I recently took a trip to Southern California and made it a point to finally visit one of my favorite breweries: The Bruery. While visiting the Tasting Room, I met up with Patrick Rue, founder and CEO of The Bruery. Our conversation included various topics regarding the history and success of The Bruery, the future of the Reserve Society, future of the Bruery, and other various topics. I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I did conducting it.
E = Erik (me)
PR = Patrick Rue
E: I like to start interviews with a little bit of background and history – which leads me to ask – How did you get into beer? Living and being based in Southern California, you have plenty of exposure, but what was the first exposure you had to craft beer? (While drinking Hottenroth – a Berliner Weissbier)
PR: Well, the first time I realized that craft beer existed was when I was fourteen years old and on a family trip to a place just outside Bend Oregon. There’s a brewery there called Deschutes Brewing that at the time was pretty much only distributed in the North West. They were known mostly for Black Butte Porter and Mirror Pond Pale Ale. Now obviously it’s a huge successful brewery, but at the time it was really small. When we would go to the store to go shopping for breakfast food we’d buy some eggs or milk, and then buy some beer along with it. Those were some of the first beers I had where I could really appreciate them. I’ve always liked beer and can even appreciate cheap ones, but those were the first beer that I had which really had some interesting flavors. The Cascade hops in Mirror Pond and the Coffee overtones in Black Butte Porter kind of got me hooked. When I went to college, no one was really drinking craft beer so I started home brewing during my first year in law school and I really got hooked in the whole beer thing.
E: Did going to law school help you with starting a brewery and navigating through all of the red tape? Did you ever practice law?
PR: Yeah, it definitely helped. I never practiced law and didn’t pass the bar, so I’m not able to practice – thankfully. In retrospect, it’s a good thing. I sort of went to law school to figure out what I actually want to do for a living. I thought being a lawyer might have been it. I don’t have any skills with math or engineering so it seemed like a good fit at the time, but I found something better.
E: I’m glad you did. Did the education from that experience come in handy with the legal research? I know that one boundary for small startup breweries is navigating through the antiquated laws in each state, so the law experience must have been an advantage.
PR: Yeah, it was definitely helpful and kept me mindful of all the different hoops I needed to jump through. Going through law school teaches you how to work hard and how to work smarter – which is what I definitely tried to do in order to get myself through law school while home brewing.
E: What were some of the first beers you started brewing? Have any of them made it to the roster you have today?
PR: Well, we grew a lot of herbs in my back yard so I used to throw a lot of Thai basil into the beers I brewed. You can find Thai basil in our Tradewinds Tripel. I also used to use the Thai basil in a lot of the other Belgian inspired beers I brewed. I had a Tripel that I brewed with some rice, so that stuck too. I really just looked how to go outside the box. I brewed 270 batches during those years and the only recipes that stuck through it were a German Hefeweizen because that’s what my wife wanted to drink. I always had to have something that was easy drinking but we obviously don’t brew anything of that style now.
E: Tradewinds Tripel is probably one of my favorite seasonal beers that you make. The way that the Belgian yeast comes into play with the Thai Basil was such an interesting way of putting a twist on a classic style, but still not diverging so far away from the core style. Which leads me to ask, where does your inspiration come when coming up with a recipe for a new beer?
PR: I like to use a lot of different spices when cooking with food, and I feel that the same thing translates to beer. Beer can take some of those same flavors just in the way that food can.
E: How long has The Bruery been around for? Has it really only been since 2008?
PR: Yeah, it started up in April of 2008.
E: The Bruery has been wildly successful in 4 short years. Were you anticipating it to take off like it has?
PR: Not really. You put together business models for how you’d like to see thing go and the day to day operations to hopefully get to that point, but we’ve obviously exceeded that point and it’s been great.
E: One of the first beers I saw of yours on a shelf was Partridge In A Pair Tree, and then soon after, the anniversary series of beers. When I looked closer and saw “First Anniversary” and “Second Anniversary” written on those bottles, it definitely threw me off a bit. Then soon afterwards I started seeing your beers everywhere. I was almost in disbelief with how fast the growth was for a new brewery on the opposite side of the country (I live in New Jersey).
PR: We were definitely bootstrapping it. Our first bottler was a 6 bottle manual filler that needed to have four people to operate. We knew that for a 30 barrel batch, it was going to take 14 to 16 hours of labor. It was definitely pretty labor intensive, but I think that focusing on the distribution and concentrating on the high end allowed us to get our name out there faster. If we just focused on Southern California, we wouldn’t be where we are today.
E: I’m starting to see some of your beers which used to be only Provisions Series beers (Tart of Darkness and White Oak) making their way into distribution across the states. Are there any plans for any more of the Provisions beers to be more widely distributed?
PR: Yeah, Oude Tart is coming out right about now (Late August 2012). Smoking Wood, a rye barrel aged beer will be out in December. Sour In The Rye should be out in early 2013. We’re releasing a beer called Rueuze toward the end of that year which is sort of our Gueuze style beer and a blend of our 1 and 2 year old sour beers. I’m pretty excited about that. Tart of Darkness will be released again next year. We’re trying to release a lot more of the barrel aged sour beers. It’s pretty exciting.
E: That leads me to my next question – You must be expanding the barrel aging program a lot. I read that you now have the second largest barrel aging program next to Goose Island.
PR: Yeah, as far as we know.
E: You’ve obviously really embraced the barrel aging phenomenon that has taken place over the past few years. Has this been the intent from the beginning?
PR: Some of our first batches went straight into barrels so it’s always been important to us. Right now there has been between 300 to 400 barrels which have been in this building (Dunn Way location) and then last June we took over a building that’s about 3 miles away which is 20,000 square feet and all barrels. It’s pretty cool. We’ll get to about 3,000 barrels in there (we’re currently at 2300 oak barrels). So this will make up about 40% of our production – beers that are aged in barrels for an average of 14 months. It’s been a huge undertaking for us since we’re not loaded with cash like some of the large breweries are. It’s been an important part for us though in defining who we are.
E: Yeah, it’s got to be a huge undertaking and cost with having all of the beers aging for that long in that space.
PR: Yeah, we’re only selling 40% of the beer that we’re making at this point. The other 60% is going into barrels. It’s nuts. This year has been a struggle with getting all of that together, but next year will be good for us – as long people like the beers coming out of those barrels.
E: Are you going to try anything with any rum barrels?
PR: We’re always looking to rum barrels. They’re always hard as hell to find. A lot of the times when you can find them they’re dried out or really susceptible to infection. If we were able to find a whole shipment of fresh rum barrels, we’d be in for it, but we can’t find them. We’ll keep looking.
E: I’ve noticed that you’ve been doing a lot of collaboration beers with local breweries lately.
PR: Yeah, recently we did four local ones. We did one with Bootleggers, Eagle Rock, Taps, and Hangar 24. It’s been a lot of fun working with smaller local breweries.
E: I tried Chocosaurus Rye, the collaboration that you did with Bootleggers. I noticed that the chocolate taste in that beer was very light. It wasn’t as in your face as some of the other chocolate beers you’ve made. How was that addition of chocolate made?
PR: We used Ecuadorian Cacao nibs. If they weren’t crushed enough, we’ll crush them a little more. That beer was a lager, so we would add the cacao nibs and let the beer sit on that for the last 2 or 3 weeks with the vanilla beans. I think the vanilla softens the chocolate a little bit. It wasn’t a very roasty beer. Sometimes if you have a high level of roast with the chocolate, then the roast can come off as a chocolate flavor. I actually have a beer for you to try called White Chocolate. It’s a strong blonde beer that we add cacao nibs to, so you can see actual impact of what cacao nibs do versus what the roast flavor does to enhance chocolate flavors.
E: White Chocolate is such a specific flavor to nail, but this is done flawlessly (after taking sip of White Chocolate). I understand that this is a variation of White Oak.
PR: Yeah, this is the barrel aged portion of White Oak. We call it “White Oak sap”. It’s a wheat wine and is about 14% ABV.
E: Yikes, this drinks entirely too easy. This is dangerous.
PR: It’s pretty much a wheatwine with two row base and is super light. Then it goes into barrels for about a year – although the blend ranges from different ages – we then add cacao nibs and vanilla beans straight to the barrel.
E: Incredible. Definitely one of the most interesting wheat wine variations I’ve tasted. Are you still involved with the brewing process?
PR: Not as much as I’d like to be. I’m definitely very involved with recipe development, where I’ll conceptualize a beer and then give those ideas to Tyler – who is our head brewer and head of operations. He’ll come up with the pilot recipe in a 10 gallon batch after brewing that sometimes we’ll tweak it or sometimes just go to a larger batch of it. We currently have 6 brewers now who are brewing 5 days a week and 24 hours a day.
E: Yeah, I would imagine with the demand, you would have to be brewing 24 hours a day. How large is your brewing system?
PR: It’s a 15 barrel system and we’ll do 11,000 barrels next year, so it’s a lot of work. We have a new three barrel pilot system going in soon and my goal is to at least brew once a week and to have a new beer on tap at the tasting room once a week.
E: Do you ever use the Provisions store or tasting room as a way to get some direct feedback from Bruery fans?
PR: Yeah, definitely. I’d like to do that more and more. The three barrel system will make that easier. If we had a 10 gallon batch and put it on tap, then it would be gone in the matter of hours. At least with the three barrel system, we’d be able to have something on tap for at least a week or something.
E: So, lets talk more a little more about the Hoarders Society. I read a lot of mixed things about this on a few websites, but I know the internet can’t always be reliable. Can you tell me a little more about it?
PR: We did some research and found our top customers who were in the Reserve Society and sent them invitations to the Hoarders Society in the mail. We thought it would be kind of fun. Basically it’s very similar to the Reserve Society, but you’re allowed to buy double the allocations and also get the opportunity to buy some very limited releases. Some of our members have two or three Reserve Society memberships so it made a lot of sense for us to recognize some of those who are really big supporters, collectors and traders of our beer. I think it makes sense for us to offer something more to those people than what the Reserve Society offers. It also allows us to make some smaller batches which aren’t really feasible for us to make for the entire Reserve Society. This will allow us to make some smaller batches, and if they work out really well then we can try to find a way to do them in larger batches in the future years hopefully. I think that it will go over really well. We have the Preservation Society on the other spectrum which is on the lowest end and is what I could see as the perfect membership for someone who wants the best of what we have to offer, but they don’t need the volume. It’s for people who aren’t going to buy 6 bottles of White Chocolate or Black Tuesday. It’s more for the people who would just want to purchase a single bottle and be satisfied. It’s a more casual membership. It works similar to a wine club where customers sign up at any point of the year, we’ll send them three bottles of beer quarterly, and hopefully people will trust us to pick out good things for them.
E: Will any of these changes effect the current Reserve Society members?
PR: The Reserve Society will have 36 releases for next year (2013). This year I think we have between 26-28 releases, so next year will be a great time to be in the Reserve Society if you want to try a lot of the different beers that we’re making. We’re definitely putting more emphasis on it than we did in previous years and trying to make it better.
E: There have been some changes in regards to the shipment and mailing of beer. Will this change anything with the Reserve Society? Basically what I’m getting at is whether people outside of California be able to join?
PR: Unfortunately it’s still only in California. There are the wine shipment laws and some breweries and some retail stores have been shipping beer. It’s sort of a grey area. Some people believe you can sell beer interstate, but I don’t want to send a ton of beer out there and have it be confiscated. I would love to work with some small brewers to get things changed so that we can have similar treatment to wine. There doesn’t seem to be much of a difference between shipping wine and shipping beer except that the wine law is controlled by the producers, but with beer, the large breweries and distributors have a much larger say in what laws are enacted.
E: So I would assume that if you’re starting a society for hoarding, you’ve got to have a pretty insane cellar for yourself.
PR: Well, the first year when launching the brewery, I had a really great cellar. I had this three door fridge in my garage that I would keep at 50-55 degrees. I had around 300 bottles in there. But I was so poor that year that I wound up drinking through just about all of those bottles. I kind of had a deal with my wife that I would keep the home brewing equipment out of my house and wouldn’t have a huge fridge at the house for collecting beers. So right now my cellar is really located at our office and it’s more of a communal beer cellar where I’ll share beers with people that are around. Now I only really keep a weeks worth of beer at my house.
E: What do you think ages best?
PR: I think the beers that benefit the most from some age are old ales, less hoppy barley wines and imperial stouts. They’re higher alcohol beers so they’ll be a lot smoother after 6 months to a year of aging. Then depending on how they’re bottled, there’s going to be some oxidation factors that will come into play and create some of the sherry like oxidation with some raison and dark fruit types of flavors which are really fun. It may not get better with age, but it will definitely change with age which is fun to see. I think sour beers are really hit or miss. It depends on whether you think it’s sour enough and if there is still some yeast and bacteria in the bottle. If you think there’s a potential for it to get more funky and more sour with age, then it’s fun to experiment with. If the beer is above your level of funk or sourness, then age can sometimes reduce that, but it’s a little less reliable. Sometimes it’ll just continue to just get drier.
E: Which Bruery beers do you feel benefit the most from age?
PR: Black Tuesday just keeps getting better with age. We’ve experienced the same with our anniversary beers as well. I feel Autumn Maple is a really good beer to age. Even one year of age on that is a remarkable thing. You can get so much more maple out of it after it’s been aged.
E: Are there any plans to open up any other Provisions Stores in CA?
PR: We’ve definitely thought about it. But at this point we just have too much on our plate. Probably not, but we’re definitely doing our research on it. It’s just not our number one priority right now though. I’ve lived in the area and went to law school down the street so I have a strong connection with that area. If we were to open one in LA or San Diego, it would just be harder to maintain that personal touch. I like going down to Provisions and picking out the wine selection. If I want a certain beer, I’ll be sure that we carry it. I can’t go down to San Diego or somewhere every week and have that same interaction. I think it could take away from how good the shop could be.
E: What do you think about the growler laws in California? I found it very surprising that you aren’t allowed to fill a single universal growler between all the different breweries out here.
PR: I personally don’t like it. It’s really a labeling issue. Some states treat growlers as just a bottle, while others treat it as a pitcher to go sort of thing. California treats it like a bottle so it needs to have the correct labeling on it, where it’s brewed and what the contents are – although people in California don’t do that sort of thing. I think things could be changed if there was some coordination. I just don’t think there’s a lot of motivation to do it since brewers can make a modest profit off of growlers, so I think that’s a big reluctance. California sort of created the problem and some brewers are making money off them so it’s a loss of revenue if people aren’t required to buy them.
E: What do you see for the future of The Bruery?
PR: Well, I added this new room (pointing to Tasting Room) and some new tanks. We’ve increased our production to as high as it can get with our current setup, so getting bigger would require us to move and build a new brewery. So at this point we’re just holding tight and you can probably expect us to be here for the next four years doing what we’re doing. If we decide to build another brewery beyond this, it probably wouldn’t be for another few years. I’d kind of like to enjoy what we have and grow incrementally.
E: Do you have any closing comments?
PR: Not that I can think of. Want to taste some more beers?
E: You don’t have to twist my arm.