(Interview originally conducted in November of 2011)
I discovered Valhöll Brewing through the fall issue of Beer West Magazine. In it, there was an article about a brewery “explosion” in the small Pacific Northwest town of Poulsbo Washington. This small town of just over 8000 residents (as of 2009) went from having zero breweries to four in the span of a few months last year and the love of craft beer has been, apparently, growing there ever since.
Conveniently, I have family in that region and decided to make a trip out during the Thanksgiving Holiday. I was fortunate to have done so as the breweries there, including Valhöll, are exceptional and, as always, an inspiration to homebrewers dreaming of going pro someday.
While I didn’t have to opportunity to actually meet Jeff in person, he was exceptionally welcoming when I reached out to him for an interview. I asked him about his business, his beers, and his thoughts on the beer scene in the sleepy little town of Poulsbo:
Tell me how you got your start. Were a homebrewer before you went pro? How long were you homebrewing before making the jump?
I was never a homebrewer. I was given the opportunity to work in the brewing industry by Ted Farmer. Ted owned the former Heads Up Brewing Co. which was located in Silverdale a few miles to the south of me. Heads Up was a brew on premises as well as a tap room, bottle store, and brewery. After working for Ted for a year or so he started teaching me about brewing and eventually I was brewing full time for him. I had never experienced beer like he offered before. I spent 11 years living in Minnesota which had a great homebrewing community but little in the way of craft beer. I tasted Ted’s strong scotch ale affectionately called “Damned Red Scotch Ale” and I was hooked and have not looked back since.
I first learned about your operation after reading about the brewery “boom” happening in Poulsbo Washington in the fall issue of Beer West magazine. In that article, you mentioned that you wanted to be the first “new-generation” brewery open in your hometown. What did you mean by that? What do you consider a “new-generation” brewery?
I believe that was a misquote. I do not recall ever calling ourselves a new generation. Brewers evolve as do beer styles. My goal was to be the first in this city period, which I accomplished. She may have thrown that in because we were talking about how many of the new breweries are creating styles and interpretations of styles that are breaking the “mold” of what beer is or can be. I consider myself an extreme brewer to some extent. Not just in terms of alcohol but flavors and the use of adjuncts to create something new and memorable. I never want a customer to leave and think my beers tasted like the guy down the street. I also will never tap a beer I will not drink myself.
Outside of the obvious fact that just about every homebrewer daydreams of going pro… where there any external factors that “encouraged” you to make the jump, or did you just decide it was time to have a go at it?
It was time. It had been several years since Heads Up had to close and I needed to brew. I was at a fork in the road with my day job. By that I mean had I stayed longer I would have been to close to full retirement and would have stayed. Doing a full time day job and this is brutal. I was working over 100 hours a week between the two and my family and the brewery was suffering. The brewery started to stall out I guess you could say. Had I not gone full time it would have never grown which is my dream, so it was time.
Is the brewery your full-time gig, or do you have a day-job to pay the bills?
Yes. Remember those who wish to make the leap to the big leagues have money saved up or a big investor behind them. Money is tight in the first year. Bills getting paid at home becomes difficult at times especially after giving up a federal career with a nice paycheck.
It sounds like things are going quite well for you, having already moved once to a larger space after only six months! Besides making quality beer, do you have any thoughts on why you think you’ve found such great success for a nano-brewery in a small town?
It was time. By that I mean there is a new generation of drinkers that have grown up with craft beer especially in the northwest. When I was young and even after being a legal drinker, the choices were slim and import specialty stores were few. Now craft beer is in every corner store and there is a brewery in nearly every town. People have come to understand that drinking a beer is just as, if not more, sophisticated than wine these days. The complexity and flavor depths that are being produced have our supporters wanting more quality beer. It has been wonderful watching the big “3″ being pushed off-tap in the regional market.
Amazingly, in the span of only a few short months, Poulsbo went from having zero breweries to four. Have you found the newly developed [pro] brewing community welcoming and supportive of each other, or has the near instantaneous competition been something of a challenge for your own growing and evolving business?
We all get along amazingly well. Dave “Slippery Pig Brewing” and I have become very good friends through this process. We order grain together to save shipping cost and we help each other out as much as possible. I have known the boys at Sound Brewing for years. They were Heads Up Brewing regulars. I just recently got the privilege of getting to know Steve from Battenkill Brewing and he is a great brewer and becoming a good friend. Of course there is competition but we send customers to the other breweries and help when we can. For example Sound has the only keg washer among us so Mark Hood lets us wash our kegs there. It has been a great experience.
Do you feel you need to have some type of “hook” to distinguish yourself from the rest of the market? If so, what, and how helpful do you feel it’s been?
We have been described as “culinary brewers” which I guess comes from my love of adjuncts. As an example we make a monster stout that has sweet potatoes, raisins, brown sugar, and cinnamon in it. Tastes like holiday cooking. I love dry hopping and also adding fruit (e.g. grapefruit goes well with Simcoe dry hop). We also try and use as many products from the local area as possible.
Along the same lines, perhaps, do you tailor the types of beer you produce to current market demands, or do you produce only the beers you enjoy and just hope/assume your customers will be interested?
You have to listen to your customer base of course, but I enjoy helping guide people down a path to beer discovery. I love someone who tells me they hate IPA’s or “dark” beers. Really? So you have tried them all? People’s understanding of beer by and large is limited. I designed an IPA that I made very balanced and finished with Belgian yeast. I used no bittering hops at all, but chose aroma and flavor hops which would showcase that hops are flavorful not just bitter and you can have a well balanced IPA that is 85 IBU’s and finished with the estery flavors of a Belgian ale. It has helped change many minds about IPA’s. I have found that once a customer is loyal they will try anything you make. I am a talker if you have not noticed. Once you can engage a customer and get them talking about the beer, it is easier to guide them to what they like and it also helps them feel comfortable about trying new things.
But to answer your question, I make what my instincts tell me. So far it has worked out really well.
It appeared to me while I was there that you’re currently brewing on a two-tier 15 gallon keggle system. Is that accurate? Tell me a bit about the system.
I am on a Sabco Brew Magic. Dog Fish Head Brewing started with one of these. It has a 1/3 bbl brewing capacity and it is amazing. We have been getting over 80% efficiency very consistently.
I also spied some nice stainless conical fermenters in the back corner. What size are those, what type/brand, and what is your total fermentation capacity?
Those are Blichmann 1 bbl conicals. I have 4 of those and 3 Sabco 15 gal. fermenters. We are at 10 bbl per month output.
Are you selling your beer at the brewery only, or do you sell kegs to other bars/restaurants in your area? What about bottled product in local stores?
We are 95% out of tasting room but we do limited keg sales for a few local bars and occasionally in Seattle. Bottles once we are in the new space.
Given your current system size, how many times a week are you having to brew to keep up with demand? Are you finding it reasonable/workable or are you desperately in need of upscaling?
Upscale? Yes now please! We just bought a building and are preparing to install a 5 bbl system with 8 unitanks and serving tanks. That will put us over 1000 bbls a year.
Right now I have to brew at least 8 times a week to keep up. It takes a triple brew day to fill one conical.
Tell me a little bit about your current location. As a tourist, I don’t know the town well… are you located in an area with an organic customer base, or are you considered more of a destination location – one that folks have to seek out specifically rather than simply stumble upon?
I would say both. We have amazing local support but Poulsbo has become a beer destination as of late. Also there are several very good beer bars and pubs in town and two specialty bottle stores.
The brewery is in a relatively small space, but based on my impression while visiting, it appears to work quite well. What is the total square footage? How much of that is dedicated to the servery and how much goes to brewing operations?
The space is 628 sq. feet. What you saw was the entire operation. It is split about half and half. We crammed as much in the space as we could.
Like the other three breweries in Poulsbo, you serve plenty of beer at your establishment, but no [prepared] food. Do you feel this has impacted business at all? What has the customers response been? Have you reached out to any local restaurants to work out delivery options for your patrons?
Like many of the smaller breweries in the state, we do not serve food. There are too many good restaurants in Poulsbo. Several local pizza places deliver and we do serve locally smoked salmon, cheese, and nuts. No complaints so far. I am a brewer not a chef. Someday maybe.
Aside from standard licensing and permit requirements, was there any unexpected governmental red tape that you had to deal with? How painful/painless was your licensing/permitting process? How long did it take, start to finish, to get fully licensed?
It was just over a year to get licensed. The city was difficult but that is due to the laws that were on the books. Once they understood everything it was fairly simple.
Do you have a business plan? Is it a traditional business plan or a more informal outline? Where do you see your business going in the coming years?
Must have business plan. Yes we have a 10 year plan. So far we are 3 years ahead of schedule. I definitely want to grown into a full production brewery. In the 30 bbl to 50 bbl size. That is 3 or so years down the road.
Having now gone through the process of starting a brewery, is there anything you would have done differently had you to do it all over again?
Yes a bigger system to start. And more money.
Do you still homebrew for yourself, friends, and family? Do you enjoy the beer brewing process as much now as you did when you were only homebrewing? How has brewing changed for you now that you’ve gone pro?
It becomes work to a point. An 18 hour day is long no matter if you love it or not. I love this to the point of insane passion so I love it more now. As my understanding of the science of brewing grows my love for it increases.
Any advice for homebrewers out there who may be dreaming about going pro someday?
DO IT. If you have a passion for this the do it. Save your money and do it right. If you think you have enough cash, then double it!
Many thanks to Jeff for taking time out of his obviously hectic schedule to answer my questions. He is doing an amazing job forging his business and finding much success. I wish him the best of luck and look forward to getting back to his operation in the near future – presumably an operation much larger than the one I visited last month!!