Interview with a Head Brewer – Motoring Along
From the birthplace of the ubiquitus ‘Jeep’ we have our latest interviewee. Taking time from his continued climb up the brewing ladder to answer these hard hitting interview questions (ha). Like many we profile here, this individual has made his way from homebrewer to pro. As you’ll see though, this didn’t happen overnight. The next Head Brewer to sit in the Comfy Computer Chair of Fame, let’s welcome Nate Bacher.
Name(s): Nate Bacher
Brewery Name: Recon Brewing (Have a look at the brewery notes for the explanation of the ‘Jeep’ reference)
How long have you beer head brewer/brewmaster there? 3 years
Any type of formal training in brewing science or art? If not, how did you learn the craft?
No formal training, I was a home brewer for 9 years prior to starting the brewery. I spent a lot of time reading books, researching techniques, attending informal trainings, and honing recipes.
If you will, a brief history of your brewing experience (where have you brewed)?
Prior to starting Recon and brewing commercially, I only brewed at my house. Started with a Mr Beer kit and slowly worked my way up to a 25 gallon all grain system then jumped to our 7 bbl system.
How large is the brewery (# of barrels annually)?
We are a 7 bbl brewhouse. Last year we produced 254 barrels of beer.
Is it automated or is there a lot of exercise involved in your brewery’s operation?
There is quite a bit of exercise during a brewday….my excuse for never going to the gym. We do have an integrated manifold between the mash tun and boil kettle with mounted pumps all pre-piped and controlled from the main panel. It’s about as automated as I would like it to be.
Have you ever had a bad batch? If so, how long did it take you to figure out what caused it?
I had a bunch of not so great batches in my homebrew days, usually due to yeast or temperature issues. Knock on wood, since opening our doors we have not had a bad batch to date. I have become very particular about fermentation temps and yeast health.
Is there more pressure put upon you as head brewer in a smallish brewery to try and match other small breweries in offerings?
Absolutely, I try to ignore the urge to put up multiple taps of hazy IPAs and sours even though those sell the best. We decided early on that we would always have a wide selection of styles on tap at any given time. Our offerings usually consist of: stout or porter, west coast, hazy, fruited sour, wheat (hefe or wit), scotch ale, seasonal, lager, and our rotating “Karma Tap” (15% of the sales from our Karma Tap goes to a local charity each quarter).
With all the breweries around you have to offer the popular styles but, in my opinion, you can’t forget the traditional brews too. Traditional, adjunct-free, styles give you a chance to show your brewing capability and win the hearts of transitioning craft beer drinkers. We started out of gate making some great lagers and people have come to know us for them.
Can you give a hint if anything might be coming from your brewery (new brew, special brew, etc.)?
We have our hazelnut white stout “Alabastard” coming out again soon. It has a local cult following and doesn’t last long in the taproom. Also we are going to be doing a large canning run this month and will be distributing cans of “Hit the East Side” a soft juice bomb hazy IPA; “Trail Rated Sour Series – Raspberry” a heavily fruited sour; and a new brew “Meeder Irish Red” in support of our upcoming second location in Cranberry Twp at the Meeder Crossroads.
Please describe the weirdest ingredient you have ever put in beer.
I’m going to sound lame on this one but I stick pretty normal with ingredients. Nuts, vanilla, fruit, cinnamon, coriander, lactose, coffee…that’s about it. I’m not anti-weird, just haven’t embraced it yet.
Do you or your brewery attend the large beer gatherings (i.e. Great American Beer Festival, Zythos, etc.)?
We have submitted beer to GABF and the World Beer Cup in the past. As far as pouring events go, we have stuck to the Greater Pittsburgh area. Pittsburgh has some of my favorite brewfests, with Beers of the Burgh and Fresh Fest topping my list.
Any awards, either for you or your brewery?
Damn, too many to count! I take that back, I guess can count to 2. We have a modest “People’s Choice Award” from an event we attended and a few Silver Awards from our local newspaper contests.
Most every workplace has some type of tradition. Does your brewery have some type of tradition on brew day or at another time?
On brew days I only use my old stainless steel paddle when mashing in, it’s been brewing with me for the past 10 years. Another tradition, or habit, we have is naming everything on the brew floor. The tanks each have a unique name and Betty is our portable pump. My business partners Dave Bestwick (Squeegee) and Toby Wehr (Dad, because he’s the oldest) nickname EVERYTHING! Mine is Tank, on the bright side at least I got the better of the names.
++++ Misc ++++
Have you traveled outside of America to experience another beer culture, in say, Belgium or Germany or the UK? If so, what was your impression.
I have not had an international beer trip yet, but when I do it will definitely be to Germany. I have, however, traveled all across the US and have immersed myself in the beer culture of many different regions. There is a lot of diversity in brewing techniques and flavors even in popular, mainstream styles in this country. From water profiles to dry hopping rates you can taste the difference from Colorado to Indianapolis to Boston. That’s what makes American craft beer so great right now, we are in a beer enlightenment era.
If you had to pick a favorite beer from the brewery and offer it to a stranger, which one would it be and why?
Right now I would offer our “Immaculate” New England style IPA. It just came out exactly how a hazy should be and is currently one of the best beers I have made. It has a velvety soft full mouthfeel, muted bitterness, radiant golden yellow hue, and a heavy heavy double dry hopping of Galaxy hops that leaves a bright tropical citrus flavor that will linger for half an hour on your taste buds. I can’t get enough of it.
If you could sit down with anyone (living or dead) and have a beer, who would it be and why? What would be the first question you would ask them?
I can answer in past tense as I recently got to do this with Sam Calagione, founder of Dogfish Head when he was the guest speaker at our MBAA Pittsburgh chapter meeting. After the meeting we went to the basement pub in an old German beer hall and I had the privilege of standing alongside Sam and having a few beers. Without going into too much detail, my question to him was around the idea of a mixed use brewery space, which he pondered and answered thoughtfully. That would’ve been my choice if I had to pick one person to sit and have a beer with. This guy is everything that the modern craft beer scene is all about. His attitude toward beer, the customer, the industry, and fellow brewers is what has made him a pillar in American Craft Beer.
If you were omnipotent, what would you change (first) to improve our beer universe?
I would change the way breweries must disclose their ownership. It seems disingenuous to operate as a neighborhood brewery/taproom when you are owned by an international beer corporation. The Brewers Association’s Certified Independent Brewery designation is a huge step in the right direction. To me it just makes sense, if you are a craft beer fan and specifically like to support the local craft scene then you should be aware of the wolves in sheep’s clothing. If you choose to have their beer or patronize their establishment that perfectly fine, but if you aren’t aware and think you are supporting local that is what I have an issue with. Luckily in our immediate area it has not yet been a problem that we face.
Any advice for those aspiring (kitchen/homebrew) future pro brewers out there?
Make the switch to all-grain brewing as soon as possible. I hesitated for a few years because of the additional equipment requirements and honestly just being a bit scared of it. All-grain homebrewing makes all the difference, not only does it taste way better, but you are also producing beer in a very similar fashion to a commercial brewery. That and start reading. There are tons of great research books out there to expand your brewing science knowledge.
***Personal (but not too personal)***
Favorite beer and food pairing?
A good charcuterie board or anything spicy is my go to with beer.
In the kitchen I make a mean? (beer related)
Beer braised beef short ribs in my favorite cast iron dutch oven. Fry up the sides on the stovetop with some oil, deglaze pan with beer of choice, cover, and then low and slow at 300F. Falls apart.
What do you like to do in your time away from the brewery?
Traveling with my family. We like to go anywhere, doesn’t matter where. Just get out of town and explore a new place, find a brewery or two and relax.
Are you married? Any children?
Yes, married with 2 children. Daughter that’s six and Son that’s eight. Oh, and 2 dogs…Obie and Barley. Starting up the brewery was a huge undertaking and I will forever owe them for their understanding and support.
Describe your perfect beer day (outside the brewery). For example, a day with family or friends at the brewery, a picnic with family or just a quiet day at home (sipping your brewery’s beers).
Any day with beer is a perfect day but if I had to pick one I would say my favorite is to go to our brewery with my dog Barley, sit on the back patio around the fire pit, beer in hand and mingle with our patrons. Most not aware, at least not initially, that I am the brewer and one of the owners. It is a humbling, enjoyable experience to see our place through their eyes, ears and taste buds. I did that last fall and have thought about it a lot since, can’t wait for warm weather to do it again.
Any final thoughts? Cheers man