First I have to say I had to go back to the old look, the new look didn’t seem to support bold text, and that annoyed me. So with that out of the way.
I spent the afternoon at Titletown Brewing Co in Green Bay on February 12th, 2010. I enjoyed a fine Gueuze, a great lunch, and got to speak with the Head Brewmaster for Titletown Brewery, Dave Oldenburg. Dave has won a silver and a bronze medal at the Great American Beer Festival in the past two years, he has been the Headbrewmaster at Titletown for about 3 1/2 years. The Bonze Medal winning Dark Helmet was on tap at the time I visited as well as the silver medal winning Railyard Ale. So here it is, the first interview in the Wisconsin Brewer Interviews.
Regular Type=Dave Oldenburg
Download and Listen Option (Right Click then “Save As”) Approx run time is 30 min.
How long have you been Brewing? I started in 2002.
How long have you been the head Brewmaster at Titletown? Between three and four years. I started in 2006 in the summer, so 3 plus years.
Were you a homebrewer before becoming a Pro Brewer? Yes, definitely.
What was the most challenging process to transition from homebrewing to pro brewing? Scheduling. (You mean the Scheduling of the beers or mash?) Scheduling of what’s in what tank at what time. That would probably the single biggest thing. Because all the process is pretty much the same. I mean, a lot of the process is the same because brewing is brewing whether its big or small. But the Scheduling is something I never had to do until I got here. Well, that and filtering I guess. Filtering would be another one. We have a very feisty filter that likes to break and likes to cause me problems. So I’ve had to tame it.
What type of brewing education have you had, if any? I learned most stuff from homebrewing, but once I got the job here, they sent me to Siebel. I did the six week version of Siebel which is everything except the cool trip to Germany. I did two weeks a year for three years. So that was good, I did learn a lot of stuff. Other than that, that’s it. (like you said, homebrewing is pretty much the same process, just on a bigger scale.) Yeah. (I also know that Dave is a BJCP judge as well)
How do you come up with new recipes? Is it by instinct and feel or do you find for yourself its more technical planning? Well, it’s both. There’s the ideal way and the way when you’re in a hurry. The Ideal way is I sit somewhere calm, like in the back yard when it’s warm out. I write up an evaluation of the beer for the recipe. So I pretend I’m tasting it and then I’ll write out, Here’s what it smells like, here’s what it tastes like, here’s the mouthfeel here’s whatever. Then I’ll take from that, I’ll make specs. So say I want it to be 15 degrees plato, and I want it to finish between 3 and 5 plato, or I want it to be this much alcohol. So from there I take it and I write out what percentages of what malts I want to use. I’ll say I want to use this as a base and I want to have 10% caramel malt or whatever it might be and then what yeast I want to use and fermentation temperatures. So I write all that stuff out, and then I go into my brewing software, which is beersmith, which I’m sure a lot of people reading the blog will probably use with. (I use that too). Yeah, it’s rather geared more towards homebrewers than pro brewers, but its flexible enough that you can use it either way. So then I go into beersmith and plug all the stuff into beersmith and I play around with exactly what amount is it going to be and what colors I want. So for example, if I see it’s going to be this color and I think I want it to be a lighter color, I change this or that. So let’s say it a complicated beer, like maybe there’s a fruit addition, some other interesting technical thing, dry hopping, or anything like that. Then I sit and maybe do a bit of research on the Internet. Like I made a cherry beer a while ago, and I wanted to know how much cherry I wanted use, so I go look on the forums and I see this guy used this much and this guy used that much. (So does that go mostly by percentage or total poundage?) Well, I hardly ever do fruit beers, but when I do, it’s just a measurement of pounds per batch, or pounds per barrel. What I did with this most recent fruit beer, was I said “OK this guy recommends 10lbs of cherries per barrel, this guy recommends 5”, and so I always go on the low end with weird ingredients so I go with five, then I multiply it by the how much you’re going to make. But then you end up with “I need this much”, but you can only get it in this size pack so we’ll buy three packs of whatever’s close and use that. But the essentials of it are I start with evaluating the beer I have in my head first and then build the recipe. Again, this is the ideal situation. If I’m in a hurry, I may just skip that part.
So do you produce test batches on a small scale first? Nope. None. I should say that there are certain styles that I have not done, and if I had the opportunity to do test batches, I would do those styles. I don’t do it though because it takes almost as long to do a test batch as it would to do a full batch and I don’t have that kind of time. The way I look at the test batch thing is that we are a brewpub and nobodies looking at your recipe to taste any particular way. So if you follow three or four rules, you’re going to get good beer. It may not taste the way you intended it to taste, but it’s still going to be a good beer. That precludes the need for a test batch because you know it’s going to be good, even if it’s not what you intended it. So worst-case scenario is you have to sell it as something else, and that’s not always such a bad thing to happen. That does not happen all that often usually we are able to hit it pretty close. (As a side note, I am sure what Dave is meaning is that if he brews an IPA but it doesn’t quite come across as he envisioned, he is OK with selling it as a pale ale instead. What he does not mean is if a batch is infected he would sell it as a Belgian so-and-so or here is an American Brown Gueuze)
You’ve been pretty successful at Titletown, you’ve won some medals at the GABF and Titletown is a very popular brewpub, so what you say is the key to your success here at Titletown as a brewer or Titletown Brewery as a whole? We have a pretty good management team in place a lot of it comes from that. As far as the brewery end, we have had a pretty good up surge in popularity in the last few years, I think a lot of it comes from we are committed to doing a variety of outstanding beers. At least that’s the idea. Maybe a year after I started we increased our number of draft lines we have available so instead of being able to have 9 beers we could have on tap at one time, we went up to 14. That gave us a lot of flexibility to be able to do a lot more seasonal and a lot more variety. So it works out that maybe that every two weeks on average we’ve had a new beer. So if you don’t come for a month, you may miss a whole beer. And you can’t try them all in one sitting unless you have the little samples, so if you want to have a pint of every beer we produce, you have to be in here pretty often. I think that a lot of it, and making them interesting and putting a variety out there. Making beers like Bamberg brew once in a while, where you know it’s not going to sell that fast, but the people who buy it are really going to like it, and it’s really a niche thing. That keeps the variety up there even though it’s not a real popular beer, not everyone likes their beer that tastes like bacon like I do.
Out of the beers you offer at Titletown, what is your favorite beer to brew? That’s a good question, I never really thought about that before. I sort of enjoy the Dark Helmet (Schwartzbier), because it just smells really good in the brew house. You have that coffee smell, and just a real strong smell. It presents a couple of challenges but then there are a couple of little fun parts of the process that maybe make it a real decent beer. It’s also my original homebrew recipe, it has changed a bit, but it started as a homebrew recipe so that was fun. Yeah, it smells good in the brew house, it’s not a particularly challenging brew, and there are not a lot of problems. Of course hop monster smells good in the brew house too because there’s just a ridicules amount of hops. So that’s good too, but that one’s more challenging because you really have to be on top of your game with making sure you have all your hops weighed out and you have hops everywhere and keeping track of them is tough. You really have to focus, while Dark Hemet you have just one hop addition. Well technically, there are two; one is just first wort to keep foaming down in the kettle.
What would be your least favorite beer to brew, not necessarily a bad beer just a bear to brew? We don’t have it on the board right now, but the worst one is the Dousman Street Wheat, because that is the only one that I do a step mash. Doing a step mash in our mash tun involves about 45 minutes of constant stirring of the mash by hand while it heats. We don’t have any mash rakes, with this size system is just about the size that we could have mash rakes or maybe we wouldn’t. But if you had a size any bigger than this, you would have to have mash rakes, so we are right at the point that we can do it by hand, and we do, and that’s OK. But when you are stirring for 45 minutes, and there is wheat in there so it’s a sticky problem besides the stirring. Although I really like the beer, but it makes for a rough and long brew day. I sure can feel it the next day.
Do you have any beers that you brewed here that you were surprised at how well they were received? Like maybe, you thought it may not be a good seller, but it just flies out the door? Oh yes, I had one that I was trying to do the English Summer Ale style, which is not listed as a BJCP style, but it is listed as a World Beer Cup/GABF type style. I wanted to do that and I thought I’m going to Nitrogen infuse it just for fun. So I was going to have this Nitro infused beer that was and it was supposed to be real malty with a little bit of floral hop smell. I don’t remember exactly what went wrong with it, but I just didn’t like it and it wasn’t selling very well. I cannot remember specifically why I didn’t like, but nobody liked the idea of a nitrogen beer, well actually they like the stout on nitrogen, but the idea of a yellow color beer on nitrogen seemed to just turn people off. So I said “Oh my Gosh nobody likes this.” I end up blowing the nitrogen out, and then adding more carbonation and serving it conventionally, and that did some damage to it besides. I thought, I can’t wait for this beer to be gone. And it just flew, and one of our managers just loved it. Yeah, it was gone really quickly. I will never make it again, because I hated it, but that was one that surprised me. We also had some that surprised me the other way too. I had them where I thought they would fly and they didn’t.
Besides your own beer, what is in your fridge at home right now? It really varies, I actually have a kegerator, and I tend to put Titletown beer in it. I really don’t have a favorite, I will go the liquor store and see what they got, and I’ll buy a few things, try a few new things. But I don’t really have a beer that I always have on hand though. A lot of people do but, if I had one, it would be a nice Gueze, but I’m too cheap to buy those.
Who or what influences your brewing? What I mean by that is if there is a particular brewer or brewery, you look to aspire to be like? I was always aspiring to be like the Great Dane in Madison, but not any particular beers of theirs, just that every time I went in there they had real good beers whatever kind it was. Whatever they made was great, they had four or five casks on tap, well probably more like 2 or 3. They did a lot of things really well, and I think we’ve gotten to be close to that. Well, 2 casks are broken but they are coming back, we still have 2 so that’s close enough. When it comes to my brewing Heroes, it kind of depends on the beer style I guess. If I’m trying to make a pale ale I’m looking at Firestone Walker, if I’m trying to make a Bock I’m looking at Ayinger. Usually what will tend to happen is I will go to some fest like the GABF and I will have something that just blows me away and then I want to make a beer like that. Last summer we had something (at Titletown) called loose caboose, it was an American Pale Ale but fermented with a bit of Belgian yeast and that was an idea I got when I went to the GABF and I had a beer done that way and I thought it was just wonderful. So then, I thought I have to make something like that. So it’s kind of like that, I don’t have any one brewery but I may have a beer that I want to make something like that. I had the Drie Fonteinen Gueuze (a beer they have as a guest beer at Titletown at the time of this interview) the other night and I thought, “I have to figure out how to do a Gueuze here.” I have figured out how technically I can do that here. Actually, that’s an advantage homebrewing has is you can do something like that. I have to figure out where I can store that beer for 1 year to 3 years, plus think about contaminating the rest of my brewery. That’s true for homebrewing but the stakes are a little lower (when homebewing).
One of my favorite beers here at Titletown is Hop Monster; can you tell me a bit about how that beer came about, such as what influenced your choice of ingredients such as the hops and stuff? I did it because for one I have never done a double IPA ever, and I’m trying to knock off all the styles I have never brewed. So you will see a Dopplebock coming shortly which is a style I have never done before, a dry stout, which is a style I have never done. So we are trying to knock a few of those off, and one of those was the Imperial IPA. Just as I was thinking of doing it, we had the hop shortage and so it was quite a while before I was able to get hops. Once I realized I could get a bunch of “C” hops, I wanted to take advantage of it. We spent the money on the hops because they were still rather expensive, but at least we could get them. So I said let’s do the Imperial IPA. The way I came up with it was again the same way I do other recipes. I did however listen to The Brewing Network’s podcast about Pliny the Elder, and took some of the info from that and I took a couple tips form that as far as the grain bill and how there is a bit of corn sugar and a some carapils, which is sort of weird. The hopping was an entire day’s project because I had to figure out how much I could get of each hop, so it was not just make it up and get what you need. At the time, they had an allowance for each kind. So I had a big spreadsheet and this spreadsheet had hop allowances. So basically, it was I had this much hops and I wanted to do three additions, and they were these amounts, and at the end I would see if I would run out of hops or if I could get enough. So I had that for each hop I wanted to use. So I just used my favorite “C” hops and whatever ones were available to me. For example, I bought 20 pounds of Amarillo and they all came in one-pound bags. That may sound like a lot to home brewer, but when you’re brewing on our scale. We usually get our hops in 11-pound sacks. So I had a graph based on the recipe, which is hard to visualize, but it was a stacked line graph and on one axis was the amount of time that the hops were going to be in the beer. It would start with dry, then whirlpool, then five minute, 10 minutes and so on. Then on the other side, it had the amount of hops, so then it would stack each variety on top of each other. So it would show the dry hops and it would show a big amount of Amarillo, a little cascade and a small amount of palisades. SO I had a visual of what I thought the beer was doing to taste like. The dry hops I would smell and taste first, and underneath that would be the whirlpool hops.
Do you listen to any music while brewing? If so, what? Yes I do. It does vary; I’m kind of a NPR nerd so I listen to that. Other times I set my laptop in the grain room and play it in the speakers in the brewery so I can put on whatever I feel like. I sometimes listen to The Brewing Network Podcasts, sometimes other podcasts, sometimes classical. One time when making a Scottish Ale I played bagpipe music in the brewery to try get some influence into the beer.
What is your feeling on Fruit Beers? Most of them suck, but when they don’t they are great. It has to taste like beer with fruit, not fruit with beer. I do like them in principle but most of the ones I’ve had not been great.
What can we expect to see from Titletown in 2010? First, we are going to keep doing what we are doing as far as keeping the variety and keeping up with quality. We are pursuing some more off-site sales, so hopefully you will see us at a lot more bars. Hopefully around the state. We increased our capacity late last year by 25% so we will be able to do a little bit more of that.
Are there any new beers in the works? We will be tapping our Procrastinator Dopplebock, which is the first beer out of our new tank. So we got that fifth tank and decided to make the dopplebock because we were able to let it sit a month. We will tap it the same day as Fat Tuesday, which is the 16th I think. Then there is a dry stout coming next, which is about to go in the tank so that will be a few weeks. We want to tap it on St. Patrick’s Day, and we have a Saison planned, which I don’t have the recipe for yet, but we are working on it. In addition, we will have a bunch more stuff coming out; I just haven’t planned it yet. Every time I plan way ahead it ends up changing anyway.
At one time there was talk of bottling your beer, is that been put aside for the time being? We are going to hopefully get bottling. I don’t know if that will happen in 2010, but it might. It’s something that’s still there, but putting beer in a bottle is more expensive and difficult than the rest of the process so we are still working on how that will work. We have space constraints; we only have what we have when it comes to this building so we are limited in what we can do with it. However, we are looking at a couple of options we have for bottling. I am concerned though because bottling your beer is one of the worst things you can do for it as far as quality goes. What I mean is wheb you put beer in a bottle it’s going to take damage and we want to minimize that damage. I’m really concerned that we maintain a reasonable quality level in the bottle. I am not naive enough to think it will be as good as draft, particularly if it gets beat up between here and the when it gets to the customer, but we want to at least be good. Because I’ve had a lot beer, where I’ve had it at the brewery and it’s wonderful and then I buy it and it’s horrible. And I don’t want to be that brewery. So we are taking it very cautiously. This is the reason it’s taking so long. We just really want to make sure we get it right.
If you could give a homebrewer, or aspiring pro brewer one key piece of advice to improve their beer, what would that be? Take a style that is relatively difficult to brew, I used English bitter but you could do Pilsner you could do something where mistakes can’t be hidden very easy and just keep brewing it over and over until it’s really awesome. And keep good notes!
Do you have any recipes you may like to share with the homebrewers out there who are reading my blog? If anyone has any questions about any of our beers, they can email me and I’ll help guide them in the right direction as far as percentages and ingredients go, as well as a basic brewing method. Obviously, there are some things we do that I can’t give out, but overall I’d be more than happy to provide some insight. After all, every system is a bit different and the beer may not always turn out the same on someone else’s as it does here.
Thanks to Dave for a great Interview!