The New School welcomes Fort George Brewery owner Jack Harris as a guest contributor this week with his interview of Gigantic Brewing’s Van Havig.
Some folks say that one of the best parts of the Oregon Brewers Festival is the Brewers Dinner that kicks off the Fest on the night before. Even better than that, though, is the Brewers Dinner pre-function gathering held at Rock Bottom Brewery. I believe Van started these years ago and I am grateful they have continued the tradition of having all sorts of beers from some local breweries, a nice spread of snacks to keep the alcohol absorption rate in check, as well as excellent company. The last couple of years I had the good fortune of making the walk from Rock Bottom to Waterfront Park with Van and peppered him with all sorts of questions about the state of beer and brewing. Van is knowledgeable and thoughtful when it comes to our chosen professions. Van is also irreverent and hilarious. When Ezra asked me to interview a fellow brewer, I knew exactly who to go to. There are an endless number of topics we could have touched on in the beer world and the ones I chose just happened to be on my mind at the time.
Jack Harris: Can you write your own brewing-bio in 128 words or less? (If yes, let’s see it.)
Van Havig: Actually, I’ve had to do this for various speaking engagements. This one is just under 100 words
Van Havig has been brewing since 1995 – first at Minnesota Brewing Company in St. Paul, Minnesota, then for 16 years with Rock Bottom Breweries in Bethesda, Maryland and Portland, Oregon, where he was a regional brewer and the company QA/QC manager and hop buyer. In 2012 he started Gigantic Brewing Company in Portland, Oregon, with business partner Ben Love. In 2011 he won the Inge Russel Best Paper Award from the Master Brewers Association of the Americas, and served on the board of the Oregon Brewers Guild for 12 years, with two years as president.
JH: If you were at the beginning of your career today, would you be interested in being a brewer What has changed as far as brewing being a career choice?
VH: I’ve always said that I feel that brewing is my vocation – meaning I feel called to do it – that it’s what I should be doing with my life. So in that sense, I do think I’d still want to be a brewer. At least I hope I would.
However, I think a lot has changed since you and I got into this in the early to mid ‘90’s. Back then it seemed like you were entering into a long-standing profession that required you to really pay your dues before you would be granted the keys to the kingdom. Being a brewer seemed humble and respectful – kind of like learning to build furniture by hand. Everyone seemed to really have a sense that we were trying to keep alive something that was really in danger of being lost – namely the human, non-industrial component of brewing. Now it seems that everyone’s goal is to be the brewer equivalent of a celebrity chef. Everyone is so thrilled with themselves that they think every beer they make, and every idea they have is astonishing. That’s just not me. The funny thing is that it’s probably a better career choice now then when I got into it because there is a lot more opportunity for advancement now. There are so many breweries with professional brewing staffs, that you really can go to brewing school and work your way up to a good position. When I started, you just were hoping to be able to run your own little brewpub.
JH: Would you hire your younger self to work in your brewery today?
VH: Yep. I still try to hire people who have the skills I find useful, and those are the ones that I came into the industry with and have expanded upon over time.
JH: What is your plan to “grow old” gracefully as a brewer?
VH: Ooooh – I don’t know about gracefully. I see my role at Gigantic transitioning more and more into a training, advising, technical role, rather than a cleaning the mash tun role. I’m usually still in the brewery two days a week, with another day for lab work, but I’m 48 years old now. I think in the next 7 years or so I’ll finally leave the shop floor and focus entirely on making my brewers the best they can be. At that time I’ll have been a working brewer for 30 years – it’s probably enough. My wife always says that I’m never really going to retire. I’ll probably still be coming into work a couple days a week at the age of 75 yelling, “Who has the brew sheets? How do the fermentations look? That needs to be cleaned!”
JH: What beer style has evolved the most in your brewing career?
VH: It has to be what I call Hop Forward American Ales – meaning pale ales and IPA’s and all of their derivatives. From a historical perspective, it’s been really cool to be part of their development all these years – they’re the beers that built our current industry. I love when people ask, “What do you think the next beer after IPA will be?” It’s such a ridiculous question. Do you think in 1850, less than a decade after the invention of modern Pilsner people were asking, “So what do you think the next Pilsner will be?” Of course they weren’t. There most likely won’t be another beer as important as Hop Forward American Ales in our lifetimes. Pilsner was the most recent “important new beer” and it’s over 150 years old. The next real innovations in brewing will come about as a result of climate change and scarcity. All the real effort will be put into efficiency, not flavor changes. Brewers just starting now are probably the last generation of brewers to be working with mash lauter tuns. I think we’re on the cusp of a great change, but it won’t be in terms of new beer styles. It will be in terms of a complete re-envisioning of how beer is made from a process stand point. Me – I’m going to stick to the old ways for as long as they let me. Wait, what was this question about?
JH: What is the most neglected/unappreciated beer style?
VH: Proper British ales, particularly cask conditioned ones. They are so unbelievably misunderstood and maligned, yet quite possibly the purest expression of beer ever. So few beers showcase all four ingredients of beer in such harmony, and require so much skill throughout their production from brewing to dispense. Yet everyone continues to be so in love with beers that assault your palate like a hand grenade. It’s kind of disheartening. I’d include Kölsch in there as well for its balance and harmony, but it’s not nearly as looked down upon as British beers.
JH: What is the most over-rated beer style?
VH: Pastry stouts. Please. “This beer tastes like chocolate cake!” Fuck you.
JH: What style of beer would you like to see become wildly popular?
VH: Properly made and dispensed cask ales. Not necessarily knock offs of British standards, but with the same kind of balance and lower alcohol. Give me something that has the bright hops of Anchor Liberty with some ester and malt and 4.2% ABV. Please, let me in my life see that become popular. Actually, I’ll settle for the return of American Pale Ale. Can we please get back to making beer that tastes like beer and not fucking fruit juice?
JH: Is brewing to style important to you? Why or why not?
VH: Depends. If it’s Kölsch, it better fucking well taste like Kölsch. If it’s most other things, as long as it’s intentional, I don’t care. Style, schmyle, I always say! I think American craft brewers of the last 30 years have changed what beer can taste like by ignoring style parameters. So as long as you intended your beer to taste the way it does, I don’t care whether it’s appropriate for a style or not. Just don’t expect me to like everything. Actually, I think the vast majority of the beers we make at Gigantic don’t fit neatly into anyone’s style guidelines. We’re trying to make interesting beers that we’d like to drink or beers that have interesting processes in their production. I wouldn’t say we’re trying to push things forward, but rather that being unconstrained by style leads to some interesting beers (and some spectacular failures). But at least we’re trying.
JH: What do you like about beer festivals? What do you hate about them?
VH: I like beer festivals that allow me to meet other brewers. I’m not the most social guy, but I really make an effort with brewers because I tend to like them more than I like other people. That usually leads to talking about brewing, and maybe I can learn something – maybe not at the festival, but maybe later on because I met another brewer at a festival. Plus I like beer.
What I hate about beer festivals is the fucking stunt beers everyone gets so excited about. Full disclosure, Gigantic is guilty as charged. I really just want to stand around and drink drinkable beer that’s under 6% ABV. See my previous comments about pastry stout. The same also applies to style mash ups like Guava Kölsch (you should be shot), hoppy beer that tastes like juice (I’m not a fucking child), wild fermented saisons with “interesting” ingredients (there’s a reason people stopped making shit like that in the fucking 17th century), etc.,etc., etc.
JH: If you could throw the beer-festival of your dreams what would stand out?
VH: OK, so it would be amazing to have a beer festival called Kölschfest. The only beers served would be Kölsch (the word is a singularia tantum, there is no such word as Kölsches) from various breweries making proper Kölsch. No fruit Kölsch (see above reference to firearms), no Kölsch without hops (gross), no Kölsch IPA (seriously, have another idea for once in your life) because none of those are fucking Kölsch! There would be no lines anywhere, because there would be Kapos walking around with trays of Kölsch in proper 20 cl Stangen (those tiny, tall, skinny Kölsch glasses), and everyone would be seated at picnic tables. Kapos would come around every couple minutes with different Kölsch, so people could focus on hanging out with friends and meeting those around them. Sure we could have pouring stations if people really wanted to make sure to try a particular Kölsch, and probably each brewery would have a representative at said station for at least 2 hours so people could ask questions and what not (there would be a posted schedule so attendees could plan things out). Those stations would have cushioned mats for the brewery reps to stand on (you have no idea what a big deal that would be). Nice sunny day, maybe 75 degrees, with some umbrellas and trees. Where can we have this festival?!!!
JH: What is your favorite festival/beer event and why?
VH: Gigantic was fortunate enough to get invited to the Magic Rock Sesh Fest this past June (I know I sound like an asshole right now, please forgive me). Magic Rock is a new (5ish years old) British brewery in Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, UK, that primarily makes “American style craft beer,” as they say in there. Sesh Fest was an invitational festival with about 40 breweries (mainly UK, some European, a couple American) at which ALL beer had to be BELOW 4.5% alcohol. At Gigantic, we had to make beer specially for the event. Attendance was limited to 400 people, I think. At most festivals like this (Firestone Walker Invitational, Mikeller Copenhagen Beer Celebration, Shelton Brothers Fest, etc.), there are certain hot shit breweries that people run to in a total panic as soon as the gates open lest they don’t get to try some stupid pastry stout. At the beginning of Sesh Fest, three dudes ran over to Cloudwater (hot shit out of Manchester, England) right away, then realized that no one else was getting in line. Kind of funny, really. From that point on, there were really no lines anywhere. People would ask for either a half pint or full pint of beer (real amounts of beer! And those are British halves and pints – meaning 10 or 20 oz!), ask a question or two, then GO SIT DOWN WITH THEIR FRIENDS AND HAVE A CHAT! No rating beers, no running from hype brewery to hype brewery. All the breweries were good, because they had all been personally invited – you really couldn’t miss as an attendee. Because the beers were low in alcohol, almost no one got wasted. There was curry! It was in Yorkshire and everyone was really welcoming and nice! It wasn’t too crowded. Honestly, most fun I’ve ever had at a festival – met a lot of great brewers and a whole lot of nice Yorkshire men and lasses (the proper term). Again, sorry I’m an asshole and had to pick a foreign beer festival that no one knows about.
JH: How do you feel about medals, awards and competitions in general?
VH: I personally am not a big fan. For one, I don’t like the whole hang up on style (see above). I also find them to be kind of a crap shoot in terms of whether any one beer wins or not, and thus I find marketing medals to be a bit disingenuous to the drinker. How can you say that any particular beer is “the best” and therefore better than another really nice beer? It’s not like the beers lined up to race each other and the gold medal beers came in first place. Plus, why doesn’t Sierra Nevada always win the gold medal for American Pale Ale? They define the style, and you NEVER have a bad one. So if the point of competitions is that the best beers win, don’t the best beers get made by the best breweries? I defy anyone to convince me that some small brewery that wins a bunch of medals is “a better brewery” than Sierra Nevada. Competitions place recipe over process, and as a brewer I don’t value that. If some half-assed brewery happens by sheer dumb luck to brew a spectacular beer that wins a gold medal, and they can’t replicate it, does that mean that they are good brewers? The public seems to think so. But brewing is about process, not recipe – no one gets a gold medal for having the most efficient brewhouse without a manometer or rakes, or gets the silver medal for most consistent fermentation profile. But that’s what good, professional brewers really work on day in and day out.
Owning a Brewery
JH: Best benefit you didn’t have as an employed brewer.
VH: Being able to stop stupid ideas in their tracks. Particularly from people who are not brewers. As an owner, if I think an idea sucks, it doesn’t move forward – period. You have no idea how much that drops my level of daily anger. Being able to prioritize the brewery (over any other part of the business) is really nice as well. And I’ve been incredibly fortunate that Gigantic has led to some very nice travel experiences. But not dealing with stupidity is by far the best thing on a daily basis.
JH: Thing you miss most about being an employed brewer.
VH: I may have been angrier, but I was under a lot less stress. I have to worry about EVERYTHING now, whereas before I only had to worry about beer and my assistant brewer. It’s not all that it’s cracked up to be.
JH: Favorite “menial” task you take on at work as owner.
VH: Friday morning brewing shift – hands down. I get in at 6:30 am, and for two and a half hours it’s just me and the brewery – mashing, lautering, milling, weighing hops, setting up manifolds. It’s really satisfying.
JH: Hardest thing you didn’t anticipate about being an owner.
VH: Just how constant the stress is. And how unbelievably bad it was for the first two years of the brewery. My wife always says that I became a different person for about 18 months – just mean and incapable of dealing with anything but the brewery. She says she stayed with me because we’d been together for so long that she knew that eventually the normal me would come back. The finances are stressful, the uncertainty is stressful, satisfying investors is stressful, dealing with employees is stressful. I hate when people ask, “are you having fun yet?” I used to kind of smile and say “sure”. Then I started just getting in their face and saying, “what part of this is supposed to be fucking fun? The 60 hour work weeks? The constant worrying about sales, money, loan payments, hop contracts? I go to work every day, I don’t go to fun everyday. And if I did, the beer would suck, so you should be glad that it’s not very fun.” Now no one asks me that question.
JH: Brewpub or Taproom?
VH: Taproom – duh! I kind of hated working in a brewpub (except for the lunches).
JH: 12oz or 16oz?
VH: 16 oz hands down. I lived in London for a year. When I went home I kept wishing that I could get something larger than a toy beer. When I go to fancy beer bars (usually with undrinkable tap lists) I look for the goldilocks of beers – under 6%, drinkable, and served in a pint. In some places, there will be 40 beers on the tap list and only one will fit that bill. I rarely drink any beer that comes in less than a pint, with a few exceptions (Kölsch, sours).
JH: 50L or ½ bbl?
VH: 50L – Oh my God! the 20 lb difference in weight makes it so an old guy like me doesn’t get hurt in the brewery.
JH: Hand-truck or Dolly?
VH: Ooooh, that’s a tough one. Do you have those words that sometimes you say one way and sometimes another? I’m like that with “roof” – sometimes it’s “rooooof”, and sometimes it’s “ruf”. That’s kind of how I am with hand-truck and dolly.
JH: Wax-dipped or not?
VH: Not – it’s a pain in the ass. Both the dipping and the opening. HATE IT!
JH: Steel-toed or not?
VH: Definitely Steel-toed. Nothing in the brewery weighs enough that the steel toe will cut your toes off. There’s a shit ton that will break them. They are cold in the winter, though. That’s why I like to run hot liquor over them to keep my toes toasty.
JH: Master Brewer or not?
VH: You said that you wanted to change this to Brewmaster or not. Fair enough. I’m going to stick with Master Brewer. Because I’m a member of MBAA in good standing.
This was part 1 of a weekly November interview series that will be published each Thursday on The New School in November. Each story is an interview conducted by an Oregon brewer of another brewer, offering a unique perspective and questions.