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Brew-Monkey's Brewer Interview


Peter Hoey


Bison Brewing Company

Bison Brewing Company
2598 Telegraph Ave
Berkeley, CA

March 09, 2006

After a bit of a hiatus, the brewer interviews are back... Staying close to home, we visit Peter Hoey of Bison Brewing Company, known for their Chocolate Stout, Gingerbread Ale and brewing organic. Thanks for taking some time to chat with us Peter. Let's get started shall we?

What is the story/history behind your brewery?
The brewery was started in 1989 by Buffalo Bill Owens as one of the first brewpubs in California. It was purchased by Dan Del Grande in 1997. Dan ran the brew pub for several years and then in 2003 closed the restaurant to focus on the expanding draft and bottle market. We still produce our award winning beer at the original Telegraph location.

How long does it take to settle on a recipe for commercial production?
Usually we can get it pretty close on the first batch. Both Dan and I have been brewing long enough that we know what ingredients taste like and what quantities to use in order to achieve desired results. I will research style history and read whatever style series book is appropriate as well as an exhaustive google search on the style. Minor tweaks may go on in subsequent batches to correct small issues.

It is a lot like cooking. Once you do it for a while you know how much salt to add or how much cayenne would be too much. The same goes for brewing.

How much trial and error went into the recipe?
When we brew a beer that uses an odd ingredient or technique we will use a homebrew system to run a few pilot batches. For instance, last summer we brewed fifteen or so batches of chocolate ale to ascertain what kind of chocolate and where to add it was optimal for chocolate flavor.

How did you decide on the beer styles you make?
Bison has always brewed non-traditional and out of style beers so we try to keep that attitude of innovation and creativity alive in our seasonal offerings today. We do roughly follow tradition in the sense that we brew stronger darker beers in the winter and lighter beers in the summer. Often it is a matter of what we would like to drink.

How far removed from the initial idea is the final product we all now commonly drink?
Bison started as one of the first brewpubs in the California since the repeal of prohibition so the fact that we closed the restaurant to focus on bottled beer sales is a dramatic departure from the original conception. The beers generally remain true to the original idea.

What settings do you use for crushing grain?
We have a standard two roller mill that we only adjust the mill gap when we see differences in mash performance and extraction rates.

Do you perform the legendary "20 minute" mashes? If not, how long do you mash?
We mash for at least one hour. When we brew we always brew double batches so the second mash of the day can see a two hour mash stand while waiting for the first batch of the day to finish pumping into the kettle.

What kind of efficiency do you normally get? How much fluctuation do you get from batch to batch?
We typically get 85% efficiency with very little variation. Stronger beers where we completely fill our mash tun the efficiency drops to 80%.

How long does a typical brew session take? What is a typical brew day like?
A typical brew session takes about 11 hours. Our typical day usually includes several other tasks while brewing such as cleaning kegs, tanks or brewery floors. You have to multitask to be in this industry otherwise you would never go home! It is a long day but it always seems short because we are doing what we love.

How often do you brew? What days do you brew?
We brew four batches every two to three weeks. Typically we brew on Thursdays and Fridays so our farmer can pick up our spent grain on the weekend. It also allows the primary fermentation to complete over the weekend so we can bung the fermenters first thing on Monday morning.

At what temperature do you do your mashes?
Lower temperatures (148-152 F) for lighter beers and higher (up to 158 F) for darker beers. It really depends on the style of beer, they are all different.

What type of mashes do you do?
Single infusion mashes.

How long does your boil commonly last?
One hour. Some of our specialty ales will boil longer if we want a deeper malt character with more caramelization.

Do you adjust the water (use water modifiers) for the different styles or just go with the local water source?
We adjust out water for each brew. Our local water source is very soft so in order to enhance the hop character of our IPA we "burtonize" the water. For our stout we add sodium bicarbonate to help balance the acidity of the mash from the darker malts.

What type of yeast do you use and how do you maintain your culture?
We use WLP 002 for most of our beers but have good relationships with other local breweries that allow us to borrow their yeast should it be more appropriate for a seasonal beer than our house yeast. Our Belgian ale uses WLP 530. We harvest our yeast after sending the tank to 50 degrees into converted kegs or corny-cans and store them in our walk-in until we pitch back to the next round of brews. When we need a fresh generation we place an order from White Labs.

How many times do you reuse your yeast from batch to batch?
Typically we keep our generations under eight for our ale yeast and only run two generations for our Belgian strains.

What about hops... do you use whole or pellet hops? Why?
We use both. Pellet hops are easy to use in our brewhouse which does not have a hop back to strain out whole hops. The quality of pellet hops has increase dramatically over the years where we can get quality aroma and flavor from them. Pellets take up much less space than whole hops so we do not need a dedicated storage area for our hops. We do dry hop our IPA with whole hops as we have found it adds a more delicate and complex aroma than pellets.

What are your thoughts on the "hop revolution" - the ever increasing number of hoppy beers and the quantity of hops used?
I am a hop head and I love many of the increasingly hoppy beers being produced but it is essential to maintain balance. At the end of the day the beer has to be drinkable and creating a balanced beer with the ever increasing quantities of hops can be a difficult proposition. I am not such a fan of the insane bitterness levels as I am of the late kettle hopping for huge aromatics.

Do you use a Whirlpool or Filter method?
We use a whirlpool.

What finings or clarifiers do you use if any?
We do not use finings other than koppaklear (like isinglass) in the kettle. Not only are our beers organic but they are vegan as well. If we were to use gelatin or isinglass to fine the beers they would no longer be vegan as both fining products are animal derived.

What temps are most ales fermented at on this level?
Typically 68 degrees but some Belgian yeasts can see temperatures as high as 80 degrees.

Do you pasteurize or add preservatives?
None of our beers are pasteurized or preserved in anyway.

Which award are you most proud of and why?
Our most recent award was a Silver Medal at the Great American Beer Festival for the Chocolate Stout. It was especially rewarding because I entered the stout in the Foreign-Extra Stout category, not in a chocolate beer category. We don't want our beers to just be novel, we want them to be drinkable and that medal really reinforced that. It was also the first time I ever enter a beer in the Great American Beer Festival so it was nice to take home a medal on the first try!

Do you have any techniques or processes that are unique to your brewing/brewery? Can you tell us about it/them?
Most of our methods are traditional, but I am sure I have some idiosyncratic behaviors in the brewhouse.

If there was something you would like to add to the production beer lineup, but haven't - what would it be?
We regularly release seasonal beers so I get to brew most of what I want. The one elusive style that we just do not have room to pursue in our current production facility is barrel aged beers. I really enjoy them from the breweries that are producing them and I would like to try my hand at it eventually. For the Chocolate Stout - what do you add and when?
We add cocoa powder in the mash to up the chocolate flavor in our stout. We did find in our brewing trials that we got a lovely chocolate flavor when we added bitter sweet chocolate directly to the keg but consistency issues coupled with what a mess it is to clean did not allow us to do that on the scale that we produce the chocolate stout.

For the Gingerbread Ale what adjuncts are added and when? What is the base style for this beer?
The spice blend is added at the end of the boil to extract more aroma than flavor. The base for the beer was a brown porter than was one of Dan's original homebrew recipes. We increased the gravity slightly to make it more of a winter warmer.

What do you see in the future for you and your company?
We are gradually expanding distribution and are currently involved in a brewery expansion project to accommodate the increased sales. Bison keeps evolving and growing and I love the new challenges this brings

Brewery info:

2598 Telegraph Ave Berkeley, CA 94704

How long has the brewery been around:

What is the yearly production?
1,500 barrels per year

How many different beers are made and how many are bottled? Where do the rest go?
We make four regular beers (IPA, Red, Stout and Belgian) and release a new seasonal ale about every other month. Since we don't have a pub we bottle everything we make. We are currently negotiating a deal to bring our beers to the Pacific Northwest on draft.

What is the current distribution?
We are available in California, Oregon, Washington, Georgia, North Carolina but the majority of our sales are on the West Coast.

Brewer Profile:

Name: Peter Hoey

Date of Birth: 11/18/1979

Current Brewery: Bison Brewing Company

What kind of education do you have? BA Economics, Minor Mathematics

Did you attend a Brewing School? The American Brewer's Guild

How long have you been brewing? Seven years

How long have you been at your current job? One and a half years

What did you do previous to this job?
Immediately prior I was a full time student as I went back to school to finish my degree. Before that I was the head brewer at Sacramento Brewing Company and prior to that I was a shift brewer at Sierra Nevada Brewing Company.

Every brewer has high and low points... what are yours?
The High: Winning best of show at the California State Fair competition for a Chili beer I brewed just for fun around Cinco de Mayo.

The Low: When I had to leave Sierra Nevada. A personal issue required me to move away from Chico and I even tried to commute from Sacramento for 4 months until I finally collapsed!

What is your favorite beer style and why?
Belgian. Such rich flavors, drinkablility, complexity and infinite food pairings make this a world that I could explore forever.

What is your Favorite beer?
Lately it has been La Fin Du Monde but I am always seeking out new IPAs and Double IPAs when I don't go Belgian.

Which beer do you enjoy brewing the most? Why?
Our seasonal ales. I like variety in the work place and this allows me to mix it up a bit. It also signals the start of a new season or time of year. I know the holidays are coming when we fire up the brewhouse for Gingerbread Ale.

How did you get into brewing in the beginning?
I started brewing at home on my stove with a basic extract kit. I moved out of my parent's house when I was 17 and found out rather quickly that I could not afford to buy good beer all the time so I decided to start making it myself. I have always loved to cook so this was a natural extension. Do you still brew at home? What do you like to brew if you do?

Typically I will brew at home only once or twice a year and will brew a Belgian or a lager. Something that we would not typically brew at Bison.

What advice/words of wisdom do you have for those who may want to go pro?
Be ready to clean. Visit your local breweries and see if they need an intern, volunteer or part time help so you can see if it is really what you want to do. Brewing commercially is different than homebrewing especially when it comes to consistency and it is worth it to see if your have a hobby you will be passionate about or whether you can make a career out of it.

Here is a homebrew version of our Red Ale; I think the most underrated beer I make:

Bison Brewing Organic Red Ale
1.061 SG, 25 IBUs
69% Gambrinus Organic 2-Row
11% Weyermann Organic Caramunich II
1% Briess Organic Chocolate Malt
19% Weyermann Organic Munich II

.25 oz US Magnum (14.1%) 60 minutes
.75 oz Cascade (5.6%) 15 minutes
1.5 oz Crystal (3.4%) whirlpool

Ferment with WLP 002

Personal notes/outside interests:

I still love to find new brewpubs and beers and lately have been expanding this fattening hobby to include artesian cheeses. My family is from Sonoma and the bay area so I collect and maintain a small wine cellar as a hobby as well.

I love to cook and lately have really been making an effort to find new beer and food pairings and host Belgian beer dinners at my house for friends semi regularly.

Thanks Peter - there is some great info here and a recipe. I haven't seen the Bison red before - so maybe I shall give this a try. Again, thank you for taking the time and letting us in on your brewing wisdom. Cheers!

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