Tim Bullock: St. Elmo Brewing Co. [Interview]

I was having such a good time with my friends at St. Elmo’s Brewing Co. that it took me a second to realize who the man standing beside our table was. It finally dawned on me that is was Tim Bullock, one of the owners who had graciously agreed to answer a few questions about the brewery and beer I was enjoying so much. It was a typical Winter day in Austin, Texas. So it was 75 degrees and gorgeous out on St. Elmo’s spacious, picnic table filled patio area. Tim and I had to go inside to find a quiet spot.

“Get you a beer?” Tim asked as he was already heading behind the bar. Why yes, I think I’ll have a beer. After pouring me a snifter of Amarillo, their newly released American IPA, Tim spilled his guts about his journey to a guy he’d only met once for 10 seconds and shared three emails with.

Owners St Elmo Brewing Co

TC: How does St. Elmo’s stand out in the increasingly saturated Austin beer scene?

TB: I don’t think Austin is saturated at all. If you compare it to Portland, which is a similar size, they have nearly double the amount of breweries Austin does. There is a long way to go before we even get close to too many breweries here. With St. Elmo’s, my partner Bryan and I really wanted it to be the local neighborhood brewery. We wanted to serve the community right around our area. There aren’t a lot breweries south of downtown that you can walk to, grab a great beer, have a meal, and just relax at. We got incredibly lucky with the space. We looked at probably less than 10 locations before we decided on this location.

TC: You and Bryan both used to be at Austin Beer Works. What made you make the leap from working at an already established, well liked brewery to opening your own?

TB: When I met Bryan, it was clear that we were similar in that we both wanted to acquire skills. We weren’t just working a job. He was a brewer and I was working the bar area in the front of the house. We both learned a lot in our time at ABW, but it got to the point where we wanted to branch out creatively and do our own thing. He and I working together seemed like a natural partnership.

St Elmo Brewing Co. Amarillo

TC: How did you decide on the styles of beers you were going to serve? Is there a fully vetted creative process, or do you basically brew what you like?

TB: More we brew what we like. The recipes are very dialed in for sure, but there’s no official process we go through. Bryan is one of the few brewers I know that still homebrews. Not many people want to put in a 10-hour day then go home and do what they just did all day for fun. That’s really where most of or recipes come from is his home brew batches. That’s why I think we we’re able to produce such quality recipes.

TC: So what does St. Elmo’s look like 5 years from now? Nationwide distribution or are you content with your slice of Austin?

TB: I think we’re content with our slice of Austin. Like I said before, we really want to be your neighborhood brewery, serving the community around us. Of course, we’ll grow and expand more into local markets. You can expect to see us at more taps around Austin, but it isn’t our primary goal.

Beer Sign

As Tim and I were talking, the line behind the bar kept getting longer and longer as several large groups showed up all at once. No doubt my tweet that Fine Pint was there brought everyone out in droves. That, or the amazing beer. 50/50 really. Tim excused himself to help behind the bar, but not before introducing me to his partner, Bryan Winslow, who was cleaning kegs on the brewery floor. Bryan was also nice enough to chat with me for a bit.

TC: I asked Tim this same question, but what is your process for coming up with new beer recipes?

BW: I like to experiment, but I really focus on recipes that hit styles on the nose. I worked hard to develop our Kolsch recipe. Recipes change over time of course, but we like to provide the same, or as close to the same beer as we came every time.

TC: So a lot of effort goes into reproducing recipes each time.

BW: Yeah absolutely. We like to try new hops that are in season, and I’m constantly tweaking recipes, but consistency is key.

St. Elmo’s Brewing Co. is a damn fine addition to the Austin brewery scene. Tim and Bryan really hit the nail on the head with what they set out to accomplish. Great beer, in a great space, with an amazing food truck, Soursop, permanently parked out back. If you haven’t been out yet, you need to fix that, and quick. If you’re lucky, Bryan might even give you a sample of the new kettle soured raspberry tart he’s working on.

St. Elmo Brewing Co. Patrons

Averie Swanson: Jester King Brewery’s Jester Queen [Interview]

The peaceful farmland where Jester King Brewery is located is in stark contrast to the bee hive of activity going on inside the converted barn brewery and tap room. Bottles are being filled, boxes packaged for storage, and on the loading dock a forklift is being repaired. Despite being up to her eyeballs in work, Averie Swanson was kind enough to take a few minutes to answer some questions about herself, the current state of Jester King Brewery, and its future.

Averie Swanson Jester King

TC: How would you describe Jester King Brewery and its place in the craft beer industry these days?

AS: That’s an interesting question. The craft beer world is definitely expanding at an insane rate. There is a finite number of styles that people recognize, so it’s difficult to think outside the box. There is a niche in the craft beer world of mixed culture fermentation, so experimentation using many organisms at the same time is what is exciting for us. I would say that we’re a bit more experimental in the ingredients we used. We don’t really brew to style by any means. We brew what we like.

TC: So you’re not really worried about trends and chasing what’s popular.

AS: I would say not. I mean, we work with fruit and sour beer which are both very popular, but we aren’t making it because it’s popular. The culture we use makes this type of beer and it’s what we enjoy drinking. Just kind of not necessarily following the status quo and being creative and making beers using interesting ingredients

TC: What are you most excited about what Jester King Brewery is doing right now?

AS: I would say our spontaneous fermentation program. This past winter we completed our first season of spontaneous brewing. We do pretty traditional production for Lambic style beer, although we’d never call it Lambic out of respect for the tradition and the people that are making it. We blended our first five blends at the beginning at the year using beer that we’ve been fermenting for up to three years. I’m excited to get consumer feedback and from my peers in the industry. We’ve put a lot of work and time into making these beers so it’s exciting to have these concepts come to fruition.

TC: So it’s been a very long process from start to finish. How long ago did you start this program?

AS: We brewed our first beer four years ago. And now we’re finally bottling and it will be ready soon for people to enjoy.

TC: Jester King is really focused on only releasing quality product. I saw on your blog recently that a beer was recently pulled from the market after release because one of the owners didn’t believe is was up to the quality that you’re known for. If it’s not good enough, you won’t sell it.

AS: Yeah, that’s precisely the thing! We’ve got a little bit of a luxury in that we can wait a while. We aren’t trying to push through a lot of beer. We’re very small so we don’t need to push out a lot of volume to sustain ourselves. It’s an exercise in patience for sure.

TC: Is being a woman in the industry a little uncommon? Was it a boy’s club or were you accepted right away?

AS: There are definitely less women that men in production but more women are getting into it. I wouldn’t say that I’ve had too many issues feeling comfortable in the industry. I work hard and others I work with see that and respect it. Other industry peers see that and recognize it. I wouldn’t say that gender is a huge issue in the craft beer industry. People contact me fairly regularly and I take issue when I get asked “what challenges have you had to overcome as a woman?” I don’t really want to talk about the issues I’ve had to encounter as a woman I encounter many issues, but it’s become a human. I feel like it perpetuates this mentality that “oh you’re a woman you’ve must have encountered things, let’s talk about it?” It’s a hard industry to get into period. End of story.

TC: Do you think that you have different ideas because you’re a woman or does gender have any bearing?

AS: I don’t know. It’s a good question. Obviously I can’t divorce myself from being a woman and the social and cultural conditioning that I have undergone as a female in the US. I try not to focus on that and I think it’s a free and equal opportunity.

Jester King Brewery

Craft beer is this amazing intersection of art, science, and people.

TC: How do you want to make your mark on the craft beer industry.

AS: I think that I will forever be evolving in my role. I plan on being in this industry a very long time. Craft beer is this amazing intersection of art, science, and people. I’ve never been the most artistic individual, nor am I a scientist. I’m definitely a people person. I love people and that’s really what drives me in this industry. Continuing to be inspired by other people and really strengthening those personal ties between those working in the industry. I also really love the educational aspect of it all. There’s so much to learn in the industry. I do informal classes at the brewery and around town which I really enjoy. I see myself moving towards doing more educational type things.

TC: So definitely an ambassador type role.

AS: Yeah, absolutely. The craft beer industry has a lot of potential for progressive social change as well as legislative change. I love all of it and want to learn more and share more.

TC: So what do you think are some trends in the craft beer industry that you would like to see go away.

AS: There’s a time and place for every style of beer, so I don’t have a lot of issue with that. There is a lot of pressure to produce and crank out as much beer as possible and haphazardly throwing together a lot of ingredients in the recipe and not giving their beer enough time to mature and integrate. I think that will wind up be an issue for a lot of breweries. Truly, I don’t think that the market is going to slow down anytime soon, and that’s awesome. It also means that a lot of breweries are going to have to increase the quality of their products. It’s Darwinism. You need to stay relevant and good at what you’re doing. Anyone can find the money to open a brewery. It’s not a difficult thing, but not everyone can exercise the patience or has the passion.

TC: Just do a few homebrew kits and get the bug to open a brewery.

AS: Exactly. A lot of people do that. I think that we will eventually see breweries shutting down for that reason.

TC: How did you get started in the craft beer industry?

AS: I have a biology degree from University of Houston and moved to Austin in 2011. I applied for a few different grad programs and didn’t get into the one I really wanted and was more relieved than disappointed. I had been homebrewing for awhile and had a bunch of free time and thought why not give it a shot. Jester King was the first brewery in Austin that got back to me. So I came out for a Black Metal packaging day and I think we were out here until 3 AM. After that I was hooked. I came out as often as they would let me and six months into volunteering I asked for a full time apprenticeship and six months later I was hired on full time. That was about two years ago I was promoted to Production Manager. It doesn’t happen like that for everyone so I’m definitely very grateful. I got lucky ya know.

The map is not the territory.

TC: If you wanted to impart one piece of knowledge to someone that doesn’t really know anything about craft beer, what would it be?

AS: I would try to explain to them to have an open mind. Approach life and beer with a sense of awe. If you have certain expectations for things then you’ll never really be able to experience it in all of its glory. The map is not the territory. So don’t go into an experience with any expectations. It’s just beer. At the end of the day it’s just a simple pleasure. It tastes good and gets you hanging out with your friends, but don’t make it to be more than it is.

TC: Don’t worry about your tasting notes and checking into Untappd.

AS: Yeah! Whales are great, but the conversation you have with your friends while you’re enjoying those beers are really the most important part.

Homebrewer to Probrewer: Taking the Leap

Admit it. You dream of becoming a probrewer. Not long after your first brew day with your first shitty Mr. Beer kit, you were hooked. Not long after that first homebrew session you began to daydream about the possibility of going pro and brewing full time. You don’t really know anything about what it takes to go from homebrewer to probrewer, but who cares. It’s just a random passing thought as you huddle around your propane burner, almost willing your wort into a rolling boil. However, for a select few of you, it’s more than just a daydream. You’re actively planning on quitting your day job and putting your money where your mouth is.

I reached out to the Reddit community and asked if any brewers in potentia would mind filling out a brief survey. The response was much better than I expected and the comments, I believe, were incredibly revealing about the type of person takes the leap to becoming a Master Brewer. I was less interested in the nuts and bolts of their plan than I was about their motivations and backgrounds. Here are the broad strokes.

potential probrewer

What is your professional background?

Naturally, this one was all over the board. There did seem to be a few more engineers in the crowd though, with five out of the 12 respondents having a background in some sort of engineering. To me, this makes a bit of sense, and I base this on nothing more than my opinion and the engineers that I know. Brewing is a technical process and requires a keen eye, scientific mind, and attention to detail. There are plenty of careers that require those skills, but engineers seem to always have them in spades.

The remaining respondents had a mixed bag of careers and vocations, ranging from military, to accounting, to bartender, to even a chemist who specialized in brewing science. I’m not sure what the common thread there is when it comes to work experience and wannabe brewers, or even if there is one. My gut tells me that the one thing everyone of them has though is work ethic. You can’t be a slouch and be a professional brewer. It’s hard, dirty, manual work, and anyone who isn’t up for it will be weeded out damn quick.

How long have you been planning to go pro as a brewer?

Again, across the board on this one. From as little as 3 months, to as long as 8 years. I’ll admit it’s rattled around in my brain on the high side of this range. The question I neglected to ask is the one I’m willing to bet has a strong correlation to the answers given. “How long have you been homebrewing?” Practically every homebrewer I know didn’t make it more than a few brew days in before they started day dreaming about what it might be like to do this as a living.

Is there anything holding you back from tacking the next step?

There are clearly two major factors at play when it comes to making to leap from homebrewer to pro brewer. Know how, and cold, hard cash. Money is easy enough to understand. Anyone who does a quick Google search learns very quickly that opening a brewery costs. A lot. Few have the kind of start up capital needed to open the doors and purchase equipment on their own, so they have to seek funds elsewhere. Which quickly leads into the next hurdle. How? No one just lends you money without a plan these days, so you quickly dive into a business plan. Many respondents said they were working on or had finished their business plans. So, depending on how in depth they went, they should at least be starting to educate themselves on the theoretical bits about how to operate a brewery. However, a business plan doesn’t mean you know how to actually do anything, one respondent said, echoing a sentiment shared by Matt Cutter of Upslope Brewing Co.

At any point, have you had a “reality check?”

The majority of the panel stated that they considered it a reality check when they realized that they would have to leave a financially stable and lucrative career for on that would likely be neither. It can be tough to leave behind a steady paycheck and stable hours for such large unknowns. The hours are typically long, hard, and while it may pay the bills, being a brewer is rarely the path to riches. The fear of failure and lack of knowledge were also high on several’s list of reasons for not quite taking the next step. You can definitely argue that this is true of any business and carry the exact same risks of failure and crippling debt.

Do you intend to become a brewer full time, or will you keep your day job until it becomes profitable?

All in baby! Most believed that to be successful, opening the doors of a brewery would require 100% of their focus. A couple stated practical reasons for wanting to keep their day jobs, but that they would abandon their careers at the first possible moment. It makes all the sense in the world, too. Splitting your focus splits your results, and running a successful brewery is no part time venture. I’ve spoken to brewer after brewer, and 50-80 work weeks seem to very common. Punching a time clock and working 9-5 is exceedingly rare in start ups.

nano brewery

How supportive have others been of your decision?

Brewers in potentia seem to have a strong support network. 100% said that everyone around the encouraged them to move forward and follow their dream. The only time that this was not quite the case, was when that person was directly affected by the brewers money situation. Significant others and spouses, while encouraging, were a bit more practical about their support than others that had no skin in the game. Supporting a wife and children on a brewer’s paycheck, plus the long hours required could put a strain on any relationship, not matter how enthusiastic they might be.

Do you feel that the craft beer market is over saturated or could become so before you open your doors?

The consensus is yes. With just over 4,500 breweries operating in the US, it’s getting harder and harder to stand out. Whether it be wishful thinking or blind hope, many think that there is room for a few more. Their brewery being one of the few. It also seems to depend on location. There are still plenty of regions in the country that are under served. Many states still have antiquated laws that prevent new breweries from being able to open their doors in meaningful numbers. This is changing though, and in some places very quickly. It won’t be long before nearly every where you go in the country, you can enjoy a delicious, locally brewed craft beer.

How do you intend to stand out?

The theoretical brewmasters have a lot of big ideas when it comes to branding. Focusing heavily on one offs and seasonals, simple beers, quality, to none of my fucking business! A few kept it close to the chest, but everyone agreed that the focus should be on the beer, first and foremost. It falls apart after that though. There were as many ideas on how to stand out as there were respondents. There is more than one way to skin a cat, and each brewery and brewmaster has something unique to offer. Which is good, because they also agreed that simply making good, even great beer wasn’t enough these days. Breweries have to offer the complete experience.

When I first sent out my survey, I was really interested to see what all the wannabe brewery owners were going to say. Their responses ranged from the expected to the surprising and gave a neat little slice into the type of person that would do something so crazy as open a brewery. What about you? Ever dream of just saying “oh, fuck it all!” and running off to make beer all day? Yes? Well what’s stopping you?

Apres Everything – Matt Cutter of Upslope Brewing Co. [Interview]

Sometimes you just get lucky. When a mutual friend introduced me to Matt Cutter, one of the founders of Upslope Brewing, I unabashedly asked if I could interview him. It’s not what you know, it’s who you know. With the expansion of Upslope’s brewing facility, maintaining an active outdoor lifestyle, and conducting brewery tours, Matt certainly has a full plate. Even with all that, he still graciously agreed to a phone interview with a fledgling craft beer writer.

Matt Cutter - Upslope Brewing

TC: I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to me today.

MC: Yeah, absolutely. Happy to do so.

TC: Our mutual friend told me that you were a homebrewer for a long time. What was it that got you interested in that in the beginning?

MC: Great question! I didn’t know what craft beer was until I moved to Boulder, CO in 1991 from Cleveland, where I grew up. We were definitely not drinking good beer there. It was here that I began to be introduced to craft beer. The very young, immature scene was only just developing in CO and it just blew my mind. I wanted to see if I could do it myself and create my own recipes and flavors. There was a very easy way to do it at the time at a place called the Beer Store. It was an “on premise” brewing store. They had all the equipment and ingredients you needed, and you would actually brew there at the store. They would help you brew as much as you needed. They were ahead of the game a little bit. They ended up closing down after a few years, but it was definitely eye opening experience. That love of tweaking recipes and discovering what different temperatures would do. Different hopping schedules. Different yeast strains. I then brought it home to my kitchen and brewed all the time with my next door neighbor. So we always had homebrew in the pipeline. It was really fun and I was really enjoying the whole process.

TC: When did you first think of opening your own brewery?

MC: I took a class on entrepreneurship at Front Range Community College which the entire course was how to build a business plan. There were students building business plans for various things. Flower shops, software companies, you know the full gamut. Mine was for a microbrewery. I finished that plan in 1996 and at that time I had befriended a couple guys from Left hand Brewing. We started looking around at space, had the business plan and basically determined we had no money to get this thing done. We then went our separate ways, but we still keep in touch. I then got into project management for circuit boards. That was really my first taste of manufacturing in a start up environment and I think it really stayed with me. I kept homebrewing the whole time and by the summer of 2007 the business plan was still in the back of my head.

TC: So over 10 years later you still couldn’t shake it. Haha.

MC: Exactly! Haha. I started to rewrite that plan for Upslope. It wasn’t so much of a “yeah, I’m doing this”, but more of a tip toe down the path. I wanted to see where the industry was at in a detailed fashion. What would the concepts look like, the marketing, the financials, and who would I need to help me establish something like this. Great, I know how to homebrew and can put together a business plan, but that doesn’t mean I know how brew on a production system or build a brewery.

It cuts through a lot of crap.

TC: So after all that time and a successful career, what was the final push to get your microbrewery off the ground?

MC: So one night my son, who was 10 at the time, asked me what I was doing as I was up late one night working on the business plan. I tried to downplay it, but I told him “I’m writing a business plan for a brewery”. Then he said “Well you have to do it, it’s your dream!”

TC: Out of the mouth babes.

MC: Exactly. That clarity he had. What do you say at that point? “No son, it’s not okay to follow your dreams.” Hahaha.

TC: It’s just so simple. Just do it, right dad?

MC: Right. It cuts through a lot of crap. Obviously it’s a lot more complicated, but at its core it made a lot of sense. So like all good project managers, I mitigated my risk as much as possible and surrounded myself with people who are good at what I’m not good at. I reach out on Probrewer and there was a posting from a guy from Argentina who was coming to Colorado and was interested in joining up with somebody for a start-up. Dany Pages traveled here in January 2008 and we sat down for 3 hours. His English was pretty rough, but better than my Spanish. We had a full conversation about what each person could bring to the table. We had similar ideas for what we wanted from the brewery and had very complimentary backgrounds. We started looking at space, then Dany had to travel back to Argentina because his tourist visa was running out. He told me “when you find space, let me know.” So early April I signed a one year lease for 2,200 sq ft at Lee Hill. I sent him an email saying “I signed the lease, I hope you’re serious.” He bought his plane ticket the next day and was here within two weeks. I kept my day job. I didn’t know when the brewery could afford to support me, but I felt it needed to be able to stand on its own two feet before it could offer me anything. Dany was full time working for a very meager income and I was everything else. Lee Hill is now our specialty brewery where we do all of our experimental beers. We just did one we call a SWaSH. A single wheat and single hop, all wheat beer. So it’s our land of experimentation. Whatever comes out of Lee Hill and happens to grow legs then we just go with it. We don’t like to force a beer into a can. We let it finds its way.

TC: So almost a 20 year journey so far.

MC: Wow…I guess you’re right.

Upslope-Brewery

TC: So what has expansion been like for Upslope?

MC: So our largest facility has been online for 3 years now. In fall of 2008 Henry Wood came on and was the perfect third leg of the stool that Dany and I made. We sold about 80 bbl our first year. The next year we did 1100. Fast forward to 2012 things were getting a bit crowded at Lee Hill. We brewed 5,600 bbl on a 7 bbl system which means we brewed over 800 times that year. In 2013 we doubled to almost 12,000 bbl. Now we’re looking at about 32,000 that we’ll do this year.

TC: That’s a huge ramp up! Besides the space and limitations of your equipment, what do you think the biggest struggles were for ramping up that much and that quickly were?

MC: Hahaha. It depends on who you ask. I’d have to say financing. We don’t have outside investors. We really like that model. We’re bank fed and the net profits are small. We scramble to find more and more money to feed this thing. I was able to secure a small line of credit from a small local bank in 2009 and before that in early 2009 we almost went out of business. We had about 3000 in the bank. I took out a second mortgage and that bridged us until we were able to secure that line of credit. Every 4-6 months I ask for another loan and we just walk hand in hand together as the business grows.

TC: That’s incredible. So the relationship with the bank was critical.

MC: Absolutely. To maintain who we are and our culture with the fact that we decide what we want to do. We make our own decisions on packaging, what beer we want to produce, what states we want to open and how much we want to grow. We’ve got an amazing culture here in part because of that.

That’s how drinking a beer should be.

TC: I’m glad you brought up culture. You talked about it yourself, that when you first came to Boulder you kind of wanted to be a ski bum. You even mentioned that you went on a bike ride this morning, and looking at your website and Facebook page it’s obvious that you’re really into the outdoor/adventure lifestyle. How important is it to you to infuse that lifestyle into Upslope.

MC: It’s less of an infusion and more of just an extension of who we are. We’re all very avid outdoorsmen. Biking, backpacking, climbing, etc. So we team up with people who are like minded. Employees and partners. Ski companies, outfitters, events that we do. Our branding definitely supports that. Donations that we do. Our craft lager. Our 1% to rivers campaign. 1% of the revenue goes to the local Trout Unlimited chapters that protects cold water fisheries and at the same time protects the number ingredient in our product, which is snow melt.

TC: So you definitely try to maintain that work/life balance.

MC: We definitely try! It gets a little out of balance sometimes.

TC: Another part of your culture that I’ve noticed is the word “Apres” (pronounced [ah pray]). Tell me about that.

MC: Apres everything. Our beer was originally, and still to this day, designed for the active outdoor enthusiast and intended to be put in the ever portable, recyclable, and crushable aluminum can. Intended to go with you into the great outdoors. The concept is that when you go for that mountain bike and you return to the trail head, have one of our beers. When you reach the top of a 14,000 foot peak, take it with you and drink it up there. Its intended to be that very approachable, refreshing, premium reward for what you just accomplished.

TC: You just did something incredible. Have a beer, because you deserve it.

MC: Nothing tastes better than that first beer after an excursion. You’re hanging out, talking about the guy that wiped out, the blood on your ankle, how beautiful the meadow was once you got to the top. That’s how drinking a beer should be.