Kelly Taylor makes interesting, usual beers in Brooklyn, including Flemish-style sours, a beer brewed with Valrhona chocolate nibs and orange peel, and a collaboration with Blue Hill at Stone Barn that once included farm-fresh roasted beets. Nice guy that he is, Kelly joined me for a beer and the following interview.
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How did you learn to brew?
I started as a home brewer in my college dorm room in 1989. Two years later I apprenticed at a local brewery (Karl Strauss Breweries in downtown San Diego, California), and then started working my way up at different breweries, such as Eagle Brewery in Mukilteo, Washington (my hometown), and Whidbey Island Brewing Company, both north of Seattle.
You're from the Northwest—how did you find yourself in New York?
I met a girl while working at Pyramid Breweries in Seattle. She was from the Northeast and, after a year of dating, wanted to move back here (thankfully, she wanted me to move with her). I figured I would get a job that would allow me to use my college degree (international business) for once. We're now happily married with one child and another on the way.
Tell us about how you got the job at Heartland.
I was working at the Mitsubishi International Corporation on Madison Avenue, regularly traveling the country, and visiting the Far East on occasion, selling specialty chemicals and industrial synthetic and natural rubber. Suit and tie every day. Not my style, I eventually realized.
I started looking for a brewing job in the Tri-State area and noticed an assistant brewer position open up at the Heartland Brewery in Union Square. For my interview, I brought a bottle of a home brew I made in my apartment and put my resume on the bottle as a label. I was hired on the spot. Around a year later, just after September 11, Heartland's brewmaster moved on and I was promoted.
Do you think being from the Northwest has affected your brewing style?
It's affected both my taste for good beer and my appreciation for the fact that the brewing can be both a viable business and a central part of a thriving community. For instance, in 1995, my home town of Mukilteo, WA, supported two breweries despite a population of only 10,000 people. Moreover, both breweries were very active in the community (e.g. participating in fundraisers) so much so that the owner of Eagle was actually the mayor of the town. Anyway, you can imagine my surprise when I came to NYC to find only five breweries in operation (Chelsea Brewing Company, Heartland Brewery, Brooklyn Brewery and the now-defunct Taproom and Typhoon restaurants). Even today, there are only five brands of beer made in NYC. There is a lot of room for growth.
What do you have brewing right now? What seasonal beers are in the works?
In terms of Heartland beers, right now we have the Not Tonight Honey Porter (my resume beer) in the tank. We also have the Full Moon Barley Wine due out in a couple of weeks; it's a big, robust golden ale, about 10% ABV, brewed on the summer solstice and served after the first full moon of the new year. On the Kelso side, we have the Recessionator out now; an 8% ABV doppelbock with lots of toffee and plum notes. It has a clean, dry finish and is deceptively strong.
What challenges do you face brewing in Brooklyn? Are there benefits to your location?
Brooklyn is a great place to brew right now because the borough's beer drinkers are very locally focused and the water is great, too. The drawbacks are that the cost of getting grain to Brooklyn is a bit high (e.g. trucks charge for bridges and tunnel tolls) and, if you don't already have a brewery, the real estate for building one can be hard to find for the right price.
What's your favorite beer you've brewed? The worst? The most experimental?
My favorite is probably the Not Tonight Honey Porter. I've always loved porters and this one throws the kitchen sink at the beer: molasses, honey, licorice root, cane sugar, six different malts; very tasty and fun to make, too. When I was homebrewing, I would throw whatever dessert was around into the kettle, including even a big fat piece of chocolate cake once. Another time I did an ancho chile beer that I was skeptical would come out well. I was right. The most experimental beer we've tried at the brewery is perhaps the Kelso Kriek. We took some leftover Cantillon slurry. (Cantillon is a distinctive Belgian ale.) We added a small amount of unfermented beer (wort) every day until we had a 200-gallon batch. We then aged the batch in bourbon barrels and added cherries for a secondary fermentation. It was definitely a fun beer to make and was received well, but I haven't tried to replicate it since because there were just too many unknown variables in producing it.
How do develop a new recipe for a beer?
First, I envision what I would like the beer's general characteristics to be. For example, will it be hop-centric, malt-focused, yeast-influenced, a combination of all three, or something else entirely? I then take a more granular look, backing my way into the recipe by focusing on how I want each ingredient to come through in the end. In some cases, we'll get samples of the ingredients to taste beforehand, especially if I haven't used them before, and evaluate them in the form of a tea; it's an effective way to get the essence of the flavor.
How much beer are you making these days in Brooklyn? How much of it is for Heartland? How much creative control do you have over Heartland's beers?
We're making about 24,000 kegs at the Heartland Brewery (its new official name). Roughly half is for Heartland, the rest for a mix of other contracts, including Kelso. I have a tremendous amount of control over Heartland's beer production. That said, Jon Bloostein, Heartland's founder gives a lot of input, too, and is very clear about how he wants his beer to taste.
What are your plans for the brewery for 2010? For the next five years?
Heartland will soon be opening a Midtown West location at Eighth Avenue and 41st Street, so, from the perspective of the brewery, we're focused on ensuring that we'll have enough beer to supply this new location, which will feature 12 to 14 beers on tap. Going forward, we're going to be introducing more seasonal Heartland beers and rotating them more frequently. There are some, such as our Not Tonight Honey Porter and Full Moon Barley Wine, that have become classics, however, we're also introducing a lot of new ones such as a Blueberry Lager, an Imperial Nut Brown IPA, a Belgian Dubbel and, this spring, a New York State Wildflower Wheat, all of whose ingredients are from the Empire State. Five years from now? I can barely keep up with our production schedule for this year. Our volume has grown by about 50 percent a year, each year, for the past three years. We can't sustain that growth over the next three years because we don't have the space. So will we need to move? I don't know. I need to chew on a Tums and think about it.
Do you have favorite Kelso or Heartland beer and food pairings?
The Heartland Farmer Jon's Oatmeal Stout with BBQ ribs is sublime. Roasted flavors play off each other, taking the combo to another level. For Kelso, the Nut Brown Lager with a prime-aged steak from Peter Luger's is a perfect marriage of contrasts: rich, bold meat with a crispy, dry beer. Very satisfying.
Are there iconic beers that have been inspirational to you?
In the early days of my career, the Sierra Nevada beers really did it for me. They offered a full range of varieties, bright, distinct flavors, very drinkable brews and amazingly consistent quality. What else is there in brewing, really?
Are there any beers that you think all beer drinkers should try?
I say, get into lambics. Not the Lindemanns variety, which for me are too sweet, but rather Boon or Liefman's, perhaps a Rodenbach, too, all of which are tart, refreshing, and intense; it's crazy how beer can simultaneously taste like balsamic vinegar and fruit, and still be delicious.
Do you have favorite craft breweries elsewhere in the country?
Outside of our great New York City breweries, I am a huge fan of Pizza Port in Solana Beach, California; Boundary Bay in Bellingham, Washington; and Snoqualmie in Snoqualmie, Washington. They all make creative, assertive, and complex beers that are also very drinkable.
Man, I'm thirsty.
Thinking about beer and chocolate for Valentine's Day? The Union Square location of Heartland Brewery has held back a few kegs of Taylor's tasty limited-edition porters to pair with its gooey s'mores dessert. I especially liked the silky Sumatra Porter brewed with fresh grounds from Oren's Daily Roast, though the Belgian Chocolate L'Orange is also pretty tasty. Growlers are available to take home. —Maggie