Thursday, July 26, 2012

Interview with Scott Manning - head brewer at Vintage Brewing Company

Earlier this month, I had the good fortune of being able to visit Vintage Brewing Company in Madison, Wisconsin. As I mentioned in an earlier post, my family and I really enjoyed their beer and believed they were the makers of the best beer we had that weekend. During our time at Vintage, I ran into their head brewer Scott Manning. After speaking with him a bit, he agreed to let me interview him via email. What follows below is that interview. Enjoy!

Midwest Beer and Brewing - Did you homebrew before you became a professional brewer? 
Scott Manning - No.  Well, technically, yes, but it's not a direct link.  I homebrewed in college many years ago, while underage I might add, but it didn't amount to much.  Our kitchen was hardly suitable for food preparation, let alone clean enough to brew decent beer, so the results were not inspiring.  I was not a homebrewer at the time I began brewing professionally.

MBB - If so, for how long were you homebrewing before you made the jump to the professional ranks?  
SM - N/A.  I was a not-great homebrewer in 1991-1992.  Began brewing professionally in 1997 of necessity for a job, just got lucky I guess.

MBB - When we talked on July 6th, you mentioned that you were a 'lost soul' before you became a brewer. Would you mind sharing what you did before you became a brewer? 
SM - "Lost soul" may have too much spirituality attached to it.  Though I was never blessed with a clear guiding purpose in life, I knew there must be something waiting for me if I kept searching.  I was a pretty good student at the UW (University of Wisconsin-Madison), having worked through much of pre-engineering coursework and a hefty helping of German language studies.  I graduated with a double major in German literature and Filmmaking/Broadcasting, but considered the 4 year (OK, 5 year) degree a "general studies" accomplishment.  I'd travelled and studied in Europe by this time, and let's face it, our bachelor-level college degrees really don't amount to much more than a high school equivalent diploma in most developed countries.  I'm proud of my BS, and the UW is a great school, don't get me wrong.  The idea was to take a break after gradating, figure out what I wanted to do with my life, and get serious later in post-grad studies.  I just haven't gotten there yet- too busy brewing all these years.

MBB - Do you recall the first beer that you had that made you go 'wow!' (in a good way)? 
SM - My junior year of University was spent in Bonn, Germany, and there were plenty of 'Wow!" experiences.  I would seek out new and different beers whenever I got the chance, and there was simply no returning to the college-party swill I might have endured prior to my year in Germany.  An entire year of beery exploration, at the tender age of 19-20, that was in 1993, and there wasn't much on the horizon for American craft beer at that time.  I remember being thrilled to find Sierra Nevada pale ale.  Pete's Wicked ale was a great intro to brown ales.  Capital Brewery had a line of traditional German beers called "Garten Brau" which dovetailed nicely with my recent travels.  Sprecher's a similar story.  A little brewery called "New Glarus" had just started up when I was 21, but it was a little hard to fnd their least at first.  Looking back, it was the very first wave of craft brewing reaching the Midwest, and I was fortunate to be snobby enough from my time abroad to want to try it all.

MBB - How long have you been brewing professionally? 
SM - Since 1997.  15 years I guess.

MBB - Where else have you brewed at besides Vintage Brewing Company?  
SM - 1) I started as assistant brewer at the Breckenridge Brewpub in Tucson AZ.  It sounds weird nowadays, but Breckenridge used to have a small empire of pubs as far-flung as Memphis, Buffalo, Omaha, and, yes, Tucson.  Several opportune mishaps landed me the job in the first place...kind of a long story, but briefly...I was driving to Los Angeles to do SOMETHING with my film degree.  What?  I'd have to figure that out later.  My old car broke down in Tucson, or just outside of Tucson.  Thankfully it was my next scheduled stop anyway, to stay a few days with great friends from college.   Well, the repair expense put me below my savings comfort level, so I resigned to stay with them a while to get a job and save some money before getting back on the road...I ended up staying 3 years.  I love Tucson, though I worked a lot of crappy jobs there.  The last one before brewing was as desk clerk at a shady hotel, night shift of course.  The night I was held up at gunpoint, I started to feel really motivated to get back on track and get out of town.  But my buddy (friend I was staying with) had a better idea.  He was the brewmaster for the Breckenridge pub at the time, and needed an assistant.  Low pay, long hours, dirty work, but free beer?!  I was in.  I loved it.  All my spinning wheels seemed to align and start making progress at that job.  I started to forget all about LA and whatever I was supposed to be doing there. And I started homebrewing again. 2)  More divine misfortune led to my promotion to Head Brewer at Breckenridge- Tucson way ahead of schedule.  A snowboarding accident crippled my friend/boss, and I had to accelerate my training and skills to function as head brewer in 1998.  The late '90's were a time of turmoil for the craft brewing industry, and the Breckenridge chain was starting to shrink back to its home state and shed its far-flung pubs.  Before I knew it, my friend had moved on and I was promoted to Head Brewer, although under new ownership/management after Breckenridge pulled out.  I'd be lying if I said I was ready to run a brewery with a scant year as an assistant, but this "sink-or-swim" experience forged my will to remain in the brewing industry at any cost, and I haven't looked back or had a regret since.  At this point, I was homebrewing my ass off, reading tons of books, learning all I could from any reliable source.  I'll admit I was green, but the beers were pretty darn good, and it was still a fun, wild ride.  The new ownership closed the doors in 1999.  3)  Worked at Nimbus Brewing Company, a mcrobrewery in Tucson.  Had fun, learned plenty, but kind of a temp job.  4) More good luck- the guys hired to come remove the brewing equipment from the closed Breckenridge pub in Tucson asked to take me on as grunt demolition labor.  What better way to learn about the nuts and bolts of a brewery than by building, or unbuilding, one?  These guys were John Mallet (now director of brewing for Bell's) and Fal Allen (author of several books and now director of brewing for Anderson Valley).  Who the hell was I?!  There wasn't much brewing work available in 1999, and my brewing resume was admittedly pretty short.  Fal and John took pity on me and dragged me to their next brewery demolition (there were a lot of those at that point) in Southern California, which gave me a great opportunity to interview at a few places.  5) Though I got as far as scrubbing the kettle after a batch of Arrogant Bastard, and even got a job offer from Stone, I stuck with my brewpub path and took a job with the up-and-coming chain BJ's.  Woked as assistant brewer at their Woodland Hills CA brewery in 2000-2001 (7 Bbl brewhouse, 1200 Bbl/year); 6) opened their new Chandler AZ brewery in 2002 (15 Bbl, 1700 bbl/year); 7) promoted to Head Brewer at their biggest brewery at the time, West Covina, CA 2003-2006 (30 Bbl, 5000 Bbl/year); 8)  functioned as Regional Brewmaster overseeing 4 breweries and 19 restaurants in BJ's home region of Los Angeles, San Diego, Orange Counties, CA 2006; 9) opened their largest brewery yet and functioned as Brewmaster/ Production Manager, Reno NV 2007-2010 (50 Bbl brewhouse, 15,000 Bbl/year)...a full decade growing with BJ's Brewpubs....and then I got the call from my family in Wisconsin.

MBB - What are your thoughts on the Madison beer community? By 'community' I mean other breweries, homebrewers, and beer fans.  
SM - It's a great beer town.  We've got stellar brewers who've come before us, burgeoning ranks of good brewers newly coming up, and a fan base that's educated, sophisticated and appreciative well beyond what many cities of 250,000 could hope for.  The homebrewers here put on some of the best judgings, parties, education and events I've ever been witness to (ever heard of the great Taste of the Midwest??).  Brewers around here are generous to a fault, neighborly in the extreme.  It's special to be able to call on your "competitor" for a few pounds of hops or a sack of malt, and know it's all good.   I feel we're deepy indebted to The Great Dane, Capital, New Glarus, Ale Asylum and many more for paving the road for us, for priming the pump locally for all the craft beer love going on right now.  They deserve their success and we not only sing their praises, we put them on tap alongside our own beer.  Try that in any other industry!

MBB - How does Madison compare to other beer loving cities that you have visited? 
SM - Blows 'em away.  With exception of Portland, OR and San Diego.  Maybe Denver if you include Boulder and Ft Collins, but then you could include Milwaukee in Madison distance-wise so we'd still be contenders.  I don't know, there are scads of great beer cities and towns, but Madison is particularly beer-geeky and beer-savvy for its time and place, and I'm thrilled to brew here.  For a small city, maybe only Asheville NC outshines Madison.

MBB - What is your favorite part of your job? 
SM - I don't have a job- I'm self employed.  Having occupied so many roles within the BJ's chain, I realize now how integral the physical labor is to my joy of brewing.  my latter roles for BJ's were travel and desk jobs, essentially, which I don't find gratifying.  I like a physical feeling of exhausted accomplishment to remind me I'm alive and doing something valuable.  Don't take my mash paddle away.

MBB - What do you enjoy the most about the craft beer industry and its fans?  
SM - Unbridled enthusiasm for our work as brewers!  Talk about job satisfaction- stroll around the bar and see the happy faces- it's great to bring a little joy to people's lives.  Craft beer fans not only have great taste, but give back in so many ways the "big brewers" could never conceive of.   I enjoy having a pint with our clientelle, especially when they've brought brownies "just because".

MBB - Do you have any advice for homebrewers looking to improve their skills? 
SM - Keep it clean, learn the basics, and then don't let anyone tell you how to brew your beer.  Make it yours.

MBB - Do you have any advice for the homebrewer that is considering becoming a professional brewer?  
SM - Sure.  Don't do it.  You're happier and wealthier now than you ever will be as a pro brewer.  Seriously, you'd have to be nuts.  It's backbreaking, and unless you come from a farming family, you probably can't handle the work.  But if you find yourself emphatically talking to yourself in the mirror about how you can't live without being a pro brewer, well then good luck and welcome to the club, ya crazy SOB

MBB - Are there any upcoming Vintage beer releases that you can tell us about?  
SM - I promised to do a Belgo-imperial black IPA, called 'Mirroir Noir', and we;re collaborating on a White IPA with Sweet Mullets Brewing Company of Oconomowoc, WI.  You have to meet these guys if you haven't already.  Great stuff going on, out-of-the-way location well worth finding.

MBB - Is there a beer style that you enjoy brewing more than others? 
SM - I love 'em all.  The more deviations from norm, the better.

MBB - Last Friday, you mentioned that Vintage is undergoing an expansion. When do you think the expansion will be complete and how will your brewing space be affected? 
SM - Fall.  75% increase in production capacity, utilizing the same brewing system/space.

My thanks to Scott for taking the time to answer my questions. I really appreciate it.

If you have never been to Vintage Brewing Company before, do yourself a favor and stop in. You will not regret it.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Advice for a more efficient brew day and (possibly) better homebrew

When I was first introduced to homebrewing, my Dad used a soup pot for his lauter tun, mash tun and  boiling kettle. He never made a yeast starter, and he let his beer ferment in the basement (an area whose temperature fluctuated depending on the number of heat sources that were in use or present). The brewing sessions were often long and laborious. In addition, we left a lot if things up to chance such as whether or not we pitched enough yeast, the temperature of the environment were the wort fermented was never monitored, and we guessed when a beer should be transferred to a secondary fermenter. This is not to say that my Dad's brewing habits always resulted in beer that was not enjoyable. Rather, his beer would turn out good, and it continues to do so, but I always thought it could be better.

These days, I am brewing on my own. I use a few different pots for my 'tuns' and boil kettle, I use a wort chiller, I make yeast starters, and I keep my fermenting wort in a closet. My beer turns out alright (some turn out really well), but the brew sessions are often long. 

With the aspirations of a more efficient brew day and better beer driving me, I recently sought out the council of a homebrewer that is far more experienced and knowledgeable than I - Michael Tonsmeire (aka @MadFermentation).

Specifically, I asked him what he would recommend a homebrewer add to their homebrewing setup if they want to improve their homebrewing experience. I also asked him what he thinks  is the most important addition a homebrewer can make to their brewing setup.

Michael responded with the following info:

I think early on the most important things to acquire is temperature controlled fermentation. Fermentation is much more important than wort production until you are making very good beers. 
Wort chillers fall into the same category since they allow you to pitch at the right temperature. 

Mills are a real cost saver if you don't mind buying malt in bulk. Same deal with a vacuum sealer (Food Saver) if you want to buy hops in bulk.

A few things that I put off until recently that have made my brewing life much easier:refractometer (quick easy gravity readings on brew day), and Erlenmeyer flask (quick starters). Not necessary for making good beer, but nice to have.

The advanced stuff (conical fermentor, plate chiller, hop-back, automated mash contols etc.) are fun, but they really aren't necessary to make terrific beer.

After reading Michael's response, I realized that besides a wort chiller, I do not have/utilize temperature controls beyond the thermostat in my home. With this realization in mind, I began searching the internet for a few things I could make/acquire to help control the fermentation temperature of my fermenting wort. It seems that those most surefire way to control your wort is to have a dedicated fridge to which you can add/install a temperature controller (example 1, example 2).

If you do not have a fridge dedicated for fermenting wort, allow me to recommend the a Brew Your Own article on this very subject. Said article can be found here. It covers the a few DIY options as well as some pricey options. It is a good read with some good suggestions.

Also, should you prefer receiving your knowledge via video, Northern Brewer made the video below on controlling fermentation temperature.

NOTE. Mr. Tonsmeire's website is listed below: It contains a lot of great reads and after enjoying a few posts you will want to stop reading and start brewing beer. So, get to his website and start reading!

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Interview with Kristina Bozic of West Lakeview Liquors

Earlier this month I had the opportunity to interview Kristina Bozic and her father at her revered store - West Lakeview Liquors. The interview was done on behalf of the Illinois Brewers Guild, and I think it went really well.

The interview can be found here. I hope you enjoy it.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Interview with Gabriel from the Half Acre Beer Company

Earlier this month I had the chance to interview Gabriel from the Half Acre Beer Company. The full interview can be found on the new Illinois Brewers Guild Website (the new website is here). You can read the interview here

Friday, July 13, 2012

Madison, Wisconsin - trip #2

Picture found at

Last weekend, my fiance and I had the good fortune of being able to meet up with my folks for a long weekend in Madison, Wisconsin. Prior to our rendezvous, we had decided that we wanted to spend a day visiting some of the breweries around Madison, another day riding bicycles around town and lake Monona, and we would improvise our activities on Sunday (the day we were scheduled to return to Chicago). 

Our Madison weekend began on a blisteringly hot Friday that, we all agreed, was too hot to spend outside. After reaching that consensus, we opted to make our Friday our ‘beer-day’ of the vacation.

We began our beer journey by stopping at Vintage Brewing Company. After sitting in a car whose AC kicked a few minutes into the ride, it was nice to be in Vintage and its merciful AC. We took a seat in a booth, away from the bar, and decided to get two flights of their beer. The flights consisted of the following:
  • Hibiscus Saison
  • Weiss-Blau
  • Palindrome
  • Sister Golden Ale
  • Daytripper
  • Wee Heavy (silver medal winner at 2011 GABF)
  • Attaboy Amber
  • Loose Thread
  • Butternut Road
  • Rhine Heights (2012 World Beer Cup silver medal in the German-style brown ale category)
  • McLovin (2012 World Beer Cup Bronze medal winner in the Irish red ale category)
  • A cask of Jinja Ninja with tea (the type of tea escapes me at this moment)
  • I think Hop, Skip and a Jump was also included
Our group enjoyed them all, but the most popular one was the Hibiscus Saison. It had a great, red wine color that was transparent but bold. It also had an enjoyable aroma that had me thinking of bubble gum, hay, and a flower garden (probably due to the hibiscus). 

My favorite of the bunch was the Weiss-Blau. Lately I have been on a wheat beer kick and the clove and banana aromatics, and dry, sweet, and full taste of this beer really caught my attention.

On our way out I struck up a conversation with Vintage brewer Scott Manning. We talked about his brewing experience and what is going on at Vintage. I am in the process of interviewing him (via email), and I hope to make that interview a future post.
Teaser – Vintage is expanding their brewing space and they are adding a patio to allow visitors to enjoy their time at Vintage outdoors. 

After departing Vintage, we made our way to the Capital Brewing Company. While we do get their beer in Chicago, I have never visited them. This is despite having read a little bit about the brewery, their brewmaster (Kirby Nelson), and their annual bock festival. Suffice it to say, I was excited to make this trip.

The first thing that is immediately apparent when you drive into their parking lot is that Capital enjoys the combination of beer + music. I say this because they have a large bier garten that would be a great place to enjoy a beer and a concert on any given night. The bier garten has a long bar (at the back of the bier garten) that has plenty of Capital beer taps. There are also plenty of seats and a few tables to sit at, enjoy a beer, and talk with other people or enjoy whatever is happening on the garten stage. We did not see a concert on this trip, but I am envious of the people that do have the time and means to do so. 

After snapping out of my bier garten stupor, we continued into the Capital Brewing to escape the heat and to get a beer. What I was not prepared for when we entered Capital, was the hall way that was covered with awards that Capital has won of the years. I kid you not - the walls were covered with medals, plaques, pictures, certificates, and newspaper articles for and about Capital Brewing Company. It made me think I had stumbled into the room of a proud over achiever. In case you are curious, a list of the awards that Capital has won over the years can be found here

After passing through the Hallway of Awesomeness (so it shall be known to me from this moment on), we entered the Capital bier stube. Which is a lovely, 'gated' room that has a few Capital taps and a large window that allows you to look out at their copper kettle and lauter tun. 

We took a seat in the bier stube, and enjoyed samples of the following Capital beers.
  • Hop Cream
  • Weizen
  • Island Wheat
  • Maibock
  • Dark
  • Pilsner
  • Wisconsin Amber
My favorites of the lot were the pilsner and weizen. The pilsner was crisp, light, with a great, fresh hop aroma. The weizen tasted dry like the Vintage take on the style, but it also came across as a lighter version of the style than Vintage's take on the style. 

After we had a chance to try their beer, my family, fiance and I went on a tour of their facility. Our tour was filmed and will find it's way to the Capital website (or so we were told - I will share a link to the video as soon as I come across it). During the tour we learned that the Capital Brewery inhabits a building that use to be an egg processing plant, and that a few of their lagering tanks are repurposed milk vessels. My favorite part of the tour was getting to see their mash and lauter tun up close - besides being made of copper, I was excited by the opportunity to see such craftsmanship upclose.Also, copper kettles are not something I have seen often.  Now that I think about it, the only other place I have seen copper kettles is at the Summit Brewing Company

Friday evening, we made our way to Ale Asylum.  Ale Asylum resides in an industrial park near the Madison airport. It was really easy to get to, and by the time we arrived the heat was on the way out of town. 

When we entered their tap room, I immediately thought that we were in for a treat - the beer list had plenty of options to choose from, and it looked and felt like a comfy, friendly place. 

We did not arrive in time to get a spot on the 6p tour, but that's fine. By this time, we were still running low on energy due to the day's heat, but we thought some Ale Asylum beer would help with that. 

We ordered a flight of the beers they had available at that time. If memory serves, we tried the following:
  • Ambergeddon
  • Bedlam
  • Big Slick Stout
  • Gold Digger Blonde Ale
  • Hatha-Weizen
  • Hopalicious
  • Mad Town Nut Brown
  • The eighth beer was either their Ballistic IPA or the Sticky McDoogle
Of the beers we tried, the ones that had the strongest flavors were the hoppiest beers (Bedlam and Hopalicious), otherwise, the beers were watered down to the point that they were all bland. There is not much more I can say about them. 

At the time of our visit, were learned that Ale Asylum is the process of moving/expanding to a different location that is closer to the airport. I am not sure how much larger their new space is, but they will have space for 50 people per tour instead of the current 15 per people maximum. Regardless of what my family and I thought of the beer we tried when we visited, they must be doing something right. For all I know, we caught them on a bad night.

Anyway, we left Ale Asylum and chose to make a stop at a bar called The Malt House. We were quite glad we did. They have a great outdoor seating area and their indoor seating is quite comfortable. The Malt House is billed as the oldest bar in Madison (according to their website), and it did look old (but cared for) but it had a great tap list (and an extensive bottle list). My parents, fiance and I enjoyed a Tyranena Scurvy IPA, Titletown Dark Helmet, Central Waters bourbon barrel stout, and one more that escapes me at this moment. All were enjoyable and we agreed that stopping at the Malt House was a great idea. 

All things considered, we had a really great (beer) day in Madison. The next time we are in town, hopefully we can visit some of the breweries that lie outside of Madison such as New Glarus, Tyranena and the Grumpy Troll.  Eventually, I would like to also visit Central Waters and O'so. Hell, taking a few weeks to tour WIsconsin's breweries sounds like a great idea.

What are your favorite Wisconsin breweries? What are your favorite Wisconsin beer festivals?

Thursday, July 5, 2012

The homebrewing bug

I moved in with my fiance earlier this year. During the move, I had to make do with what space I was allocated for my homebrewing equipment. That meant reducing the number of bottles I had for filling, the amount of space I had for equipment, etc.. In the few months that have passed since the move, I have refined how my space is utilized (like a dedicated Tetris master who is fueled by beer), and I am now able to amass more bottles for homebrew. Since the number of bottles I have has only recently begun to increase in number, I have been unable to homebrew for a few months. I have not lost the desire to homebrew, but I have (temporarily) lost the means to do so. Fortunately, this past weekend I got a chance to speak with a passionate homebrewer who is relatively new to it, and who fueled by desire to get homebrewing as soon as possible..

This past weekend my fiance and I attended a wedding party for two long time friends of ours. One of the guests (lets call him Ted) + his girlfriend (lets call her Marie) are avid homebrewers, and Ted  knows I am a homebrewer. Because of this, when time and opportunity permit, he offers up his homebrew for feedback (I would do the same but I have not had a chance to homebrew since the move), and we talk shop.

At the wedding party, Ted brought three beers to share (which he did with great excitement)- a spiced Christmas ale, a lemon wheat ale and a coffee stout. I gave him constructive criticism (which is the best thing a taster of homebrew can do for any homebrewer imo), specifically, I told him that I thought the spiced ale was too spiced (a quality that Marie really liked), the lemon wheat ale tasted like Pledge, and the that coffee stout was my favorite of the bunch. This was in contrast to Marie's opinion of the beers. In her opinion, the order of most preferred to least would go Xmas ale, lemon wheat and coffee stout (she is not a stout fan).

Ted took all of the criticism with a grin and responded by giving me more homebrew to try. He went on to mention all of the new procedures/steps he has begun taking w/ his homebrew process (steeping the dark grains and roasting his own coffee beans for example), and how he has added a T to the water supply line for his clothes washer to a sprayer stationed at his sink (he says it helps w/ the cleanup). He also mentioned his plans for his next brew session - a black ipa. In short, Ted and Marie were two of the most excited homebrewers I have come across in some time.

After leaving the party to head home, I found myself excited to homebrew (I am always excited about homebrewing but I was more excited than usual on the L ride home), and doubley excited about the possibility of getting together with Ted and Marie to brew together in the future (which we did discuss).

The moral of this story is - if you are a homebrewer that hasn't been kicked firmly in the hind quarters to get back into it, go and speak with someone that is new to it. They will help you move your thoughts of homebrewing into the act of homebrewing.