Schmitty: Head Brewer at Real Ale

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When and why did you get into the beer industry?

I started brewing about eleven years ago. I was working in the service industry managing restaurants and ended up doing this as a way to avoid going to grad school, which worked pretty well. I was home brewing when I met the folks at Independence Brewing Company and started a job there. I loved it because it was hands on and you get to reap the benefits of your work immediately. I stuck with brewing ever since.

When did you start home brewing?

Right after college. My now wife bought me a home brewing kit. I was doing that for a little over a year while managing different bars and restaurants when I met the Independence Brewing folks.

How long have you been the Head Brewer at Real Ale?

I’ve been with Real Ale for a little over eight years and in the Head Brewer position for about five years.

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What are the Head Brewer’s responsibilities?

I’m both the Head Brewer and Production Manager so I schedule all the brews every week and all the packaging runs. I directly manage the brew house staff and I work with our head cellar manager to get everything through the system and out the door.

Tell me about the brewing process. How long does it typically take to make a beer?

From mash end to pump back, we’re looking at about six-and-a-half hours. Depending on the style of the beer, the fermenting time is anywhere from three to six weeks. When we are making barrel aged beer, it can take anywhere from six months to a year-and-a-half. For year round brews like Firemans #4, it takes about six-and-a-half hours in the brew house and within three weeks we are transferring and packaging it.

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How many barrels do you produce annually? How many different types of beer do you produce?

We did about 61,000 barrels last year. We have nine year-round beers. We have five seasonal beers. We have our Brewers’ Cut program that rotates about every three months with a new brand. Those are one-off beers so that’s about another four more every year. And then once you get into the barrel aged program, that adds at least another six that are in steady rotation with occasional one-offs.

Do you specialize in any particular type of beer?

I spend most of time planning and working in the barrel and cask program.

Tell me about the barrel aging process.

With our barrel program we take finished beer (fully fermented and aged) and move it into barrels for further aging or additional fermentation. With our wild beers, they are undergoing a secondary fermentation. For example Scots Gone Wild, which is one of our more popular sours, we take a non-peated version of our scotch ale, put that into barrels that have already been inoculated with wild yeast and bacteria and let it undergo a secondary fermentation that takes about fifteen months. Sometimes we can turn it around in a year — it really just depends on seasons. It depends on how cold the winter is and how quickly the temperature changes. As it warms up in the summer, the fermenting process is really going to accelerate in the barrels. It’s different than what we’re doing in the tanks and the rest of our cellar. It’s definitely a lot slower. We have to keep tabs and check on it often.

Aside from Real Ale, what are your top three favorite beers that people can realistically find on shelves or taps?

I don’t get out to drink too often since have a 4-year-old at home, but I happen to be good friends with the guys from Austin Beerworks and they are always at the top of my list. Beyond Austin Beerworks, I’m a very big fan of Community Beer Company in Dallas. New Glarus Brewing is also on my list. You actually won’t find it in Texas since they are out of Wisconsin. One of the reasons I like New Glarus is because their model has been an inspiration for Real Ale. Even though they are a big brewery — three times our size — they only distribute statewide.

You can only buy Real Ale beers in Texas?

Texas only. Our distribution network covers the entire state, but different beers have different lengths of their distribution channels so you won’t be able to find a lot of our barrel aged beers in every small town in Texas.

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What are the main reasons that breweries choose to only distribute statewide?

If we’re talking philosophy, the “keep it local” idea is the biggest driver. Beyond that, we can service all of Texas with a single distributor. Our goal is to be the best in the state rather than try to be everywhere.

How would you describe the Real Ale brand?

The biggest thing we identify with is Texas. We are in an interesting position because we are not local in the same context as someone like Austin Beerworks. We don’t really have a large metropolitan area to call home — even though Austin is our biggest market, it’s 50 miles away.

We are looking to make the best beer, not to make the most beer. We’re not looking to be the biggest brewery by any means. If you look at our lineup, we aren’t chasing any sort of extremes. We aren’t trying to make the hoppiest IPA or the craziest sour, we really just trying to make good beer. Our motto is that we are unfiltered, unpasteurized, and unavailable outside of Texas.

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For someone who doesn’t know a lot about beer, how would you explain the difference in the process for craft breweries like Real Ale vs. macro breweries like Anheuser-Busch?

The sheer volume and level of automation is a huge differentiator. Whenever I give a tour of the brewery, I try to pay a lot of respect to the big brewers. The macro brewers are very good at what they do. The challenge of making one bottle of Bud Light taste the same as the next thousand  bottles is impressive. They are honed in and very detail oriented — they accomplish a level of consistency that very few craft brewers are able to meet. We are more subject to variation since a lot of what we do is hands on. We are relying on all five senses to understand what’s going on in the brew house at any given time. Macro brewers are much larger and more heavily automated. I think with our relative proximity to the beer, we are more likely to invest more love and emotion into every bottle. And then when we are talking about designing beers, the big guys aren’t going to put out a new beer on a whim. But we can put out a new beer and it’s fine if it doesn’t work — we can check it off our list. We have much more flexibility.

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What’s the most common mistake made when brewing?

We’ve made some mistakes here and there but we’ve never fallen victim to anything too catastrophic. We’ve never made a mistake that cost us a batch of beer. We’ve made some mistakes where we were not able to process a beer through the brew house — basically we just had to throw the grain away. I’ve talked to some of the guys from Miller though, and things happen. If someone isn’t paying attention and you open the wrong valve, you could push a bunch of water into a batch of beer. We’ve delayed the release of a beer because of a power outage and the fermentation overheated, but I can’t think of any human errors in the recent history at Real Ale. We’ve definitely had some batches where we push it through and get it packaged but it’s not exactly what we were hoping for. It is usually pretty close to where we want to be though. For example, we just made a session IPA. It tastes great but I don’t think anyone is 100% happy with it. I’m 90% happy with it but it could be better. And conversely, we’ve never really had a scenario that I can think of where the beer turns out awful and not anything like what we expected.

What is next for the craft beer industry? Are there any new and exciting trends or innovations coming five, ten, twenty years down the road?

We saw a big blow up of IPAs and I don’t they’re going anywhere, which is great because I love hoppy beers. We’ve seen a lot of Gose enter the market. There are so many breweries out there that it’s hard to get a read on what the next style trend will be. As more and more breweries open, more and and more brewers will continue to raise the bar. I think with the increase in breweries, especially in Texas, we will start to see better beer because it will filter out the ones that aren’t reaching higher standards. Eventually you’re going to be forced to choose between a handful of great beers rather than only having one or two that you know are good. I think we are getting more brewers that know what they’re doing rather than hobbyists who open a brewery on a whim. That’s one of the reasons I really like Community and Austin Beerworks — they came right out of the gate throwing zingers. They knew what they were doing right from the get-go whereas some breweries stumble and get lucky. With all these new breweries opening, there won’t be as much forgiveness for subpar beers. I’m excited to see the shelf tighten up.

Schmitty - GABF - 2015

How do you stay current on trends and continue to learn? Are there conferences you attend? Publications you read? Networks of brewers you interact with?

There are some conferences. For example, the Craft Brewers Conference that the Brew Association hosts. There are also meetings around the state and country that allow brewers to converse with peers to learn about new things in brewing like techniques or ingredients. In terms of staying on top of what people are drinking and buying, that comes from spending time with our reps. We have a tight communication with our Austin reps. And then every time I’m at the store I look at the beer aisle, even if I’m not buying beer, just to see what’s out there. For example, six months ago we saw a bunch of grapefruit beer popping up and the same goes with Gose. Also going to beer festivals is good way to see what’s popular in the market, and then being aware of the new breweries opening and what they offer.

What advice would you give to someone who has a passion for brewing and wants to make of a career out of it?

The best advice I can give is to find a brewery you like and get your foot in the door. I worked for free at my first brewery job for at least six months. I did a bunch of not-so-glamorous work at the brewery during the day and then waited tables and managed a restaurant at night. Eventually I worked my way up where I was filtering and packaging. That was an invaluable way to gain experience. It allowed me to really get to know the industry and forced me to come in with a certain level of humility.

20th Anny Glass

What are the normal hours for a brewer?

It depends. At Real Ale we’re pretty good at running eight-hour shifts. Sometimes ten depending how busy we are and what department you’re in. But they’re plenty of breweries out there that are just starting up and they’ll work ten to twelve hour days.

Are breweries operating twenty-four hours a day?

We run twenty-four hours a day, five days a week so our brew house and cellar have overnight shifts. A lot of other breweries in Texas don’t because they aren’t big enough to need it. I love my job but it’s hard work. Sitting down with a great group after a long day and enjoying a beer that we made together — the reward that comes with brewing is awesome.

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Question from the last interviewee: Was there a specific time or situation when you knew you wanted to pursue a career in the industry you’re in?

I knew I wanted to pursue a career in brewing after the first open house at Independence Brewing. Having the opportunity to engage with folks who are so stoked to be drinking your beer — there is such a pride that comes with that.

What one question do you want to ask the next interviewee on People With Cool Jobs?

If you weren’t doing whatever you’re doing right now, what would you be doing?

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