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.

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