Friday, September 20, 2013

Brewer of the Week

It has been slightly more than 4 years since Mrs V and I pitched our tent in central Virginia. In that time we have seen the beer industry in this area grow and grow. When we moved here there were 4 breweries within easy reach of us, today there are 8 in the immediate area and another couple just beyond that. Within weeks of moving here our good friend Jay came to visit, and we stopped into Blue Mountain Brewing, and I found a pale lager that I could enjoy on a regular basis, and to this day I do so. The gang at Blue Mountain also make plenty of other beers that I enjoy. Today's brewer of the week is Blue Mountain's founder and head brewer, Taylor Smack, a man that does something that worries me, makes a great pale lager without decoction...

Name: Taylor Smack
Brewery: Blue Mountain Brewery and Blue Mountain Barrel House

How did you get into brewing as a career?

Just as almost every single brewer in my generation, I too was a homebrewer first. I homebrewed after college in the mid-late 90s. But the detailed story is so much better; grab a beer while I spin my yarn:

After college and travelling about in Australia and New Zealand, I landed a job at an up and coming internet company in Charlottesville, where I chose to live, putting my English degree to use as a copy editor and then ad writer. The company, Value America, ended up employing 600+ people, going public with their IPO shooting from $18 to $76 on opening day (I was rich!), and then going to $0.10 and then off the Nasdaq within 6 months (I was poor again!). They laid off over half the company two days after Christmas and most of my friends got sweet severance packages. Sadly, I was left on. I begged for release and the severance but didn’t get it. So, essentially, I went all “Office Space” and started playing golf every day, blowing off work, etc. One of the things I did was begin skipping work to go work for free at South Street Brewery under Jacque Landry, the guy who became my mentor and to whom I owe all the good fortunes of my brewing career.
Eventually, I tired of coming in even occasionally to the ad-writing job, enrolled in Seibel Institute (brewing school) and headed off to Chicago. After Seibel, I landed an interview at Goose Island, thanks to my friend Matt Robbins (who became the first brewer for Southern tier and also owns part of Revolution Brewing in Chicago). Matt also set me up on a blind date with this stunning blonde with a ridiculously sweet Midwestern accent with whom he had gone to Marquette University. After this girl drank me under the table (don’t mess with Wisconsin girls) and we had chatted about opening a brewery together, I knew Mandi was the one for me. Meanwhile, I somehow talked my way into the Head Brewing position for both Goose Island brewpubs. I had just turned 25 and my beer was available inside Wrigley Field and I made beer for the Chicago Blackhawks. I was pretty high on life. But eventually the -36 degree winters and the call of the South were too strong, so Mandi and I moved to North Carolina, and eventually back to Virginia, where I brewed at South Street for almost 6 years before opening Blue Mountain Brewery.

What is the most important characteristic of a brewer?

Physically, the ability to problem solve. Mentally, the artistic spirit tempered with science, and humility in the face of all the brewers for thousands of years before you who have mastered this trade and left their knowledge for all of us to build on.

Before being a professional brewer, did you homebrew? If so, how many of your homebrew recipes have you converted to full scale production?

Yes, and none!

If you did homebrew, do you still?

Well, my home is practically joined to the brewery, so yes? But no, not really.

What is your favourite beer to brew?

Stouts and Porters for the smell, Lagers and Kolschbiers for the care you have to take.

If you have worked in other breweries, which other beer did you enjoy brewing, and why?

All my beers are like my children, but being the first brewer to brew Matilda at Goose Island was very special. Even when you consider I was left behind to mind the shops as the “new guy” when all the other GI brewers took the trip to Belgium that inspired the beer. Greg Hall (former Brewmaster for GI) was like, “Taylor, we had the most amazing time in Belgium, especially at Orval! I want you to brew this idea I have for an Orval clone!” And I was like, “Yeah. Thanks, Greg. Awesome consolation prize. How about next time I go to Belgium and YOU brew the cool clone!” In reality it really was a great consolation prize. And also, I never would have said that to Greg or he may have smacked me upside the head.

Of the beers you brew, which is your favourite to drink?

It changes with the seasons. My favorite today will change tomorrow. It’s my curse that I find something great to appreciate in every beer style under the sun.

How important is authenticity when making a new beer, in terms of flavour, ingredients and method?

Well, there’s a time for it, and there’s a time to break tradition. Depends what you’re going for, I guess. Translating your vision to the drinker is what’s key.

If you were to do a collaborative beer, which brewery would you most like to work with and why?

We’ve become friends with Jamie and T.L. at Foothills and have a collaboration slated for sometime in 2014. I’m psyched about that. Those guys are really fantastic, as is their beer. Also, we got a kind pre cease and desist email from Sam at Dogfish (it really was kind…no lawyers) about changing our Local Species trout artwork as he’d heard some confusion with the DFH shark logo. I pushed him to do a collab with us, but he didn’t bite. Then I told him we were going to throw a Groucho Marx-style disguise on the trout, a la 75 Minute IPA’s “Johnny Cask”, but his lawyers didn’t think that was too funny. So DFH is on my list to harass until they collaborate with us!

Also on the slate, a ubiquitous feature of Charlottesville Beer, Brian Martin, convinced Jason Oliver and me to do a collab Belgian Quad, so we’ve got that slated to brew late October/early November. Looking forward to that one.

Which beer, other than your own, do you wish you had invented?

Hmmm…I love the Duvel story, with mutated McEwan’s yeast. Also wouldn’t have minded being the brewer to have come up with Bohemian Pilsner!

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