DEFIANT’S NEILL ACER SPEAKS BEER
This pertinent conversation took place February 12th, 2012 at Pearl River’s DEFIANT BREWERY.Acer, a veteran of the beer circuit, took an hour to explain his past, present and future. Let’s join in…
I got hooked on Belgian beers early on. Chimay Blue was probably the main reason to get into craft brewing. I recognized the beer I had made earlier from a medieval recipe was related – only Chimay was done very well. I love the freedom Belgium’s marketplace offers. In America, we’re so tied to the marketplace. We’re giving the world hops, hops and more hops – as a broad stroke. And then there are milder strokes. At the time I drank Chimay, there was no beer like that in America. This is the Renaissance right now. These are great times. There’s a lot of quality, consistent stuff coming out. But I really love those Belgian Trappist beers.
There used to be a place called Beers of the World in Rochester, New York. They had a great selection in the early ‘90s. Every payday I’d go to Beers of the World. Try something new. At some point, Michael Jackson’s Beer Companion came out so I’d buy and drink the beer and read his review. I did it with a group of five guys so our purchasing powers multiplied. I’d take notes of 10 or 12 beers and figure which beers I’d like to emulate.
The way forward is never a straight line so I went to a research librarian and asked about old beer recipes, modern recipes and techniques. There just wasn’t anything written at the time about how to make beer. If there was, the book was from England and took four weeks to get in a roundabout manner. I finished my regular education and through self-exploration and the reading of old Eighteenth century books I got nuggets of knowledge. And because of my science background, I wanted to keep really good records. The beautiful thing about discovering beer is it was like discovering fire. It was like matches to an eight-year old. I had access to a Rochester lab and tried every beer I could. I grew yeast.
I kept reading brewing books and you’d open up the jacket and read about the author and the part I noticed the most was that a lot of them went to Seibel in Chicago for training. I decided to research the school and got a hold of their number and asked the admission guy how much it cost. I didn’t know how to afford school so I got a job at Sloan-Ketterling and worked in the outpatient department. That helped me bank some money to attend Seibel.
All along I kept brewing. I was close to Genesee Brewery near Rochester – which was cool. They put out a variety of Genesee the world never saw. And they make good Genny Cream Ale. How did that regional small brewery survive with a hybrid beer like that?
After brew school, I sent my resume around, but there weren’t many places at the time – Colorado, Massachusetts. I finally got a few phone calls and settled at Mountain Valley Brewpub in Suffern. I worked at the beginning with Jay Misson – my first mentor out of brewing school. He was a German-trained brewer I owe so much to. Basically, consistency was everything with German brewers. He gave me experience. He had worked at the long-gone Vernon Valley Brauhaus in Cobblestone Village during the Eighties. It was a magical place in East Coast brewing lore. They had wooden casks. Mountain Valley was also ahead of their time, but it was sort of in synch.
But Vernon Valley was up near the ski resort. You’d get there and it was old German-looking on the outside and you’d pull up to the brewery and there are these huge 8-foot tall horizontal wood casks for beer. I climbed inside one of them and it had loads of hornets, but that was OK. You had to go sideways to get in there. It was 14 or 18 inches wide and narrow going in one shoulder at a time. They had a beautiful work chiller that looked to an untrained eye to be a radiator. The wort was designed to just flow over this thing. Then you’d be pumping chilling liquid on the inside. So your wort would get oxygenated and cooled all in one step. This was before stainless steel plate heat exchange became all the rage. They had open fermentation tanks, all made of wood, that were beautiful. At their height, Vernon made four beers, including a Helles and Dunkel, but real high quality.
I didn’t brew up there because by the time I got there the brewery was in mothballs. It was near the old Playboy Lodge. So I started at Mountain Valley and shortly after Jay left to go out west and work on the brewery chain Gordon Biersch. He became the driving force behind the German style beer revival. I’d trust his palate on a pack of cigarettes before I’d trust anybody else. He was instrumental in my success. I went from book hobby knowledge to professional knowledge.
Back then, Mountain Valley was bottling. We had a little lab, did kegging, and at one time were 5,000 barrels per year. We had occasional wooden cask beers. You’d get a woody flavor, but not like noble French oak that wine people brag about. I started as an assistant working in the mill. I was the happiest person in the job market getting paid like 5 dollars an hour. I loved it. I was elated to get to work, walking on clouds thrilled to death.
We made eight styles before that total was possible. But there were problems and there was the first bubble in the craft beer movement. There were so many people. There was Three Stooges Beer. The concept of craft beer had been pushed to its limits and got to the point of absurdity. Enough people were playing 6-pack roulette while they were shopping. But there wasn’t enough of an infrastructure of checks and balances that the internet later allowed for its normal economy.
As a brewer, it was a soul searching moment to have your beer rated, but it’s essential. You have to have that other leg. So there was inconsistent product in the Nineties due to lack of knowledge. People went from hobby to professional in ten seconds and there was a lack of equipment.
It was the Wild West at that time. I had conversations with people who didn’t know about proper sanitizing. The consistency for the micro industry was so variable it busted. You saw the failure of some amazing craft beers from Catamount to Zip City to Neptune to Red Bank.
Plus, it was hard to finance a new brewery because no bankers believed in it. There were closings exceeding openings around ’99 or 2000. It got deeper around 2001. Things were rocking and rolling. So Mountain Valley was at this point where our sales weren’t going down but we had run out of space. We needed major reinvestment. Contract brewing had become the buzzword because Brooklyn Brewery was using Utica’s Matt Brewery. So we went for the contract route, made the transition and lost inertia. The restaurant became less of a focus. We had looked towards Mendocino Brewery in upper New York.
Mendocino was hot shit on the West Coast but out here in the East, it’s the meat grinder. It’s the largest beer market in the world, larger than London, Madrid, France, and as a result, big companies will do anything to get a foot in the market. If you wanna be on tap, you’re dealing with huge budgets by Heineken and Bud. I’ve always felt, creatively, it’s way better to make your own wobbly furniture than buy particleboard from IKEA. That’s how I viewed contract brewing. It was like lip-synching. It’s only implied that some small craft brewer made it.
But we may see another craft beer bust. It’s hard to get a piece of Main Street and hold it in America. There’s a limited number of taps. There’s more craft beer than ever, but you can never grow faster than the number of new craft customers. Walk through the warehouse of a large distributorship and you’ll know the number of brewpubs and breweries there’ll soon be. It’s walls and walls of Bud-Coors-Miller. The production of new breweries cannot exceed the demand of consumption of craft beers. The consumption’s increasing. But eventually, the industry needs to catch up.
Anyway, while working at Ramapo Valley, the owners of West End Brewery approached me and said to come on down to the city. I had been with the Ramapo guys for two years or so and the product was selling well. I had just made a gluten beer and Ramapo thought this would be their future. It was gluten free and Kosher for Passover. It was unique and I was excited to work on a beer that wasn’t being done en masse. Apparently, it was like setting wildfire. All the celaic sufferers came out of the closet. It had given them a voice and it was around the time organic food got popular. That really worked. But I felt that gluten free beer wasn’t what I wanted to do. So I said, “Good luck with the gluten.”
So I went to go start this brewery in New York City – West End. I worked with a talented young brewer and helped train him – Jeremy Goldberg – who’s now up in Massachusetts running Cape Ann Brewing. Some of his beers are contract produced because of his smaller size. But the beautiful location of his brewery is waterfront. Nice area.
I ended up with a lot of equipment from someone who stiffed me – some of it’s here. Anyway, at Mountain Valley one of my apprentices was Andrew Ety. I was the brewmaster who hired a hand who hired Andrew. He was an incredibly talented guy and also a Seibel grad. He went on to work at Brooklyn Brewery as the right hand man. Another guy from Mountain Valley, Jeff Conwell, started Ithaca Brewing Company. So it was an exciting time.
Also, John Eccles came out of there. He was trained by Jay. He did Hyde Park Brewery. You talk about the early state of craft brewing, it’s like talking about the early part of the rock industry. Everyone played with this person or remembers going to a certain club. That’s how it was.
I was at West End for two years. New York City’s built on solid granite so when the brewery location abutted this outcropping of granite rock even the greedy real estate developers didn’t want to have anything to do with, we specked out the brewery and rigged it Egyptian style through cracks in the granite out the back alley way. It was like stage diving with a fermenter. Everybody had a hand on it because the forklift couldn’t negotiate the nuances of twisting and bending and turning. It was so tight the fittings on the tank couldn’t fit through one area and the tank had to be rotated 60 degrees.
But real estate in Manhattan is expensive and the rent was enormous so we maximized space. I had a complete brewery in the basement. We had a beautiful little pub system with an agitator and kettle so I could do crazy concoctions if I wanted. I was steam powered. But to make things easier with the building code it was electric steam power. It went through 200 amps of three-phase electric.
We cranked out Kerouac, because Beat Poet Jack Kerouac used to drink there. Everywhere that man drank they put up a sign. He wasn’t known for breaking anything there like some metal band. He just split people’s minds wherever he went.
As a brewer, I try to make beers that make me happy. From West End, I moved to Defiant. We were a square peg in a round hole at the beginning. That’s definitely true. It’s a wonderful walking town. Train stops right in the middle. There’s good food to be had here. People are surprised. We have a St. Patrick’s Day parade that’s one of the best in the country. And it’s well run. It’s not a shit show. It’s still old America here in a lot of ways.
I had my son Conner within a few days of signing a lease. Abigail joined us later. Working in the industry for years, I always wanted to have full creative control to be able to do anything I want. The brewery is set up so it’s comfortable to work at. Parking on both sides. I met a lot of great people. Some of their names are along the wall.
There are other brewers serving right from the tanks like Defiant, it’s just that there’s a tube that goes from the tank to the tap. But as far as getting the tanks right up behind the bar, it’s less common. There’s engineering reasons why.
We brew a series of small batch beers we make for our Cellar members. Some are aged in oak. The sky’s the limit. The Resolution Four you’re drinking now is part of our Cellar program. It took a year to make. Those are limited release. I want to make an End of the World 4-pack. That’d be killer! That’s the kind of thing that’d be hard to sell to the owner if I had one. Could you imagine it not selling? I wanna be here for the end with all the calamities and running and screaming.
I was at Peekskill Brewery for two years. A new talented guy, Jeff O’ Neill, started in November, 2011. He worked at Ithaca so you’re gonna see some interesting beers with some Ithaca flavor evidence cropping up. It should be welcomed.
I worked on a wonderful project in Athens, New York, for Crossroads. They actually have one of my old breweries so you know it’s gonna be good. (laughter) It’s in a historic building off Route 87. I like to stay active. We’re growing here. I have some fermenters arriving today at 4:30.?
Nowadays, there’s less people making the liquid. It’s all about the mental concept instead of the physical production of the art. And that’s a philosophical debate. Where is the beer? Is the beer a mental concept in brand and marketing or is it a physical creation done with your hands made from one person on that day and made some creative beer.
The industry now wants consistency in larger batches. So what is craft? What makes a craft brewery truly a craft brewery? I think it all comes down to flavor in the end regardless of who’s behind it and in what capacity.