This week we head up to Pennsylvania and a brewery with one of the coolest names I can think of - Bavarian Barbarian!
Name: Mike Hiller
Brewery: Bavarian Barbarian Brewing Company, Williamsport, PA
How did you get into brewing as a career?
I was a professional actor living in Richmond, VA and working for a local hardware store in the fasteners department when a theater colleague of mine had become the head brewer at Legend Brewing Company. He knew I wasn’t very happy working at the hardware store, so he suggested that I apply for a delivery driver position that had just opened up at Legend’s distribution wing. I got the job and delivered beer in Richmond, Williamsburg, Virginia Beach and everywhere in between. After about eight months, a brewer decided to move on to other things, so I moved over into the brewery. Instantly fell in love with brewing. I also really enjoyed working with my fellow brewers there. They were a great group of guys, a few of whom are still there, and I truly looked forward to working with them every day. I continued the acting career for about two years while working there, but I discovered that I enjoyed brewing much more than the acting. So I quit acting altogether and focused more on learning about brewing. I only left Legend Brewing Company because my wife, Kira, got accepted to grad school at Harvard University. Upon moving to Cambridge, MA, I looked for brewery work, but the only thing I landed was a couple of days work at Cambridge Brewing Company with Will Meyer. Lots of brewery jobs in the Boston area, but there were also a lot of brewers who weren’t really going anywhere. So I took a job as a carpenter and a welder for a scenic studio building scenery for corporate trade shows and displays for museums and aquariums. I missed brewing, so I put together an all-grain homebrewing operation after my wife and I moved to the Brighton area of Boston. I brewed beer on the balcony of my second-floor apartment overlooking Commonwealth Avenue while watching the trolley go by and neighbors walking by wondering what the hell I was doing up on my balcony.
What is the most important characteristic of a brewer?
For me, it’s creativity. I’m a very creative person and I love working with my hands, so brewing is a perfect way for me to get my ya-yas in both ways.
Before being a professional brewer, did you homebrew? If so, how many of your homebrew recipes have you converted to full scale production?
I answered the first part of this question in #1. I did it backwards. I began as a professional brewer and then became a homebrewer. The beers that we debuted at Bavarian Barbarian Brewing Company were, in fact, first developed in homebrewing, but they were refined on the ten-barrel system here at the brewery.
If you did homebrew, do you still?
I don’t homebrew anymore at all. I keep my equipment in case I ever want to do a pilot batch, but I just develop a recipe and take it straight to the brew tower.
What is your favourite beer that you brew?
My favorite beer to brew is the Steel Drivin’ Stout. The aroma of the mash is sweet and roasty. And I love the taste of the pre-hop wort in the kettle. After fermentation, I really enjoy how the beer changes as it ages.
If you have worked in other breweries, which other beer did you enjoy brewing, and why?
At Legend Brewing Company, I always enjoyed brewing the Legend Brown Ale. The aromas coming out of the mash tun from the caramel and dark malts were just sublime.
Of the beers you brew, which is your favourite to drink?
It varies all the time. Right now, I’m digging our 2x4 IPA because it’s a fresh batch and the hop aroma is really awesome. But in two months, I’ll probably be all over the Steel Drivin’ Stout or the Headbangerz Brown Ale. Hammerin’ Ale (our amber ale) is my drink-all-day beer, so if I’m doing some menial, neck-down work in the brewery I’ll drink a few of the Hammerin’ Ales.
How important is authenticity when making a new beer, in terms of flavour, ingredients and method?
I’m not really concerned with authenticity at all. Creative interpretation is where it’s at, for me. If fact, I’d prefer to simply think up a beer recipe and choose malt, hops and yeast, brew it and then try to figure out what the hell it is.
If you were to do a collaborative beer, which brewery would you most like to work with and why?
Well, I’m in the middle of a collaboration with my first choice - Terry Hawbaker at Bullfrog Brewery. He’s been doing some amazing things with barrel-aging and wild yeasts for a couple of years now and he’s definitely the guy to learn those techniques from. Plus, he’s fun to work with. Beyond that, I think I’d like to work out some collaborations with other brewers here in Central Pennsylvania. There’s a great group of breweries and brewers within a sixty-mile radius of Williamsport, where I am, and I’d like the opportunity to work with any one of them.
Which beer, other than your own, do you wish you had invented?
I don’t know if I’d ever wish I’d brewed a beer that someone else had done. As far as I’ll go is wishing I had the capacity, the skill or the creativity to brew the kinds of beers that others are doing. A lot of times I’ll encounter a beer that will inspire me to try something similar. For instance, I was at a beer festival in Philadelphia one year and I sat on a panel of brewery owners for a Q&A session on starting a brewery. Besides myself were Brian Hunt from Moonlight Brewery in California and Paul Philippon from Duck-Rabbit Craft Brewery in North Carolina. Both of them brought amazing black lagers - schwarzbiers - to the festival and they inspired me to brew my own. I haven’t done it yet, but it’s still in the back of my mind.