Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Tim Pohlhaus Interview

Why and how did you start brewing?

I had done very little home brewing - 2 or 3 batches of extract before I started brewing professionally. I came from a biochemical background. I got interested in beer and I though, “Hey, this is a good way to use biochemistry.” We moved to Maryland after graduate school and I e-mailed Hugh Sisson at Clipper City. I met with him and he was really encouraging and gave me a lot of good advice. I worked at Clipper City for a little while in packaging. Soon I got the opportunity to start brewing at Wild Goose, which is now the Flying Dog Facility in Frederick, Maryland. That’s how I got my start and I liked it as much as I thought I was going to. It was a satisfying career move. It was as scientific as I wanted it to be. Coming from a research background, you don’t get feedback everyday. Sometime it’s only once a year that you get good results. Here I can work a good full day, get some exercise, and look up at the fermenter and say “I did that today.” I also fell in love with brewing because of it’s rich history. We know folks have been making beer for at least 5 thousand years. I really like that connection with the past.

What is the importance of beer school and courses?

When I talked to Hugh Sisson, he dissuaded me from going to the program at UC Davis, where I had been accepted. He said that there isn’t a lot of money in this industry and if this is something you think you can pick up on your own, you should definitely not go now. If it’s something you want to do in the future, you can go ahead and do it. We’re talking $15-20k and 6 months with no income. If you’re interested in craft beer, and not working for the big 3, you are going to take a long time to recoup the expense. If you are really willing to learn, I don’t think the science is inaccessible. I have known people who have gone to some of these programs, have gotten good stuff out of it, and are a wealth of knowledge. I’ve also known people who have come out with very little knowledge. It would be hard for them to prove that they had been through the program. I took Hugh’s advice and figured if I can get started, I’d get started.

Do you see yourself in-line with any specific brewing tradition?

I really like the idea of local brewing. I like going to brewpubs: places that don’t bottle and drinking real ale. It’s really sort of romantic. In a brewpub situation you may be limited in what you can do by the simple engineering, but on average you’re gonna get a fresher beer than something that’s been sitting on the shelf for weeks or months at room temperature. At a brewpub, you’re having fresh beer and it’s almost always drinkable. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve dumped bottles I’ve purchased. I’ve never sent anything back in a brewpub. That’s not to say it was all excellent. I could, however, finish the pint.

I like the idea of someday living somewhere where I can walk down the street to a local brewpub and, who knows, maybe it will be mine. I can be the community brewer.

Two brewpubs have really stood out in my mind. The first is Coronado in San Diego. They now bottle, but everything that I had fresh at the brewpub was amazing. I was also very impressed by the Yaletown Brewpub in Vancouver, B.C.

With the exception of our lager, I would not say that Old Dominion brews to a specific tradition. The lager is now an excellent example of a Dortmunder. I looked at a number of sources on that to come up with the guidelines when we tweaked the recipe. Our Ale is called an English Ale. We have a lot of English hops in there and we use English malt, but we use the Chico yeast strain, which doesn’t have the traditional English ester character. It is, however, a great strain to work with.

How do you formulate recipes?

Unless you have an idea about a specific ingredient that you think might (or might not) work in a brew, it should be pretty straightforward. Any good brewer should be able to try a beer and reverse engineer it, or at least get pretty close. If it’s not right on, you do some tweaking. You should be able to say I want the beer to taste like this and then work backwards.

How often do you tweak the recipes?

There isn’t a lot of tweaking in a production brewery. As far as advice for the home brewer, I think for me the big joy of home brewing is always trying something completely different. I’m not thinking “I’m gonna keep tweaking this.” I’m thinking “I’m gonna do something different.” For those interested in tweaking their recipes I’d say set aside a brew day and brew 5 one gallon batches. Do most of your up front. You’ll get where you want to go much faster.

Any beers you’re most proud of?

The Dominion Lager. I’m really happy with where it is and the feedback that people have given me on it. With the small changes I made to that recipe I got really good feedback. I‘ve been drinking a fair bit of it, and it’s been pretty cold outside. If I want to be drinking a pale lager in February and March, I feel pretty good about that.

Is there a science to scaling up recipes?

No too much. If you know your brewery, it should be pretty straightforward. For example, we have had some analysis done on IBUs for our beers. We know with our system that a 60 minute addition of this many alpha pounds gives us this many IBUs. The only other thing that is a big consideration is how much extract you are getting. Our efficiency stays pretty constant, unless there is a big difference in our base malt. Of course, if you have a homebrew recipe that has licorice or some adjunct like that, you might have to make some minor adjustments after the first batch.

Do you use software or spreadsheets when formulating?

We have some spreadsheets, but as far as designing recipes, we do it mostly with pen and paper. Things that we have done as one-off batches, it’s been adequate to just come up with something offhand.

Tell us about your pilot brew program?

When the pub was open, we were taking turns rotating through our four brewers, supplying one off batches. They weren’t necessarily thought of as pilot batches, though I guess if something was a huge hit, there could be some consideration for bottling.

How do you keep brewing interesting?

You have to always strive to have higher quality. If you have the recipe and are able to stock the correct ingredients (which is not always an easy thing to do), you work on process. You make your adjustments and you see improvements. It makes you a better brewer.

Any ingredients that you particularly like?

As far as hops go, I’ve become a big fan of Hallertau Select. We were able to get some 7% alpha Select and they’re awesome for lagers: they smell beautiful, really floral. You can use it to bitter. You can use it for flavor. You can use it for aroma. Of course, alpha percentage is a good indication of the quality of the hop. I’ve used lower alpha Selects that were in no way comparable.

As far as brewing grains, we used toasted rye flakes in our winter brew. The winter brew was a Baltic Porter that had a really nice flavor and amazing head retention. I believe the rye flakes had much to do with this. We used them at about 5% of grist.

Is brewing an art, craft or science?

All of it. As far as being too artistic, I don’t know what to say. The really fun part of brewing is being an artist. Sometimes, however, it seems like people come up with ideas that are just insane. I already know they’re not gonna work. I am not sure why they don’t know. There is artistry in restraint.

The craft and the science are there to keep quality and consistency high.

What’s the beer that got you into good beer?

Unlike a lot of people, I didn’t drink until I was of legal drinking age. My first “real” beer experience was in graduate school. My roommate had a Newcastle in the fridge and asked if I wanted it. Compared to the things I’d had before, it was really eye opening. It got me thinking about beer more seriously. Next, it was Hoegaarden and that just became my beer. When I saw it, I got it. And then maybe a year after that I had a Maredsous 6. It was just great, but then I couldn’t find it for years. I convinced myself that the Maredsous 6 didn’t exist. A few months ago, I saw it at Max’s Belgian Festival in Baltimore and I was just like “Wow.” It existed…and it was as great as I had remembered.

What are some trends you’d like to see?

A trend that a lot of people I know, myself included, want to see, is more small beers. It’s very sociable. You have a few beers and everyone is still sober. My guess is, however, if craft brewers stop producing high alcohol, highly hopped beer, they will have some cleaning up to do. The biggest hurdle is the microbiological issue. What happens when you don’t have the alcohol there to inhibit the growth of pediococcus or other microbes like that? You need solid quality control.

How important is the sustainability trend to you?

Sustainability is very important to me. It’s much more difficult to do than most people would think and there are a number of breweries out there claiming to be green breweries that simply are not. Many breweries call themselves green because they give their spent grain to farmers. That’s great, but you have to get rid of your spent grain. Co2 reclamation is really going green, but it is something only a larger brewery can do. You have to be brewing over 300-400k barrels a year to justify installing the system. If you can save money or break even, why not do it? Water is also a huge issue for sustainable brewers. I’ve witnessed a brewery that claims to be socially and environmentally conscious pasteurizing wort lines without recollecting the hot water. That is a huge waste of water and energy.

There are some organic malts and hops out there. Obviously, the most important one is the malt. It is tough to have huge barley producers sustainably producing organic malt. Of course, if the maltster is going from small organic farm to small organic farm, you may end up with problems of inconsistency. If your beer profile is not malt-forward, you can probably get away with the variability. If you’re brewing a low IBU lager, you may want to stick with your imported German pilsner malt.

Is there an established beer community in your area?

We have had a regular, monthly open house and I think that’s the best thing we can do for our community. It’s free. Sometimes there’s food and always free beer samples that people get really excited about. The brewers are there to answer questions and give tours and it’s a good chance to educate folks. I’m also a member of BURP, a local homebrew club, and I really enjoy going to the meetings. There are some really talented brewers in that group. At Old Dominion, we’re pretty friendly with the other local brewers, so if someone needs some healthy yeast, we’ll keg some up and send it over.

Do you homebrew?

Yes. It’s actually pretty convenient for me to home brew at the brewery, not on company time, of course. Everything is there, so I’ve used our pilot system. I get a lot more anxious when I homebrew than when I brew commercially. It really seems like it’s a lot more work. Having the idea is an exciting part of brewing. You want to do your own thing every once in a while.

Any tips for homebrewers?

My tip is to be very, very conscious of the fermentation. It takes a lot of work to get your wort into your fermenter. At that point, you don’t want to just open up a dry yeast package, sprinkle it in, and shake. With high gravity beers, shaking is certainly not going to get the job done. You need good healthy yeast. You want your ale to ferment out in about 3-4 days. You want active fermentation within 12 hrs to stave off bacterial growth. No matter how much sanitizer you use, bacteria is going to get into your beer. Supply oxygen through an aeration stone or an oxygen tank.

How do you feel about the BJCP?

I like it. I think it’s good for someone who’s just getting into beer. They can use it to educate themselves about different ingredients and what effect certain processes have on beer flavors. That being said, you must consider the classic examples of the styles given in the guidelines. You need to have someone with you who actually knows what that bottle should taste like. These could be lagers from Germany that have been sitting on the shelf for a year. You crack it open and you're reading the description and you think “so that’s what this tastes like.” You need someone with you that can say "No, that’s way past its prime, don’t learn from that bottle.”

When it comes to brewing my own beers, I like to follow Tomme Arthur’s example. He says that he brews “flavor driven beers.” You have a flavor in mind. Whether or not it’s to a certain style, it’s what I want it to taste like.

What is the ultimate beer trip for you?

We went to London a couple years ago and I picked up this book “Fancy a Pint.” It has all the pubs in London organized by tube station. We got to go to pubs that were off the beaten path, real neighborhood haunts. We’d walk in and all the sudden everyone is curious thinking, “these are not our neighbors.” We went to the Jerusalem Tavern, which is the St. Peters pub in London. There was this awesome cheese shop right there. It was a beautiful day, and I thought “This is what it’s all about.” I love sitting down to a number of these low alcohol, low carbonation beers with friends and being able to walk afterwards. The great beer that I discovered on that trip was Fuller’s Discovery. It was maybe 4.5% abv. It felt superlight. It’s golden with a really nice finishing hop bouquet that I think are East Kent Golding and Saaz - an amazing combination. That is the next beer I want to brew. I remember it was in the nineties and everyone else was drinking Carlsberg lager.

What is the difference between a brewpub and a production brewery?

We need brewpubs. We need production breweries. What we don’t need are brewpubs that think they are production breweries. Almost always, those beers end up being problematic. You can’t justify having a lab on a brewpub scale. You have to make that commitment. If you’re bottling, you need a lab.

To who’s taste do you brew?

As a home brewer, obviously, I brew to my own taste. As an employee of ODBC, we brew to the idea of ODBC. I think, ideally, you want to brew to the taste of both yourself and the public. I don’t want to be brewing a beer, even if it’s a huge success, that I don’t enjoy drinking.

Do you think about marketing when formulating a recipe?

Marketing and designing a recipe should be completely separate. You should have something in mind, get excited about it, and brew it. If you’re brilliant or you have someone that’s brilliant, you’ll come up with the marketing. For financial success, unfortunately, marketing is much more important than product quality. The exciting thing about brewing is the art and I can’t see someone getting excited about the brewing and not excited about the presentation. You want to do a good job and present it in a good way. Sometimes, however, good beer has bad packaging.

Is there anything like/dislike about the system at ODBC?

I wish we had a yeast propagation tank. That’s really important. I think you’d want to be producing at least 10 thousand barrels a year to make that investment. The other thing I’d like to have is a serious hop back. We have a percolator that we use occasionally, but a large capacity hop back would be ideaI. I really like that hop back aroma and flavor. There is something about it that really works. I also would definitely be in favor of doing more unfiltered beer.

How do you feel about bottle conditioning?

I’m strongly in favor of bottle conditioning. It gets rid of oxygen and cleans up the flavor. The best way to do this is to pull fermenting beer into your conditioning tank. You want to catch the window, like 8-10 Plato, so you have good active yeast, recirculate that and get it packaged immediately. Obviously all this requires significantly more work.

Do you wish you maintained more yeast strains at the brewery?

We use two stains (ale and lager) and it’s important to really know your strains. I don’t feel any need to go beyond that unless we’re doing something where it’s really necessary. Juggling too many strains gets really difficult. Unless you have a really good reason, I would not do it.

Any myths about pro brewers you’d like to debunk?

I think that some home brewers assume that pro brewers know significantly more than they do. That is often not true.

How do you feel about beer rating websites?

I think I’ve come across all the major ones. I’ve looked at them and I’ve stopped looking at them. There is a serious issue with these, but it’s one that can be fixed. It’s something that requires more education on the part of the users. The main problem is with breweries that aren’t consistent. You don’t know how long the bottle has been on the shelf, etc. The only way to review it would be to know the history of the bottle. For example, I know that it was at the distributor for 2 months. The people that are using these websites are really into craft beers. Craft beers are where the inconsistencies are. I understand that by gathering so many rating on any given beer you will have an idea of the quality. The problem is that with any beer that been on the shelf for 2-3 months, it’s unreasonable for a beer that isn’t designed for that kind of conditioning to be in good shape. So there could be breweries that would almost never get a fair shake, cause so many of the reviews out there would be for these older bottles. All breweries should put date codes on their beers. I would suspect that much less of this would happen if the brewery really were mindful. That may mean selling less beer.

How important is medaling in competitions?

In many ways, it’s a numbers game: the people that win a lot of medals are people who enter a lot of bottles. I’ve heard stories about brewers who have a particular batch where everything was right on and they hold onto it and that’s what goes to competition. Is that fair? Shouldn’t it be something that’s randomly pulled? That being said, in order to win 3-4 medals and become brewery of the year, you might have to submit a lot, but you really have to have everything dialed in. You can’t be the best brewery in your division without having good quality control. Process is much more important to the quality of a beer than recipe. Anyone can write a good recipe. It’s the brewing that sets you apart.

How do you feel about beers place at the table?

I definitely like to pair beer with food. It’s something I think about. There are the classic pairings, but what is really interesting is something you don’t expect to work and you’re just like, “Wow. I’m glad I tried this with this.” I’m all about having the experience that no one else has had. Sometimes I’m thinking “hey, maybe this has never been tried and if it works, I found this great thing.”

What breweries are you excited about right now?

It’s funny you should ask. The Torpedo Extra IPA (which the three of us are currently drinking) from Sierra Nevada is probably the beer that I‘ve been the most excited about in a long time. It’s awesome. It’s hoppy. It’s not cloyingly sweet and it finishes nicely, unlike some of the other hoppy beers out there. It’s not really an IPA, not really a DIPA. I know that if I go out and get a Torpedo, it’s gonna be good. Consistency is the big factor. Sierra Nevada is my go-to brewery for quality. The Pale Ale is everywhere, in the bottle and on tap. It’s almost always good. The only time I have a bad one is if someone isn’t cleaning their tap lines. The fact that they’re doing these limited releases, like the fresh hop beers, is really exciting. I always want to get my hands on them. I can’t say enough about this brewery. They have this new year round release and it’s been a long time since their last year round introduction.

Do you think that ingredient labeling would be good for craft beer?

If the whole industry was regulated by the FDA, craft beer quality would certainly go up. It would also put a lot of people out of business. Some people wouldn’t be able to hit the criteria for cleanliness.

How do you feel about putting recipe information on labels?

I love it. I wish everyone did it. I’d be happy to share any recipe that I created on the side of my bottle. Of course, I can’t see anyone wanting to brew my beer when they can buy mine and spend time working on their own.

What would be your ideal brewing setup?

Regional, 20 thousand barrels or so, socially responsible. It’s hard to be environmentally responsible at that size. I would like to give back to the community and use fair trade ingredients. Unfortunately, someone has already made the first fair trade chocolate stout. I wanted to be the first with that. I’d like to have a canning line and produce cork and cage 750s -both ends of the spectrum. If I could justify it, I’d love to have a socially responsible restaurant as well. It would be nice to have a brewpub that could function as a pilot system. If things went very well I would have no problem distributing across the country. Although I think of myself as a regional brewer, if I can provide something that other breweries in the U.S. cannot, such as social responsibility, I would expand as much as I could without having the quality suffer. As far as specific locations for the brewery, I think the smart thing to do is to put the odds of success in your favor. There are so many laws that are state and county specific, you have to think long and hard about where to put your roots down.

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