Serious Eats: Drinks
A Pint With: Tomme Arthur, Port Brewing & Lost Abbey
"Drink local and fresh and it's doubtful you'll be let down."
Among beer nerds, few brewmasters are more revered than Tomme Arthur, the magician behind the crazy-sour, oak-aged, fruit-spiked, microorganism-inoculated beers of Lost Abbey. A taste of one of his beers will expand your palate (and quite possibly blow your mind.) Thanks for answering our questions, Tomme!
Name: Tomme Arthur
Location: San Marcos, California
Occupation: Director of Brewery Operations, Lost Abbey & Port Brewing
Where do you get your brewing inspiration? Inspiration is a crazy thing. Obviously the bulk of it comes from exploring new flavors. It might be a bottle of beer a friend made. It could be an experience in a Belgian cafe. Other times, I might draw my inspiration from conversations with other brewers or even chefs. Ultimately what it comes down to is that my attention gets focused on creating (or recreating) certain flavors in our beers. How we get there is partly due to inspiration and how well I use my imagination.
How did you learn to brew? Who are your mentors? I was given a homebrewing kit in 1995 as a college graduation present by a family friend. In March of 1996 I became an assistant brewer at Cervecerias La Cruda in San Diego and mentored under Troy Hojel for about 9 months. In May of 1997, I went to work for Pizza Port in Solana Beach and started working things out on my own for the first time as a head brewer.
Your beers are beloved around the country--did you expect this reception? Did you expect American beer drinkers to be open to your more unusual beers when you started? When I first started making these beers, I had no idea who would embrace them. The beer drinkers at Pizza Port where very adventurous and so I kept pushing things further and further figuring at some point they would yell "Uncle!" They never did. In terms of the rest of this country, it continues to amaze me how far our beers take us. We do a couple of international shipments each year as well as our beer has a following overseas as well.
Tell us a little about what you're brewing now...What can we expect from Port Brewing and Lost Abbey this summer and next fall? Well, we are currently brewing at near capacity for the brewery. We launched most of Northern California earlier this year and they are buying a ton of beer. As such, we have few new projects on the horizon. We would like to get a lower alcohol sessionable Abbey beer out in the summer. The fall always brings craziness to the brewery in the form of Santa's Little Helper and our High Tide Fresh Hop Ales. These are our two biggest seasonal releases and they come out back to back.
Can you tell us a few of your favorite food pairings with Lost Abbey beers? Probably my favorite all time pairing would be duck confit spring rolls with a Cuvee de Tomme sour cherry dipping sauce I also have a soft spot in my heart for our 10 Commandments served with pork tenderloin. The 10 Commandments features caramelized fruit, rosemary, and honey. It's a beer chefs really dig working with.
What is the hardest part about your job? What parts do you look forward to? I would say that the hardest part of the job would be firing people. I'm not a cold-blooded HR machine. So I never enjoy that part. Not brewing as much as I want to sucks as well. There are weeks when I never touch malt and that's just wrong. I look forward to a great pint of beer at the end of each day. Sometimes it might be a bottle of something from months back. I also love the part of my job that allows me to travel and see parts of this country I wouldn't have considered.
Do you plan on expanding distribution over the next few years? We're currently in a holding pattern. The Northern California launch has been great! Working with Wine Warehouse has been flawless and we are looking to continue supporting our current partners before looking outside of this group. We expect to head out later this year or early next with a new territory or two but not much more.
Have you ever had a brewing experiment come out better than you expected? Have you had disasters? I think the Framboise de Amorosa that we just released came out incredibly well. The challenge of working with raspberries is getting sweet and sour at appropriate levels. I think we nailed the essence of the fruit qualities and barrel aging in one fell swoop. Each bottle is rewarding to me so I know we got a good portion of it right. Of course we have had disasters. The process of bottle conditioning all of our beers is fraught with peril. We also do barrel aging of our beers and that can be quite perilous. Let's just say there is never a dull moment operating a brewery like this.
What are you favorite beers made by other people? In your estimation, what beers should all beer lovers try? Today is an amazing time to be a consumer. The entire San Diego brewing scene is on fire and just about everywhere you go, there is ridiculous beer to be had. I have my favorite beers and while I don't get out to as many bars and restaurants locally, I am always happy anytime I see the beers made by Pat, Sean and Val from Alpine Beer Company. In my estimation there aren't must-try beers per se but most assuredly there are must-try experiences. Get out of your house, stop places you've never been and allow yourself a chance to be amazed. There is too much amazing beer out there right now. Drink local and fresh and it's doubtful you'll be let down.