Interview: Elysian’s Owner/Brewmaster Dick Cantwell

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Dick Cantwell & Kim Jordan at GPBF photo by Northwest Beer Guide

(Part 1 coverage of Elysian’s Great Pumpkin Beer Fest & upcoming Roadshow in Portland)

I have been wanting to sit down with Dick Cantwell one of the Owners and Brewmaster of Seattle’s Elysian Brewing for awhile now and finally managed to track him down around the previous weekends Great Pumpkin Beer Festival at his new production brewery in Georgetown. Besides being on the Board of Directors for the Brewers Association he operates what is probably Washington’s most high profile brewery and recent deals with New Belgium Brewing are offering expanded growth incredibly apparent in the huge new space Elysian has constructed in the Georgetown neighborhood of Seattle. I wanted to ask him about that but perhaps even more so what it is like to be considered the master of Pumpkin beer, he may be considered the cult favorite styles shaolin master at this point.

New production facility

Q: When did Elysian open and when did you brew your first pumpkin beer?

Dick Cantwell: We opened in 1996 and brewed our first pumpkin beer (Nightowl) at our (then) Gameworks location in 1998.  It was a four-barrel batch, and sold so quickly that we brewed it three or four times the following year.

Q: Have you always been into pumpkin beers? I read something the other day that pointed out that you are really the foremost pumpkin beer brewer and expert. Did you always think that would happen and what do you think about being known that way?

DC: Actually, no, I never really liked pumpkin beers much, until I had a home-brewed one that Bill Jenkins (with whom I worked at Pike Place and Big Time, and who will shortly be brewing for the new Elliott Bay location in Lake City) made in the mid-90s.  I also liked the Nightowl, which was initially my assistant, markus’s idea, and on which we consulted Bill.  There was also a time when I was working at Big Time when “Buffalo” Bill Owens called me up after having sent me a spice packet with the basic pie mix, suggesting that I use it to spice whatever beer–pumpkin or no–and pay him a royalty.  I passed, politely.  By the way, a few years ago I saw Bill again and he said something like “Hey, I used to be the pumpkin guy.  How did you get to be the pumpkin guy?”  I certainly never intended to be the pumpkin guy at all, but once we got started with brewing a few different styles and having that morph into a festival it just made sense to keep building on that, especially once others (Iron Hill, Cambridge) started doing festivals, too. Counting the three collaborations we did with pumpkin this year, we made fourteen different pumpkin beers.   I also answer many emails every year asking for advice on brewing pumpkin beer, putting on a pumpkin beer festival and conditioning beer in a pumpkin.  I also get photos of other people tapping pumpkins full of beer.  It’s like a window onto a parallel universe in Ohio, or Dellllaware, or Alasks.  A guy from the Czech republic has asked me for advice, and a few days ago I got an email from a brewery in France, asking if they could send us a pumpkin beer next year.  This year we had Nøgne in Norway do one.

Q: I have brewed or helped brew quite a few pumpkin beers myself so I know that they are a very hard vegetable/fruit to use because they are not particularly sweet or tart. How do you approach brewing with them and have you tried different techniques?

DC: We mostly use frozen, blanched and puréed pumpkin from a farm in Oregon.  We get it in 30 pound buckets.  We’ve also used canned, and we’ve roasted them as well (as we did in this year’s Saison of the Witch, brewed with the Tom Douglas restaurants here in Seattle, with pumpkins and fennel from their farm near Prosser). We add it in the mash, kettle and fermenter, and have had few problems with runoff or fermentation.  Pumpkin tends to thin expected gravities (because of the water content), so that has to be kept in mind.  You also get different effects of pumpkin character depending on the style, yeast and techniques used. Some are very sort of slippery pumpkiny, others barely discernible.  I figure if we’re making better than a dozen every year, it;s okay to have varying effects.  I do think it’s important to be able to pick up some pumpkin character, though.

Q: Last weekends the Great Pumpkin Beer Fest seemed to be a huge success and your new production brewery was a great spot for it. I was blown away by how large your new brewery is and how nice of a space it is. Can you tell me a little bit about it? (ie brewhouse size, who made it, why such a big expansion)

DC: The new brewhouse is a 60-bbl brew length, with 240 bbl fermenters.  It was made by Newlands Services in Abbotsford, BC.  Its annual capacity will be around 65,000 barrels, with theoretical space for more tanks on site.  We’ve been able to grow demand and explore markets through our brewing with New Belgium in Colorado.  We are much in their debt for this opportunity to grow without having to first make the financial investment in a new plant.  We did around 15,000 barrels all told last year (including production in our pubs, at New Belgium, and at Diamond Knot in Mukilteo, WA, who made a bunch of Men’s Room draft for us), and we expect to hit 25 to 30,000 pretty quickly.  We hope to be brewing a bunch of beer for New Belgium as well, since they are also up against the wall, capacity-wise and we should have some extra as we get rolling.

Q: How do you plan to use your now much greater brewing capacity? Can we expect wider distribution or more bottles? More specialty releases? What will change?

DC: We will be packaging at our new plant, starting with 22s and moving into 12 oz, with six packs and cases.  We plan to try to do a better job of supplying the markets we’re already in, and especially our home markets of Seattle (and to some extent Portland) and the rest of the Puget Sound area.  We’ve recently opened DC, Maryland and Delaware, and we may open another state or so in the Northeat.  But we plan to take it slow, and not to over-extend.

Q: Elysian has been working with New Belgium Brewing for awhile now on both collaboration and production needs. How did that whole relationship come about?

DC: The Elysian/New Belgium relationship came about because of New Belgium having done a lot of rumination on what the future of the craft brewing movement might look like.  One scenario was to form a brewing collective of like-minded breweries to figure out a way to save on shipping (and environmental footprint), sharing production space and perhaps other things like distribution, cooperage and whatever else presented itself. We needed to make more beer to address some of the issues treated above, and they wanted to have a more immediate impact in the Northwest (and Seattle in particular) with super-specialty stuff, which is what grew into the Trip series.  It’ll be interesting to see what makes sense in our new brewery given some of the same goals and increased production capability.

Q: After all these years what is your favorite pumpkin beer Elysian has ever brewed?

DC: My favorite this year is Coche de Medianoche, made with roasted pumpkin seeds, black pepper, cinnamon, cumin, guajillos, cayenne and fresh epazote.  I’m also very fond of both the Dark o’ the Moon pumpkin stout and the Hansel & Gretel ginger pumpkin pilsner.

The Great Pumpkin Road Show!!
Saturday, October 22nd from 5pm-Midnight
Join Saraveza and Elysian, the nations most pumpkin obsessed brewery!!!
~Elysian Brewers on hand to join in the Pumpkin bliss~
~An Epically Imbibe-able Surprise (FREE!)~
~Jack O’ Lantern Contest w/Prizes (submissions accepted until 2PM on 10/22)~
~Live Music in Saraveza’s Bad Habit room & outside tents for street-side sippin’!~
Admission is $20 in advance at Saraveza. Includes an awesome Elysian glass with 8 tasting tickets.
Costumes and Orange Attire Encouraged!!
Saraveza, 1004 N. Killingsworth Street; Portland, OR. 97217

Founder of The New School and most frequent contributor Ezra Johnson-Greenough has worked in the craft beer industry for almost 10 years, doing everything from illustrating beer labels to bartending at renowned beer bars and breweries like Belmont Station, Apex, Laurelwood and Upright Brewing. He has also had a hand in creating events like the Portland Fruit Beer Festival, Portland Beer Week, and the Brewing up Cocktails series. He is available for freelance consultation in marketing, events, graphic design and branding. Contact: [email protected]

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