Friday, May 17, 2013

Interview with Rob Mullin - Grand Teton Brewing - Part 2

Thanks for checking back for the second part of my interview with Grand Teton Brewing’s brewmaster, Rob Mullin.  In the second part of the interview we focused more on the Cellar Reserve series, Rob’s thoughts on beer, recommendations for homebrewers, and recommendations for anyone interested in breaking into professional brewing.  Enjoy!

Part one can be found here:

On to Part Two!

WIBG:   Will the tradition of bringing two standbys out for the Cellar Reserve series every year continue?  If so, can you offer any hints on what the styles for next year’s Cellar Release beers might be?

RM:        For years we did a series of different beers in our Cellar Reserve series.  The new ownership has focused us on traditional styles.  One of our new owners, Steve Furbacher, likes to say that we “don’t want to get too far out in front of our skis,” meaning that we need to do what we are good at and work with tried and true recipes.  We have learned a lot about cellaring beers over the years.  Some styles cellar better than others.  We quickly learned that we were not happy with how hoppier beers aged.  Originally, our Lost Continent Double IPA was a cellar reserve series but we learned that was a mistake.  The hoppy beers tasted great at bottling, and up to four months later, but after four months they were no longer a beer that we could be proud of.

                Going forward with our Cellar Reserve series we decided to stick to traditional styles that we believe will cellar well for one or more years.  We have a hard time coming up with new summer Cellar Reserve beers, beers that will be crisp or light enough to enjoy on a hot summer’s day, but also improve in the bottle for a year or two. We are constantly getting requests to bring back retired beers as part of the Cellar Reserve program.  Since this year is our 25th Anniversary we wanted to mine some of our best beers, so we released our Double Vision Doppelbock in January, our Oud Bruin in May, and our Bone Warmer Imperial Amber Ale in September.

                We want to remain true to traditional styles while also developing interesting new styles and new beers so that our brewers can expand their knowledge.  Going forward we want to do 1 to 2 new beers, and 1 to 2 old beers, including our Coming Home beer in November, which changes every year.  To determine the next year’s cellar reserve beers we get everyone in the brewery together and brainstorm.  It’s getting harder to come up with new ideas.

                I think the biggest challenge for the Cellar Reserve series is the summer release.  We want to have something that’s drinkable and refreshing in the summer that we release it, yet we want something that can be laid down for a few years to age.  It’s a tricky balance to hit.  For Snarling Badger we took a classic style, and amped it up.  Typical Berliner Weisse beers come in around 3%, and are meant to be enjoyed fresh.  However, for our release we made a 7.5% Berliner Weisse.  It is our ideal summer Cellar Reserve release.  After I brewed it, I bought a few cases and continue to open a new bottle every month.  It is continuing to become more tart and refreshing in the bottle, getting continually better with every new bottle I open.  I would love to be able to do Snarling Badger every summer.  Perhaps we could make it a summer seasonal, but then we would have to find a way to cut back on the 6 month, secondary lactobacillus fermentation.  I am thinking about trying a sour mash technique to see if that can produce another good Berliner Weisse without the long wait.

                This year, our summer Cellar Reserve release is Oud Bruin, we first brewed the Oud Bruin in 2007 and I modeled it after the base beer for a Flanders’s Style lambic that I won Gold with at the GABF with when I was at Commonwealth.  That was an amazing beer, and that year I beat out New Glarus and New Belgium in the Belgian- & French-Style Specialty Ales Category, which was quite an accomplishment.  It was a great experience to be mentioned in the same group as those breweries

                I am nervous about the 2014 summer reserve beer.  The way we are growing, I don’t think we are going to have the space on site to age it for six months, so it probably will not be a sour beer release.  That leaves the question of what it will be wide open.

WIBG:   As the Brewmaster, do you have full creative control over new recipes and releases?

RM:        I wouldn’t say that I have full control. I mean I do take full responsibility and literally sign off on every new release, but we work very collaboratively.  The owners are extremely supportive and give the brewers free range as long as we remember that the Grand Teton is all about traditional styles.  However, there is a lot of room for variation in the traditional styles.  I am hoping to play around more with a small barrel program over the next couple years.  I would also like to work more with wild yeasts, and bacteria like lactobacillus and pediococcus.   My dream is to build a coolship and develop a wild fermented 100% Teton beer with all local ingredients.

One of our brewers, Chaz Hansen is working on a Belgian Dubbel on his homebrew system for an upcoming release.  He is working with different malt, Belgian candi sugar and yeast combinations to nail down a solid recipe.  He brews a batch, and brings it in for everyone to try and give opinions on.  It is great to be working with such excellent brewers.  They have a lot to offer and I really appreciate it.

WIBG:   Was Snarling Badger your first foray into sour beers?

RM:        I have been playing around with sour beers since 2000, although tI haven’t had a lot of opportunity to do it because it requires so much space for aging.  I currently have a beer barrel going with over $2000 in fresh huckleberries.  I dosed the beer with brettanomyces and lactobacillus, and it’s been developing in barrels for about three to four years so far.  I feel bad about tying up funds and space with this project, and it was the first beer that I questioned the possibility of sales on.  However, its coming around now and we are planning to release it in extremely limited quantities this summer.  All that’s left is federal approval on the recipe and the label.  It is the most complex sour beer that we have produced yet and I think everyone will enjoy it.

WIBG:   Is there additional information that you can provide about the upcoming Cellar Release, Oud Bruin?

RM:        Oud Bruin Is still alive and changing in the bottles.  Every week when we taste it, it continues to evolve and change.  It is considerably different now than it was when we did the first batch of bottles.  When we bottled it, it was very complex, malty, and a little fruity, but probably not sour enough for an Oud Bruin.  Honestly, I am a little nervous about what it will be like when it is released on May 15th.

We used the Rosalaire Red yeast blend, which is supposedly the Rodenbach yeast.  It is an excellent yeast blend that continues to evolve and reaches its peak after about two years.  In two years, the Oud Bruin will be a very different beer, it will have a tart and sour complexity while hopefully maintaining the malt and fruity ester complexity that it currently has.

WIBG:   How many brewers are currently on staff?

RM:        We have a very interesting staffing.  The goal is to have everyone on our production crew be able to do every job in the brewery.  Right now we have four guys who brew, mash, and work on the cellar program and we have a fifth guy on the filler.  We are sending all five to Siebel for their Associate program, and then on to the second part of the program at the Doemens Akademie in Germany.

                We also have four employees working on the bottling line, and we want to get them up to speed as soon as possible so that they can become more involved in the other processes.  We want them all to become brewers in the long term because we want to make sure no one feels like they are stuck in a rut with no room for career advancement.  It is important to us that that everyone feels fulfilled and gets a chance to be heard.

WIBG:   Are you planning any upcoming collaboration beers with other breweries?

RM:        We currently aren’t planning any collaborative beers.  We are very busy, trying to keep up with the current demand and I‘m not sure how to work a big collaborative project into the schedule.  I would love to work on a collaborative beer with some of the excellent breweries that are out there.

Of course, it’d be a natural to work with John Mallett or Ron Barchet, but there are dozens of breweries I’d be honored to work with. I have some connections in Belgium and Scotland, too.  It’d be a blast to send some of our brewers over there to work.

WIBG:   What is your favorite beer style?

RM:        Right now I’m really into sour beers, but really I don’t have a favorite style.  I am more into matching the food that I am eating, or the mood that I am in.  I usually cycle through a variety of 8-9 different beer styles over a couple weeks.  It is all very situational.

WIBG:   Is there one brew of yours, including past beers that may have been phased out, that you would say is your favorite?

RM:        The favorite beer that I have brewed?  That’s like asking me to pick my favorite child.  I think if I had to choose it would be Snarling Badger.  I knew that when we put it out it was a little young and not quite as tart as it should be, but I knew that it had great potential.  I bought two cases and continue to drink a bottle every month.  It’s becoming more interesting with every bottle. It’s a lot of fun to see how it is continuing to change.

                I really like brewing a living beer that continues to develop complexity over time.  When we first released Snarling Badger, it rated poorly on the ratings site because it wasn’t like a Berliner Weisse.  It was too big, and not sour enough.  I wish we didn’t have to put a style reference on our beers and that we could just describe what we were going for long term.  It started sweet, but its drying out considerably.

                I am also starting to like working with barrels.  I’ve been aging stouts in bourbon barrels since the Old Dominion days, but a few summers ago we started aging bees in wine barrels.  I am finding that the lighter beers are great in wine barrels.  So far we have aged our 2011 Saison Cellar Reserve, Snarling Badger, and the 2011 Coming Home Trippel.  We tried an Imperial Porter in a Syrah barrel, and an Imperial Wit in a Chardonnay barrel.  For the Imperial Wit, we added extra grape juice for a secondary fermentation; it was a very cool wine/beer hybrid.

WIBG:   Is there a particular brewer or brewery that you look up to, or that you see as a main driver in the industry?

RM:        There are two brewers that I really look up to, John Mallett and Ron Bachet, the two brewers who taught me how to brew professionally.  I am really inspired by what Ron Barchet has done at Victory.  He built his brewery from the ground up by brewing beers that he wants to drink and brew.  John Mallett is a leader in the industry, always looking to move forward and improve.

                If there is a brewery that I wish we could be, it’d be something like Odell’s.  They have a gorgeous brewery, they are the perfect size, and they always offer us excellent advice whenever we ask.

WIBG:   Do you have any advice for home brewers that can help them brew better beer more consistently?

RM:        Make friends with a local brewery and use brewery yeast, good, high quality brewery yeast.  If we don’t see activity within a couple ours, we expect there is a problem with our yeast.  It is extremely important to use high quality, healthy yeast or you will get off flavors in your beer.  Here at Grand Teton, we encourage local homebrewers to come in with a sanitized container for yeast.

WIBG:   Do you have any advice for someone who is interested in starting a craft brewery?

RM:        Don’t do it!  It is a tough time to start a brewery, and the only way to be successful these days is to have the money to focus on quality and consistency.  That said, many brewers would be very happy to put out 20 gallon or even one barrel batches, but it would be very hard to make a living at that scale.

                What it comes down to is that if it’s something that you love recognize that you need to sacrifice a lot for it.  It is almost impossible to get rich and catch lightning in a bottle the way New Belgium did.  True, some areas need a good local microbrewery, but it requires a lot of hard work and a lot of sweat to be successful and make a living.

                The next best thing you can do is work in a brewery to get experience.  There are a lot more options now than I had.  Hard working, passionate people get their start at the bottom, cleaning the equipment, mopping floors, and working on the bottling line.  We have promoted all our brewers from the bottom.  All breweries are looking for hard working, dedicated people who enjoy what they are doing.

I think its nuts though that some breweries are expecting people to come in and work for free!  If you want someone to do the work you are requiring them to do in a brewery; that work is worth paying for.  Quite frankly I think that expecting someone to come in and work for free degrades and devalues the work that everyone else does.  What are they doing paying anyone else if they expect someone to come in and work for free, or even pay them for the experience.

If we want o be considered professionals, we need to make sure that everyone around us is a professional, we need to recognize the hard work that they are doing and be able to reward them for their efforts.

WIBG:   Is there any additional information that you would like my readers to know about your brewery?

RM:        The biggest news is our upcoming 25th Anniversary part on June 29th.  We are doing a big tap takeover, and releasing nine barrel aged beers.  There will be food pairings for all of our beers, and live music.  It is going to be a week long party that coincides with the Teton Valley 4th of July party.  I recommend that anyone who can make it out makes the trip.

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