Thursday, August 27, 2009

Meet YOUR Local Brewer: Jeff Erway

I met up with Chama River Brewing Company's Head Brewer, Jeff Erway, as he was fresh off a grueling 16-hour day of making barleywine. 16 hours??? That sounds like a good night's sleep to me. But Jeff still had the energy to give me some time for this interview.

Is it true that you don't own a television set?

It is true.

Well, I hope you aren't being passed by in technology by other breweries because of that. Did you know Miller Lite is now "Triple Hops Brewed"?
I did know that! The funny thing is, it's not true. It implies they add hops at three separate times, but in fact Miller does not use actual hops in any of its product. They use a pre-isomerized hop extract.

See, I don't even know what that means. That sounds like mad scientist talk. But what's the deal with the no TV?

Well, it's not like some revolt against society or anything like that. For five years, I lived out on the Navajo Nation, teaching music, and you couldn't get any channels with your antenna, and cable wasn't available out there. We would have had to get satellite, and I didn't think doing that out there amongst a bunch of impoverished people would go over too well! But Laura (Jeff's wife) and I had a television and a DVD player but the television broke down the second year we were there and we were like, "Well, we have a computer, we can watch DVDs on that."

So how do you then make the transition from teaching music to brewing beer? Is is something to do with having that kind of scientific brain, because music seems to have a science-like structure?

Even before I moved out here, I was judging beer back in New York state. I lived right down the road from the world's largest beer store, Beers of the World. They have like 4,000 beers. And I stole Michael Jackson's World Guide to Beer off my friend's coffee table. I went over to Beers of the World and started trying to work my way through all the beers that I read about. When I moved out here, the selection was not that great, and I became passionate about homebrewing. I found that it was something that I wasn't just good at; I found myself actually winning a lot of competitions. The head brewer of Chama River at that time, Ted Rice, encouraged me to get a degree from the American Brewers Guild, and I did it in 2007. It wasn't that I didn't like teaching; I was an adequate teacher. It just wasn't what I was passionate about.

So were you good at chemistry back in high school?
Absolutely not! That was my worst subject in high school. I didn't have anything that tied it to something I cared about, so it didn't interest me. It was when I got into brewing, and more biology than chemistry, maybe some organic chemistry, that tied science into what I loved doing.

You mentioned that Ted encouraged you to pursue the degree. Is there a rivalry between you and the Marble guys? Like, when they came out with the "I Know Ted" and "I Know Daniel bumper stickers, were you like, "Where's the "I Know Jeff" stickers????" Give me some recognition too!
(Laughs)No, not at all. The funny thing about that, they did that sticker as a sort of friendly mocking of the clientele, the ones who would go down there and try to get a special deal on their kegs by dropping a name; "I know Ted", or "I know Daniel", that's how that came about. But is there any present day, any rivalry? Only friendly. And I would say that about any of the brewers around here. You know, if you can't find me here, you can often find me at Il Vicino drinking a beer. And Brady (Il Vicino's Head Brewer) is a near, dear friend of mine. I was one of the first to find out when his wife had their son. And Ted and Daniel, they're probably bigger rivals with each other. Everyone's just trying to brew the best beer they can, and if someone brews a really excellent one, then we're all excited for them.

Was anybody upset that Brady put a lager in an IPA challenge?

Everybody, every year, is always upset about the beer that won the IPA challenge, but the brewers, they couldn't give a crap about what was entered. If a brewer wanted to enter a Russian Imperial Stout in the challenge, that's their prerogative, and they can do that if they like.

Your Russian Imperial Stout that you bottled, Anastasia, seemed to sell very well. Any plans to bottle again?

Never again, ever, ever, ever! It's not that I wouldn't want to do it again, it's just a nightmare, trust me, to do it in here. If I do it again, it'll be contracted at Marble, and I don't see them having the room to do that anytime soon. I just brewed the barleywine last night, and if Marble had room to bottle some of it, I would do that, but it's just so hard here. We had three of us bottling, (NOTE: with Justin, Assistant Brewer pictured) doing one bottle at a time. It's a 16 hour day just to bottle about 50 cases. I'm the only one who using the counter-pressure bottle filler, so the others are sanitizing bottles, capping them, putting them in cases. I'm just working the filler all day, getting Carpal Tunnel Syndrome.

I know you have a love and respect for Belgian beers. Does that come from having had access to so many beers at the Beers of the World store?

A great deal of that has to do with my relationship with, not to plug another website, but I think I've still done the most ratings of any member in the state, though I haven't done a rating in two years. The people on that site got me to try beers that were truly amazing, mainly Belgian styles. This morning, in fact, we just booked tickets to fly into Amsterdam and are going to spend the Thanksgiving holiday in Belgium.

And Laura is ok with spending Thanksgiving away from family and all that in favor of beer?

Oh, yeah. She does beer judging at the state fair, and may judge at the Great American Beer Festival some day. She's got one heck of a palate. She met me just after I turned 21, and believe it or not, I did not drink beer back then. I was drinking a lot of whiskey and other liquors. She's seen me grow into a craft beer lover and then professional brewer and she's grown along with me.

As far as palates go, I remember talking to you at the IPA Challenge about a beer, and I was saying that I thought it was a good, hoppy beer. You immediately responded with five or so rapid fire technical comments about the beer. So do you consider yourself one of those supertasters who can pick out things others can't?

I think one of the things that makes a truly great brewer is to have an exceptionally refined palate. I'm not going to say I am that far along or have the best palate, but I have judged in literally hundreds of beer competitions. I take pride that I can pick apart the nuances of a beer, and it's kind of turned me into a wine snob, more than I can afford to be really. I've taken five sensory analysis courses, and it helps me critique my own beers fairly, which is what I care about the most.

As far as the Belgian styles- you don't seem to have them on tap very often. Is that because the clientele doesn't crave them as much as other styles?

It's a number of factors. Belgian styles do not sell exceptionally well here. Wit beers sell in the Summer. Dubbels sometimes sell in Winter. The main issue is the yeast. We have one house ale strain that we use here, and one house lager strain. It's a struggle to keep those going all the time. What I mean by "going" is, I buy a certain amount of pitchable yeast. I use that in a batch, and with the ale strain, I try to use that at least 15 times, and the lager yeast 7-8 times before I dump it. Each time I get a new crop, it's, oh, $250 for the new crop.For Belgians, you'll notice Brady and I will have a Belgian on at the same time. I'll use the Belgian strain and give it to Brady, and he'll give it back to me, and I'll give it back to him, and so on. And Ted, Daniel, Brady and I will try to coordinate our brewing schedule to get the most out of a crop.

I see Marble on tap everywhere these days, and I have seen Turtle Mountain at Uptown Sports Bar. Is there a reason Chama isn't available anywhere else?

Indigo Crow will have our beer on tap occasionally. Leaping Lizard always has 4 or 5 of our beers on tap. Mainly, we are not a production brewery. We are a 5 barrel brewhouse, which is the smallest in the state, but we are the biggest as far as actual production. We make a lot of beer here, and we sell a lot of beer here and at our microbar (2nd and Central). That keeps us at capacity. To give you a better idea, Turtle Mountain has a 10 barrel brewhouse that brewed 1200 barrels last year. Our 5 barrel facility brewed 1400. It can be a constant struggle to keep beer on tap at our two places, so getting beer to other bars is not a top priority.

What are you bringing to the Great American Beer Fest this year?

March Hare, which just won Best of Show at the state fair (NOTE TO SELF: Great job on covering that event, Mr. Abq Beer Geek), Dr. Strangehop (Or How I Learned to Stop Drinking Fizzy Yellow Beer and love the Hop), Poppin' Pils, Sleeping Dog Stout, which has won 3 international awards, and Anastasia barrel-aged Russian Imperial Stout.

And you are going to be entering Dr. Strangehop at this year's Alpha King Challenge rather than March Hare, which had the distinction of taking third last year. Why the switch? (NOTE: this is an annual challenge to find the best hoppy beer in the country that has more than 65 IBUs, named after Alpha King Pale Ale from Three Floyds Brewing)

Mainly because I tried the beers that came in first and second. (NOTE: Hop 15 from Port Brewing and Boundary Bay IPA from Boundary Bay Brewing) Neither of those had the hop aroma that I want in my beers, but had a kick in the teeth bitterness. I am going to enter the March Hare as well just to see what happens. The Alpha King challenge seems to be more about the double IPAs these days.

What's coming up on tap here at Chama River? Are you going to do the Decapitated Equestrian pumpkin beer this year? That may be the best pumpkin beer I ever had.

Thank you! That beer didn't sell so well last year. The Sleepy Hollow pumpkin ale sells extremely well, however. We're going to be doing a lot of that come September. The Copper John Pale Ale, which used to be our standard pale, is going to be on tap in about two weeks from now. We stopped making that is because during the hop crisis we were not able to contract one of the main character hops, Simcoe. We have a limited amount now and people have been asking for it. I will be filtering the Octoberfest next Tuesday. We have the What We Learned Pale Ale, which is a culmination of the single hop pale ales we did with a mix of the different hops. The barleywine we just brewed will be out for our anniversary in January. Chama Red, though I haven't really named that one yet. I'll probably come up with a better name for it. We just put on an Imperial Pilsner called My Nighlty Pils, which is 7.6% ABV and about 75 IBUs. I wanted it to really represent the pilsener style rather than some interpretations that come out more like a Helles Bock.

<How about the upcoming Septemberfest? (NOTE: Sept. 19 at Marble- story upcoming)

I usually bring what will sell to things like that. So Dr. Strangehop, March Hare, Octoberfest, My Nightly Pils, and we are going to do a cask of Jackalope IPA with locally grown De Smet hops in it. So were going to try that, and hopefully someday we can brew a batch with the hops I'm growing out front. (NOTE: check the hops out next time you are there. They are hanging on the south side of the patio)

You said your 5th Anniversary is coming up in January. Do you have anything special planned?

We will have a party, sure, and there will be a beer dinner that will feature, shall we say, some of our more ambitious beers.

Well I'm looking forward to that! Thanks for taking the time with us, Jeff.

Sure, no problem!

Jeff Erway- An engaging, well educated brewer who seems to have the perfect recipe for making great beers. A man, a mash tun, and a paddle. But without a TV, which impedes him from realizing what beer drinkers really want. So I feel I must inform you, Jeff- "The Difference is Drinkability!".

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