Larry Sidor’s Crux Fermentation Project – Exclusive Interview, Part 1
Deschutes Brewery’s longtime Brewmaster, Larry Sidor, surprised the craft beer industry last year when he announced he was leaving Deschutes to open his own brewery after 8 years with the company. His new brewing project has been a secretive affair with little known about the company, just the codename 856 Brewing. Last weekend more details finally emerged with the announcement of Crux Fermentation Project the official name of the brewery.
I interviewed Mr. Sidor about his new brewery and gleaned a lot of so far unreleased information, from the specific styles he will be brewing to larger business plans and some of the experimental stuff he is planning that will be pushing the outer edges of craft beer. It is some exciting stuff! Our conversation lasted nearly 2 hours and extended to what was going on with Deschutes and his departure, to great stories from his days brewing at Olympia and Pabst. It is a very long read, and thus I will be splitting it into two parts.
|Larry Sidor at Deschutes Bend Brewpub|
Mr. Sidor’s two partners in Crux Brewing Project are Dave Wilson, a sales guy that helped bring both Deschutes and 21st Amendment Brewing to the national market, and Paul Evers, whose firm, TBD Advertising, is among the top in the business and has created the current Deschutes and O’Dell Brewing brands.
From the recent press announcement:
Crux…what does it mean anyway?
crux: noun, 1. a vital, basic, decisive, or pivotal point. “The crux of the matter.”
2. something that torments by its puzzling nature; a perplexing difficulty.
Our name, Crux, celebrates the moment where tension and conflict meet. It’s that critical do or die moment where everything comes together— striking that perfect balance. Some people perform their best in these moments, and surely the moment inspires innovation and creativity to push through. We’re not pursuing convention— we want to face the “crux of the matter” and push through to the other side. What’s there? We can’t wait to find out.
Fermentation Project also has meaning for us. Fermentation lies at the “crux” or “the pivotal point” of the brewing process. And Project best describes the process we’ve experienced in sharing our dream with friends, families and a wide variety of beer lovers from both inside and outside the industry. With each step, more and more people have joined us and contributed to the vision. We had an ah-ha moment— we realized this will always be a “project”— experimental and collaborative at its core.
Are you worried about opening up another new brewery in Bend? I saw a recent Bend news story about brewery oversaturation.
Larry Sidor: When I made Olympia in the 70’s it was 22 IBU’s 1.070 OG 50+% malt, it was real beer, it was 120 days from brewing to selling. When I left those beers were 9-10 IBU’s 1.08 gravity 45% malt…so the lagers basically got really dumbed down because of the marketplace. It went from the very high quality, brewer-based to stack em high, sell em cheap kind of mentality. And that is where the American industry is at right now. It’s all marketing driven. It’s night and day since when I first started. I am not rooting against them, I am looking at it from the standpoint of that they are losing 5 million barrels and we are going to get some of that….from that perspective that is what I am excited about. I don’t have the crystal ball, I don’t know where we are going, but you know when people are losing 5 million in sales there is a little opportunity for us. Look at Bend and how many crazy brewers you have going on here. From what I am doing, I am not concerned about it at all. I am worried about how I am going to keep up more than I am worried about failure. You know when Gary Fish opened this place he was more worried about how he was going to keep the doors open.
Our biggest customer is the distributor, it’s not the person sitting over there. We have to make the distributor happy.You have got to make it for the customer. That is a huge difference. Fritz Maytag, the owner of Anchor, he got up in front of people and said we are never going to make more than 100,000 barrels of beer and they immediately went down to 70,000 barrels of beer because all the distributors went, ‘why am I carrying this brand then if I cant grow it? I gotta ration the beer then, why am I interested?’ I think they are back up pretty close to 100,000 barrels of beer now, because that is what that facility can produce.
SA: And he sold it too…
Yeah, yeah, he sold it, so that’s the other part of the story. If we decide to do cans we have to satisfy our biggest customer on a reasonable basis. Now, you can employ a small canning line, but for us its a major major undertaking.
I just sold a brewhouse. I bought a brewhouse, it was one I kinda sorta wanted but I realized the used equipment market was pretty tight, so I bought it and then the brewhouse I had been trying to buy for like a year and a half came up for sale, so I was like ‘OK, I’ll take it.’ All of a sudden I have two brewhouses. That was a little stressful for a while.
What were the brewhouses?
The first one was a 10 hectoliter Albrecht. The one that I bought was a two vessel, then I ended up buying a 3 vessel, 10 hectoliter Miyaki brewhouse. It’s perfect, it’s automated, it’s got all automated valves. So it’s pretty much the cat’s meow of a 10 hectoliter brewhouse (8.5 barrels)
Did you ever homebrew at home?
I have been fortunate my whole life. I have always been able to brew with whatever resource I wanted. My first job for Olympia, I was the Assistant Brewmaster in charge of special projects, so they had a little 1 barrel system. In fact, when I left the brewery they gave me the malt mill, so I have got that and the plate frame filter from that setup.
Have you had any involvement of designs or labels?
Oh, hell no. That’s not me.
Even in the new place though?
No. One of my partners, well, do you know who Paul Evers is? He has got TBD Advertising/Branding, so he did obviously Deschutes, Odell, the 21 A things. He was behind all that. He is one of my partners, so he gets to do all that. That’s what floats his boat, so…
Is this the first brewery he is a partner in?
Yeah. You know that’s the problem with being an ad agency. You’re one and done, there are no residuals. Therefore, you leave with not a lot of ownership. He has ownership now, baby!
Kind of strange that you are being replaced by 2 different Brewmasters in a split position at Deschutes.
One thing you have to look at is how many brewers per barrel do you have? And you have to give Deschutes credit. I would argue they have thee highest level of brewing education per barrel of any of the larger brewers. Probably 15 degree brewers that have either Oregon State Fermentiation Scienes, Davis, or Siebel…The point is there are a lot of excellent decisions that get made. I think when some breweries try to get bigger and all the brewing knowledge is held close to the chest, one guy, and I think that is pretty tough. I think Deschutes is the best example in the world of having a very highly educated group of brewers. Deschutes has a pretty great group of assistant brewmasters, too. We have Veronica and Ryan in Portland.
What was it like breaking the news you were leaving to Deschutes? You had to be working on it for awhile before hand.
The story is that I have been working on this a couple of years, and when I started looking for properties, I would bring a non-disclosure agreement to the realtor…what a waste of time. So I started hearing backdoor ‘what is Larry doing?’ kind of thing. So I didn’t want Gary hearing it from the general public, so I went in and fessed up. It was a good experience. The way the conversation went was, ‘I am starting my own brewery’ sort of thing and I can either walk out the door in the next 5 minutes or have a week standard I am leaving sort of thing or 6 months. And Gary went ‘what the hell are you talking about?’ I said, ‘well, it’s your decision–you can kick me out right now…’ and he went, ‘I want you as long as I can get you’ and he’s been really good about the transition. Because most people would have been like, ‘there is the door, buddy’.
Why have you decided to leave?
Here is a good story. I am walking up the street to OBF with Kurt Widmer and Gary to the opening breakfast, and Kurt goes, ‘Larry, you remember that conversation we had 25 years ago or whatever?’ and I go, ‘No’ and he goes, ‘Oh come on, you remember when I came up to Olympia?’ ‘yeah’ ‘You remember looking at a bunch of used equipment? Here is what you said’ and at this time I was very supportive lf the craft beer industry and Olympia had just a boneyard of stuff. We had miles of stainless we weren’t using, so we were selling it to the craft industry. So I was taking Kurt around and going, ‘you can have this, it’s a hundred bucks, or you can have that, it’s two hundred bucks, but you can’t have that because it’s for my brewery.’ So I have been carting stuff around for forever. My wife is so thrilled because all this stuff is leaving the house now. So this is something I have wanted to do forever. It has just been sort of life situations, why I haven’t done it. Before I was married, Olympia got sort of merged with the Pabst Brewing Co. is probably the best way to explain it. So you had to re-apply for your job. They fired everybody, 100% of the people, so I went, ‘Uh, well, this is a good time to make a split.’ So myself, a sales guy, and a marketing guy got together and we were going to start our own basically Steelhead or Rock Bottom. We put everything together, we had leased a space in Pasadena, one down in San Diego, and we were getting things ready to go. You know, I was leaving and I had not submitted my application to work and one of the guys’ wives was in a car accident and died. This guy was really having a hard time with it, so we just called it off. The brewery was going like ‘Larry, aren’t you going to reapply?’ and I finally said, ‘OK, yeah,’ and turned in an application and they rehired me. So I stayed on there. This is probably my 4th try at starting a business. Finally everything came together because I know what I have got. I have got a marketing guy and I have a sales guy, I am a true operations brewer kind of guy, that’s what gets me up in the morning. I worked for probably the best place you could ever work for in the world at Olympia. I couldn’t wait to get to to work everyday, it was great people, great equipment. It was one of those situations if Nolan came by the packaging line and said, you know, ‘stop the line’ you would stop the line. That was the way it works. Everybody was a quality control person. If you saw something that wasn’t, you say stop, it wasn’t like how people go ‘you’re not worthy enough to stop the line’ like now, it was like, ‘you’re worthy, let’s figure out what’s going on here’. It was a great time, I have been blessed by having really fantastic jobs my whole life. So I look at this as the next phase of a fantastic job and I have the right guys, the two other partners I have got are just outstanding. It’s pretty exciting.
When is it going to be up and going?
I am thinking by sure I will be selling beer by the first of June. 10 Hectoliter brewhouse, 9 brews a day. I have 11 fermenters, 16 bright tanks, a keg washing machine, a keg filling machine, a couple bottling machines.
Is it going to be a specific style?
Big, big and bigger. Life begins at 25 plato and goes up from there.
A lot of barrel aging?
Yeah, a lot of barrels, a lot of Brett, a lot of sours.
Will that be the focus?
Yeah, that is the focus.
Won’t it take you a while to get those beers ready?
Oh yeah, and we are going to have a tasting room. One of things I have go out of this deal is open fermenters, so I am not going to make big beers in open fermenters. You have to have something in the lighter beers for the operation. You have people that come in and go, ‘give me the biggest thing you got’ and the person with them says, ‘give me the lightest thing you got’. So I am going to make a Pilsener, a Hefeweizen, that sort of things in the open fermenters. I am not going to put those things in bottles.
Is it all open fermenters?
Oh, no, I have got 3 open fermenters. I gotta keep control of that one.
The new brewery is going to be draft and bottles, more one than the other?
It will be mainly bottles, depending on how I get my packaging equipment running. I have a 4 head bottling machine that will fill anything from 1/3rd liter bottles to 1/5 liter bottles and there are mechanical issues just bringing it up to speed. If I have problems I might go 12 oz. Everything is a cash flow issue. Making beer is fun, but at the end of the day it’s a business.
So you’re going to bottle conditioning or force carbonating?
Oh yeah, bottle conditioning, absolutely none if any force carbonating. I am an absolute total believer in bottle conditioning. One of the problems with bottle conditioning is you need to have a bottle that can stand more than your average 12 oz bottle. I will not put bombers out there. That limits some people, but I will have heavier bottles out there. From a consumer stand point I am very unhappy about making Dissident and putting it in 22oz bottles. You know I could go home tonight, dinner and go ‘jeez I would really like to have a sour beer’ well my wife is not a sour beer fan and do I really want to drink 22oz of Dissident? You know Russian River made that change from 750ml to 375 for sour beers, I think that was an excellent move.
What about distribution?
Oregon, baby! Just Oregon.
You have a distributor already lined up?
No. Self distribute.
All over the state? That will be difficult with bottles won’t it?
I don’t know if I can really say this or not, but the problem is a distributor is like getting married. Are you sure? Are you really sure? And, you know, I think we want to prove our value with self distribution before we get married. And you know Dave Wilson, who is my other partner, he has got 20 years in craft beer background and he was a beating the ground kind of distributor?
He was a distributor?
He worked for a distributor Camarano Brothers that was in central western Washington to Deschutes where he worked for 12 years or something like that and then he went to 21A. He has taken 21st Amendment from basically just a pub to a national distribution company. He has rocketed it, so you know, no pressure, Dave!
Our plan is not to do volume. I have done volume. I have run a 4.5 million barrel brewery. I have been involved with 9 million barrels a year with a corporation. I don’t like it, it doesn’t get me up in the morning, and running a thousand, two thousand barrel brewery it gets me up in the morning. It is exciting it is engaging. I look forward to my next Red Chair, my next Dissident, my next Abyss, my next Cam, that’s what I really look forward to. I don’t look forward to the stack them high, sell them cheap sort of thing.
Are you going to be taking a pay cut then?
Oh, god yeah! But to put it in perspective, I took about a hundred thousand pay cut to go to Deschutes.
So yeah, that is dedication. Deschutes has been good for me. The thing they have not done for me that I thought might happen is give me ownership of the company, it just has not happened. But don’t get me wrong, I am not leaving Deschutes because I am unhappy or think they are going the wrong direction or any of that. I just want to own my own company. I want to do my own thing. Most people in my position would just retire right now. I cant imagine retirement, retirement for me would be hell. I cant imagine, I cant fathom, I mean I want to die with my boots on.
I have been blessed in my career. I think if I was still with a large American brewer, I couldn’t wait to get out. I would just be like, ‘ where is the door? I gotta get out of here’. To each his own kind of thing, it is what it is. You have to decide what your pathway is and you know my family has been instrumental in me starting my own brewery. When I started the winery in Yakima, my daughter was 3 and my son would have been 7, they want to go back. They really loved that thing with the family in the business. They want to go back.
Is there one specific beer you’re going to do first or your really excited about brewing?
Oh it’s all…I am so excited about making a Pilsner with my open fermenter.
Isn’t that going to be hard with an open fermenter?
Oh, yeah, horribly hard, but I am ready to take it on! So I am looking forward to that. You know, I have this open fermentation room, I have to figure out how I am going to cycle the tanks. I gotta do a Pilsner for awhile, probably going to do a Saison for a while, and then I think I am going to go into a south Bavarian Hefeweizen. Probably an Oktoberfest in there, too. So I have to pay attention to the yeast culture I am using in that open room. So, that is an issue. I am definitely going to make an Oude Bruin. I am going to be trying to do Zwickel beers because I don’t believe in filtration. I hate filtration. I have a long story you probably don’t want to hear it…I don’t think we need filtration, the northwest is blessed by non-filtering people.
You know Chad Kennedy? I was debating him the other day on non-filtering. He is super pro filtering.
Yeah, he will learn! OK I will bore you with a story. I was in search of making the best non-alcoholic beer in the world at one time. I won’t bore you with the details, but basically I failed miserably. I was trying to use membrane technology to filter out the alcohol. Basically I made a very alcoholic beer that had no taste whatsoever, none, zero! It looked like that (points at his water), but it was 7% alcohol. That is what filtration does to beer at the highest extreme. When I came to Deschutes we were filtering through a 6 micron nominal, and the first beer through the filter I loved, the last beer through the filter I hated. The difference was about that clarity (points at a clear but not crystal pint of Deschtues beer). The last beer had that clarity (points at water). It just reaffirmed how much I hate filters. One of the things at Deschutes I did was get a centrifuge. Everyone from brewers to Gary Fish was like, you’re crazy, you can’t do this, we don’t want to do it, quit doing it. I could do about a third of a barrel, half of a barrel. Pretty small. I had it about 18 months before I paid for it. It took Deschutes that long to figure out the beer was a lot better than the past, filtered beer. In 2006 I put in a real centrifuge. We select turbidity on flavor, not on visuals. When I bought that one, Sierra Nevada had one. Deschutes was the second brewer to have that centrifuge.
Have you seen that Mash Filter Press that I think only Alaskan Brewing and now Full Sail has it that extracts far more out of your mash?
You know, my business plan is starting up with this brewery that I have got, and in 3 years I will build a real brewery and it will probably have a Mash Filter in it. The plan is this brewery I have now will turn into my R & D brewery.
So you have more long term plans…
The real story is in 1981 I had put in a flexible membrane filter press and what I was doing was I had no drains in my brewhouse. All drains went to a tank and that tank went to basically a mash filter, but it was a membrane mash filter, so what that means is you have a polypropylene filter that compresses as you fill it with mash, and at the very end of your cycle you put compressed air i the membrane and you dry it out. So in 1978 Olympia bought Lone Star Brewing in San Antonio and they had a Mash Filter down there. I was kind of like the troubleshooter kind of guy, and I kept going down there and it was this old piece of crap, and it was like, ‘really, you are using this to make beer?’ So I had bought this membrane filter press to do waste products with and I thought this will work great for a mash because the problem with inflexible iron filter press is you have to get your grist bill exactly right. If you put in 10 pounds too much or little, we have a problem. So I put in the first one of these at Lone Star. So what Alaskan and Full Sail put in I am really behind that, I like it a lot, it will come down to cost, but…
I heard it’s like half a million…
Yea that’s fair. But to put in an equivalent lauter tub, it’s about the same. I have not seen the Alaskan or the Full Sail, I gotta get up there! But I have been to plenty of European breweries that are doing it. Some of my favorite beers in the world come off of mash presses, so it can’t be too bad!
|Myself and Larry Sidor – Photo from AllOverBeer.com|