Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Interview with Golden Horn Brewing Co., Pt. 1

I was recently lucky enough to sit down with three members of Golden Horn Brewing Company. I have to say, if you've never talked to any of these folks, catch them at the next release and you're definitely in for a good time. We had a lot of fun chatting about beer, their philosophies, how they got started, and oh so much more.

Golden Horn Brewing Company consists of four members: Jamie Hanuka, Robert Daffin, Robert Clark, and Sue Humphries. Currently they brew at/for Fermentation Lounge as a contract brewer of sorts. Right now they are waiting for some Federal red tape to clear before they get brewing there for the year, but we're hoping to see more soon!

Alright, enough jabber, let's get down to it! Because there were often 3 people answering, and because Robert C. is a windbag (just kidding!), this interview got quite long (I was there for almost 2 hours), so I opted to split this interview into two parts.

Part 1 will cover a lot about their histories and philosophies.
Part 2 (released later this week or next week) will cover brewing at Fermentation Lounge and future plans

I sat down for my chat with Jamie, Robert C., and Robert D.

Where did the name come from?

Robert C.: Sue and myself are both kinda history buffs, as well as Jamie, and Sue and I are both into making mead. There’s a story about a Germanic god named Odin who stole mead and put it in a golden chalice, well for them it was a golden horn, and if you drank that mead, basically it gave you the gift of poetry, and in that culture the gift of poetry was very revered because they had the gift of words and language. So, we tend to make higher gravity beers and use lots of honey – we definitely have a mead background. I always make the joke that I make beer so that I have something to drink while my mead is maturing. So that came from that concept of the golden drinking horn and getting the gift of poetry. And since we make higher gravity beers, if you drink enough of it, you might just get to talking!

Any particular beer or moment that got you into craft beer?

Robert C.: I think we all have our own individual stories. For me, both my father and my grandfather homebrewed. One incident that very clearly sticks out in my mind is when I was about 6 years old and my dad caught me pilfering his homebrew stash. I would take a bottle and me and my brothers would run out into the woods and we would all take turns drinking it. Well he caught me one day and he made me drink two bottles and I got sick. I enjoyed the flavors and the fact that he was making it. I remember helping him cap it - that was my favorite job. He had one of those big lever cappers and I would grab the handle and pull up my legs and let my body weight pull the capper down. I remember having lots of fun doing that because he would make about 10 gallons at a time. That’s my memory – capping the beer, watching them ferment, and occasionally explode.

Jamie: I would say my memory is really the first time I had my first homebrew. Like all college students, it’s all about Natty Lights and consuming in mass quantities the cheapest beer you can afford and I met some guys that were homebrewing here. You think everything is yellow, crisp, and watery until I had that first homebrew. It was just like “Oh my God” this is absolutely amazing! It pretty much opened the flood gates and convinced me to get a kit and start doing homebrewing stuff.

Robert D.: I was born and raised in Marianna, Florida, which is not exactly a bastion of anything, short of prisons. They changed the laws in Alabama some 20 years ago to allow the opening of brewpubs and one actually opened in Dothan, Alabama of all places, which I’m still rather surprised happened. But anyway, Poplarhead Mule Company opened up (not 100% sure of the name he said). A friend of mine told me I had to go there and try this beer. I did, they had 3 different beers on tap. One was a Budweiser clone that was not that interesting, one was a Bud Light clone that was not that interesting, but they had one called Downtown Brown and it was one of the best things I had ever had. We made regular pilgrimages to buy Downtown Brown by the pitcher. Me and my buddy Tommy would get… well, the quality of the night depended on the quantity of pitchers we had. A 2-pitcher night was probably pretty good. A 3-pitcher night was probably pushing it, and a 4-pitcher night… probably not gonna end well. In fact, I actually have a problem now because of that, and this was over 20 years ago. I have a problem now with browns because I’m still trying to find that beer. I’ve not found a brown that measures up to that… and I probably never will, because it’s a memory, you know. That was the point where I woke up and said, you know, there’s probably a lot more out there than just the mass market adjuncts that everybody else is drinking.

Robert C.: Daff and I want to work together with his memory and we’re going to try to make a brown that he considers worthy. So we’ll try to live up to that memory. If not, we’ll hopefully get very close or something that he’s happy with.

Jamie: Gentleman, you’re chasing the dragon!

What breweries have had an influence on your brewing or tastes?

Robert D.: Let’s see… Stone was probably one of the ones that really turned me around. I’m one of those that’s a bit of a hophead. I love Sublimely Self Righteous. I love Ruination for that matter. Lagunitas does some pretty amazing stuff. I really, really liked Lucky 13 when it first came out. I’m slightly less happy with their reformulation – the Lucky Alt version. Basically, I skew very hoppy. California hoppy styles, too – you know, Pliny the Elder is a wonderful thing. Ballast Point does some wonderful beers.

Me: Did you have Lagunitas Sucks? I thought that one was really good.

Robert D.: I did, and I thought it was very good. Of all the holiday beers this year, I really thought Lagunitas Sucks was the best of it. In fact, I’m kind of disappointed because we were supposed to be getting leftovers at some point and I’ve never seen them!

Jamie: Definitely Dogfish Head. It’s either hit or miss sometimes with their beers, but their bold brewing style and their desire to go way out there is really influential. The kind of beer that I really love is the kind of beer that I’ve never had before. They will usually make something I’ve never had before, so I’m definitely going to go ahead and give it a try. Samuel Adams, it’s funny that you’re wearing a Sam Adams shirt (I was wearing a Longshot t-shirt) because for many years, I was a big time snob on Samuel Adams in that my opinion was that whatever they brewed, somebody else brewed better. Robert C. here told me, you know, you have to look at Samuel Adams as the stepping stone to craft beer. Everybody who drinks the Budweisers and all of the big lagers and pilsners will then go to Samuel Adams to get something a try and it’ll then open up the door for them. But the Chocolate Bock that they made, the 25oz bomber they did with the silver label on it. When I had that, it just completely changed my mind about them and that was like, man this is just an amazing beer. The maltiness, the chocolate, everything just layered perfectly, blended perfectly, it’s like your Downtown Brown, Daffin, unfortunately now that they’ve retooled it and put it out as a part of their winter Brewmaster’s pick, now it’s like it’s not the same thing and it’s really disappointing. The other one that really got me and you can’t get this in the US – when I was traveling across Europe 12 years ago, I stopped off in Salzburg, Austria, and I went to this brewery called The Augustiner Brewery, which was in a converted monastery. The beer there – and it was most likely just the fact that they gave me a tour of the brewery and just the entire atmosphere of it, to watch them take this 3 barrel keg of beer and tap it – classic wooden style. It was the entire process, the entire atmosphere, but that was one of the best types of lagers I’ve ever had and it was absolutely amazing.

Robert C.: For my breweries, I’ll stick mostly with American ones, mostly some of the ones we’ve already heard and for some of the same reasons. Dogfish Head because they don’t brew to style and because they’re always trying to do something that noone’s ever done before, and that kind of epitomizes my brewing style. I really like that about them. Some of their stuff, like that Egyptian one, it smelled like tuna fish, but once you got past the smell, it was interesting… I don’t think I’d buy a second bottle, but I like the fact that they tried. They tried something completely out of the box. They said we don’t care how you categorize it, we don’t care what style, we’re just gonna do this weird thing.

I like breweries like Cigar City and Seventh Sun, that take a beer and then they say, okay this beer is good, so let’s try it with coffee, let’s try it with blackberries, let’s try it with honey, let’s try it with peppers. They’re not afraid to take something that’s already good and think outside the box. Oh, we have an oatmeal brown, let’s put cinnamon and raisins in it. Let’s put milk sugar in it. I like that creativity. Sometimes it gets a little derivative – how many versions of Maduro Brown can you have? But at the same time, I respect that they’re not just sitting back and saying, oh we have Maduro Brown, we’re done in browns. They’re like, no, we’re gonna try this and we’re gonna try that. Cubano Espresso came out of it, which I love. So, thankfully, they took that Maduro Brown, which is interesting and good, and they said, hey, put this in it! I like that kind of experimentation.

I also like places like Funky Buddha Lounge down in Boca. They’re doing the same stuff - hey nobody has a peanut butter and jelly sandwich beer! No Crusts is awesome! Last year at Hunahpu Day they had their maple breakfast beer and I was like, wait, that’s too many words in one beer title, and then I had it and it tasted like somebody took the best pancakes I ever had with some bacon and some maple syrup and coffee and blended it and put it in a bottle. It was amazing. Wow, it is breakfast in a bottle… it’s really good! They went out there on the edge and tried it.

I also like local breweries like Terrapin, and what I like most about Terrapin are their side projects. Again, they’re doing the same kind of thing – okay, we have our stable of beers, but we’re going to try something new and interesting every so often, and they do sometimes really push the envelope. Some of them, like the pumpkin Oktoberfest, are not so great, but they keep trying. I’m okay with a brewery if they try to push the envelope and the envelope kicks back. It’s gonna happen, but I’d rather them make that leap and try than never try at all. There are a lot of breweries out there that got their stable of beers and then they’re kind of stagnant at that point. Where’s their innovation? What are you doing now? Thankfully Sierra Nevada, who I like, has kinda jumped off that bandwagon the last couple of years and came out with Kellerweiss, their 30th Anniversary beers, they’re now doing some new stuff. But for years, it was like, these are their beers, nothing new.

I want, like Jamie, to try a beer I’ve never had before. I tried the Clamato just to try it, yes, Bud Light mixed with clam juice and tomato juice… and it’s really as bad as it sounds. I will try it because I want to try something I’ve never had before, even if I know it’s gonna suck, and it did. I looked at it and said well maybe there are some things I can learn from it. I pull a lot from my chef background and I’m always trying something just to see how it is because if nothing else, I’ve learned a lesson – never add clam juice and tomato juice to a light lager… EVER! So, lesson learned, check that little box off, and I can move on.

You were all homebrewers – what caused you to make the jump into commercial brewing?

Robert C.: I’ve been a fan of Fermentation since right after they opened. I just really liked the vibe there – it’s small, kinda cozy, and it’s usually an older clientele. It’s a very quaint bar. There’s a core of regulars that goes there and it’s really awesome. So I went to Ferm all the time and I started bringing in some of my mead and homebrews and the bartenders were really appreciative and I kinda just hit it off with one of the bartenders. I would go on Sunday nights when they were playing movies back in the day. Often times it’d just be us and the bartenders. We’d sit around, drink mead and watch the stupid movie and just have a blast at basically our own private bar. So I got really familiar with the bar staff and was bringing in a lot of my homebrew. The bar staff told the owners, so a couple of times one of the owners would be there and they would pull a sample to give to the owners and the owners were like “this is good stuff!” and they’ve tried a lot of homebrew, as I’m sure you’ve tried, and some of it’s… not so great sometimes. I’ve worked in a kitchen so I know sanitary methods and I’m very meticulous about it, and I’m very high on flavor profiles. I want to make sure there’s certain flavors here or there and that it hits certain notes. So, they kinda hadn’t had anything like that. I was talking to one of the owners one time and I mentioned that I wanted to get more into brewing – maybe do more of a meadery, and when we first started talking we were actually talking more about opening a meadery than a brewery, but because of laws and regulations, we decided to go more of a brewery route. So basically it was just by bringing my homebrew up there, talking to the bartenders and owners, and they had kinda wanted to add that aspect anyway, so it was just a matter of working that out with them. It slowly evolved over maybe a year or a year and a half and then it took another year or year and a half to get all the paperwork done.

How do you come up with these crazy beers and where did this philosophy come from?

Robert C.: We all have our different approaches. I would say that I come from a strong culinary background. I’m a chef – I was trained at Culinary Art Institute of America in New York. I was an executive chef at a restaurant for years after working my way up from a sous chef. So I have a really strong culinary background. For me, I consider beer as food, and that is a central part of my philosophy about brewing. Just like when I was at the restaurant, I would take my interpretation of something and flip it around and do different things with it, and I like chefs that do that. I also like chefs that are really focused on local, seasonal ingredients. If you notice the beers that are my recipe are all highlighting local, seasonal ingredients. If it’s in season and I can go get it – and by the way, I do consider South Georgia local because I can drive to Thomasville food market in 40 minutes, so for me I can get fresh peaches from them, I consider that local. Some people would say Georgia isn’t local, but it’s Tallahassee and we’re basically South Georgia (I’m thinking he was referencing my own comment on the blog). If I can drive 30 or 40 minutes and buy fresh peaches that were grown a couple of miles from that site, I consider that local. For our watermelon wheat, I drove down to Perry. So I take that brewing philosophy – I like to do seasonal beers, I like to use fresh local ingredients, and I like to highlight local ingredients. Whether I’m using Bradley Country Grits in a beer (had to look that one up), watermelon, or persimmons from a local farm. I even use stuff from my own garden – our chipotle beer had jalapenos and peppers from my garden – it can’t get much more local than that. That’s my philosophy and it’s coming from that culinary background.

I don’t really concentrate so much on the beer style I’m making, or making it fit in a box. I’m totally okay and go, “Is this a brown ale? Is this an amber ale?” I’d just say… sure! I’m totally okay with that. When I design a beer recipe and flavors, I start with how I’d want it to taste, look, and smell, and then I backwards engineer it and I make a grain bill based on what I want those characteristics to be. A lot of times I think brewers start the opposite direction. They start with a grain bill and then they start altering that grain bill. I start with what I want the finished product to be. I do the same thing with cooking. I’ll go somewhere and I’ll have a cannoli. I’ll taste it and I’ll say okay I like this, but I want more of this and less of that and I’ll make my own version through backwards engineering. That’s how I approach it. A lot of times Jamie and I come up with beer ideas because we’re sitting around brewing, or drinking, and we’re like, hey, this beer is interesting, but how about this, or how about that. Sometimes we’ll be eating something and we’ll say how can we make a beer that will go with this? One of the beers, Cerveza Lima, which I know you weren’t a big fan of (he’s referencing my first big article) was a tailgaiting beer. We liked Mexican food, we liked tailgating, and we wanted a beer that goes really well with Mexican food at a tailgate. It’s hot, so you want something light, a little bit crisp and dry, the lime and honey play well with the salsa and the tacos and other things that we’re eating. Sometimes beers form that way – wanting a certain flavor for an event or an activity. Other times it’s just like, hey, we want to try something completely different. We once came up with a chocolate hefeweizen. It’s hefeweizen with some chocolate flavors, so we kinda wanted that chocolatey banana thing going on. It evolves a lot of times.

Jamie: For me, as far as brewing and everything goes, I think of the road. There was a brewery that came by that cemented my thought on that. You look at a road or a highway and you look at those two yellow lines that go down the middle, there are so many breweries that just stay right in between those two yellow lines in the middle of the road. My brewing philosophy is that I never want in between those lines. We all shoot for beer that’s in the fast lane, but I am not afraid to make a beer that might end up in the gutter. That’s not a problem because at least I know that it’s not what everybody else is trying to do. I think Robert kinda hit the nail on the head. I’m more of a foodie in that I like food, but I don’t have a chef’s background. A lot of the beers that we come up with is just sitting around talking, drinkoing, and for me, it’s might even be a simple phrase or word, like when Robert was talking about the Chelada earlier and later mentioned tuna death. I kinda thought to myself, what if we come up with a gefilte fish style of beer (oh please God, don’t) with lime… maybe something Kosher or crazy, or something like that. My brain just kinda takes words and twists everything around to see what I can come up with.

One of the beers I came up with recently is I want to do a barbecue beer. I want to be like when you drink it it’s not going to be like drinking barbecue sauce, but almost like hanging out in a good southern barbecue all day long – getting that aroma and the sensation of being right there. It’s really just sitting around and talking and being creative – I’m sure that’s where a lot of brewers come up with ideas. It’s thinking about the concepts first, or the end product first like Robert said, and then figuring out a way to reverse engineer and coming up with the different ingredients we have to use to achieve that final product. A lot of our beers are something where you try one or two and then you want to try something else and I think that’s important for my philosophy related to my personal search for beers. I want to have something and then I want to move on to something else and try it. I don’t want to drink the same thing over and over and over again. So I don’t want to make beers that people want to drink over and over and over again. Maybe they do want to have it and then pick up a six pack to keep in their fridge and go back to once in awhile, but if somebody drinks our beers and they don’t want to buy two or three pints afterwards, that’s perfectly fine with me because there’s so much more out there that I want people to be able to enjoy than to stick with one particular beer style.

Robert C.: That kinda fits into how we drink beer as well. When I go into a bar, whether they have 12 taps or 50 taps, I almost never have the same beer back to back, unless it is something that is ultra limited and there’s only one cask in the whole world and it’s phenomenal and if I don’t get a second glass now, I may never get a second glass… and even then I may intersperse something in the middle of them. I think when you do that, you get more of the flavors in the beer. If I’m drinking a stout and then I have another stout, they tend to run together. If I have a stout and then I have an IPA and then I have a stout again, both the IPA and the stout are going to be more intense and flavorful than if I had them back to back. That’s why we’re drinking craft beers – we want the flavor, we want the experience of craft beer, we’re not just shotgunning beer to shotgun beer. It’s all about the flavor and the experience of drinking it.

That's all for now, folks. Tune in later this week or the middle of next week for PART 2!

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