BREWING PROGRAM @ Fox N Hare - Q&A w/ Head Brewer Sean Donnelly
How long ago did you start brewing and what were the early years like?
I started brewing around 7 years ago in my tiny apartment in Astoria, Queens. I was working at a really amazing high-volume beer bar in Midtown Manhattan called The Ginger Man, a place with 70 rotating draughts and a 200+ long bottle list that included classic beers from dozens of different countries. Bartending at The Ginger Man and being exposed to the limitless variety and complexity that is both traditional and modern craft beer was my primary motivation to start brewing. I wanted to better understand beer and knew that brewing beer myself was the best way to do that.
I definitely “caught the bug” as many homebrewers do and soon found myself reading every book and listening to every podcast that I could get my hands on. I purchased the parts to assemble my first system from Brooklyn Homebrew for about $300 and scoured the city’s homebrew shops (like my favorite, Bitter & Esters) for ingredients and knowledge. My first system was pretty much a couple of large stainless steel pots, half a dozen glass carboys, a large steel spoon, an immersion chiller and a racking bucket. I lived very close to a beer distributor, so I would acquire cases of empty bottles from them for the deposit, carry the cases home to de-label, clean and sanitize them in my kitchen sink.
Once I had my system set up and had what I thought to be a decent understanding of the process, I proceeded to brew around 30 gallons (6 different five gallon batches) of beer within a two week period. Having studied some Chemistry in college and taken several lab courses as a result inspired me to treat each brew like its own experiment, building a procedure and log and taking meticulous notes.
I had to host a party to try and get rid of what, at the time, seemed like an infinite amount of beer. Ironically, DK (my business partner) was one of the attendees who jumped at the opportunity to drink unlimited free beer! If I remember correctly, the styles of beer varied from Cascadian Black Ale, IPA, Belgian Dark Strong, Milk Stout, Dunkelweizen and an American Wheat. Some were obviously better than others, but the experience of having my friends tell me how much they enjoyed my creations stuck with me.
When did you start to take brewing more serious?
In early 2013, I started working at SingleCut Beersmiths in Astoria. SingleCut had just recently (December 2012) opened and a very good friend of mine, Certified Cicerone™, Amanda Mayer had just taken a management position in SingleCut’s taproom and wanted experienced “beertenders” to come help her sling suds. I was THRILLED!
It was during my four and a half years at SingleCut that I really blossomed into the brewer and beer nerd that I am today. I learned about every aspect of commercial brewing, from distribution to sales, recipe formation to production flow. SingleCut sent me to Great American Beer Festival in 2014 and paid for me to take the Certified Cicerone™ exam (think beer Sommelier) and with Amanda’s tutelage, I passed with flying colors.
What is your Approach/Method to brewing?
As with many homebrewers, I originally started creating recipes with a “even the kitchen sink” mentality thinking that the more ingredients, the more character. What I ended up with was very mediocre beer whose characteristics were lost in its over-complexity.
Over the years, my approach to recipe formation and brewing has changed to what is best described as “retro-simplistic”, a term used in music and art to describe a return to the basic elements that originally made something great. This line of thought was inspired by a podcast episode by the original “BeerSmith”, Brad Smith. The podcast went into the history of many styles explaining that historically, most beers were brewed with whatever malt (singular) and hop (singular) that were readily available to brewers locally. So many of the styles that I love: pilsners, ESBs, IPAs, Vienna Lagers, Belgian Strong Ales and even Barleywines were historically (and can easily be) made with just a quality base malt and a single, well chosen hop.
After deciding to go the “retro-simplistic” route, when most of my recipes are in “beta”, I start with a bare-bones base recipe, often a SMaSH (Single Malt & Single Hop) recipe, see what I get from it and adjust the recipe from there. This method can be time consuming but I believe that building a recipe from its foundation is just common sense.
This method has given me an appreciation for some advice that I have gotten from some great brewers: do not add anything to your recipe that does not have a clear, defined purpose in the finished beer.
Why was Port Jervis an ideal location?
Port Jervis is an ideal location to open a brewery as the City of Port Jervis, although small (just under 10,000 residents) has two amazing assets for a municipality its size: an ultra-modern water treatment facility that delivers amazingly consistent water year round and a municipal sewer system to handle the effluent that the brewing process creates. I honestly do not want to imagine the headaches trying to operate a brewery of any meaningful size without access to either or both of these assets.
The water in Port Jervis is fed from a series of three reservoirs that sit protected on municipal land. This surface water, while sometimes needing to be highly chlorinated, is very “soft” or has a very low minerality. Think of this low mineral character of the water as a blank canvas that gives me the ability to add brewing salts (gypsum, calcium chloride, etc.) without the headache of trying to remove things using filtration or reverse osmosis, the overhead for which can be expensive.
The fact that the City of Port Jervis has a municipal sewer system is also an enormous boon for us as brewers. The average brewery creates around four barrels of effluent (waste water) for every barrel of beer that it creates. While we are very mindful of our waste water and keep it to an absolute minimum, trying to operate our brewery in a municipality that did not have the ability to collect and treat the waste water properly would be a logistical nightmare.