Brew-Monkey's Brewer Interview
Pyramid Breweries, Inc.
Today we return to the Bay Area. I have a few personal links to this brewer and brewery. Pyramid Hefeweizen was the 1st beer I had in California back in 1999 and the current brewing system I have I purchased from John. So yes, today we speak with John Donehower of Pyramid Breweries in Berkeley.
What is the story/history behind Pyramid?
Pyramid started out as Hart Brewing in 1984 in a small storefront deli in Kalama, WA. Pyramid Pale Ale was their first beer, and for a long time its flagship brew. Pyramid Wheaten Ale, the first wheat beer brewed in America since Prohibition, came out the following year. In 1989, five beer-loving investors from Seattle bought Hart Brewing and grew it up to what you know today. They changed the name to Pyramid Breweries in 1996 to reflect and to emphasize the flagship brand. Hefeweizen, introduced in 1993, has since taken over as the flagship beer, so much so that Pyramid and Hefeweizen are, in this country anyway, nearly synonymous. These days, Pyramid is consolidating its historical success in brewing wheat beers by widening hefeweizen's distribution and developing new wheat beers.
How long does it take to settle on a recipe for commercial production?
That depends on the venue we plan to feature the new beer. A new bottled, wide release beer might take months of pilot brewing and lots of taste testing. When releasing a beer on that large of a scale, it is important that it not change after its release to meet customer expectations from batch to batch and to stay within the statements on the approved label. An Alehouse Exclusive (a beer served only in the Pyramid's Alehouse restaurants) might be drawn up as a recipe one week and brewed the next. These beers though will undergo some variation as we and our customers drink it. There's more flexibility there.
How far removed from the initial idea is the final product we all now commonly drink?
At a brewery this size, the initial idea often comes from anywhere but the brewery. We're pretty darn busy making beer. We have a large sales team that pitches ideas for beers they'd like to sell. The marketing folks have ideas for beers they think will enhance the brand. Our job is to work with them and nail down what it is they're after and develop the recipe. For example, we actually had someone in the company come to us once and ask us to brew a beer in the style of a competitor, but with "more attitude." Well, as you know, attitude is not yet available in malted or pelletized form. So, in that case the final product was very far removed from the initial idea. We had to have a long talk about what was really wanted, in beer terms. Other ideas are more straightforward like our Oktober Weizen we released this year. We set out to brew a wheat-based Oktoberfest. We specialize in wheat beers but we have successfully brewed oktoberfests in the past, so we didn't have far to go in getting that the way we liked it.
What settings do you use for crushing grain?
I really have no idea of the exact width of the gap in the rollers. The mill does, however, have a very sensitive set screw. We adjust based upon our inspection of the crush. If it's milling everything to a powder, we'll turn the screw ever so slightly until it's just right.
Do you perform the legendary "20 minute" mashes? If not, how long do you mash?
We do the lesser-known-yet-nearly-as-amazing "25 minute" sacchrification rest after a 20-minute protein rest. We follow this schedule on all of our beers. Our mash tun has an agitator at its bottom that allows us to get a complete and thorough conversion in that time. The agitator pulses on for a minute then goes off for a minute, creating a gentle whirlpool effect. This does a couple of important things for us. It establishes an even temperature throughout the mash. It gets every bit of grain thoroughly hydrated. When ramping up from one rest to another, it prevents scorching of the mash on the steam-jacketed walls by keeping it in a constant motion. The constant motion rapidly spreads heat from the vessel wall throughout the mash, making temperature ramps steep.
What kind of efficiency do you normally get? How much fluctuation do you get from batch to batch?
We get in the upper 80s and low 90s. We don't get so much variation between batches as we do between crop years. Right now is a dicey time because one crop year is ending and another beginning. The maltsters will blend the old with the new for a couple of weeks so it doesn't throw everyone off, but it will eventually entail some change in brewhouse efficiency. If it goes up we don't ask too many questions. Other times, the efficiency goes down. Sometimes this can be as simple to fix as making a mill adjustment or a mash temperature change, but there are bad crop years that you just have to live with or go looking for another supplier who can meet your needs.
How long does a typical brew session take? What is a typical brew day like?
One brew takes 7 hours from mash-in to end of knockout. We do 5 brews a day with knockouts coming every 3 hours of so. Right now, we're brewing Monday through Thursday. We start each day at 6am and go to midnight or 2am depending on what we're brewing that day. It takes 4 brewers working in two shifts to do all of the work. Two guys start the morning shift making wort and doing the cellar work. Two more brewers come in to relieve them in the afternoon.
At what temperature do you do your mashes?
Could be anywhere from 146F to 163F, depending on the brew. We struggle to keep our IPA from getting too dry, so we mash that in the 160s. The hefeweizen is mashed in the low 150s.
How long does your boil commonly last?
Boils for all but the Snowcap are 60 minute boils. The Snowcap boils for 90 minutes because it has such a high starting gravity. Essentially, we're boiling off water until we reach the target OG.
Do you adjust the water (use water modifiers) for the different styles or just go with the local water source?
Berkeley has water that's on the soft side. We filter it through activated carbon to remove particulate and chlorine. We use calcium chloride to adjust the mash pH to a range of 5.2-5.4.
What type of yeast do you use and how do you maintain your culture?
We maintain two strains. We use a lager for our wheat beers. Yes, I said we use a lager yeast for our wheat beers. This yeast tends to stay in suspension, especially in a hazy wheat beer. Also, it has a great taste and bready aroma. It can show some sulfur in young beer but it dissipates quickly during maturation. For our ales we use a British ale yeast. We use it for our Snowcap, Thunderhead IPA, and Curveball Kolsch-style beer. It's a great all-around yeast that flocculates well, making light work at the filter.
How many times do you reuse your yeast from batch to batch?
We use yeast for 15 generations. When we get to the 10th generation we'll begin propping up a new one from a one liter slurry, slowly introducing that into the cellar. During these times we'll stop re-pitching the old one and start repitching the new one as much as possible, but it still takes a couple of weeks to have a enough to use the new one exclusively. The two generations are never mixed.
What about hops... do you use whole or pellet hops? Why?
We use pellets because they're easier to clean out of the kettle, whirlpool, and heat exchanger. Additionally, they're easier to handle. We use over 40lbs of Tomahawk pellets for the whirlpool addition of our IPA. I can only imagine how bulky that would be in whole flower!
What are your thoughts on the "hop revolution" - the ever increasing number of hoppy beers and the quantity of hops used?
The hop revolution has been good for craft brewing. It has helped differentiate what we do from the Big Three. Hops are -- to borrow a phrase from pop music - a great hook. They're up front, easy to identify, and memorable. The "hop revolution," as you call it, is even responsible for legitimizing American interpretations of some classic styles: pale ale, IPA, double IPA. But all revolutions must have their corrections. I like hoppy styles, but I don't need every beer I drink to be hoppy. Fortunately, there are some other trends on the rise that will put hops in their place as just one of many flavors possible in beer. Oak barrel aging and Belgian-style beers are taking off all around the country. Both of these trends have a lot more flavor possibilities. The fact that the beer drinking public is beginning to show interest in them is a great sign that the revolution won't end with hops.
Do you use a Whirlpool or Filter method? If neither, which do you use?
We whirlpool our wort for 15 minutes before knocking it out to the fermenter.
What finings or clarifiers do you use if any?
For beers that will be filtered we use whirlfloc, which is a synthetic version of Irish moss. However, we don't use it on our unfiltered wheat beers. We want those hazy proteins to make it into the final product.
What temps are most ales fermented at on this level?
We ferment ale yeast 65F or 70F depending on the ABV and the ester profile we're looking to achieve.
Do you pasteurize or add preservatives?
We do not pasteurize and we do not use preservatives.
What do you use for the apricot flavoring in the apricot wheat?
We use syrup made from apricots. The syrup is processed in such a way as keep the apricot
flavor stable in storage. We add it during active fermentation, the second full day after brew day.
Adding it during fermentation insures that the flavor is well-blended with the base beer.
Which award are you most proud of and why?
I'm very proud of Pyramid's 2004 Gold Medal at the GABF for American-style Hefeweizen. That same year we won 2 Bronze medals for a Brown Porter and a Maple Wheat beer. I brewed both of those at the Walnut Creek brewery. The Maple Wheat was an original recipe originally developed on my home system.
What do you see in the future for you and your company?
Wheat beers and more wheat beers.
Location: 901 Gilman Street Berkeley, CA 94710
How long has the brewery been around:
The company started in 1984. This location opened in 1997.
What is the yearly production?
We're on track to top 100,000 bbls this year at the Berkeley brewery.
How many different beers are made and how many are bottled? Where do the rest go?
We bottle and distribute 6 Pyramid brands (Hefeweizen, Amber Weizen, Apricot Weizen, Thunderhead IPA, Snowcap (winter seasonal), and Curveball (summer seasonal). They're all also available on draft. We also own Portland Brewing Company, which puts out Mac's Amber, Blackwatch Porter, and an amazing amount of contract brews.
What is the current distribution?
We're in 31 states, mostly west of the Mississippi River.
Name: John Donehower
Date of Birth: March 1972
Current Brewery: Pyramid Breweries Berkeley, CA
What kind of education do you have?
BA English Vanderbilt University, MA English Seton Hall University.
Did you attend a Brewing School?
How long have you been brewing?
3 years professionally, 10 years recreationally
How long have you been at your current job?
What did you do previous to this job?
Store Manager at Peet's Coffee & Tea
Every brewer has high and low points... what are yours?
High point: Getting a brewing job. Low point: shutting down the Walnut Creek brewery.
What is your favorite beer style and why?
I don't have a favorite beer style. My tastes change. Right now I find Belgian beers very interesting to drink and to brew. I'm fascinated with the way their flavors and aromas unfold after you open the bottle.
What is your Favorite beer?
The freshest one available.
Which beer do you enjoy brewing the most? Why?
I like brewing the winter seasonal, Snowcap. To me, it's a well-balanced beer: deep roasted malt character balanced with spicy East Kent Golding hop aroma at a strong, but undetectable ABV. In the glass it's a deep mahogany, but through the lighted sight glass on the filter, it appears Santa Claus-suit red. It's pure winter-warmer. I like brewing it because the raw ingredients taste so apparent in the final product. The chocolate malt and Goldings hops smell as rich in the pint as they do on brew day.
What do you like most about your job?
I like that I make something. It satisfies a need for creativity
and it feels great to get to the end of the day and
have a real sense of accomplishment. I also like that
it never gets boring. There's always something new to
learn, whether it's troubleshooting a brewing problem
or rebuilding a pump. And, yes, there is the all the
Do you ever get asked for your input on recipe
formulation? If not, what is the process for that?
Yes. Sometimes I'll be asked for an opinion on what
specialty malts to use or just to look over a recipe
that someone else has come up with. In those cases,
it's usually our master brewer that has the main
responsibility and it's his way of giving us an
opportunity for input. Other times, he'll delegate
the whole task of recipe formulation to one of us. It
depends on how big a beer it will be in the line-up.
Alehouse exclusive brews, contract brews, and
competition/festival brews often end up in our laps.
Do you have a pilot system there for brewing test
We make pilot batches a couple of ways.
The company has a 1-barrel steam fired system at the
Seattle alehouse. This is what most places would use
to brew pilot batches. When we were doing more
brewing at the Walnut Creek and Sacramento 20-bbl
pubs, we would brew half-batches on those. We have
even piloted batches on my 10-gallon homebrew system.
We used that to develop the Berry Wheat and the Maple
Wheat 20th anniversary beers in 2004. By brewing
several small batches, we could dial in a dosing rate
for the berry and the maple without having to brew
larger batches. Every flavor has a different
threshold and really takes some trial and error to
figure out what is just right.
Other than the seasonal Snowcap, do you ever brew less
commonly known beers like the Double IPA, 5,000 Year
Ale barley wine, and Espresso Stout? Are there any
other beers that they brew there that are only served
through the brewpub?
For 2005, we cut back on a lot of the brands we brew to focus on Hefeweizen and wheat
beers in general. We have brewed all those beers you
mentioned in the past, but they are not active brews
at the moment. The brewpub exclusive right now is the
Do you ever brew one-off batches for local festivals
like the Bistro IPA Festival or Bistro Double IPA
Yes we have brewed small one-off batches for the Toronado Barley wine Festival
and the California Small Brewer's Festival. This year
we will be donating a firkin to the Triple Rock 3rd
Annual Firkin Gravity Festival on April 1st (and
that's not a joke).
How did you get into brewing in the beginning?
A guy I used to go rock climbing with was a dedicated homebrewer. He brewed up about 20 cases in the fall and drank them throughout the year. His beers were very good. I helped him bottle a batch once and thought, "I can do this." But I didn't go out and get a kit until after college when I was looking for a job. It was a great distraction between sending out resumes and interviewing. It made me feel like I was doing something. Remember, I was an English major.
Do you still brew at home? What do you like to brew if you do?
I brew hefeweizen most every day of the week while I'm at work, so I still homebrew for variety. I still homebrew like I used to, which means in phases. Right now the phase is Belgian styles. I have a saison and a biere de garde on tap right now. But that will change I'm sure the next time I get a hold of a really fresh pint of some other style. That usually inspires my curiosity: "How'd they do that?"
Thank you John for spending some time with the brew-monkey. I learned some things and had never thought about doing a wheat beer with a lager yeast before - interesting idea. Next time you are in the mood for a Hefe - crack open a Pyramid. Cheers to John and Pyramid Breweries.