Q and A, World Beer and Breweries

Heretic Brewing Company | Q&A

Heretic Brewing Company | Q&A
Originally Posted on Jul 20, 2016

Are you curious to know about the people behind the beers you buy? Or perhaps you want to know what inspires brewers to brew and beer bloggers to blog? Our “Q&A” posts are a light hearted way of getting to know people working in, and connected to, the beer and alcohol industry.
Today’s post features Heretic Brewing Company who are located in Fairfield, California.

Who are you/what do you do?   Jamil Zainasheff. Along with my wife Liz, we own Heretic Brewing Company. Prior to this I was in software engineering. My real passion became homebrewing and I still spend a lot of time writing articles, books and hosting shows on The Brewing Network. At the brewery I wear a lot of hats, but in the end it just means I’m responsible for everything that happens, good or bad.

How did you get into this line of work?   My wonderful wife gave me a Mr Beer kit for Christmas 1999. I became obsessed with brewing perfect beer and spent the next 12 years learning my craft. At that point, opening a brewery seemed like a logical idea.

Where did you learn to brew?   I learned to brew through the kindness of my fellow homebrewers and doing some of my own research and experimentation. Most of the available brewing information of the time was limited to big breweries producing light lager and it didn’t really apply to small scale highly flavourful beer. Much of the homebrew information at the time was just repeated hearsay, so you didn’t know what to believe or how it would affect your beer. A number of people around this time started applying some scientific method to figuring out if some brewing technique was really important and helped make great beer or if it was just needless fiddling.

What was the inspiration for starting the brewery?   It was a desire to take my passion for brewing to the next level and a general disgust for how people were treated in corporate America. I decided that the best way to address both concerns was to start my own brewery. I think my wife saw how passionate I was about this and that is why she said yes to starting up Heretic.

Where do you see, or hope to see, the brewery in 5 years time?   Same place, same building, same great people. Yes, bigger and employing more people, but not taking over the world. We love our community. The people around here are fantastic and we don’t want to lose that connection. None of us are into mass market, cheaply made beer. The only way that is sustainable is to ensure your consumers are just as passionate and critical as you are. When smart consumers demand the best, they understand why the best can cost a little more. That is the reason independent craft beer exists. Without a community of passionate beer lovers, all these great breweries would disappear.

Are there any other breweries which have influenced you?   Probably the biggest influence has been Russian River. If you go to their pub, you can get a 20 beer sampler tray that includes 20 outstanding beers of all different styles and non-styles. That is difficult to do. Many breweries only make one type of beer well, such as hoppy beers. They don’t have the knowledge and ability to also make great Belgian-style ales, or great lagers, or great sours, or great stouts and porters. Russian River is able to do that, which is why they’ve impressed me and made me determined to be able to brew a wide range of beers of exemplary quality. Speaking of quality, the brewery that has impressed me most in their drive to do everything possible to always have flawless beer is Sierra Nevada Brewing Company. They are a shining example of how always trying to do the right thing really does give positive results. It is early exposure to their way of thinking that has made me so passionate about quality and not compromising what we do.

Out of all the beers you brew, which is your favourite?   Why is that? I love all of our beers. If something wasn’t good enough to elicit the same passionate response, we shouldn’t be serving it. That said, I do tend to drink more of the lower alcohol beers, because it means I can drink more of them. I am a huge fan of great traditional British ales, so I drink a lot of our British-style bitter or our dark mild, especially when it is on cask in our tap room.

What have you found the hardest thing to master when learning to brew?   There are many aspects of brewing great beer that can be difficult to master. The hardest thing for many people to master is being able to honestly evaluate your own beer. Too many brewers are blind to their own flaws. That is fundamentally one of the most important abilities, because if you don’t know your beer sucks, you will never know how to improve it.

Many breweries are experimenting with adding unusual flavours to their beers. Are there any you think work well together?   Are there any that you would like to brew? We do a lot of different beers and enjoy working with various natural ingredients. We like to focus on locally grown ingredients as much as possible. There is no limit to what you can do with beer, just like the incredibly diverse world of food and beer parallels that. If it goes well together in food, it can go well together in beer. You just need to know how to create the right base beer for the flavours you want to experiment with.

What can we expect from Heretic in 2016?   Lots more great beers. We’re expanding our sour beer program. We started back in 2011 with just 25 wine barrels. We have over 500 barrels now and should reach 1000 by the end of the year. We’ll also be adding a tiny craft distillery to make unique spirits from some of our beers. We’re having a lot of fun and learning new things as we go. Isn’t that the greatest job ever?

What do you think makes a great beer?   Great fermentation is the most important aspect. Many new brewers focus on making the wort, but even the best wort will taste horrible without proper fermentation. The worst wort made will taste quite good if fermentation is perfect. Beyond that, attention to detail and strict attention to quality in every aspect from grain to glass is critical.

What was your first drink and where were you when you had it?   I’m assuming it was milk and my mother was involved in some way. Oh, you mean an alcoholic drink? I’m not sure. It was most likely at some party in high school, some sip of beer or wine. Not really memorable. What was my first drink of fantastic beer? I will never forget that. My neighbour Steve called to me over the fence, “Jamil, come here, taste this.” He handed me an amber coloured glass of beer. I took a sip and said, “This is the best beer I’ve ever tasted. What is it called? Where can I buy it?” Steve looked at me with a smile and said, “You can’t buy it. I made it myself!” I was blown away. I had no idea you could make beer yourself at home. At the time, I thought you needed a factory full of stainless steel and German people. It was that beer my friend Steve offered me that got my wife to buy me a Mr Beer kit. It was that beer Steve gave me that put me on this path and why you have our beer for sale in your amazing shop. One friend, sharing one beer, changed my life.

What drink can you no longer face having had one too many?   Ah, there is only one: Aquavit. At a friend’s birthday party in college we started drinking shots of Aquavit. The following day I was still tasting caraway and feeling miserable. I can’t stand the thought of drinking Aquavit ever again.

What is your favourite style of beer?   A well made beer. Seriously, I don’t care about beer style, because a perfectly made beer of any style tastes great and is a pleasure to drink. I think people often don’t like various styles of beer because all they’ve ever been served is poorly made examples of the style. It isn’t the style’s fault that the brewer failed, yet that is the assumption many consumers make.

If you had to pick, which would be your top three beers in the whole world?   The funny thing with picking the top three beers is that it changes day to day and batch to batch. I urge everyone not to think in terms of a certain beer being great and trying to hunt them down, but rather think about the experience of beer. My best three beers ever are based on where I was, who I was with, and how beer improved that moment in time. The first would be Trier Germany, sitting outside a cafe in the open plaza with my wife and two daughters. We were just enjoying each other’s company, relaxing, talking about our travels. I was enjoying a great beer and all was perfect with the world. The second would be the first pint of Heretic served commercially. I was there with my friend Charlie Essers and we were poured the first two pints of our red IPA, Evil Twin. It was a magical moment where all the effort, all the blood, sweat and tears had finally paid off and made it possible. The third would probably be a time in Greenwich with my daughter and my friend. We ran to escape the rain into the Plume of Feathers and had the most wonderful time because the owner was so kind and friendly. When the conditions are perfect, when life cannot be better, it can elevate any well made beer into one of the best in the world. Focus on the total experience and you will have many more outstanding beer experiences.

What is the silliest thing you’ve done whilst drunk?   Answer this Q&A? 🙂

Thanks to Jamil and Heretic Brewing Company for chatting to us.

You can view and buy beers from Heretic Brewing Company here.
(Images used with permission from the Heretic Brewing Facebook page)