting into the industry really understand what they are getting into. It is a lot of work and takes even more capital. It is very quickly becoming competitive between local brands for taps and shelf space, and I honestly don't know how much craft beer Dallas can support. I don't think we are a saturated market yet, but we are getting there in a hurry.
Orrell: Having worked in other parts of the country, I always had the feeling like Scott Bakula's character from Quantum Leap, where he was always looking for the one leap that would take him back home. You comb the classifieds for jobs close to home, and then one day — boom! You can pick and choose! It was interesting to see it develop from afar. On the ground, it's a strange dichotomy between wanting to see everyone succeed and wanting to differentiate yourself.
What's in your beer fridge right now?
Petty: It's running a little low. Mostly just a few homebrews. Dogfish Head Bitches Brew, which was in honor of Miles Davis' record. Real Ale's 2008 through 2013 Sisyphus. Me and a buddy have been buying about 10 of those beers a year so we can have vertical tastings. And Samuel Adams' triple bock.
Fulton: Baby food. I don't keep a lot of beer at home, as there's not much time for beer drinking with three young boys to manage and entertain. Mainly just my favorites from our brewery: Public Ale and Witbier. I also really enjoy Santo from St. Arnold and Hans' Pils from Real Ale, both lower-ABV sessionable beers, which are generally more to my taste than super strong, hoppy, specialty beers.
Wood: There are a couple bottles of Blood and Honey, a (512) Anniversary Stout, a Samuel Adams Stony Brook Red, a bottle of Samuel Adams Summer Ale, and some other odds and ends.
Perkinson: Martin House Daybreak Cans, Lakewood Hop Trapp bottles, Deschutes Inversion IPA, Uinta Hop Nosh and FireWheel (of course) and Liquid Assets keg in the garage kegerator — just to name a few.
Ever had a colossal brewing mistake?
Bens: No comment.
Martin: Our very first brew day was long and trying for several reasons. At the end of the brew, while we were cooling our wort, we opened the wrong valve and were rewarded with a powerful stream of sweet boiling wort. Directly in the face, shoulder and arm. Mostly the face. I've still got a scar on my arm, but my beard protected my face completely. I tell people my beard saved my life.
Wehrman: We have them on a daily basis, but in a good way. That's what makes a craft beer a craft beer. If we mill in and the brewer forgets to close the grist case, for example, that means a big mess and buckets full of grist need to be shoveled out. You look like a flour man afterward.
Rahr: We once made a small test batch (55 gallons) of a new beer for our portfolio. After we were done, we were pushing the portable fermenter into the cooler when one of the rolling casters hit a crack in the cement floor, toppling the fermentation vessel on its side, crashing to the floor, spilling its entire contents all over the floor. We were glad no one was hurt, but sat there shaking our heads watching seven hours of our day go down the drain, not to mention the damage caused to the fermentation tank. Oh well, shit happens.
Wood: I hold the record for the longest lauter runoff at the Genesee Brewing Company in Rochester, New York. Forty-eight thousand pounds of malt that went nowhere ... slowly.
Orrell: Oy, yes. In the brewing world, production mistakes are like having to shoot your own dog. You do it, but your loss never leaves you.
Do you have any advice for budding brewers?
Petty: Support your local homebrew store, not because I worked at Homebrew Headquarters, but because even if you're getting your ingredients cheaper online, locals will go out of their way to help you, they'll taste your beer and give you advice, set you up with new ingredients that you wouldn't normally try. They can actually help you improve your skills as a brewer, unlike a mail-order company.
Bens: Clean. Clean. Clean.
Martin: It's going to take much more effort then you think to win and keep customers.
Wehrman: Have fun. Have fun. Have fun.
Fulton: For budding brewers wanting to open a production brewery: Get real experience or hire a consultant or professional brewer to show you the ropes. While this is expensive, mistakes made from inexperience can be much more costly, and unfortunately can be very dangerous. The machinery, hot liquids, chemicals and pressurized tanks and gases we use on a day-to-day basis can cause serious injury or worse.
Wood: Don't burn bridges. You never know who you will be working for. It's actually a very small beer world.
Hunt: Read. If this is going to become a career for you and not a hobby, read more. Learn about classic beer styles and what sets them apart from one another. Then, brew. Brew a lot. Make mistakes and learn from them. Be anal retentive about your brewing. Take notes and find out what works and what does not. Learn about ingredients by brewing and drinking.
Perkinson: Don't be an ass. Simple enough concept, but it needs to be said. There is a place for everyone and a time for every beer. The last thing we need is for people to be discouraging and condescending when you are trying to start homebrewing.
Orrell: Develop your palate. Know off-flavors. It is so very important to detect flaws. It gives you an advantage to refine your process and improve your product.
Have you found any invaluable brewing resources?
Petty: The Complete Joy of Homebrewing by Charlie Papazian is a great resource. I still refer to it from time to time because it always brings me back to basics. Also, Designing Great Beers by Ray Daniels, which is basically exactly what the title says: how to build a beer recipe from scratch. It's sitting right next to me every time I write a recipe.
Bens: The Brewer's Association is a great resource for us brewers, as well as The Master Brewers Association of America (MBAA). But I think great brewers find inspiration outside of the brewing world to come up with the next great beer.
Fulton: For amateurs and pros alike, the Classic Beer Styles series by Brewers Association is indispensable. I still look to these books often for advice when creating new recipes.
Perkinson: Local brewers have been my salvation when I run into trouble. Wim [Bens] at Lakewood [Brewing Company] helps me out a bunch if I'm in a pinch and I know the others would as well if I asked.
Orrell: Probrewer.com is how I came to be back in Texas. There are a host of excellent publications that are available through the Brewers Association and the MBAA websites. The North Texas Craft Brewers guild is a great local resource.
What's the hardest part of your job? The best part?
Petty: The hardest thing is having to deal with problems in the moment. You really have to be able to think on your feet. Adapting to different situations while you're brewing. My favorite part would have to be being alone in the brewery on the brew stand at night and listening to the noises of the brewing process. It's a real peaceful place to be.
Bens: The hardest part is balancing family and the brewery. It's an all-consuming adventure that we're on, but I'm fortunate to have an incredibly patient and supportive family. The best part of my job is talking to people who are just so excited to have a local brewery. When someone tells you that your beer changed their life, and means it, that's what keeps me going.
Peticolas: The manual labor is the toughest part. Brewing in and of itself is a workout. It's not a job for the weak. The best part is creating a product that garners such passion from consumers. Nothing provides me more satisfaction or sense of validation than hearing people tell us that our beer is exceptional. Those words make all the hard work worth it.
Rahr: The hardest part would be managing and being responsible for the livelihoods of 20 employees and their families. This brewery supports a lot of people and their future rests with the management of the business. The best part [is] the same thing: bringing together 20 people and their families as one big family.
Perkinson: Hardest part is trying to make it in this industry without capital. I have to make a lot of my own equipment, and it requires some crafty engineering and a lot of time. Trial and error is my method and we just hope for more successes than failures. The best part is when people come out to the tours and tell me how much they are enjoying the beer that I made with my own two hands. It feels really good to have people appreciate your hard work.
Are there any styles, ingredients, trends or brewing processes that you're really excited about right now?
Petty: One of the new techniques that's becoming more popular is hop bursting. I do it with homebrew a lot. Usually in an hour-long boil, you throw hops in right at the beginning of the boil to get your main bitterness, and add more hops at the end to add flavor and aroma to the beer. In this process, you leave out the bittering addition, and add a bunch of hops in the last 20 to 30 minutes of the boil. You have to use more hops to make up for leaving the bittering addition out, but the result is a bitterness that fades quickly and a really full hop flavor and aroma.
Bens: We're expanding our barrel program to include more than Bourbon Barrel Temptress. We'll be releasing some very interesting beers throughout the year that we're aging in all types of wood barrels, from rum to wine to tequila.
Peticolas: Excellent examples of classic styles excite me more than anything. Trends have a place in the ever-changing craft beer landscape, but many of those trends are just novelties that wear thin over time. An exceptionally clean, classic style is always my preference.
Rahr: It seems there is always some new trend. First it was the explosion of the IPA, then it was imperial IPAs, then sours, Belgians and barrel aging. But I see current trends focusing on going back to brewing solid traditional session beers. I like that. It's refreshing.
Wood: I'm trying to find ways to integrate local ingredients and local tastes into my beers. This is not always easy or the results perfect, but it's something I want to bring to the beer. It's not terroir, it's just saying, "This is what good beer tastes like from here."
What's the most ridiculous thing you've ever done to get beer?
Petty: One time my roommate and I drove down to Houston and bought $650 worth of craft beer that we couldn't get in Nacogdoches. There was nothing but mustard, cheese and beer in the fridge after that.
Fulton: From our school in Munich, four of my buddies and I took a train to the base of the foothills below Andechs Monastery. We hiked all the way up to the monastery where we enjoyed not only the delicious brews the monks make there, but also the cheese, pork and bread and soaked in some rays on their awesome patio. It was an unforgettable day indeed! I would highly recommend this trek for anyone visiting Munich.
Rahr: Once I drove to Wisconsin to get Spotted Cow.
Wood: I did get yelled at by a one-legged woman bar owner in Montana for asking what she had on tap. "Just order a damn beer!" Yes, ma'am!
Hunt: My wife and I studied in Austria for a while and we had a Belgian Beer Club on campus. Every weekend someone would go to Belgium just to pick up some great beers. We'd pretend that it was for the culture or the art. Nope, we went for the beer!
Perkinson: A few years ago, a couple of buddies and I wanted to drink a beer or three while we went to the movies. Between the three of us, we managed to hide an entire 12-pack of cans in our pockets. That was a good movie.
What's the best beer you've ever had?
Petty: My dad was the bassist for Point Blank, and one day he had a show in Fort Worth. I had just turned 21 that week and went to see him play his show with a buddy of mine. On the way home after the show, we picked up a six-pack of Newcastle Brown Ale and parked in front of my house. My dad got home after us and came up and sat on the tailgate with us and had a beer. How many kids get to see their dad play a rock 'n' roll show and then just have a beer with them?
Bens: I can't think of any particular beer, but I love drinking Belgian beer in Belgium. Beer is best consumed the closer you are to the brewery.
Peticolas: New Glarus Belgian Cherry Red. A fellow American Brewers Guild student introduced me to this beer during my training at the Harpoon Brewery in Windsor, Vermont. I had never been a fan of fruit beer, but after one sip, I was hooked. It's made with fresh Wisconsin cherries, and a ton of them. I admire the manner in which New Glarus handles its operations.
Futlon: There are many memorable beers I've had, though the one that sticks out the most was simply called "Krausenbier" at a small pub in the small downtown of Heidelberg, Germany. Our professor was a good friend of the brewer, so he gladly hosted our class, feeding us simply this krausenbier, freshly whipped cream and the freshest strawberries you've ever had. It was unforgettable.
Rahr: It would be the time my wife and I were in Bamberg, Germany. The Christmas market was in full swing. It was evening, a light snow was falling, cold with a chill and we snuck into Brewery Schlenkerla, where we enjoyed a cask-conditioned smoked Helles Bock. One of the best beers I have ever had.
Wood: A helles, served with Weiss wurst by the nuns at Klosterbrauerei Mallersdorf. Great breakfast.
Orrell: Redhook Blackhook Porter. No joke. My dad and I had gone on a hiking trip at Crestone, Colorado. We had expended our whiskey rations the first night in camp. After five days at or near Willow Creek Lake, we found ourselves at the local general store. Blackhook Porter was the best offering they had, and so we sat on the porch of the general store and drank our Blackhook and listened to the locals shoot off their potato gun. Best. Beer. Ever.
Wehrman: The first beer of every day.
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