Q&A: Will Meyers of Cambridge Brewing Company

will with hopsWe’ve got Cambridge Brewing Company in the store today for a tasting, which means…you guessed it…we have a few questions for the brew man with the master plan: Mr. Will Meyers! Meyers was kind enough to entertain our questions and talk changes in the industry, his past life as a classical opera singer, and tips for the aspiring brewer.

Where are you from originally?
I.m originally from the Philadelphia area, but I.ve been here in Cambridge/Boston since 1991. I now live on Winter Hill in Somerville. Prior to that, I lived just seven blocks up the street from CBC. It was a great commute! I am definitely at home here in New England though it kills my dad that I root for the Bruins against the Flyers.

Tell us how you came to discover craft beer.
I have memories of sitting in my dad.s lap as a little boy and sipping on his beer when my mom wasn.t looking. He had a broad taste in beers, everything from Schmidt.s (we were in Philly after all) to Beck.s and Lowenbrau (back when they were imports and actually pretty decent beers) to Guinness. Also, my uncle homebrewed and my grandfather made wine from kits a few times. I remember liking the darker beers. So I never really lost my taste for beer until college, when the choices were considerably more dismal. As for my .beer epiphany,. I started homebrewing myself in 1990 and was really excited about beers like Orval, Corsendonk, Chimay, and Cantillon.

What did you do before you were a brewer? We heard a rumor that you were a classically trained singer.
I did study music performance, theory, and composition. That was a really long time ago, though. I played many musical instruments throughout school and primarily voice in high school and college. I was always drawn to the performing arts as well as literature and visual arts. But I was a terrible writer and had no skills as a painter or sculptor. Beer is the form in which my creative impulses manifest.

You’ve been with CBC for 20 years now. What would you say are some of the biggest changes both at CBC and in the industry that you’ve seen over that time span?
Well, the décor has become a little more sophisticated and grown up . we used to have all floor-to-ceiling glass walls and concrete floors, it was noisy and rambunctious but you could hose the whole place down at night. I don.t miss the frat party vibe caused by pints, pitchers and yards of Tripel Threat, though! Now with the cork walls, carpeting, and nicer furniture it.s a more comfortable place and allows proper focus on our food, beer, and service without being the least bit snooty.

I feel our beers have gotten better and better as we continue to hone our craft. The physical brewery has expanded beyond its original brewhouse, three fermenters, and three serving tanks to a total of 6 x 10bbl FVs, 3 x 15bbl FVs, 3 x 10bbl BBTs (bright beer tanks/serving tanks), 4 x 15bbl BBTs, our 500L sake tank, and one brand spanking new little 8bbl BBT used exclusively for beers from our Barrel Cellar. Oh, I guess that.s been a significant change as well, from our original experiments in barrel aging with 5 used bourbon barrels (to create a beer called Benevolence, first brewed in 1998 and released in 2003) to our cellar full of as many as 72 different oak vessels.

And of course, we are bottling some of our beers now! It still feels like a very new project for me, but we have been operating as contract brewers with the help of the team at Ipswich Brewing Company. We could never fit a bottling line here at CBC, nor could we produce enough beer, so their bigger size and their equipment is a big help. I am there from start to finish on every brew day, and travel up regularly to monitor ferments, crop yeast, dryhop, transfer, etc. On days when my schedule doesn.t permit that, however, the Ipswich guys take care of things for us. It.s very important to me as a control freak but also because I think our integrity is of the utmost importance, that we be involved in and in control of the production of anything that bears our names. If you walk away from that and just hand over the car keys, so to speak, then you would be compromising the customer.s expectations. When people come to CBC they know that we make our own beer. It stands to reason we would want that same confidence in the customer when they purchase our beer elsewhere. It.s something Phil and I feel very strongly about. Our friends at Ipswich are perfectly capable of making exceptional beers on their own, of course, and we couldn.t make our own beers there without their help. I.ve been there regularly brewing for a year and a half, and there.s still no way that I could run that whole place myself! They are awesome and deserve a lot more credit than they often receive.

As for changes in the industry over the last 20 years, well, you need only look around to see that craft beer is now accepted by the mainstream. Young adults who weren.t even born when I began homebrewing now take the existence of good beer for granted . which is a great thing. When you can walk into nearly any corner bar in the country and find at least Sierra Nevada or Sam Adams on draft, life is good for craft brewers. The existence of a multitude of craft beer-focused bars and restaurants, bottle shops, and ancillary industry (beer newspapers/magazines, consultants, bloggers, ratings sites) is something that.s also grown up with the industry.

I think the internet is largely to thank these days not only for the popularity of craft beer in general, but also for the wealth of information about beers, breweries, brewing and homebrewing technology, etc. 20 years ago, if you wanted to brew a Flemish red ale, you just had to figure it out on your own and hope you got close to your intent somehow. Now, all you have to do is take two minutes for a web search and you.ve got ingredients, process, and plenty of other people.s experiences to work with. It.s amazing.

Overall quality of the beer being produced is better than it was in the ’80s and ’90s. As the industry explodes exponentially, quality of the beer being put out is probably the one thing most of us .established brewers. are concerned about. New breweries have a brief window of time where they are supported by friends and local enthusiasm, then they have to really get it right in order to survive. The number of new breweries being opened by people with no real professional brewing experience concerns me, but I still feel it.s my job to help anyone who asks. After all, if a new drinker has their first taste of a .craft beer. and it.s of very poor quality, that bad experience will taint their perception of craft beer. Then they may never move from the bland safety of industrial light lager to try beers from CBC, or any other brewery.

Where do you find inspiration for new recipes?
Inspiration comes in many forms. The ingredients themselves often inform us, or conversation about beer styles or brewing history. I personally am inspired more by new flavors and aromas, by cooking, by parallel crafts like baking, cheesemaking, or other ferments. Hearing of someone.s experiences in winemaking, for example, has made me think, .Oh, I could try that idea in this way, and it might be cool!. Music, literature, and history are still the biggest for me. We.ve never been interested in copying work that anyone has done, but I have no problem taking an interesting process or ingredient and building on that to create something uniquely .CBC..

Can you tell us about any new brews that are in the works right now?
Nope! Okay, well, we.ve already brewed one of the beers we hope to release for our 25th anniversary. We.re always toiling in the barrel cellar, maintaining some of our standbys while cultivating new and interesting beers. We are constantly seeking ways to refine our barrel program beers, in order to produce better and more consistent beer. We.ve brewed our first batches of our HefeWeizen, which we release every year and which always says .Summer!. to me. We are moments away from bottling our next beer, Flower Child I.P.A., for release. In July we.ll be out picking fresh heather flowers for our annual Heather Ale release, which always excites me. And perhaps this is safe space to let slip a little hint about a Cambridge Brewing Company & Craft Beer Cellar collaboration that.s going on? That.s all I.ll say, though! [Ed note: That’s right! Two CBCs, one beer. Get excited.]

What are five beers you’re really digging right now?
This is always a tough question to answer as I.m always digging many more beers than I can remember at any given time. The 5 most recent beers I.ve really liked are:

Enlightenment Ales. Rite of Spring
Tilquin Gueuze
Dieu de Ciel!.s Mosaica
Le Trou du Diable.s Dulcis Succubus
De la Senne.s Schieven IPA

What’s your favorite thing about what you do?
The smells of malt and hops and fermentation. The hard work, and the reward of the terrific end result. The creative outlet. The camaraderie. The connection to the many, many brewers who have existed over thousands of years who have toiled with the rituals of fermentation.

What advice do you have for aspiring brewers?
Homebrew your heart out. All-grain. Read everything you can. Study hard. Get an internship, and get a proper education (sorry, we don.t offer internships) at a respectable brewing school. Be tenacious. Don.t make excuses . my kitchen.s too small, my girlfriend/boyfriend hates the smell, I can.t afford quality ingredients or an oxygenating stone . nothing should get in the way of you making the best possible beer. Pay attention to your sanitary habits and improve upon them, constantly. Don.t believe your mom/girlfriend/buddy when they say your beer is awesome and you should open a brewery. They are just being nice and/or drunk. Perfect your beers first. Make an exceptional pale ale or porter or amber, before you go off throwing all kinds of crazy ingredients in your beer in order to .express yourself.. Learn the basics first. Learn everything there is to know about your ingredients, yeast strain, fermentations, beer styles. Accept constructive criticism.

If you find you don.t care for the drudgery of constant cleaning of messes, sanitizing, scrubbing, and attention to detail, then you probably won.t be happy brewing commercially. The craft brewing world is an incredibly competitive industry in terms of getting started as a brewer. Homebrewers often imagine the glamour of larger-scale professional brewing without considering the downsides of hard labor, constant cleaning and mechanical work, very long hours, low pay, and a long slow climb up a very steep ladder. It has become very popular as a career choice, meaning there are a lot more people trying to get experience and a job than there were twenty years ago . and it was hard to get into back then!

Additionally it can be a huge financial challenge, as internships/apprenticeships are rarely compensated and entry-level brewing jobs don.t typically pay much above minimum wage. This can be tougher for someone attempting a career change, who is used to making a strong salary and has a family, mortgage, etc. Your average investment banker/IT guy making a lot of money but who is dissatisfied will still find it a shock to be the low man on the totem pole, potentially working under someone considerably younger. An aspiring brewer must also be willing to relocate, as paid positions are rare in all areas of the country and being committed to staying in one place will drastically reduce opportunities.

You will never know every thing there is to know, but you must aspire to. To paraphrase Shunryu Suzuki, you must vow to always be a beginner. Although the teaching is limitless, you must vow to learn it all!

Your bio on the CBC website says you enjoy cooking, reading, making wine, and snowboarding. Can we have your best dish, your favorite book(s), what kind of wine you make, and your favorite place to shred the powpow?!
I make a pretty mean carbonade flamande. I.ve been reading a number of terrific beer-related books (Mitch Steele.s book on IPA is tops!) but not much for non-beer fun. Among my all-time favorites are Toole.s A Confederacy of Dunces, and Robbins.Another Roadside Attraction, off the top of my head. I was regularly making wine with a buddy but we didn.t crush any grapes last Fall. In the past we.ve made a killer Bordeaux-style red, an old vine zinfandel, and a Cab/Merlot of which I am quite proud. I will shred wherever the powder is thick and deep!

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