Conducted by Tara Eshghi
After several years as head brewer at Devil’s Canyon in Belmont, Jason Beck struck out on his own and started up Comrades Brewing in San Francisco. Jason also teaches the beer brewing class at Workshop. In this two-part class, you pick a recipe from Jason’s stack of brew books and work with him to deliver your creation from grain to bottle. The class also includes a tasting and a fun reverse-engineering experiment. At the end, you get to take home the beer you made to enjoy in blissful booziness.
What got you interested in brewing?
I was in South Africa, going to grad school in something totally unrelated to brewing. I wasn’t really into it that much. And, I dunno, I guess I’d always been interested in beers and even more so in spirits. So I actually started off distilling. I remember the first still I built. I was back from South Africa for a month staying at my parents’ house for Christmas, and I built it to make rum in their backyard. It was made from a kitchen pot, some copper tubing, and a kitty litter box.
How did that first batch taste?
It was…drinkable. I wouldn’t say it was good, but it was drinkable. And then I went back to South Africa after the month break. I was distilling a lot. I was making whiskey. And I just really got a hankering for American beer there because the beer in South Africa is really bad. While I was there, South African breweries would import MGD (Miller Genuine Draft) and sell it as their “high end” beer. So that gives you an idea of what their regular beer was like.
So yeah, I really just started craving West Coast IPA’s and ambers. And there was sort of like a nascent home-brewing scene going on there. Some guys were starting to import these ingredients from the United States and Europe. And I got into it because I kind of already knew how to brew from making whiskey, and it’s basically the same thing. So yeah, that’s how I started making beer.
Was it hard to find the equipment out there?
The equipment was the easy part. The ingredients were the hard part. But like I said, there were one or two people that coincidentally started importing ingredients from overseas at that time. I joined a local home-brewing club and it was really fun. I was the only American in the Cape Town home-brewing club.
How long have you been brewing?
It’s been about nine years now. So yeah, I was just totally self-started. I taught myself using books, the Internet, whatever I could absorb. My background isn’t in anything related to brewing. I don’t have a science background or an engineering background – none of that stuff. So I really just taught myself.
I remember one day I realized that I was spending about ten times more time on brewing than I was on grad school. So I promptly dropped out of grad school and moved back to the states. Two weeks after moving, I was working at a brewery. Six months later, I was the head brewer of that brewery. It quickly turned from a hobby to a passion to an actual career.
What are the main challenges that beginners face when they start brewing?
The biggest thing that I try to impress on the beginners in my class is the importance of cleaning and sanitation. It’s not the sexy part of brewing, but it is what sets a new brewer apart from other new brewers. Lots of people who dive into brewing don’t realize how important it is to clean and sanitize the equipment because it’s boring; you can’t feel and taste cleaning and sanitizing things. You just put in chemicals and shit. People get more into the grains and the hops. I really try to drill it into their heads that cleaning and sanitization are very important. That is the biggest challenge for new brewers.
So does it ever result in disasters? Do you have any horror stories about terrible beers that came out?
It definitely happens. I don’t know. I guess I was lucky. I’m not saying that when I started my beers were the greatest. I guess it helps that I have a little bit of an obsessive-compulsive nature. That plays to my advantage in brewing because I am totally OCD about cleaning and sanitizing. So I never had anything that was like “What the fuck did I just make?” But I definitely tasted some home-brews that were like, “Whoa, buddy. There is something wrong going on here.” There are even commercial breweries that get bad batches because they don’t pay enough attention.
But the good thing about beer is that a bad batch will not make you sick. This is why beer has existed for thousands of years. It’s an effective way to preserve grains, because during the brewing process the PH becomes so acidic that it will kill any organisms that may hurt you. It may taste bad but it will never make you sick. You might taste a beer and say “Oh, this is gross,” but it’s not like the average food in a restaurant that might really hurt you if it is made improperly.
But for whiskey it can be dangerous if you do it wrong, right?
The issue with whiskey is that the yeast produce a bunch of different kinds of alcohol and one of them is called methanol. Methanol is really bad for you. When you are drinking beer you are still drinking methanol, but you are drinking such a small amount of it.
The point of distilling is to separate the alcohol from the water. You are concentrating all that alcohol. The good thing is that the methanol distills off first so distillers just take the stuff that comes off the still first and dump it down the drain. But if you are drinking someone’s home-distilled whiskey and they don’t know about that, they’ll keep the methanol in there, and that is what makes you sick.
Does it make you really sick?
Yes, in large doses it is potentially lethal. Most people who do distilling at home have done their research and they know to get rid of that shit. It also tastes terrible and if you taste it as it comes out of the still, you know that you’re not supposed to drink it.
So do you have any other tips for the beginners, other than sanitation?
I have two principles. One of them is sanitation, sanitation, sanitation, which I make everyone in the class repeat after me. The other one is this: I am not a brewer, I am a caretaker of yeast. You have to remember that it’s all about the yeast. Yeast are living creatures, and they are the ones that make the beer. As a brewer, you don’t actually make the beer. What you do is make food for yeast. They consume the food you make and they turn it into beer.
What’s the story on Comrades Brewing?
When I got back to the States, I got a job in Devil’s Canyon brewery in Belmont. I was the head brewer there for four years. It was a good learning experience. It was fun and it was a good job, but it was a terrible company to work for. Their beer was a kinda boring, whatever, middle-of-the-road craft beer. There wasn’t a whole lot of room for fun and experimentation. Now I have a day job that’s not in brewing but it pays my rent in the meantime. I wanted to let my creative side go wild, which I wasn’t able to do while I was working there. I learned a lot about the process of professional brewing [at Devil’s Canyon], but I wasn’t able to explore the creativity so much. That’s how Comrades came about.
So were you working at Devil’s Canyon during the day and then brewing your own beer at home?
I wasn’t brewing at home because I found when I was brewing ten hours a day, I didn’t want to go home and brew. I wanted to go home and ride my bike or something. I had lots of ideas while I was there, but never carried them out. It was only when I left that the juices started flowing and I was like “OK. We will take this and do something real.” The reason it was named Comrades was that the original idea was to do beers based around the personality of people I know, especially my friends. I have strayed from that a bit, but we are incorporating a little bit of that into the beers.
It seems like many of your beers, such as the Roasted Banana and Donut Bread Pudding Weizenbock and the Mala Hot Pot IPA, are inspired by gourmet food. What’s your creative process like for coming up with a new brew?
That is a very good question. I’d say that my process is all over the place. The one thing that I’ve learned that is a central part of the process — and any creative person is probably gonna feel the same way — is that when you have an idea, write it down immediately. That’s what’s nice about the smartphone. You have always got something with you to write it down. When I started brewing, I didn’t have that. I’d say to myself, “I’ll remember that.” But three days later I’d be like, “I had a really great idea. What was that?” I couldn’t remember it. But now I have a Google doc that I can access on my phone and I have like six pages of notes. That is the only consistent part of my creative process. I’ve learned to write everything down.
So you had a spark one day: bananas and donuts…
Every one of my beers has a story behind it. The true story behind that one is I had this good friend named Terry and he and I have this weird obsession with off-the-wall hybrid foods. One time we went to this party and he made a banana donut bread pudding. It actually had whole Krispy Krème donuts baked into it, with bananas sticking out of them suggestively. It was fucking amazing, and I said to myself, “I am going to turn this into a beer.” So that was the birth of the Roasted Banana Donut Bread Pudding Weisenbock.
I don’t want the beers to be kitschy. I like them to have a spark and something fun and something that draws your attention to it like “Oh, roast bananas and donuts. That’s weird. I’ll try that.” But ultimately, it’s about the taste. I don’t want people to taste them and be like, “Ok yeah, it tastes like bananas and donuts, this is kinda gross.” It still has to be a good beer. I either start with the idea and try to match the style with the idea, or the style inspires the idea.
So that one is a Weisenbock, which is a higher-alcohol Hefeweizen that’s a little bit darker. But it already has those natural [banana] flavors in it, because the Hefeweizen yeast naturally create a banana aroma when they ferment. That’s why often-times people drink a Hefeweizen and say it tastes like banana, especially the German Hefs. It also has these bread-y, slightly sweet, fruity flavors that are typical in the Weisenbock style. That is why I chose that style, and I incorporated bananas and donuts almost as a storytelling element. That is how I try to bring about a fun idea with a good solid beer as well.
And the spicy one too.
The Mala Hot pot? Yeah, that was inspired by a restaurant two blocks from here called Spices. It’s an awesome Sichuan restaurant and I love their Ma-Po Tofu. Have you had Ma-Po Tofu? It’s tofu and minced pork in a spicy sauce. The word “Mala” basically means the combination of Sichuan peppercorns and red chilis. That’s common in Sichuan cuisine because supposedly the Sichuan peppercorns numb your taste buds so that you are able to experience the aroma and the flavor of the chilis without the overpowering heat. That’s why those two are often combined in Sichuan cuisine.
So you put them both in the beer?
Exactly. And I bumped it up with some galangal and lemongrass, because I felt those work well with the hops that I chose, and it created this beautiful, aromatic, dry, citrusy, lightly spicy beer. So you’re right. I am inspired by foodie influences … and cocktails. Even more so than I’m inspired by other beers. Like I said, I was even more into spirits in the beginning. Even the way we serve the beer. We garnish it, which is more a cocktail thing than a beer thing. So we’re playing with the way our beers are served.
I like that a lot. Like the little donut garnish on the Weisenbock.
Yes, I am a donut obsessive kind of person.
So, you have been brewing for nine or ten years now. How have you seen the craft beer world evolve in that time?
It is really interesting how ubiquitous it is now. It used to be you had to seek out craft beer a little bit. Even in the beginning we were lucky that craft beer was pretty embedded here in San Francisco before it was elsewhere.
These days, if a restaurant does not have a good beer menu they are dismissed. It wasn’t like that ten years ago. You had to go to a specific bar. Like Tornado, and then Monk’s Kettle came around. But now they are everywhere. You can’t walk two blocks without seeing a beer bar, and every restaurant has a great beer menu. That’s the biggest thing. It’s everywhere now, which is fine by me.
So do you feel like the momentum of the craft beer movement has given you more license to experiment with your beers? Like, the fact that people are willing to try a beer that is unconventional?
It is partly because of the evolution of craft beer, and partly just being in San Francisco where people are open to weird shit. We can put new beers out on the market, and what we have seen so far is that they are well received and this will hopefully continue as we grow bigger. This is the place for it.