WIBG: Many professional brewers get started with home brewing, when did you get your start brewing and what led you to take up the hobby?
Rob Mullin: I first started to homebrew in 1988 when my girlfriend at the time gave me a homebrew kit for my birthday. As a political campaign worker, I had a hard time finding time to brew so one Sunday I turned off my phone and brewed my first beer, a dry stout. Brewing became an escape from a stressful job that was responsible for 20-hour workdays and insomnia.
In 1988 after losing a primary election in a run-off I took a vacation to the Tetons where I had one of my first exposure to Grand Teton beer, which was then Otto Brothers Brewing, Moose Juice Stout. It was great to fill a growler with beer and explore the Tetons.
After coming back from vacation, I went back into work campaigning. Following a loss in the 1990 campaign season, my sister who worked for Green Peace and knew about my love of beer introduced me to John Mallet at Old Dominion Brewing Company in Ashburn, VA. He hired me to drive the delivery truck and work in the brewery.
WIBG: Prior to joining Old Dominion Brewing in 1990, did you have much exposure to craft beer?
RM: I drank my first craft beer in a small wine and beer shop in Asheville, NC. while working for a Congressman there in 1988 It was an Amber Lager from Hope Brewing Corporation. I remember it because the shop hosted occasional beer education courses that really turned me on to flavorful beer.
WIBG: How long were you with Old Dominion, and what role do you believe they played in developing your own brewing philosophy?
RM: I was with Old Dominion for almost 9 years and it played a big role in my career. I was originally hired to help with deliveries, but within a year I became more active in the brewery. It was a fantastic place to learn how to brew professionally. In my time at Old Dominion, I worked with two of the best brewers in the business, John Mallet (who now works at Bells’sBrewing) is, in my opinion, among the best American trained brewers in America; and Ron Barchet (who founded Victory Brewing), who I still believe is one of the best German trained brewers. We had long conversations on the merits of decoction vs. infusion mashing, yeast management, recipe formulation, etc. John taught me almost everything that I know, including that I should be open to new ideas and willing to try new techniques as they are developed. From Ron I learned about traditional, proven, German brewing techniques and the German brewing heritage. In my time at the brewery, production grew tenfold to 25,000 barrels per year.
I was very lucky to learn to brew at a great east coast lager brewery, surrounded by great east coast lagers like the Old Dominion Dortmunder Export, Penn Pils, Stoudt’s Dortmunder Export and Theo DeGroen’s Pilsner. At that time, ales were more of a west coast phenomenon, probably due to all of the additional equipment required to brew lagers and the increased capital requirements that come with lagering beer.
WIBG: After leaving Old Dominion, can you give me a quick rundown of your brewing experiences prior to Grand Teton?
RM: After leaving Old Dominion, my next stop was the Commonwealth Brewpub at Rockefeller Center. My bride and I had just had our second child and we moved there to be close to her sister. It was pretty interesting, fun, and exciting to live and brew in New York City. Unfortunately, the owner was a real estate developer who sucked cash out of the brewpub to open a bistro. One day I showed up to work to find the doors padlocked.
Around 2000, I started at Trap Rock Brewing in New Jersey; it was the ideal brewing job. At Trap Rock, a 5-star restaurant, I had the privilege of working with Bruce Johnson, a true artist. Named the best chef in the state by the New York Times, he developed an amazing menu and I was tasked with brewing beer to match his creative cuisine. When I arrived, Trap Rock was brewing three beers, a light, an amber and a dark. After I arrived, I developed nine new beers five times a year as the menu changed. We had long discussions about different flavor pairings that could complement or enhance the flavors in his meals. That was where I developed my interest in beer and food pairings. I was constantly trying to brew beers that would enhance and compliment the food. I tended to brew a lot of lagers to compliment the more delicate flavors in the seafood dishes. While at Trap Rock, I also brewed a really fun Double IPA that we served at Michael Jackson’s 60th birthday party, it was modeled after a beer we brewed at Old Dominion called Tupper’s Hot Pocket Ale, it had a massive amount of dry hops.
While at Trap Rock, I also learned a lot about online rating sites, we would get horrible reviews from people who were angry that they could not order a hamburger and fries in our restaurant. To them, it wasn’t what a brewpub should be. The most absurd was a review that gave us zero stars. The author of the review drove up, was offended that we offered free valet parking, got back in his car and drove away without even coming in and trying our food or beer. It highlighted the dark side of customer reviews.
That aside, my time at Tap Rock was an amazing experience, my wife and I were ready to buy a house in the area so that I could cut down on my 3 hour round trip commute, and then 9/11 happened. We could see the smoke from the brewery, and I will never forget that day. Unfortunately, the 9/11 attacks led to New Yorkers leaving Manhattan, and driving up the price of homes outside the city, so we were unable to find home that we could afford on a brewer’s salary.
Fortunately in early in 2002, Charlie Otto was advertising a brewmaster position at Grand Teton Brewing. Having spent time in the Grand Teton area 12 years earlier, and having loved the area, I jumped at the opportunity. I immediately flew out to the brewery, spent time at the brewery with Charlie and was hired as the new brewmaster in May. Luckily I was able to convince my wife to move out of the city, to Victor, Idaho.
WIBG: The first recipe you developed for Grand Teton was Bitch Creek ESB, right? What were your thoughts when you developed it and did you think that it would as big of a success as it has been, winning medals at competitions almost every year since its introduction?
RM: When I arrived at Grand Teton, Charlie was in the midst of a trademark dispute over his Moose Juice Stout with MooseHead Brewery out of Canada. They thought having Moose in the name of our beer lead to confusion. We were joined in the lawsuit by Big Sky Brewing who was producing their Moose Drool Brown Ale. In the end, Big Sky chose to pay royalties and continue brewing Moose Drool, and we chose to cease production of Moose Juice. At the time, Moose Juice was the only dark beer that we brewed, so Charlie and I were hoping to replace it with another dark beer.
Charlie wanted to brew an ESB, like Redhook. I had previously brewed an ESB at Commonwealth in Manhattan that received a good review from Michael Jackson, and I think that’s what he had in mind. However, I had just moved out to the Rockies and I was darned if I would brew a British Style in the middle of the country. I was ready to move on and try something new. I really wanted to work with some of the new, flavorful west coast hops that were being developed at the time.
That year, we went to the GABF to try all the ESBs that were being served. Charlie and I stopped at every brewery that brewed an ESB, taking notes and comparing our opinions. No single beer did it for us. At the end of the day I found one beer that had the malt profile I wanted, and another beer with the strong hop profile that I wanted. I found Charlie, combined the two beers into one glass and gave it to Charlie, telling him, “This is the beer I want to make.” He thought it was great. It didn’t taste like any other ESB that we had ever tried and we knew it had to be our next beer.
Back at the brewery, we brewed a beer to match the flavor profile that we experienced at the GABF. I thought of calling it a Mahogany Ale, but Charlie wanted the reference point of an “ESB,” which at that point hadn’t yet been reclassified as “Extra Special Brown.” We had a local contest to pick the name of the new beer, which was won by the owner of the local flyfishing shop / soda fountain with the name Bitch Creek, after the local river and in part because it’s the name of a fly fishing fly that is popular in the area. Her shop had donated one of the prizes for the first place winner and she ended up winning it back.
Two years later a local homebrewer joined our team and suggested that we enter Bitch Creek as an American Brown Ale at the GABF. That year we won the gold in the category. I really feel like Bitch Creek helped to define what an American Brown is today, although at the time that definitely wasn’t our goal. We didn’t brew it to fit a style; we brewed it because we liked the way it tasted. It was useful to bring a homebrewer on who could guide it into a category after the fact. I think that is a huge testament to our local beer drinkers.
I don’t think the success of Bitch Creek lies in the medals or awards that we have won with it. To me the proof of success is how many cases we sell of it every year. It quickly became our flagship beer, only being surpassed last year by our Sweetgrass Pale Ale, which took the lead because of draft sales.
WIBG: What can you tell me about the Grand Teton brewing philosophy and distribution strategy?
RM: We had a lot of early adopters demanding our full flavored beers. However, there are only 3,000 people in the county and we are 6 hours from Boise. We simply don’t have the local market to support our production. Because of that, we have to ship our beers in order to grow. I know that seems like a backwards business model, but it is what’s been working for us. We ship to places that have fantastic local breweries and have to compete in someone else’s local market. We knew that we couldn’t try to ship a cream ale to Wisconsin to compete with New Glarus’ Spotted Cow, for instance. Why would someone want to buy our cream ale in the store when there was a well-brewed local cream ale available? We knew that to compete we would have to brew beers with extra flavor, beers that would stand out on the shelf and give consumers something they couldn’t get from their local breweries. That worked at the time, because it was before all of the breweries started to go with big, bold, flavorful beers.
However, there was still some confusion about why our beers were selling. When we launched Bitch Creek, I think our marketing director was convinced that Bitch Creek sold because of its name, that locals were buying it because of the local reference, but beer drinkers in other markets were buying it because they thought it had a risqué name. In that vein we put out an organic Blonde Ale called Au Naturale that had a nude lady on the bottle. However, it didn’t succeed because at that point the organic niche wasn’t big enough in our market. The thought at the time was that if we could build a better, more risqué marketing campaign, we would sell more beer.
Fortunately, four years ago when the new owners purchased Grand Teton, that approach didn’t appeal to them. The company refocused on the tradition of the brewery and beer. They weren’t going to put up with risqué things for the purpose of being risqué either on the labels, or in the name of the beer.
They wanted to focus more on the beer and believed the only way we could succeed was to brew high quality beer rather than focus on a marketing gimmick. Our continued success is to focus on quality first. I think that was the problem during the first craft beer boon in the mid 90’s, a lot of breweries were starting up, fueled by venture capital, not brewing. A lot of the new breweries were unable to brew consistently good beer, which caused them to go out of business.
Now in this latest craft beer boom, there are tens of thousands of great brewers entering the market. These are some great professionals, but they lack the capital to set up a laboratory and hire a good quality manager. The next big shakeout is going to be the breweries that can’t expand to the point where they can afford a quality control department. Quality is really the most important part, brewing a consistently good beer. The craft beer market originally grew at the expense of imports; it is only in the past few years that craft breweries have started converting domestic beer drinkers. That one bad bottle that makes it out of a good craft brewery could ruin that Budweiser drinkers experience for all of us. That one bad beer, which a craft beer drinker would be willing to accept, could lose the craft beer movement an additional convert. The industry has huge potential and if we can convert domestic drinkers with consistently good beer, there is no limit to the growth craft beer will experience. It is so important to focus on quality; it’s the next big challenge that the craft beer industry will have to face moving forward.
WIBG: Water plays a huge part in the development of a beer and many breweries utilize reverse osmosis to strip the minerals out of the beer, working to develop a water profile from scratch. How has the water profile in Teton Valley influenced the beers you brew?
RM: All of the recipes when I started included an acid adjustment. The first thing I did when I started was to get rid of the water treatments. We quickly realized that affected the beers that we brewed. However, we found that our untreated water produced really good, malty beers because our water profile is close to the water in Munich. All of the water in the area is from the mountains, it is 3-500 year old glacial runoff that filtered through Teton Mountain granite and limestone before it comes up at a spring half a mile from the brewery. There’s very little chlorine in our water and we add nothing. I actually have a really hard time traveling because water in the rest of the country tastes chemically to me. Our water on the other hand has a slightly sweet flavor. The greatest success we have had with it has been with our Double Vision Doppelbock, a full, malty German-style lager. Double Vision was brewed as a testament to our water.
In the last five years we started to brew hoppier beers, but our water doesn’t let us get the same amount of bitterness out of the hops that a different water profile would allow. We could treat our water, but decided that we could just add more hops to get the extra bitterness. I think that’s what sets our hoppy beers apart. We get a fuller hop aroma and flavor from the increased amount of hops. It can also be hard to get the yeast to fully attenuate in our hoppy beers. The common denominator though is that our water allows us to brew well balanced, flavorful beers. The key is balance and the goal is to never get extreme bitterness.
WIBG: Is it an homage to traditional brewing that you leave the Teton Valley water as it is rather than treat it?
RM: I am very interested in traditional techniques and use modern technology periodically where we can. Recently I learned about hop products, for example. We can use hop extract which is nice because we can add more bitterness without losing wort in the hop matter. For flavor and aroma additions however, we stick with pellet hops. We use dextrose in Lost Continent and Pursuit of Hoppiness to get extra fermentable without the added body.
Water is something that I don’t want to compromise on. I like the idea of terroir being important. That 100 years ago, every city produced different beer. Styles had to change and be defined based upon the local water and local ingredients. I would love to develop a local Teton Valley style.
WIBG: I have read that there are term plans to source all hops and barley locally, is the move to source locally a new initiative, or is it part of a long term growth plan that is now receiving more focus?
RM: We are also very proud of our barley. This area is recognized as growing the best malting barley in the world. All of our base malt is grown and malted within a couple hours of the brewery at a maltster in Pocatello, ID. We have been unable to get locally sourced specialty malts. We would love to find a local source, and it would be fantastic to get a small maltster here in the Teton Valley so that the farmers didn’t have to ship their barley far away, to get it malted so that it could be shipped back here to our brewery. All that money and production could stay here in our local economy.
50% of the hops that we use are Idaho hops, and we are hoping that within 5 years, close to 90% of the hops that we use will be local. There are a couple of the new proprietary strains that we currently use that we have been unable to find locally. South Idaho has a great climate for growing hops. It’s dryer than the Yakima valley with long, sunny days that are great for hop growth. The proof is in taste testing; Idaho hops are as good as if not superior to hops produced in other parts of the country. Because of that, we try to contract all of our hops from an Idaho source whenever possible. The conditions here are also conducive to high alpha hops. Chinook, Galena (both of which were developed in Idaho) and Centennial have really taken off here. Ten years ago, they were used exclusively for bittering additions, but they are now increasingly being used for flavor. Compared to the old 4% Alpha Acid Cluster hops, Chinook, Galena and Centennial are huge.
Recently three of our brewers and I went to spend a weekend with four of the families that provide our hops. We went boating up Hell’s Canyon, toured their farms and had a great time. They are great people and produce some of the best hops in the world. Until recently they were tied up in a big Anheuser-Busch contract, but recently got let go. The Busch family was probably the most conservative in the business, they were determined to not fail like Schlitz did, by altering their ingredients. They didn’t want to change from the 14 varieties of hops used in Budweiser. Because of that they helped prop up legacy hop varieties. When InBev dropped their contracts, that gave us access to those great hops for the first time.
Be sure to check back on Friday for the conclusion of my Interview with Rob Mullin where we discuss the Cellar Reserve series, his thoughts on beer, and his advice for homebrewers who are aspiring to open their own craft breweries!