[Meet the Instructors is a series intended to introduce you to one of the greatest resources the University of Washington Tacoma Professional Development Center has to offer: its diverse team of veteran, industry-tested professionals. The Center’s professional development programs are designed to be rewarding, challenging and cutting-edge. Our instructors play no small part in that, ensuring students are exposed to the most current industry trends while remaining well-versed in the tried-and-true best practices of their professions. We’re excited to share our instructors with you, and their stories are a great place to start.]
Mastering Beer Styles is a practical and hands-on approach of the key concepts, tools and techniques required to excel in the craft brewing industry. Delivering an intensive overview of the history, terminology and style characteristics of beer, this program is suitable for craft beer aficionados and professionals alike. Oct. 8, this program will hold its first class in Seattle, taught by Lowercase Brewing Head Brewer John Marti. Read John’s story and register for class today!
You’ve been a bartender, sommelier, wine buyer, and now a head brewer. What’s that experience been like, and when did you know it was what you wanted to do professionally?
While working in a high-end restaurant I noticed that some people got paid to walk around, pour wine and just talk to tables about their experiences with wine; I couldn’t believe that was an actual job! I asked what I needed to do to become one of them and was told I needed to take some classes and acquire some certifications. The restaurant paid for my classes and I plunged myself into as many books as I could find regarding the wine world. Before I knew it, I was being paid to nerd out about wine with customers, vendors and winemakers themselves. This went on for five years before I decided I wanted a change of locale.
I found a wine buyer position in Portland, Ore., working for a fancy grocery store and continued my deep dive into the wine industry. But I sensed an itch beginning to need scratching – I realized I wanted to start making alcohol instead of buying and selling other peoples’ products. I’d been a homebrewer since 2005 and beer was always my first true love.
I threw caution to the wind and moved back to Seattle, emailing every brewery in the city to see if they needed someone to help mop the floors. Surprisingly, three got back to me and I chose the one that had the most opportunity for growth and education. I’ve been making beer for Lowercase Brewing now for four years, trying to make each batch better than the last. It has cost me physically and monetarily, but there’s nothing I’d rather do with my life. I wake up every day with a huge smile on my face knowing that my job is to nurture the beer from grain to glass to beer belly.
It might be surprising to some people to hear that you have a pretty extensive background in the world of wine – how did that experience lead into a job as Lowercase’s Head Brewer?
Wine and beer share many similarities – I challenge you to find a subject with more educational breadth than either of them. The history of wine and beer is the history of humans and their time here on Earth. No subject encompasses more areas of study than wine or beer. History, geography, geology, language, chemistry and sociology are just a few of the general educational aspects to beer and wine. Understanding the chemistry of wine gave me a head start on understanding how to brew beer. In my mind, the most fascinating part of alcohol is yeast; it is perhaps the one crossover subject that we still don’t truly understand and it is the most difficult to manage. My search for a deeper knowledge of yeast is what drives me as a Head Brewer today.
Can you explain the name Lowercase Brewing? It sounds like there’s an interesting idea or story there.
The name has to do with the idea that the content of a sentence is held within the lowercase letters, even though the uppercase letter is the one that takes all the credit. For us, our content is held in the beer itself, not in the branding or the label that you first see. We want to be judged on the beer, not by the marketing of the beer. We would prefer that you taste our beer blindly against other beers and judge for yourself. By taking the marketing out, we hope that beer drinkers use their own unbiased perceptions of what makes a beer “good.” I’ll admit that it’s an uphill battle to get people to think critically for themselves, but we believe it’s a battle worth fighting.
What is life like for a head brewer? What is a typical day, and maybe an extraordinary one?
Make no daydreams about it, being a brewer is hard. Every day I cram myself into tight spaces, lift objects that no one person should lift alone and douse myself with chemicals and hot water. I love it, but it requires sacrifice. A typical day involves either emptying a tank and cleaning it or brewing into an empty tank. Amidst the main goal of the day comes all the secondary goals; fermentation progression maintenance, inventory maintenance, supplier communications and overall brewhaus cleanliness require daily attention.
An extraordinary day may be collaborating with another brewery at their place or ours. If it’s at their place, I get to lay low and let them do all the manual labor. If it’s at ours, then I must entertain them and do all the manual labor. Recently we had to run down to Oregon to get some fresh hops and run back up here to Seattle to get the hops into the tank immediately. Other times may be spent fixing the glycol system or the boiler or whatever else decides to break that day. Did I mention that things break on a daily basis? Often you are more of a problem solver than an actual brewer!
You’ve won multiple awards for your beers, you’ve homebrewed 40 styles of beer and produced more than 400 commercial batches. What makes you the most proud?
Perhaps my most proud achievement was collaborating with five other breweries and 15 homebrewers to trap and isolate our own yeast strain and then use that yeast strain to make a beer. It took a year and a half to manage all of the people and slowly narrow down the trapped cultures to the chosen strain. It was a mammoth undertaking that taught me so much about yeast and the history of people and brewing. We made a Belgian Golden Strong Ale and I’ll never forget the first time I tasted it on draft. It was complex, fragrant, malty, balanced and crisp all in one. It connected us specifically to the people and history of Belgium. The fact that we found a strain wafting through the air and used it to make a flavorful, spicy, phenolic beer similar to those found in Belgium was mind-blowing. We came together as a community of beer geeks and unlocked a piece of the past that we had only read about in beer literature. We used each other and we used science to unlock this door – community and science coming together to create magical spirits – so cool!
What about the opposite – have you had any memorable brewing failures?
Butyric acid (stomach bile), Diacetyl (butterscotch), DMS (creamed corn), Isovaleric Acid (Mousy)…you name the off flavor, I’ve brewed it. I believe it is my failures rather than my successes that have made me the brewer I am today. Every failure holds a special place in my heart and memory; they are things I strive never to create again, unless I do so on purpose. It’s been speculated that a brewery will most likely toss out ten percent of its output due to off flavors, and this used to be true for us. After so many brewing failures, you begin to whittle the process down, cutting out the pathways to failure and broadening your path to success. The only way to do this is to take your ego out of it. Look at your beer as though you were not the one that made it. Make people tell you the truth about the beer; don’t let them off the hook by saying it’s great all the time. Ask for the nasty truth, and use it to make your beer better. We are Lowercase – it is our mantra to be honest with ourselves and taste blind. Only then will you find the truth, and the truth is all we seek when blind-tasting.
What most excites you about beer?
I think it’s the transformation from a thought to an actual reality. A recipe starts as a construct of the mind. Can the brewer successfully take a flavor profile that is sparked in his or her mind and bring that flavor profile successfully into reality? Using the ingredients as brush strokes on a canvas, can they create a picture that satisfies them? Every beer tells a story in this sense and that story is what excites me the most. The aroma, the color, the flavor, the head retention all speak to the story of that beer and how it was nurtured to get into my belly. I do my best to take the marketing out of the picture and judge the beer only by what is in the glass. I savor every sip and every whiff looking for clues that the brewer was trying to convey. I realize this sounds dramatic and over the top, and it may be, but I do this while remembering this is, after all, just beer. Beer is the drink of the people – all people. It’s not just for those with wealth or power or an extensive social pipeline; it’s for me and you and our neighbor. Rich or poor, red or blue, beer is still common ground for those with wildly different lives. I just love beer.
What made you decide to teach students about beer? What are you most looking forward to?
So you’re going to tell me that UW Tacoma needs someone to taste unique beers from all over the world and examine those beers with other beer geeks?!?! Does this not sound like the coolest job ever created?! I feel like this question answers itself, however I do realize that an instructor should still have expertise in the field of study. I think that my years of picking apart wine and beer could come in handy for these students. However, I am most excited to learn along with the students as we each bring our own personal experiences to the class to share. Frankly, one of the best ways to learn is to teach and I look forward to what I will learn as well.
Why do you think it’s valuable for a professional, or just a craft beer nerd, to “master” beer styles?
I think it’s important in life to search for truth. Truth in the commercialized beer industry has been hard to come by since Prohibition reared its ugly head in America. “Will this beer make me more attractive to the opposite sex?” “Will my sports team excel if I drink the beer that sponsors them?” I think these are questions that need to be put under a microscope and analyzed critically. Every beer tells a story, the story I’d like to uncover is the one that can’t be seen on its label. It’s the story that can only be picked apart by blind tasting.
As the “craft beer movement” explodes, we will be berated with more and more marketing-heavy brands that will try to convince you with their flashy labels and hipster designs that they are the choice for you. With luck, after this class you will have the tools to think for yourself whether a beer is worth a second purchase or not. Do you trust that brewery? Did they lie to you? Truth – we will seek it through blind tasting. I believe the truth at any level is the most valuable treasure we seek.
Finally, do you have a favorite beer style?
My favorite style tends to be whatever I’m studying or thinking about making at any given moment. It just so happens that for the past six months I’ve been studying Helles beers. Helles is the most honest of beers. Spotting an off flavor in a Helles is liking spotting a fleck of pepper in a bowl of milk – it’s so obviously there and hard to hide. The brewer must make no mistakes in order for the ingredients to shine. Those ingredients shine subtly at best when brewed with no mistakes, but when the brewer accomplishes his or her goal, it is a transcendent moment for me. Harmony in a glass. I’m getting thirsty just thinking about this class!