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Brewmaster Kirk Hillyard

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Written by foodie pam   
Thursday, 05 August 2010

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Photo by Justin Lewis
Home brewed beer is a surging hobby - at least among some of my friends who spend lots of time brewing and enjoying the results.  But how often do those home brewers actually turn that hobby into a profession? 

At Half Moon Bay Brewing Company, Brewmaster Kirk Hillyard did just that.  Starting as a teenager he began home brewing and mid-way through college decided to make it his profession. 

Luckily for those of us in the SF Bay area he also decided to do it in his hometown where we can sample his brews.  I  recently visited with Kirk at Half Moon Bay Brewing Company.  Today he shares some advice for home brewers aiming to go pro and tells us about his brewing process.  He also reveals some trends in brewing that make the parallels of wine making and beer brewing even stronger...

Q: Transitioning from a hobby of home brewing to a profession is an accomplishment to be proud of - what words of wisdom do you have for other home brewers looking to make the leap?

Kirk: Getting work in a brewery can be difficult, there aren't many positions available at any given time, and not a lot of turnover.  Much of it has to do with being at the right place at the right time.  If you are serious about brewing, you kind of have to bug every brewer in your area and hope maybe they'll let you clean kegs or something and just get your foot in the door.  Many home brewers think it would be fun to brew professionally until they realize that most of a brewer's day-to-day work isn't brewing, it's cleaning.  I think it's similar to being a professional chef; many people have a romantic view of the job until they realize the work isn't so glamorous, it's work!  So I guess my advice would be: if you are really passionate about beer, be ready to pay your dues in the form of odd hours, little pay, and soggy feet when you get home.

Q: You've compared brewing to cooking.  In cooking the technique and the ingredients are most important.  Can you tell us a bit about the ingredients you use when brewing at Half Moon Bay Brewing Company?  How many different types of malt to you use? What dictates which you use etc?

Kirk: There are really infinite ingredients you can use when making beer, but generally you are sticking to the big four: water, malt, hops, and yeast.  Fortunately, the water can be treated with salts to emulate the water from different regions and create different flavors, and there are many different types of malt, hops, and yeast that a brewer can play with.  We use about a dozen different hops and two dozen different malts at the brewery.  Right now I have four different yeasts which all produce unique flavor profiles.  Half Moon Bay is not a big brewery, our focus is really on quality, and we use the best ingredients we can get.  If I am brewing a German-style beer, I like to use German malt and hops.  The same goes for styles from other regions.  By bringing in the best ingredients from around the world we can make some really delicious and authentic beers.

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Photo by Justin Lewis
Q:  And what about the technique? Can you describe the process? How long does it take from start to when the first customer gets to enjoy your brew?

Kirk: As a brewer, your main objective is creating a sugar and nutrient rich solution for the yeast to ferment.  To accomplish this you grind up malt and mix it with warm water.  The temperature of this "mash" will determine how much of the sugar will be able to be fermented by the yeast; typical brewer's yeast can only ferment simple sugars.  A cooler mash will produce drier beers, whereas a warmer mash will produce beers with more sweetness and mouthfeel.  During the mash, enzymes in the malt break down complex carbohydrates into sugars.  This sugary solution, called "wort," is then slowly drained into the kettle where it is brought to a rolling boil.  Boiling sterilizes the wort, precipitates proteins, and extracts bitterness from the hops.  Hops added at the beginning of the boil contribute bitterness, while hops added towards the end of the boil contribute flavor and aroma.  After the boil, the wort is pumped through a heat exchanger (which cools it so we don't cook our yeast) and into a fermenter.  Yeast is added, and fermentation begins.  We brew mostly ales, which take about 6-10 days (depending on the strength of the brew) to ferment at around 68 degrees F.  Then the beers are dropped to just above freezing, clarified, conditioned, and are ready to drink about three weeks from the day they were brewed.

Q: Similar to a chef's training, one can go to school to learn to be a brewmaster or learn on the job without a formal education. You took the formal route, is this what you would recommend for up and coming brewmasters?


Kirk:  I went to beer school because I wanted to jump-start my career.  A formal education will teach you a lot about the science, history, and theory of brewing, but on the job training is the most important.  Many great brewers have no formal education.  I was lucky to work for an experienced brewer, Alec Moss, who taught me everything I know in regards to running a brewery.  I also worked for a brewer in England who was a former coal miner and had no formal education.  I don't think he knew a lot of the scientific aspects of the brewing process, but he sure knew how to make awesome beer.  So I think it really depends on the route you want to take, but remember you will learn a lot more in the brewery (especially when things go wrong) than in the classroom.

Q: In the culinary world, there are many trends, some longer lived, others shorter. One of the current trends is associated with eating local seasonal ingredients. What are some of the current trends in the brewing world?
 
Kirk: Hoppy beers will always be popular, especially on the West Coast, but I would say the biggest trend right now is using wild yeast and bacteria for fermentation, creating sour and funky beers.  Before our modern understanding of microbiology, most all beers had at least a hint of sourness.  There are some historic beer styles that are very sour, and a lot of fun to create.  Some breweries are even building large wooden vats to age beer.  I enjoy aging beer in barrels because I feel like I have less control of the final product than with more standard beers, and that serendipity makes it fun (especially when it comes out tasting really good).  This is a great time to be a brewer because consumers are really opening their mind to how complex the flavors of beer can be.

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