Better beer through science. This week, we had the privilege of meeting with the Head Brewer and President of Lightning Brewery, James J. Crute, Ph.D. For those new to Lightning Brewery, located at 13200 Kirkham Way #105, Poway, CA 92064, “Jim Crute began brewing in graduate school in the early 80’s and kept his hobby alive through a Ph.D. and over 20 years in the biotech and pharma industry.”, according to Lightning Brewery’s website in the About Us section. This year marked Lightning Brewery’s 10 Year Anniversary, and we were fascinated to have a conversation about ingredients & process, general insight into the industry, and what’s in store for the future.
Do you travel far to find your yeast, hop & grain selections?
There are approximately 250 yeast strains commercially available, and breweries can generally find access to approximately 150 more that are not usually available. These are proven, stabile strains that in some cases, stood the test of time for hundreds of years. If you can’t make a good beer from one of these strains there is something else going on since in my experience there is no ‘magic’ strain of yeast to make poor beer taste good.
What made you decide to specialize in lagers, and the process of cold-fermentation beers?
Nobody else was making them. (To this day), I’m still not particularly impressed with most of the other lagers in town.
Have you spent time in Europe and other countries to observe traditional methods they may have used to make beer? If so, what methods have inspired you the most?
I read a lot. I went to Germany and Austria while working in the pharmaceutical trade. I was really impressed by the use of step and decoction mashing. Step mashing raises the malted grain/water slurry to predefine temperatures to enhance the rates of starch and other molecule breakdowns. Being a Biochemist this made a lot of sense since all enzymes have different levels of thermal stability. Then with decoction mashing fractions of the slurry are withdrawn and then boiled in a separate vessel to fully solubilize the starch. Along with that, other carbohydrates are dissolved that enhance “mouthfeel” or body and malt flavor. Thunderweizen utilizes double-decoction mashing to give it that malty character. Elemental Pilsner used no decoction mashing, because it makes the mouthfeel too thick.
Today there are so many ‘creative’ beers made by homebrewers & breweries, such as beers that taste like lemon meringue pie, or candy bars with peanut butter. Have you tried any of these types of ‘non-beer’ flavored beers that you like?
I like the Karl Strauss Peanut Butter Cup Porter, it’s too bad they only offer it seasonally. You should be, as I am, open-minded to trying different styles of beer. However, if the beer itself is bad, you can’t “fix it” by adding a few drops of flavoring to it.
What is your favorite Lightning Beer and why?
Thunderweizen in the summer, because it’s lighter, and Elemental Pilsner in the winter.
What is your favorite & least favorite part of the day-to-day operations?
My favorite part is making and selling beer, least favorite part is managing finances. After all, beer is at the end of the day a business and many of us get into it as a creative outlet. However, to keep that creative outlet, the business needs to work.
What have been some of your biggest challenges and accomplishments in 10 years at Lightning Brewery?
The biggest challenge has been successfully coupling marketing and sales. This is because I didn’t budget enough early on and now there is increased competition. We are currently revamping this. My biggest accomplishment was winning ‘Best of Show’ award in 2013 at the California State Fair for Old Tempestuous Ale.
After 10 years of experience in the brewery business, would you do anything differently than you did when you first started out?
I would focus more on retail sales from the brewery, and marketing in general to better develop an informed fan base.
You opened your brewery in 2006, starting out as a warehouse space for brewing equipment and operations only, and eventually expanded next door to open a tasting room and an outdoor patio area in 2014. Are there plans for future expansion of the brewery or tasting premises?
We are planning an off-site tasting room. This is because sales directly to the public have the highest margin in our trade and can give our ultimate clients access to the best and freshest beer possible.
In the last 10 years of business you’ve seen the growth of the craft beer industry in San Diego County reach a point where there are now approximately 130 operational brewhouses, and approximately 26 new breweries planned. Do you see San Diego County as approaching, or already arrived at, the point of the bubble bursting in terms of survivability of any more new breweries opening?
I see it as the bubble bursting. Look for more mergers, roll-ups, and breweries (unfortunately) going out of business.
How about survivability of new breweries opening in the United States overall?
Depending on which areas, I think there are still opportunities for opening new breweries. The two best examples I can think of are Chuck Silva opening a new brewery in Paso Robles, California, and Mitch Steele, who moved to Atlanta, Georgia. These are both really smart guys that would not be doing what they are doing in a vacuum. Note that they did not choose to start new breweries in Southern California.
Be sure to follow us on Social Media as we invade more breweries and discover more awesome craft beers from all over the world! Cheers humans!