June 28th, 2009

  • thaen

#19: Interview with Deschutes’ Head Brewer, Larry Sidor

Originally published at GeekBeer. Please leave any comments there.

We’ve got something very special this week: Ethan interviews Larry Sidor, head brewer of Deschutes Brewing in Bend, Oregon.

I think I’m allowed to call this a coup. A podcast like this one shouldn’t be able to score things like this, but hey, this is the Internet.

Direct link for those that want to listen in-browser is right here.

I’ve managed to transcribe the entire interview and have included the text below, both for our listening-challenged followers and for the benefit of the search engines. Please excuse the numerous typos — it takes a long time to transcribe this stuff by hand (I can type at about 1/2 speed, so with the help of Quicktime, I can transcribe at a little slower than 1/2 time), and I’m not really interested in perfecting all the mistakes I make along the way.


Larry: This is Larry.

Ethan: Hi there Larry, this is Ethan John from GeekBeer. How’s it going?

Larry: It’s goin’ great.

Ethan: So you got a few minutes to talk with me about Deschutes?

Larry: Sure. Can you hear me?

Ethan: Yeah, can you hear me okay?

Larry: Yeah thats a little better yeah. I could just barely hear you when you first… when you first called in.

Ethan: All right, cool. So, I’m not sure how much, you were told, how much Jason told you, but I have, my friend and I have a small beer podcast, and we’re hoping to be able to do some interviews like this with various breweries and actually we’re just starting out with you.

Larry: Oh geez, I’m the guinea pig huh?

Ethan: That’s right, that’s right.

Larry: Just like some of my brews!

Ethan: Yeah, exactly. I was wondering if we could start things off and you could introduce yourself to our listeners.

Larry: Yeah ok yeah. My name is Larry Sidor and I’m the brewmaster at Deschutes brewery. I’ve been here for um going on 6 years now. I came in when Deschutes bought a larger brewhouse and they really needed somebody to run it, so… That’s more or less my background with Deschutes.

Ethan: Cool. I’m actually really excited about this interview. It turns out, at least from what I could tell, that Deschutes doesn’t do a whole lot of brewer interviews with the outside world, so I’m sort of excited to be able to talk to you today. I know that… is it Jimmy Seifrit? Is that his name?

Larry: Yeah.

Ethan: He did an interview a few weeks ago with the guys from the Brew Strong Network on Can You Brew It? about how to brew the Obsidion Stout.

Larry: Yeah ok.

Ethan: But I’m not actually at all familiar with like the normal division of labor in a brewhouse. Can you describe what you do that’s different from what like Jimmy or… or is it Mark does?

Larry: Yeah, I’ve got it. I would say that nothing at Deschutes is Normal. We tend to do things the hard way, and I think it’s really for the benefit of the of the beer. So as far as how Deschutes works is that uh… you know, I’m responsible for all of the beer that gets beered. Jimmy is one of our senior brewers. He’s spent a lot of time at our Bond Street pub. He also, I drug him up to Seattle when we opened up the Seattle pub. He had a lot of very positive influence on starting up that uh up that brewhouse.

So all the brewers all of them report to me, but you know, I’ve got three principle brewers which is uh Paul Arney who’s down at our Bend pub. I’ve got Cam o’Conner who is our principal brewer in Portland. I’ve got Brian Favor who is our principal brewer here at bend in the main production facility. And then we’ve got Brad Porter who is our head brewer that kind of keeps everything together when uh you know when they they need to be. So… the result is that we have a lot of creativity. And so for example, this week I’ve got Cam o’Conner who is normally in the Portland pub is down in Argentina and has been there on vacation doing some interesting stuff. And so Bruce McDee who is one of our brewers who has been around a long is up there running that.

So you know we just have a lot of creativity. It’s not me just absolutely saying, “You will do this,” it’s more, I make sure that we’ve got the highest quality, craziest materials available, and you know, give ‘em to the brewers and see what they come up with in some of these projects. It’s pretty hard for any brewer at Deschutes to say, you know, “I invented this, or I invented that.” It’s more that this is what, uh… here were the challenges and here’s what we came up with.

Ethan: Sure, it’s a real collaborative effort.

Larry: Yeah, yeah. And right now we’re working on a Black IPA, and for a couple different reasons, I started the Portland brewhouse out brewing more of a schwartzbier, and the Bend pub ended up starting out a little more in the what you want to call “left field” that’s what’s going on in Portland.

So through all this work, we’ve been brewing a black IPA every week: one one week Portland, one the next week in Bend. We’re kind of coming to a place where we’re thinking we’ve got it. We’ve started to hit some of the attributes that we want and uh, you know, a lot of the things we did in Portland were, you know, pretty interesting. We applied those to what we learned in Bend, and vica versa. So it’s pretty cool to be able to go in these different directions in a uniform method… if that’s a grammatically accurate, if that’s grammatically accurate (which I doubt if it is). Needless to say it’s a most interesting way to look at R&D and come up with some pretty interesting brews.

Ethan: Yeah that sounds pretty awesome! So you actually use the brewpubs as sort of pilot brewhouses?

Larry: Oh absolutely. They’re kind of the first place we go crazy. You know, I just went through the Abyss. Somebody asked me the other day how we created that, and we’d been trying to make a different stout… Within that style, we had an imperial stout that we’d been working with. We kind of came to the conclusion that this was the direction we really needed to go, and that an imperial stout was exactly the way we needed to go.

And so we brewed a couple brews at the Bend pub… one that was a very blackstrap molasses brew and another one that was a very brewers-licorice challenged brew. We took those beers that were made and we put some of them in Jack Daniels bourbon barrels, and you know, figured out what direction that was going to take us…

We even — one of the brewers — took a bourbon barrel and sanded down the staves. The outside of the staves, not the inside. Took the barrel apart. Sanded down the outside and put the staves actually in a conditioning tank. While the results were interesting, they were not the direction we wanted to go.

Ethan: Ha! Maybe in a future beer?

Larry: Yeah…. maybe not even there. But you know, we learned a lot. Previous to this, we had done a fair amount of work with bourbon barrels, a fair amount of work with oak… You probably haven’t heard about these projects, but we did a beer called Jubel 2000 and one called Double Bale Quail. Both of those beers were aged in midwest oak, and they had various levels of toastings. We discovered a lot.

So, you know, maybe not the direction we wanted to go, but needless to say, we discovered a lot. That kind of gives you an insight of how those things work.

The next step after we did the initial brewing at the pub… I should tell you we have four brew houses at Deschutes. We have a twelve and a half barrel, which is the Bend pub. We have a 21 and a half barrel which is the Portland pub. Then we have a 50 barrel here at the main production facility, and then we have a 150 barrel brewhouse.

So what we did after we brewed the 12 and a half barrel Abyss at the Bend pub, I brewed a 50 barrel brew here at the production facility. Here again, we learned a lot. Every brew was more of a learning exercise. The good news with that is that we either sold all of the beer that we made at the Bend pub, the Abyss, or it was blended in to the Abyss that we made here at this facility.

That doesn’t always happen. If we have a beer that doesn’t meet our expectations, we are using the local municipality’s waste water plant for ‘em.

Ethan: Oh really? You guys don’t try to sell them at all?

Larry: Oh right, yeah yeah. As a group if we get together and taste a beer and we deem that it is not to the level that a Deschutes beer should be, we dump.

Ethan: That’s good stuff. Actually, I was hoping to be able to talk a bit more about the speciality brews that you guys have. I personally enjoy all the Deschutes makes, the Bachelor ESB, the Cinder Cone, the Mirror Pond is always fantastic… but uh, lately, the brews that have really been catching I think everyone’s eye is the new Bond Street series and the more recent Reserve Series. Those are pretty fantastic.

The Hop Henge was probably one of the best imperial IPAs I’ve ever had, and certainly one of the best this last year. And the Red Chair IPA — I’m not even sure that beer has a peer in terms of style.

So you were talking a little about how you started in on the Abyss. When did you make the first batch of Abyss? The first one came out in 2007 is that right?

Larry: Uh… no, we started our first commercial bottling Abyss in 2006. So we would have starting brewing Abyss at the pub specifically for the Abyss project (not particularly an imperial stout) in 2004.

Ethan: Wow.

Larry: Yeah, it, you know, took a little while to get it to production. In fact, the label says 2006, but I don’t think we actually released it until January 2007. I could be incorrect on that, but I think that was the release date.

There’s a little bit of other knowledge on there that you need: That was our first project where we ever waxed the crown. We ran into quite a few difficulties in perfecting that?

Ethan: Oh really?

Larry: Oh sure. If you don’t know the story there, if you look around, at like Maker’s Mark, some of the wineries… different people use wax for different packaging methods.

Ethan: Well it looks gorgeous.

Larry: The wax in itself has different levels of softness… to being plastic… do you dip it once, do you dip it once, all those kinds of things. What temperature do you dip it at… so on and so forth. Some of that had a contribution to the delay of that beer. Nothing is ever simple as I said earlier! We thrive on making things difficult.

Ethan: Well the wax is a perfect example — you said you didn’t do anything easily. I suppose you could have just released it.

Larry: Yeah. Exactly.

Ethan: That’s pretty cool. Can you talk a little more about the other reserve series brews? Let’s stay away from Dissidant for now because I want to talk about that separately. But tell me about the Black Butte… do you guys call it the Black Butte double ex, or the Black Butte twenty?

Larry: We call in the double ex. This year we called it ex ex eye… or you know, obviously, we released it as an anniversary beer. So our anniversary is June 27th. The year Deschutes started was 1988… so obviously this last year was XX and this year will be XXI.

Boy that was a fun beer! Deschuts as I said always does things the hard way. When we started this company, we started with a dark beer. I just can’t think of another brewery in the world that didn’t really start out with a flagship beer that is dark.

We got thinking about it, and what is more fitting than to sell a double porter in the middle of the summer? We thought, what the heck, let’s go for it. So we did, and for us it was a real learning experience. It has quite a bit of chocolate in it and quite a bit of coffee also… and, you know, there’s been a lot of worrying for me.

I came from a more traditional brewery, and to take a fatty material like chocolate or cocoa and put it in the beer… we thought, oh boy, there’s gonna be no foam to this beer whatsoever. And not true! It’s got a pretty decent foam to it. And we put a fair amount of cocoa in it… So that was fun.

And putting the coffee in has been nothing but an adventure. Last year, what we were doing is we were more-or-less dry hopping the final beer with chocolate… excuse me, with coffee. And we’d been working with a local coffee roaster down here called Bellataza. We’d been tasting coffees at different roast levels, letting it mature from the time we roast to the time we extract it… we were working with that. We also worked with… is a water tincture the best way to go, or let’s just go for it, put it in the beer…

And after a whole bunch of testing, we decided — ok, here’s what we’ll do: we’re going to dry hop the beer with the coffee. We had a fairly course grind on the coffee, and just like dry hopping with hops, we put it in bags. And…. uh.. you know, not much weight in a bag, thinking the coffee was going to swell and such… And we put it in there and let it sit for about 6 days and then we pulled that out and mixed it with the rest of the beer.

Great taste, great aroma, pretty much what we wanted, but then when the guys were pulling the bags out of the tank after the beer was out, they said, “Larry, you gotta come see this!” I said, “Well, what is it?” So I headed down to the cellar. And you could literally take your hand and put it in the middle of the bag and pull out dry coffee!

Ethan: Oh wow, it didn’t soak up at all?

Larry: No! Obviously coffee is a lot more hydrophobic than we had anticipated! And the work we’d done with smaller bags and whatever wasn’t quite appropriate for our larger scale.

Ethan: Yeah that’s not something you’d guess making your morning coffee.

Larry: No! Not at all! It surprised us. So this year we tried another method and it was about equally as successful. So if we made XXII, we’ll be trying something a little different.

Ethan: Do you change most of the reserve series every year, just trying to incrementally improve them?

Larry: Oh, sure. You know, it’s one thing to brew a brew or two or three at our pubs, but when you start ramping them up to 50 barrel batches or 150 barrel batches, you start learning all sorts of things. Some of them are good, some of them are not so good… This year, for example, the XXI, I brewed in our 150 barrel brewhouse. The wort from it was just spectacular. The application of the larger brewhouse was a very positive thing. We got wort and the resulting beer was just magnificent. I’m really happy with this year’s double Black Butte Porter.

Ethan: I can’t wait to see those bottles. The XX, I managed to miss the bottling, but I had it on tap a couple times and it was pretty outstanding. So you’re saying we can also looking forward to a Black Butte 22? XXII?

Larry: I don’t know if I can commit for that yet. I would sure personally like to see it, because I want this thing to be exactly what I’m looking for. So yeah, I want to go in that direction. There’s always the, you know… we might find something more exciting to put on the market next year. So you know, you don’t always want to say, absolutely, that’s what it’s going to be.

Ethan: Can we also look forward to that black IPA that you were talking about?

Larry: Oh sure, sure. We’re brewing that at both of our pubs as I mentioned, and I believe we’re on number 8 right now. Number 8 came out of the Portland pub, and number 9 was brewed in Bend last week, and I think we’re really hitting it. The plan is once Jubel has finished up for the year, then we’re going to be coming out with a black IPA. So I’m expecting the release of the Black IPA will be first or second week of January.

Ethan: Sounds great, I can’t wait! If we could step back a little, five, six years ago, sounds like right around the time you went to Deschutes, Deschutes was a pretty standard craft brewery. You guys had four seasonals, six or seven standard round the clock brews, but it’s just in the last five or six years when we’ve started to see this reserve series, and the Bond Street series really take off and be more widely distributed than just in the brewpubs. Can you talk a little bit about that transition, and how that’s happened? Why that was interesting for you guys.

Larry: Oh sure. Boy there’s all sorts of reasons.. I’d like to take credit for all of it… but I won’t. You know, one of the things that happened is that we had a 50 barrel brewhouse and we had the 12.5 barrel brewhouse at the Bend pub, and literally it was all we could do to get out those brands that you mentioned. In the year 2003, we produced 118,000 barrels… from a 50 barrel brewhouse that is just absolutely amazing.

That means the brewers were going around the clock almost 365 days a year.

Ethan: You must have been fermenting in plastic buckets!

Larry: Literally we were. It was a very difficult time for Deschutes and the expansion with the 150 barrel brewhouse literally could just not have come soon enough. And so with the.. .bringing out the new brewhouse, it freed up a lot of cellar space, and our time to start making these brews. Plus, the creativity that was being gathered at the pubs was starting to catch the eye of the sales and marketing teams. You know, they were starting to embrace all of that creativity that the brewers were coming up with.

One of the first brews that I engaged in and pretty much had a hand in bringinng about was our fresh harvest ale. I’d been at the brewery maybe 6 months when it kind of, you know, “Let’s get this going, guys.” So 2004 was the first time we made a fresh harvest beer. The sales crew saw that beer and the reaction down at the pub, and it just kind of captivated everyone’s thought pattern.

Ethan: Yeah, I bet. Can you describe the fresh harvest ale for our listeners who might not know what it is?

Larry: Sure. What I describe it as is one of the best aromas in the world bar none is when you go to a hop kiln… Think of a hop kiln as a two, three foot bed of freshly harvested hops that are about 25, 30 feet off of the ground. What they’re doing is, the farm is blowing hot air up through these hops, and drying them. Obviously if you don’t dry em, they’re going to spoil rather quickly.

But heat is used to dry ‘em. And you’re losing a lot of the volatiles up through the kiln bed. And so the purpose of a fresh harvest beer is to take all those volatiles, all those essential oils that are being lost, and take those into your beer.

What Deschutes does with Fresh Harvest Ale is we make a medium-level maltiness beer, medium bitterness, but what we will do is our brewers - in fact you mentioned his name, Jimmy Seifrit and Paul Arney - will travel over to Willamette Valley, Sodbuster Farms. They will take the hops off of the picking machine, before the kiln, and when they get those hops in their possession, they’ll call back to the brewery and say, “Time to Mash In!” And so they’ll start the mash process here in Bend, and then just when the wort is in the kettle, Jimmy and Paul will show up with the hops, and we’ll put the hops in the kettle. So you literally can’t get any fresher than that. And you will capture those great aromas into the beer.

Ethan: Yeah. So this might be a good time to mentioned that Deschutes only uses whole hops. Is that still correct?

Larry: Absolutely. We are only a whole-hop user. Part of my background, is I worked 7 years in the hop industry. I really appreciate the attributes that whole hops bring to the brewing process.

Ethan: Absolutely, absolutely. No pellet hops at Deschutes.

Larry: Well, I have to admit, I have used some pelletized hops here and there on occasion. You brought up Hop Henge. I added some pelletized hops right after… on that project.

Ethan: Was that just a volume consideration? I saw the blog posts about the explosions that happened.

Larry: Yeah… that was a pretty good experiment! A lot of those hops ended up on the fermenting floor. But it gave us some aromatic contribution that we really wanted.

Ethan: It’s a fantastic beer. Actually, those posts gave us homebrewers a little bit of hope: Hey, this can happen to the big guys!

Larry: Oh boy, I got the phone call: Larry, come down to look at this! And at that point, I’m responsible for everything. “Larry, look what you did!” If it would have went right, the other brewers, that would have been their idea.

Ethan: Of course, of course! That’s great. So let’s finish up here. I just wanted to talk a little about the Dissident, just because it’s such a departure from Deschutes’ normal beers. Sour beers are pretty hot right now — seems like everyone and their brother is coming out with one. But clearly there was no craze when the Dissident came out given it came out last August. What can you tell us about how the Dissident was made, how you guys decided to make a sour beer, the sorts of considerations you had to go through to keep the yeast segregated, that sort of thing.

Larry: Oh wow. This is the beer that I really wanted to do, and obviously I was met with a lot of skepticism. And originally, not a lot of support, because as you say, it’s good brewing practice to segregate those bacteria, those different yeast cultures, from our main bread and butter — i.e., those beers that pay our way. So I found a part of our hop cooler that had pretty nicely insulated walls, and you know, the brewers came in on a weekend and helped move some of those walls around and such so that we could have a segregated area.

Boy, we have a group called the Product Development group. We meet every few weeks, and we kind of discuss what beers we have in progress, what state they are, when we’re going to release them, all that kind of normal stuff. Part of the group will taste the beer, and I specifically remember the Dissident discussions. “Well, it’s about time we dump that beer…”

I resisted, and you know, I took enough pressure that at times, I almost wanted to walk up the cellar dump it down the drain! I didn’t, and I persisted.

One of the neat things was, we added… when the beer was just roughly a year old, we added fresh cherries. We crushed the cherries somewhat, but stems, pits, a few leaves — everything else went into that brew. I think that was the turning point for everyone at Deschutes. When we’d done that, after that, those cherries had started a refermentation, and the Dissident started really forming up a flavor all unto itself. That’s when, within the brewery, we recognized that we really had something special there.

It’s been a long road, but it’s one of my favourite beers, and I’m very proud of it.

Ethan: Yeah it’s really outstanding. We tried it alongside a half dozen, dozen other sours at Sour Beer Night up here during Seattle Beer Week, and it uh, I think it blew the socks off just about everything else we had. If was pretty awesome — I was sad that I missed the bottles.

All right, so what else can we look forward to? Maybe we’ll see a black IPA, maybe we’ll see a Black Butte XXII, anything else we can look forward to?

Larry: Yeah, the, what we have coming up now… we were just talking about the Dissident. I’ve got a Dissident that is roughly, boy, 8 months old right now? We’re just getting ready to put the cherries in now.

Ethan: And how long did the first one monopolize a fermentation tank?

Larry: Uh… two years.

Ethan: Ok, so we can look forward to that in 2012?

Larry: Yep, pretty close. I might be able to, depending on what we learned at the first one… it might come out in ‘11. We’ll see how that goes. We’ve already spoke about the black IPA… we’re working really hard on a… I won’t call it a Weissbier, but it’s kind of a specialty hefeweizen-type beer. Not particularly a south German hefeweizen, but somewhat in that direction. I’m, actually, we’re going to be serving it at the Oregon Brewer’s Festival. If you’re down there, that would be a good place to get a preview of what that beer might be.

So that’s a few of the interesting things that we have coming along. I’ve already brewed Abyss for this year, and it got put in its oak barrels earlier in the year, so it’s scheduled for an end-of-November, 1st of December release.

Then coming up in 2010, probably February, I’ll have a Super Jubel release. I brewed that also the end of December ‘08 and put it into oak casks, so it’s aging as we speak, so that’s going to be an interesting release.

Ethan: Well great, that all sounds awesome. I can’t wait to pour a vertical of the Abyss. So, when you’re not drinking Deschutes, what are you drinking?

Larry: Oh boy… You know, whatever’s in my hand! There are so many great beers out there that it’s just hard for me to comment on. I love most everything that my friend down in Russian River produces… I love, love the beers out of Allagash. The Sierra Nevada folks, they’re just stellar, and so are my friends up at Alaskan. I’m always grabbing some Belgian beers. I spent some time in Germany this last fall, had some fantastic Frankonian beers… boy.

Ethan: That’s quite a selection!

Larry: You name it. I’m headed to Germany again this fall — gonna hit up Oktoberfest… gonna make it over to the Czech Republic for a couple beers, so, wow, you know?

Ethan: Sounds great.

Larry: I have a good time.

Ethan: Sounds great. I’ll give you a call if I want to get an interview with Russian River.

Larry: Yeah, I can line you up with Vinnie.

Ethan: It’s been a pleasure talking to you Larry.

Larry: You too! Keep your mug up.

Ethan: Thanks a lot.

Larry: Yep! Bye now.