If you have not heard of Hinterland Brewing, chances are you soon will. Especially if you live in Wisconsin or the surrounding area. Joe Karls from Hinterland Brewing makes some damn fine beers, and now that the brewery, based in Green Bay with another restaurant location in Milwaukee is bottling their own beer right on the premises. With this new addition, they have the ability to pretty much bottle whatever they want, where prior to this, their beer was brewed and bottled at Grey’s brewery using Joe’s recipe and Hinterland purchased ingredients. The Pale Ale, bottled in 12 ounce bottles, was pretty much all you could find. But now you can find the beer in 16 ounce bottles, and as I type this they have their flagship Pale Ale, Luna Coffee Stout, Maple Bock, and an Amber in bottles with a plan to bottle a Cherry Wheat for summer. They also have several beers on tap as well, and while at the brewery I was lucky enough to sample the bock. All the beers I have had so far have been great, with my favorites being the Pale Ale and Coffee Stout, but I did go through a growler of the Bock on Easter. OK, enough chatter, lets get on with the Interview.
Quick Note: This is the abridged version. I learned from the last interview that transcribing it word for word is a long and arduous task. For the complete audio from the interview, download the MP3 here.
How Long have you been Brewing? I started homebrewing 25 years ago, but I have been brewing professionally for, actually I have been brewing here for 14 years. Actually it was my anniversary just a couple of days ago.
Have you ever brewed anywhere else? Only as a volunteer. Just day brews here and there. I brewed at Cherryland brewing with Mark and Tom up there, which is now defunct. When I was just getting into brewing professionally I went down for a brew session with Gray’s Brewing, just a few things like that.
What was the most challenging process to transition from homebrewing to pro brewing? My last job was not really a physically demanding job. Brewing on this level is very physically demanding. I was very tired for the first couple of weeks before I got my feet under me. There are three levels here: the basement, the main level, and the upper level. During a brew day I’m hitting all three levels multiple times. And I’m squatting, climbing, lifting bags of grain, and lifting half barrels. For example today I just lifted 24 half barrels onto pallets. (Joe does all this himself. He is the only brewer employed at Hinterland, so he does all the brewing, cleaning, and hoisting of the barrels.)
What type of brewing education have you had, if any? Most of my education, like most people in the industry, came primarily from homebrewing. Once I got into it, I read everything I could get my hands on like books, magazine, and periodicals. Once the Internet became more than just dial-up, that was a fantastic resource. I talked to brewers before I got into the profession. Then I took the short course at Siebel Institute in 1994. I did that to solidify the knowledge. And the short course is just that. It solidifies the knowledge you picked up while homebrewing. If you were not a homebrewer, you would be confused as all get out in that course. So the short course helps you solidify that knowledge as well as make the transition from small recipes to large recipes.
How do you come up with new recipes? Is it by instinct or more technical with a lot of planning? There are two phases. There is the idea of the recipe. That can come from myself, the customers, or the owner of the company. Even the distributors will come and say “I really want to do this cherry wheat, we’ll go out and we’ll champion it, and really push this. Can you do something like this.” So I said sure, then we talked about what we wanted this recipe to be all about. So the idea has to come from the fact that I have the cellar space, I want to start with this new yeast I have coming in, so what can I brew with it that I have not brewed before? So that’s where it comes from. The idea of a new beer.
After that, I go to the liquor store and buy maybe a dozen different beers related to that style. I’ll sit down with the owner of the company and we will taste them and talk about “Yes this is what I’m thinking” or “No, I want it a bit more hoppy than this one”. What attributes to these beers have that we want to target? Then we pick a few of those beers and figure out what we would change to meet our expectations. From there, we take what we want our end result to be and I work backwards, all the way back to the beginning starting with the water analysis.
So do you produce test batches on a small scale first? I used to, but that was before three kids and a wife. When I first started, I would make a test batch in my kitchen and Bill and I would talk about any changes we would want to make. But now that we’ve been doing this for quite a few years, and knowing our system and our raw materials we are using we can get things fairly close without a test batch. We may make some tweaks to the recipe as we remake it.
What would you say is the key to your success here at Hinterland? It’s passion from everyone involved. I’ve been doing this for 14 years and still love it today. We recently put in a new bottling line and that ignited the passion for putting beer into bottles again. One other thing I love here, is the owner Bill Tressler, is a brewer himself. He has a passion for beer. That’s huge because this was a brewery set up by a brewer. A lot of the brewpubs and places like that are set up by restaurant owners or entrepreneurs, and those places may not be set up the way I would want them set up, as a brewer.
Out of the beers you offer at Hinterland, what is your favorite beer to brew? I don’t know if I really have a favorite to brew. From a selfish point of view, the ones that are easiest are best. I have a lot to do in the brewery, so if I can get the brew done that is best. But If you forced me to pick one, it would have to be a stout. I really love to brew that when I have someone in the brewery who is not a homebrewer or just getting into brewing like a distributor or sales staff. I love to brew that because it’s amazing to see what they think of a stout recipe. “You mean it’s not all burnt grains, it’s 85% fermentables.”
What would be your least favorite beer to brew? Weizen. Sticky? We do a honey wheat and a cherry wheat and those are just 30% wheat, and not so much from a stuck mash, but sometimes they cloud up on me because they are so much more doughy. So I’ll have to stop and re-circulation or re-vorlauf my mash. Then our Weizen is 50% wheat so that’s a bear. So yeah, Weizen.
Do you have any beers that maybe you thought may not be well received, but turned out to a be huge hit? Or do you have any that you thought would take off that just didn’t seem to do well? I do have a couple of cases of each. People always want whats new, like a seasonal. When you first tap them, they go like gangbusters, then level off. But one that surprised me that I think is a fantastic beer, we only have about 4 gallons of it left right now. Brewed it last summer to get a new lager yeast started. It’s called River Rock Red. It’s a red lager, it’s a bigger beer at about 7% alcohol content, a lot of hop character (we used hallertau hops) I loved it. I think its fantastic. I brewed last June, and here we are in April and we still have some left. On the flip side the owner wanted me to do a raspberry beer. I want to do a raspberry rye because the rye beer will mask a little bit of the sweetness of a fruit beer. I didn’t want to bitter it up with hops, I didn’t want a sweet beer I wanted a dry beer, and that’s what rye malt does. It helps create a bit a dry feeling beer. Anyway, I thought the beer was alright, but wasn’t going to set the world on fire. But to this day I still get comments, when are you going to do it again?
Besides your own beer, what is in your fridge at home right now, what beers do you usually have on hand? I have a lot of things. I’m not one of those guys who are down on the macro brews, I think they are a great product just like any other style of beer, a well made style of beer. I think they are great product depending on your mood, the time of year and things like that. So in my refrigerator right now, well I like to work out and I watch my weight, so I do have Miller 64. We do distribute with Miller so I do try to keep their products. I do have Pabst, Shiner, Summit (I’m a big fan of Summit), I do have some Budweiser that someone brought over. I do have Sam Adams Nobel Pils at home as well. I have a lot of stuff in there, only a few of each, but a lot of stuff.
Do you listen to any music while brewing? No I don’t. I don’t even have a radio in the brewery. I’m usually running around the brewery and don’t have time to hear the radio. If I would have something on, it would be NPR.
My favorite beer from Hinterland has to be the Bourbon Barrel Aged IPA, it’s outstanding. I had the beer in 2007 and at this year’s Beer Lover’s Brewfest, and how it aged was very interesting. Can you tell me what inspired you to brew that beer? We first brewed this beer in 2001, and the inspiration was Bigfoot Barleywine. The beer has changed a little bit, and I think we came close to nailing it. We didn’t oak age it at that time. We did oak age (not that beer), we started oak aging in 1999 in not only bourbon barrels but also new oak barrels. Some beers turned out great and some not so good. Over time we learned what types of beer take well to the oak and what didn’t. You know, you don’t want to put a pilsner in an oak barrel because it’s just too strong of a flavor for that beer. The oak masks all the flavors that make a good pilsner. Big beers, hoppy beers, dark beers those all take to oak aging very well. When we came up with the Imperial, we called it a Barleywine and it was not oaked at the time. We had so many guests at the time who were not beer savvy, and they would come in and see on the board “Barleywine”. They would say, “oh, I don’t want a wine.” They would just dismiss it. Our staff was constantly explaining that it was not a wine, but a beer but it has similar strength in the alcohol and such. So we thought if you get into a real high alcohol Imperial IPA and you look at the terms Imperial IPA and Barleywine, they are very similar. I’m just going to shoot off on a tangent here for a second Many of the styles overlap a lot. Moreover, many people who are beer savvy, some who think they are beer savvy, will criticize for it not being true to style. I am not one of those guys. I’m in the business of selling beer, so I want to remain true to the style of beer, but I want to be able to market it as well. So anyway, we switched the name to an Imperial IPA and suddenly people got it. Well we started putting it into oak, and I was testing every couple of months. Early on it had hard edges and it was strong, and the bitterness was up front and really biting. Well, like a fine wine, as you aged it, the edges will round and become softer, the flavors on the palate will become softer, and the flavors will blend. We discovered that this beer was at its peak at about 18 to 24 months so I don’t even release it for at least 12 months. The beer that you had, depends on the generation, how many times I used that oak barrel. The more times I use that oak barrel, the less bourbon and flavors from the oak you get. So if I’ve use that barrel three times. I may leave it in there for 18 months, or 20 months. The beer you had this year at the fest was aged 20 months in that oak barrel. To pull some of those flavors, can take that long. The beer you had was brewed in October of 2007, and you tasted it in February of 2010. (here is where we have a short discussion on the two versions of the beer I had, barrels, and touch more on style and judging. It doesn’t really fit the interview, but you can listen to the audio to get that full discussion. If you only want to hear that portion, you can start it at 21:00)
What’s your take on fruit beers? It’s just like my take on any beers. Just like people slamming micros who are macros drinkers or people who are into micros slamming macro beers, I don’t slam any beer. From time to time I like fruit beers. I like most subtle fruit beers, I don’t like the hit you over the head fruit beers…unless they are supposed to be. Like New Glarus Belgian Red, the fruited lambics like the Framboise. Otherwise I like a lighter style of beer with a subtle fruit.
What can we expect to see from Hinterland in 2010? We have beer in bottles, and we expanded our distribution. That’s different from the mid 90’s when you would go to different distributors and you hope they take you. So your sort of lost and floundering hopeful someone picks your beer. Now, we actually have distributors coming to us saying they really want our beer. So now we are expanding our distribution throughout the state, where before we were limited to our keg product which was pretty much just northeast Wisconsin. So back to the beer in bottles, we have our Pale Ale now which is in 16 ounce bottles which is brewed and bottled here. For the last few years it was brewed and bottled using our recipe and our raw ingredients at Gray’s in Janesville. But now we are bringing that back in house. So we have our Pale Ale, our seasonal which is Maple Bock is in bottles, our stout is in bottles, in about three weeks our Amber will be out in bottles and our Cherry Wheat. Then later we have an Oktoberfest coming out which will be bottled.
Are there any new beers in the works? We have no plans to release anything new that we have not done before. Normally every year I do one or two that is a new or different when I have the cellar space, but this year we just don’t have the space. Our production has gone way up, it is for sure double, maybe triple our production. We are actually going to be cutting back on more styles. That being said, we are going to be doing our bourbon barrel stout. It’s basically our Luna Coffee Stout and aged in bourbon barrels. So that we are kicking around. I don’t know how much we are going to produce. I don’t know if we are going to bottle that, or just keep it in kegs. So we are working that out.
You offer a vocation vacation where a person can test drive their dream job of being a brewmaster under your mentorship. What would a typical person’s experience be like for this package? We were approached five or six years ago by Brian Kurth from Vocation Vacation. That was his idea. He had this idea to test drive new vocation’s. He does have this in several counties around the world. If somebody came up to me a few years ago and said, “Hey, I’m really into brewing and can I brew with you someday?” Normally I would have said, come through for a tour and I’ll show around. But you know I’m busy, I’d have to change my schedule to accommodate them. I start brewing at 2am, and chances are somebody may not want to get up at 2am to come start brewing. Then you have the liability issues, if someone gets hurt or something. That is actually something our lawyer brought up. But Brian got that all taken care of. So now for a fee, you can come do that. What I have been getting, is people have been giving these as gifts to people who are homebrewers and maybe want to see what it’s like to brew on a big scale like this, but maybe have good jobs and don’t want to get into this for a living. Then I do have some people who are actually thinking about changing their career, either starting a business or starting a brewpub. So Brian takes care of everything as far as liability so we don’t have to worry about that, and he goes as far as taking care of travel and hotel reservations. So within a package, all you have to do is show up. We have had some great guys come in, we have not had any gals yet, but some great guys. What we offer, being a smaller brewery and me being the only [Brewery] employee, we offer a full day, start to finish half batch, which is 15 barrels instead of 30. We do that so you are not here for 14 hours, you’re here for ten instead. It’s all hands on. I go through what all the equipment is about, how to work the valves and I assist them. They do all the work. They have to hook up all the hoses, they have to scrub out all the grains, they have to spray out the mash tuns and clean them up. I just answer the questions. So they get all the hands on experience. So if you are looking at this as a career change or opening a brewpub, like we had a guy come through two weeks ago. He wanted to sit down with Bill the owner [of Hinterland] and find out what it takes to run a brewpub. Bill owns a Hinterland restaurant in Milwaukee, he owns this Hinterland brewery and restaurant, and he owns the Whistling Swan Inn and restaurant in Fish Creek. So this guy was able to sit down with Bill and talk about the pros and cons of micro vs. brewpub, what is like working with staffing and so on. He got to bounce all this stuff off of Bill and get a lot of these types of questions answered. He got to have him [Bill] as a dedicated teacher or mentor for an hour and half. (If you are interested in trying the Vocation Vacation, click here for more info )
If you could give a homebrewer, or aspiring pro brewer one key piece of advice to improve their beer, what would it be? I don’t know if I can give just one. Cleanliness, attention to detail, and take good notes. What I always tell homebrewers, and I think this is something I hope anyone reading this or listening takes to heart is always over-pitch. I remember when I started homebrewing and I would get this little packet of yeast, and I would think, “Is this really supposed to ferment all my beer.” No, you need more than that to get good active fermentation, and a quick fermentation. One of the things I have learned is to over-pitch. So I would throw away that packet if it was a dry yeast and go out and get three packets of five grams, and pitch those. If using liquid yeast I would grow it over and over and over, and use it from batch to batch. To get off flavors in your beer, like rubbery flavors, you would have to pitch so much yeast it is almost unimaginable. So over-pitch, you get a faster fermentation, you get no lag period, and guarantee your beer will turn out better. I over-pitch here in the brewery and it works. I have been doing it for 14 years here with no problems.
Thanks to Joe and Hinterland brewery for giving the opportunity to tour the brewery and provide a great interview. As a side note, Hinterland would a be a great place to stop in Green Bay and make a mini-brewery beer crawl out of it, Titletown Brewery is right across the street. So if you are heading to Green Bay, both of these great places are right by each other.