Vegan and Non-Vegan Beers: Ingredients and Procedures

March 17, 2011 1 comment
Tyler Grilling

Tyler grilling a Friday lunch

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I adhere to a vegetarian diet and this makes me somewhat unusual amongst the brewing crowd. Beer culture and meat culture go hand and hand and I don’t expect the “haha, how do you even survive” jokes to end anytime soon. Some ribbing isn’t so bad, though I do occasionally miss out on delicious meals when the bacon-themed food truck comes around or Tyler breaks out the grill in mid-January to serve up Carne Asada tacos.

— On a related note, big thanks to Seabirds and the Lime Truck for being vegan and vegetarian-friendly, respectively. Sooo delicious. —

I obviously have no right to complain, though, as I’ve subjected myself to this bacon-less torture. I merely hope to provide the context for a conversation I had with Tyler awhile back in which he asked me if I buy only vegan-friendly beers. I’ve never tried to maintain a coherent vegan diet (i.e. no animal byproducts as ingredients) so I hadn’t ever considered the matter, but the subject did pique my interest.

Some non-vegan beers are pretty hard to miss: oyster stouts have… you guessed it, oyster; braggots or other meads rely heavily on honey for their sugar content, as do many beers such as Honey Blondes. I say “most” because of the existence of honey malt. I hadn’t encountered this ingredient until the maltster from Gambrinus Malting paid us a visit at Manzanita Brewing Company. Honey malt was one of his specialties that he was showing to Garry that day, so we spent a while tasting and discussing it. He explained that there is no actual honey involved in creating said malt and claimed that it tastes and smells so distinctly of it’s namesake that some brewers use it in lieu of the real thing in their so-called “honey” beers. I’m not sure I believe that, but it’s worth considering. Another confusing case is the sweet stout, otherwise known as the “milk” or “cream” stout. Many traditional examples of this beer included lactose, a sugar culled from whey. However, these days there are plenty of sweet stouts that get their unfermentable sugars from other, vegan-friendly, sources.

Aside from those more obvious ingredients, many beers are non-vegan because they include animal products as fining or filtration agents. Isinglass, a gelatin made from fish bladders, is one of the more common non-vegan fining agents. Additionally, some brewers may use animal byproducts to assist with head retention. Procedural ingredients such as these are unlikely to be listed on a label; if you want to play it safe, unfiltered beers are the most likely to be vegan-friendly. However, at the end of the day the only way to be sure is contact the brewery and ask. Luckily, these fine folks there have compiled what seems to be the most complete list of vegan and non-vegan breweries on the ‘net. While I still refuse to limit myself to vegan-friendly beers, it is interesting to see who uses what processes and how each company has fielded these inquiries. Enjoy!

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Gettin’ Fancy (Huh?)

I finally have a background image that I like so I just want to give credit where credit is due: this portrait of our cleaned kegs (guess who’s responsible for those) was taken by Brian Evans for his blog The Beer Project. They recently did a nice piece on The Bruery and his photos are gorgeous, so check ’em out! Thanks, Brian.

Also, I’ve got a few articles that are in progress so hopefully I’ll have something new for y’all soon. Thanks for reading!

Getting Hired at a Brewery: The Interview

March 3, 2011 4 comments

So you found a brewing gig you think you want. You applied. They even called you back and you’re heading off to visit in a couple days. Naturally, you’re wondering what to expect from the interview and how best to prepare.

Well, today’s your lucky day because I just went through this process three months ago and I seem to have done alright, what with getting hired and all that.

Back in December I noticed that The Bruery had posted an entry-level position on Probrewer. I wasn’t so sure how I felt about moving to Orange County (at that time I was living with friends in East San Diego County) but I knew that if a brewery that close by was hiring I had to apply.  I whipped up a cover letter and resume that night and sent them off.   Twenty-four hours later I was scheduling the interview and at the end of the week I found myself in the Sensory Analysis Room face to face with all three brewers.

I did a couple things in the 48 hours between scheduling and fielding the interview that certainly helped land me this job.  First, I had never had a Bruery beer before.  I was able to rectify that situation with the help of a Whole Foods, who happened to have 3 French Hens and Saison de Lente.  I took my time when tasting them and jotted down notes on both beers; I wanted to be able to speak intelligently about them if asked.  The second — and considerably more time consuming — task I undertook was to absorb all the information I could find about The Bruery on a little thing called the internet.  This included their own website, a handful of interviews, webcasts, and beer rating sites.  The most interesting material I found was from the early years of The Bruery’s own blog, which details the creation of the brewery starting all the way back with their search for a proper location.  It took a long time to sort through, but by the time I drove up to O.C. I had a much better sense of who the major players were, where they were coming from and what they valued.  If it accomplished nothing else, I felt much more comfortable walking into that room armed with some contextual info.

Two final pieces of preparation were ensuring that I knew my resume and cover letter by heart (I also brought copies in case they needed one, though they were well on top of that) and to have drawn up a list of questions I thought they might ask me.  I wanted to minimize the number of times I got caught off guard in the interview, so I thought abut each of those questions until I was positive I could successfully answer without faltering.  I think it’s important not to have fully-formulated, memorized responses as those would be likely to come off as robotic and flat, however, you definitely should have your central ideas sorted out.

Here are some of the questions I came prepared to answer that we did cover during the interview:

What’s your favorite style of beer?  Least favorite?  Favorite beer ever?

Well, they didn’t ask me those particular questions but they did ask me…

What did you think of our (The Bruery’s) beers that you’ve had?  Which was your favorite?  Least favorite?  Why?

I got lucky and had a sample of Rugbrød in the tasting room right before going in, so I had tried three of their beers (Saison De Lente, 3 French Hens, Rugbrød) and had clear answers to this question.  It probably didn’t hurt that my least favorite happened to be the Head Brewer’s as well. It’s very important that you communicate an ability to form strong opinions about beer, whether it be theirs or another brewery’s.  It doesn’t matter if your taste for beer is the opposite of the interviewer’s.   Defending your opinion in a detailed, intelligent manner is what counts.

Why do you enjoy brewing?  Why do you want to do it professionally?

If you truly haven’t thought about this already you should ask yourself why you are looking for a poorly-paid job in this industry.

What are you currently doing (and planning on doing in the next year) to improve your brewing?

This seemed to be about checking my commitment to the craft.  Even though the gig is washing kegs, they want to know that you’ll be inspired to do the best job possible and eager to learn all that you can.  If you have plans for your brewing future regardless of any job possibilities that’s a pretty good sign.  In my case, I talked about homebrewing clubs, competitions, BJCP exam preparation, etc.

And here are a sampling of the more unexpected questions that they asked:

Can you lift 165 pounds?   Pretty sure they were messing with me.  I was fully expecting 55 lbs, as most job postings include that figure.  I was floored by 165 and (honestly) answered that I really didn’t know, but that I knew I could lift 150.  I think they were looking to weed out the liars.

What brewing books have you read? The brewing materials you’ve worked through give a pretty good idea of your interests and level of sophistication as a brewer.  Study up. 

What do you know about our brewery?   I was well prepared to answer this; I simply wasn’t expecting them to be so blunt.  This proves that they want to know you’ve prepared for the interview and are taking the job seriously.

Would you clean the toilets if that’s what we needed you to do? Again, they were sort of messing with me here.  The obvious gist was, “How badly do you want this?  Do you understand that it’s not a glorious job?  Are you willing to do whatever we need?”  And no, in two months they haven’t yet had me clean any toilets.

Ever volunteer at a brewery? It’s hard to believe I wasn’t expecting this.  As I’ve written before, I guess I was operating under the assumption that craft brewing had reached the point where no one used volunteers anymore.  Very wrong. Go out and find someplace to volunteer.  I did that the very next week, before I had even heard back from The Bruery.  

The Take-Away

I walked away from the interview thinking I probably wouldn’t get hired.  They had mentioned that some folks were flying in to interview, which didn’t make me feel particularly good about my chances.  However, I felt great about the whole process because I learned a lot and felt that, flawed as I may be, they had gotten a realistic snapshot of who I was during our short conversation.  That has to be the single most important goal of the interview.  Be yourself.  Be honest.  Both parties will end up unhappy if they hire you while operating with a poor understanding of who you really are.  During my interview I was frank and, thanks to some preparation, at ease.  I might have even managed some quirky brand of charm.  I’m not sure about that, but I did get the job.  And so will you. 

NHC

It’s official: I’m going to the National Homebrewers Conference. They even have a vegetarian option for the final dinner. Niiiice.

This weekend I transfer one entry into secondary and attempt to brew a last minute IPA, just for shits and giggles. That should put me with entries in Stout, Spice/Herb/Vegetable, Scottish Ale and APA — very excited to get my first score sheets back!

Next article should be up in a day or two: it’s on preparing for the interview with your prospective brewery.

Stewarding a Homebrew Competition in America’s Finest City (Drinking and paperwork make quite the pair)

February 22, 2011 Leave a comment

If this past Saturday morning was a reliable indicator, homebrew competitions are the following three things:

  1. Lively, at times bordering on raucous.
  2. Educational
  3. A fantastic way to spend a weekend.

I have to admit that I wasn’t really sure what I was getting myself into when I rolled up to St. Dunstan’s last Saturday at 9AM for the America’s Finest City Homebrew Competition.  As I approached the building I was stopped by a fellow QUAFF member who inquired about the tricky, google-inspired back road route he had seen me use just moments earlier.  We chatted for a few moments and I learned that he was Jim Crute, owner of Lightning Brewery.  I still react to meeting brewers as normal folks would when meeting rockstars, so this impromptu meeting bolstered my confidence that it would be a wonderful day.  I strode into the main hall to find a small crowd of somewhat familiar faces and a pleasant breakfast spread.

This was my first experience with a homebrew competition.  I hadn’t entered any beers, but I was there to volunteer as a steward in order to better understand the judging process.  Stewarding, it turns out, isn’t particularly difficult.  At the onset of the judging you pair up with a single category of judges.  In this case I got to choose, so I picked the Scottish and Irish Ale table.   You proceed to bring out the beers, one by one, until they’ve tried the whole flight.  After each beer you check the judge’s math — which gets pretty hairy as the day progresses — and fill out some last remaining paperwork.  Along the way you sequester the beers that have a chance of placing and remove those that obviously won’t make the cut.

The main take-away I got from the AFC is that stewarding is a fantastic way to train your palate.  I was hoping this would be the case, as my abilities to both discern and describe flavors need significant strengthening.  As judges make their way through their flight they are more than happy to let stewards in on their discussions.  I found that they are willing to answer questions if asked and will often encourage you to taste the beers after they’ve sipped enough to form their opinion.  As a steward you can read their scoresheets, which include separate commentary for aroma, appearance, flavor, mouthfeel and overall impression.  This is made particularly useful because you can often peruse the comments while sampling the beer in question.  I personally think that it’s the notably bad beers which are most interesting to taste.  They often serve as examples for various off-flavors, which are hard to find commercially and even harder to identify if you don’t have a BJCP judge sitting by your side.  Early in the day I had a good example of an infected beer that betrayed both acetic acid bacteria along with a possible Brettanomyces infection (For the uninitiated, the former instills a vinegar-like quality, while the latter is a wild yeast intentionally used in sours; neither should be present in any Scottish or Irish Ale).   When I brought it over to the “dumped” beer area the other stewards were eager to sample the infected brew.  This culture of beer nerdiness and serious study pervades the competition and makes the day fun for everyone involved.

Experiencing the judging process has me pumped for the first round of the National Homebrew Competition coming up in April.  I’m eagerly anticipating the feedback I’ll get for my submissions, which will hopefully include a Scottish Ale.  I’m also looking forward to stewarding once again.  If you’re looking for ways to expand your palate, learn off-flavors, or nail a certain style of beer, I can’t stress enough how great of a resource competitions can be.

Brewer’s Library: Brewing Up a Business by Sam Calagione

February 16, 2011 2 comments

You’ve heard of Sam Calagione. He is well on his way to being the most recognizable brewer in America. He founded Dogfish Head Craft Brewery, who are among the top 25 craft breweries by sales volume and have collaborated with the likes of Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., Boston Beer Co., and the Beer Advocate brothers. He has published several books on brewing and business. At the end of 2010 the Discovery Channel gave him his own TV show. Yeah, that guy.

Brewing Up a Business by Sam CalagioneBrewing Up a Business should be required reading for anyone working in a small craft brewery — or any small business, for that matter. Calagione has put together a lively, informative guide that covers the lifespan of a company from the original innovative idea to end-game strategies for gracefully exiting a successful entrepreneurial venture. Along the way he shares a number of entertaining stories from Dogfish Head’s unusual history that are the centerpiece responsible for this work’s accessibility.

Rather than being a nuts-and-bolts guide to business ownership, this work is really the transmission of one man’s business — and life — philosophy. Some of the key themes are as follows: everything you do should reflect your core values; you get the most from others when you communicate with openness, trust and respect; getting away from work can be the key to success both away from and at the office; etc, etc. These sorts of things can seem cliché when tersely spouted off by someone in a forum such as this, but when seriously ruminated upon they reflect real insight and are the heart of this book.

One of the greatest successes of Brewing Up a Business is that Calagione doesn’t torpedo his book’s readability when he does choose to focus on more tangible aspects of running a  business. In one notable departure he strays from business philosophies to talk about the difference between income statements and balance sheets. This is a subject that could easily put even the most interested young brewer to sleep. Yet, in the context that Calagione has created the subject becomes surprising and powerful. Having made it through two thirds of the book by this point, the reader trusts that if Calagione is taking the time to expound upon these supposedly crucial financial documents then it’s time to pay attention.

If the book has any downfalls the most egregious would be the author’s glamorization of business ownership. He mentions some of the hardships of the early days, such as getting years of little-to-no money and even less sleep, but only in a passing, light-hearted manner. It seems likely, given the success that has followed that era, that he simply views it all with the same amount of joy. After all, he couldn’t have gotten to where he is today without those tumultuous initial years. I recently spoke to another small craft brewer whose business is not yet out of that stage and he echoed Calagione’s realistic yet rosy view of the situation. Faced with a full-time position’s worth of brewery work on top of a normal day job, most of his life savings sunk into the business and with no certainty that the venture will ever turn profitable, he said that even if it were to go under tomorrow it will have been 100% worth it.

The reason that everyone working at a small-scale, for-profit business should invest their time into this book is high valuation of empathy. Calagione cites the ability to empathize as a fundamental characteristic of both good salespeople and good managers. He’s right on the money, except that I’d like to up the stakes and claim that it’s the fundamental skill for being a good human being. Understanding the entire life-cycle of a small business will help any employee improve the quality of their work. If you have an inkling of what the other owners and long-term employees went through early on and deal with on a day-to-day basis, you will better relate to those people. The ability to think holistically is an asset no matter what you find yourself doing, and Brewing Up a Business enthusiastically promotes that type of thought.

Volunteering at a Brewery

February 13, 2011 Leave a comment

One of my aspirations for this blog is to help others become professional brewers. Sometimes I’ll be posting information about specific techniques or equipment, but I think it’s equally important to supplement that with tips on how to make yourself a more attractive candidate for breweries to hire. To that end, one of the best ways to increase your chances is to volunteer at an up and coming brewery.

If you’re like me you might have assumed that, with the industry’s ever-increasing profile and size, the days of breweries opening their doors to volunteers were long gone. While that’s true for larger outfits, newer breweries are often in need of help and short on cash. Perfect volunteering opportunity. In general, the best way to find out if a brewery needs an extra set of hands is to go ask in person — try a flight while you’re at it!

Volunteering is the single best way to experience the realities of professional brewing. You’ll likely cover yourself in beer, hot water and grain dust. You’ll understand the physicality of brewing on a larger-scale. At the end of the day you’ll either be tired and joyful or tired and irritable. That may lead you to realize that you don’t actually want to do this every day, but even if that’s the case you’ll have an enduring, informed appreciation for the work of craft brewers. Or you’ll love every second of it, in which case you’ll learn some invaluable information on the job.

There are the little things: how to handle chemicals or flip and tighten a tri-clamp with one hand. Then there are fundamentals of brewing theory: what different mash temperatures are trying to achieve or goals for cleaning and sanitizing. Most important of all is that you’ll learn to think like a brewer. You need to hone your abilities to multi-task and organize logistics of space and time. If you’re already an all-grain homebrewer you’ll recognize procedural similarities, though some of the techniques and technologies used will be new to you. You’ll learn vocabulary of the trade that will translate no matter what brewery you end up working for.

Brewery owners will respect volunteer experience if for no other reason than that it demonstrates real interest in the craft. They know that you’ve traded time in order to learn: if you’ll do it for free, you must truly enjoy brewing. They can also be certain that your experience elsewhere will make it easier to teach you their operating procedures and, who knows, maybe you’ll be able to teach them a trick or two that they didn’t know.

If you’re going to volunteer, it’s up to you to ensure that you’re getting a good deal out of the exchange. I hate to see members of my generation working for nothing. As long as you’re enjoying yourself, learning everyday and building your resume it’s probably a fair deal. In the end you have to decide if you’re getting enough out of it. Sure, they’ll likely give you beer and merchandise, which is always fun, but you need to be proactive about your education. Get them to train you in all aspects of their process from milling to packaging. Learn everything you can and don’t be afraid to move on if your arrangement ever becomes uneven. As long as you’re driven to learn I’m sure you’ll find it was worth the time you invested.

That said, it’s time for me to go work at Manzanita in exchange for beer and an education.