Long before the first pint is poured, there's a lot of work that has to be accomplished behind the scenes. That includes, I regret to report, going back to school (for the staff) and getting your report card (for the brewer).
Steel City team members recently underwent a multi-day course in the basics of beer and brewing to prepare them for the rough-and-tumble world of brewery life! The course introduced them to beer ingredients (eaten as well as drank - did you know you can just eat brewing grains?), the brewing process, how to tell one style of beer from another, and more.
We also gave them a taste of test batches of Steel City beers, because the best way to know what you're pouring is to drink it. Even those who didn't have a lot of experience with beer gamely dove head-first into their studies, and by the third day we had them pouring perfect pints and jabbering on about IBUs and IPAs like true beer geeks (or, at least, reasonable facsimiles thereof). Seth and I will be around for the first couple of days of proper service (sometime in November, I hope) to help them field any oddball questions (and we'll always be available by e-mail as well), but I'm quite confident that you'll be in good hands in beer as well as coffee.
They weren't the only ones drinking Seth's proto-beers: we recently hosted a "friends and family" tasting of our first test batches. Ed and Laura invited some local beer drinkers to sample our blonde ale, English IPA, and coffee stout (clever names pending on all three) and provide the vital first feedback that will guide our future recipes. Good brewers want feedback, even when they don't agree with it, and I'm hopeful that this will be the first of many doses.
The short version of this story (too late) is that firing up a brewery is about far more than just brewing beer. It's a learning process that never stops. To improve is to change, Churchill said, and to perfect is to change often. The staff are growing in their knowledge, the beers are developing in their quality and character, and Steel City is evolving into something better.
Perfect? Probably not. But we're learning!
Every home brewer gets asked the question, "so, when are you going to go pro?" It's a question many reject out of hand, but for those who take the plunge the fear and excitement tend to go hand-in-hand. That's an intriguing moment, and it struck me as a great time to spend a few minutes with Head Brewer Seth Clearwater.
When did you first know you were "into" beer and brewing?
I started drinking better beer after high school — full disclosure: I thought I was a higher class of beer consumer because I drank imports like Foster’s. The things you think when you’re young, right? In any case, exposure to things like Guinness and what craft beers were available in central PA around Y2K helped convince me I really liked beer. One of my favorite places was Gettysbrew in Gettysburg — I’d go there every Friday afternoon with a book for a couple of pints and homemade pizza. Brewing grew out of that love of great beer and a burgeoning interest in food and cooking (inspired by my wife, Leslie). I started getting curious about brewing, someone in the family got me a beginner’s kit for Christmas one year, and I was off. Living outside Philadelphia, the combination of making my own beer and being spoiled rotten by the available craft beer here created a lovely feedback loop
Why would anyone drink beer at SC instead of the other (counting...still counting...) 1,478* breweries in Phoenixville?
I think folks will come to Steel City to drink beer for the same reasons they come for the coffee and food: it’s delicious and the atmosphere isn’t like anywhere else in town. We’re still going to be a cozy coffee shop and killer live music venue; we’re just making our own beer now, too. Want a few pints while listening to world-class music? Want to grab a few drinks with friends in a quiet joint that is distinctly not bar-like? That’s us. Plus, no one else in town serves beer with breakfast, so we’ve got that going for us...
*This number may be inaccurate. The author has acalculia, which is a real disease and it's wrong of you to mock him for it and don't you feel terrible now? But it's a lot of breweries is the point.
How does it feel to know you'll be brewing for the public?
Incredibly exciting and humbling in equal parts. Claiming your beer is good enough that people should spend actual money on it is different than just sharing with friends; it feels hubristic yet vulnerable. That being said, I love the beer I make and I’m thrilled at the opportunity to share it with a wider audience. Over time, I hope to introduce folks to styles and flavors they didn’t know they were missing.
How does it feel to know you'll be brewing for the public FOR Laura & Ed?
Really happy (They’re reading this, right?!)! [Author's Note: I have no idea if Ed and Laura will read this blog, but I think they probably should, in the event they're called to testify in a later legal action - yes, they've since confirmed they ARE in fact reading the blog...] Laura and Ed have such love for Steel City and for Phoenixville, and I’m proud to be a part of their latest project. I also love that they’re committed to making “damned good beer” (in their words) in whatever form that takes, not just chasing what’s trendy or popular on Untappd. It’s that attitude, actually, that sold me on working with them.
What should we expect from SC beers?
For our draft offerings, think classic or retro: English IPAs, blondes, altbiers, coffee milk stout, maybe a nice dunkelweizen or English bitter. In other words, beers that may not go viral on social media but that have stood the test of time, at least for some of us. We’re not trying to be a traditional bar: we’re a coffeehouse and live music venue that now also makes our own beer, so we want you to stop in for a breakfast pint without feeling guilty or have several pints during a show and still be able to function. Above all, we want to make classic, high-quality, quaffable beers in styles you might not be as familiar with but which we think you’ll love.
Worst brewing screwup?
I have to admit this? [Author's Note: Yes, yes, you do] I attempted a Belgian dubbel once that, despite a complex grain bill and Belgian yeast, had no actual Belgian character. To fix this, I added many pounds of elderberries because adding an odd fruit to questionable beer always produces stellar results. Except this time, of course. Now, the worst tasting beer I ever made was a California common with kimchi for a homebrew club Secret Santa competition. The base beer was quite nice, but nothing can hold up to kimchi. That beer is legend to this day... [Author's Note: It is, indeed, legendary. And it was, in fact, horrendous]
Biggest brewing triumph?
Getting hired by Laura and Ed. :) I’d probably go with the first time I nailed a French-style saison. I called it “Slow Smile” because that was my exact reaction when I pulled the first draft off my taps. It wasn’t funky or imperial or weird: it was just really, really good with just the right touch of “saison-ness.” More than that, it was the first beer where what I produced was exactly what I was aiming for. I think that’s huge in any brewer’s history.
Thanks for reading, and if you have questions, comments, feedback, ideas for beers you'd like to see, etc. please ALWAYS feel free to contact Seth at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you have outrageous praise and ideas for things for me to say to Seth that you don't feel comfortable saying to his face, reach out to me at email@example.com.
Author: Josh Weikert
CONSULTING BREWER & CERTIFIED CICERONE