Beer Alien, being fascinated with all things beer, has begun interviewing professional brewers in order to better understand the humans that make the beer we love so much. Through these interactions we hope to better understand and appreciate the beer you humans create on this planet.
We had the distinct pleasure of talking with Scott Birdwell of Deschutes Brewery.
Beer Alien: How long have you been a professional brewer?
I have been brewing professionally for seven years.
Beer Alien: What is your favorite part of the job? least favorite part of the job?
When you begin brewing, whether it be home brewing or professionally, you quickly realize you’ve embarked on a journey. The journey is for knowledge and it never ends. It does, however, challenge you, humble you, provide you with moments of triumph and of course leads to awesome relationships along the way. This is my favorite part.
My least favorite part is how things seem to go wrong right before you are planning to leave for the day.
Beer Alien: How has your opinion of brewing beer changed from when you were a home brewer to now being a professional brewer?
I’ve learned to appreciate consistency now that I brew professionally. When I was home brewing it was all about what can I try next and how will it turn out. At Deschutes, we are definitely all about finding out what we can try next and finding ways to innovate but the other pillar is ensuring our existing brands are consistent and of excellent quality.
Beer Alien: When did you realize you wanted to be a professional brewer and how long after realizing did it take you to become a professional brewer?
It was two or three years after graduating from college. I went to Oregon State University and studied business and marketing. I started home brewing after graduating and after a year or two started to think about brewing professionally. It took me another two years to fully commit to changing careers and enroll in the Master Brewers Program at UC Davis. Through it I got in touch with Deschutes and landed an internship.
Beer Alien: Share your most interesting brewing disaster.
Easy. I was working swing shift and nearing the end of my night. On top of that, I had a two-week vacation that started the next day and just had one more brite tank to clean. It’s fair to say I was mentally checked out at this point. It cost me.
I had finished the acid cleaning on brite tank 13 and it was time to take all the parts off and scrub them. I walked up to brite tank 12 and removed one of the 1.5” caps. Whoops.
Brite tank 12 had 680 barrels of Porter in it and was pressurized to 10 psi. Not anymore. As soon as I got close to unscrewing the TC it and the cap flew off almost knocking me out cold. 34-degree Black Butte Porter shot out of BB12 hitting BB11 only a few feet away. It then tidal waved up about 10 feet into the air before crashing back down to the floor. This continued for a bit while I stared at it. Eventually I ran and got help and another brewer and myself charged the raging beer with a special TC cap with a handle on it and stopped the insanity. We lost about 40 barrels of beer.
Beer Alien: For other home brewers that want to make the change, what advice would you give to them?
Understand that there is not one skill set you must have to get into brewing. At Deschutes, we have brewers with many backgrounds: chemistry, biology, physics, engineering, economics and even marketing. While a brewing education is certainly helpful and can open doors, don’t forget that whatever your existing skill set or talent is, there is probably an application for it in brewing. Learn what it is and sell this to potential employers.
Beer Alien: On your days away from the brewery, what activities do you indulge in?
Mountain biking, snowboarding, triathlons, trail running, kokanee fishing, camping, hiking, golfing.
Beer Alien: Do you have an experience that stands out above all others during your time as a professional brewer?
Sitting at the awards ceremony at the Great American Beer Festival with my co-workers, which includes my brother who is in sales at Deschutes, and hearing our name called for a medal on a beer I brewed.
Beer Alien: How long did you home brew before you became a professional brewer?
About 4 years.
Beer Alien: Do you still home brew?
I did for the first 5 years of my professional brewing career but as soon as I had kids all my gear went into the attic. It will reemerge soon!
Beer Alien: What was the first beer you brewed? What do you remember about the experience? (Come on, we all know the first time is an experience)
It was an extract kit for a Belgian Strong Golden Ale. I had no idea what the hell I was doing. After the brewing was done and yeast pitched, I put the glass carboy in my closet to let it ferment. I think it was the next night the airlock blew off and foam reeking of over ripe bananas got all over my clothes hanging in the closet.
Beer Alien: If you could give one piece of advice to new home brewers, what would it be?
The two that always come up are keep everything clean and take good notes. These are excellent pieces of advice but for something different I would offer this: pay very close attention to fermentation temperature and make sure to stay in the range recommended by the yeast supplier. Just because your spare bedroom is 64 degrees, doesn’t mean that placing a carboy in there will result in the beer fermenting at 64 degrees. It is likely the temperature inside the carboy will be much warmer. If you don’t have the luxury of a dedicated temperature controlled fridge, something as simple as putting the carboy in a bathtub full of water at the appropriate temp will work. Your yeast will thank you.
Beer Alien: How have you seen the craft beer industry change over the past five years, and how do you see it changing in the next five?
5 years ago when you walked into a brew pub you were likely to see a lineup including IPA, Pale, Amber, Stout, and maybe a wheat or brown ale. Now you walk into that same brew pub and it’s IPA, Double IPA, Coffee Stout, Bourbon Barrel aged Porter and a sour beer. Of course there are all the M&A’s happening now and collaboration beers have become big. Growlers have become a big deal, more breweries are putting their beers into cans, we’re seeing more wax top bottles and cork and cage and some breweries are experimenting with crowlers. Going forward I see the small, local oriented brew pub or tasting room format remaining successful and impervious to the ramifications of mega-breweries getting increasingly involved with larger sized craft breweries. I think it will be tougher for breweries to grow to regional size and beyond without outside capital and it will be interesting to see how consumers react to this. We’ll see more breweries explore international markets. Stylistically, I see barrel aged and sour beers steadily growing in popularity, ciders and FMB’s declining some in popularity and a corresponding trend back towards traditional styles. Also, maybe a new genre of beer emerges such as ultra low ABV beers, like in the 2 to 3% range? We’ll see…
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!