Beer Bros Q&A: Strand Brewing Co. brewmaster Joel Elliott
Q: When did you start brewing?
A: It might sound strange but I started brewing at about 5 years old. As a kid, I liked to take things apart – old cameras, radios, toasters, things like that – I wanted to know what their guts looked like and how they worked. At first, I couldn’t get them apart without breaking them. Cameras and boom boxes usually have hidden screws and locking mechanisms. It takes a few tries to really understand how to pull these things apart without getting frustrated and taking a big hammer to them. At the time, I was just having fun but without knowing it, I was also teaching myself to be patient, to solve problems and I was learning that only a few simple laws govern almost any machine or system. In brewing, I rely so heavily on the lessons I learned as a kid that for me there is really no distinction between the two.
Q: Were you a home brewer?
A: I was never a home brewer per se. I did some brewing at home with friends but I never owned any equipment or bought ingredients. I think I helped with something like five batches. My experience with brewing was fairly limited up until we started the brewery.
Q: So how did you learn to brew at a professional level?
A: It was a trial by fire. When we started the brewery, I was not the brewer. Nor did I really have any interest in being the brewer. There were three of us initially – Rich Marcello, Jeff Parker and myself. My job was to run the business side of things, as president. After a grueling nine month build-out phase, we were ready to start making and selling beer. As we began production, the three of us discovered that we were not fundamentally united in the purpose and direction of the company and about our respective roles. At that point, we each individually did some soul-searching and made some very personal choices that ultimately led to our brewer leaving the partnership. It was an extremely difficult time and Rich and I lost a very dear friend in the process. So there we were – a brewery without a brewer – basically an empty shell without a soul. Rich and I were sorta standing there looking at each other like ‘what the hell are we going to do now’? We had just borrowed additional cash to buy out our partner and had absorbed all the existing debt, we had customers that had agreed to give us a chance based on Rich’s promise that we would have beer – the pressure was on in a heavy way. It was literally a binary situation: fail or succeed. We had set up a business that was about to completely fall apart. Rich and I decided that failure simply was not an option and because there was no money to hire a brewer, I just started brewing. Falling back on those lessons I had learned as a kid, I pulled the process apart, took a good long look at it’s component parts then put it all back together… my way.
Q: What’s your philosophy in your approach to beer and brewing?
A: Simplicity and balance.
Q: You guys did only the 24th Street Pale Ale for the first year. How did you come up with that recipe?
A: The initial recipe was not mine. The first four or five batches of 24th Street were closer in style to an IPA or even a double IPA. The alcohol on the first batch was something like 8.5 percent because it had a heavy dose of an adjunct in the form of palm sugar. Over time, the beer had also proven to be unstable on the shelf. When I took over as brewer, at batch six or so, I decided to start fresh with a new recipe. Not only was it vitally important to produce a beer and a company that were known for being consistent, I felt that as brewer the recipes needed to be my own. Particularly in a situation where Rich and I were facing the potential destruction of everything we had worked to build, I had to stay true to myself. So at that point, I pulled out the sugar, changed the amounts and types of malts being used, and significantly altered the volume and type of hops being used and changed the schedule of their dosage. Although we kept the name in tact, the new beer was a complete departure from what we had originally done and was more in line with my approach to life and to my new job as brewer. Because I was learning as I went, it took a few batches to really nail the recipe that has become so wildly popular.
Q: Who comes up with your other beer recipes?
A: I do. That’s part of my job as brewer. To me, it’s all about visualizing a finished product then working backwards to make it a reality. You have to imagine a beer that doesn’t exist. How does it taste and smell? What color is it? Is it sweet or dry? Is it bitter? Is it sour? Once you decide these things you can break it down and using your raw materials, make it come to life. There is a lot of thought that goes into each recipe and a brewer’s own personality, influences and set of life experiences become ingredients as well – this is what makes brewing an art form and why each brewer’s thumb print is on everything he or she does.
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