Our favorite beer at the New York Brewfest last weekend was Nebraska Brewing Company's Melange a Trois, a Belgian-style blonde ale aged for six months in Chardonnay barrels. We're thrilled to have Tyson Arp, the brewer of that delicious beer, here today to answer a few questions!
Name: Tyson Arp
Location: Papillion, Nebraska (near Omaha)
Occupation: Lead Brewer, Nebraska Brewing Company
How did you learn to brew? When did you realize you wanted to be a professional brewer? Like a lot of people in the industry, I started out on the kitchen stove as a homebrewer. I had tasted a few brews made by some friends, but Alton Brown's Good Eats episode on brewing is what finally spurred me to action to go buy a kit and get started. My wife, Angela, and I tackled the hobby together in 2004 and our first beer, an Oktoberfest, turned out good enough to throw a party and drink the whole batch in one afternoon! We kept at it after that and brewed once every month or two over the next few years. I continued to become more and more fascinated by the process and acquired quite the library of brewing books from which I learned most of the craft. The funny thing is, at the time, I never even imagined myself as a professional brewer as I already had a successful business as a carpenter.
How did you go about joining the Nebraska Brewing team? After quitting my former career as a carpenter without any particular new career in mind, Angela and I headed to the mountains of Colorado to unwind and do some soul searching. I knew I needed to do some sort of craft and something I was passionate about, which kind of narrowed the search to baking or brewing. Of the two, I definitely had more experience brewing and I figured baker's hours would kill me (Angela might say the same of brewer's hours now). So when we came down out of the mountains, we headed to Fort Collins to visit a few breweries. After a great tour at Odell's, I could definitely envision myself working in a brewery.
Then, of course, the hard part was finding a brewing job in Nebraska where there are only about a dozen breweries and most of them are very small. I sent my resume around to the few breweries in Omaha but, as expected, there were no openings. I'd also contacted Nebraska Brewing Company which was just a brewery-in-planning at the time, but my calls went unreturned.
Meanwhile, I entered a few homebrew competitions and happened to win best in show at my first. And as it happened, one of the judges in the best-in-show round was Paul, the owner of Nebraska Brewing. After this win, Paul and I finally met and I convinced him to let me hang out and volunteer around the brewery during construction. After a few weeks of trying to make myself indispensable, Paul hired me as assistant brewer.
Tell us a little about your beers—is there a Nebraska Brewing signature style? Like a lot of brew pubs, we brew a pretty wide range of beers at Nebraska Brewing, so pinning down a signature style is a bit tricky. We strive to brew full-flavored, distinctive beers. To this end, we regularly juggle four or more different yeast strains and three different base malts depending on the character of each beer. This definitely complicates our brewing schedule and inventory management, but the results are worth the hassle. On top of our core, draft lineup of eight beers, we also produce a Reserve Series of oak aged, bottle conditioned beers. We got started on this in our first year with two chardonnay barrels and now have 22 barrels sitting around the pub including chardonnay, whiskey, and new oak.
Walk us through your typical workday. What are the biggest challenges in your job? One of the great things about being a brewer is that every day is a little different from the last. On any given day you could find me brewing or filtering, filling kegs, scrubbing things, propagating yeast, brewing pilot beers, cleaning kegs, filling party pigs, delivering beer to distributors, giving tours and tastings, strategizing, filling or emptying oak barrels, packaging beers for competitions, counting yeast, managing inventories, pouring beer at festivals or charity events, or just pulling my hair out wondering how to get it all done. I've put in countless hours since becoming lead (and only) brewer in June of 2009 to keep up with the demands in our pub and expanding distribution markets. Fortunately we've just taken on an assistant to ease the load and just finished our busiest month of brewing so far.
My biggest challenge right now is squeezing eight-plus beers out of a brewery that would comfortably produce five or six different brands and still find time to innovate and try new things.
What are you most proud of as a brewer? Definitely got to go with our Bronze Medal for Hop God in the Belgo-American category at the 2010 World Beer Cup. That was a big deal for all of us at NBC and it was great to get some recognition for all the hard work we've been putting in over the last couple years. It was especially gratifying as it is a beer that we were already really proud of and in a category that is highly in vogue.
What are you brewing now? We just finished up our Apricot au Poivre Saison—in English that's an apricot, black pepper saison—a beer that I'd wanted to brew for a couple years (and some of that has been stashed in chardonnay barrels too!). On our pilot system, I've got a summer rye beer featuring Citra hops fermenting away, and before the week is out I'm brewing another batch of Melange a Trois which will eventually age in five chardonnay barrels we just received a couple weeks ago. On top of that we've got to crank out EOS Hefeweizen, Brunette Nut Brown Ale, and Infinite Wit before the weekend!
We are huge fans of your Chardonnay French Oak Melange a Trois—can you tell us a little about that beer? How did you come up with the recipe? Where do the Chardonnay barrels come from? Melange a Trois is a Belgian-style golden ale (around 10% ABV) that we age in chardonnay casks for around six months. Initially this beer was released for our first anniversary as "Chardonnay Blonde Reserve" and we found that the fruity character of the Belgian yeast we're using and the aromatics of the chardonnay play very nicely together. Since we're set up as a pub (more so than a production brewery,) bottling 10 barrels of beer is always a chore. We're fortunate to have some great fans that volunteer to help out and we set up a very low tech bottling line right behind our bar in the restaurant. Once the bottles are filled, the beer is then fully bottle conditioned for a few weeks before the release.
Originally this beer was a collaboration of the former head brewer, myself, and Paul, the owner. I think Paul had the original idea to use the chardonnay barrels, and the recipe was mostly the work of the former brewer. I was left with the task of actually producing the beer from the brew house on and working out the logistics of working with barrels and bottle conditioning for the first time. The resultant beer is certainly one of a kind, since few brewers are currently using chardonnay barrels, and most are purposely souring the beers with brett and lacto. We let the character of the barrels shine through in the final flavor and each batch will vary slightly as we get in new barrels for each run. We've found one of the difficulties of producing this beer to be the procurement of the barrels, which can be hard to come by, and generally have to be shipped in from California's wine country.
Nebraska Brewing Company's beers now have distribution in New York; how quickly is distribution of your beers increasing? How many states do you have distribution in now? This year in particular we've started expanding our distribution in order to utilize some excess capacity in our brewery. Currently we're distributing in Nebraska, Iowa, New York, and Oregon. We may take on a few more areas for some of our Reserve Series beers, but we've got to be cautious as we get close to reaching and possibly exceeding our brewing capacity. We regularly have distributors calling us now wanting to carry our beers and it certainly is hard to say no!
What can we expect from Nebraska Brewing Company in the next few years? In addition to our draft beers, we plan to continue and possibly expand production of our current Reserve Series (Melange a Trois, Black Betty, Fathead Barleywine, and Oak Aged Hop God). We've also got a few barrels around with some "experiments" in them which may eventually add to the lineup of our Reserve Series. Hopefully we'll also find a way to expand our current capacity limits, as it always seems we could sell way more beer than we can brew right now!
Do you have a favorite Nebraska Brewing Company beer and food pairing? We do fairly regular beer dinners at NBC where our chef, Adam, turns out amazing food and we meticulously pair beers to match. However, on a more day to day basis, I really like our buffalo chicken sandwich and IPA. The spicy food really balances out the bitterness and highlights the sweet malt backbone of our IPA.
What do you drink when you're not drinking the beers you've brewed? What are your favorite breweries besides Nebraska? Like a lot of beer geeks, I tend to gravitate toward beers I haven't tried before. We're fortunate to have a couple really good beer stores in the area, so there is always something interesting in my beer fridge. I love trying other brewery's oak aged beers in particular as they seem to just get better and more interesting all the time. Odell's, Boulevard, and Goose Island have all turned out some great specialty beers in the past couple years that I've enjoyed a lot.
You're brewing unusual beers, especially in the reserve series—how do your customers in Nebraska react to your more intense creations? While the state of Nebraska certainly lags behind other parts of the county in craft beer consumption, we've got a solid and growing base of beer fanatics who are thirsty for the creative brews we produce at NBC. We've made it a point from the very beginning to not underestimate the palates of our customers and won't dumb down beers just to sell more. We consider it our mission to educate people and introduce them into wonderful, flavorful craft beers—so much so that we don't serve "domestic" beer at our restaurant. I never get tired of seeing that light bulb come on over people's heads when they finally get what craft beer is all about!
Can you tell us a little about the craft brewing scene in the Midwest? Craft brewers in the Midwest (and particularly Nebraska) have been brewing great beers "under the radar" for some time and are just now starting to break out and get noticed. Unlike the Pacific Northwest or Southern California, which have fairly well defined styles of brewing, the Midwest is much more eclectic. This is highlighted each year at one of our favorite festivals, The Great Taste of the Midwest in Madison, Wisconsin, where around 120 Midwestern brewers get together to show off this diversity and high level of brewing skill. We've also got more and more serious beer bars popping up each year and more festivals to introduce people to craft beer as well! It's a great time to be a Midwestern brewer—it feels like we're just at the beginning of a craft beer explosion!
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