Thursday, August 19, 2010

Interview with Hop-Happy Hipster Kevin Buckley, Master Brewer for BackStreet Brewery

The only educated man is a self-educated man.” Mark Twain

VISTA, CA. Kevin Buckley creates beers like a chef cooks up dazzlingly delicious entrees. He borrows the best traditions from the masters before him, but now and then, when the spirit moves, he adds a little something special of his own. In his words, it’s all about associating the brewer’s personality with his beers.

Kevin’s a likeable, knowledgeable, self-taught sort of hipster (yes, his head’s adorned with the usual pins, spikes and rings). But he’s not exactly an easy going surfer dude. He leans more towards the mindset of the perfectionist, with a readiness to make do with the ingredients and equipment in front of him.

At the tender age of 28, Kevin’s the master brewer of Back Street Brewery in Vista, California. His training was, like so many craft prodigies, far from typical. He didn’t learn the brewing arts at famed Siebel Academy, but he did toil a few years at a brewery in Iowa under two Siebel grads. “I just read their books and manuals on my own,” he said with the satisfied grin of an artisan jack-of-all-trades.

Kevin’s been brewing for Back Street since April. When he arrived in April, Back Street had about four in-house brewed beers on tap. Today, Back Street offers between 8 and 10 taps of it’s own hopped creations.

Vista is in North County, near Stone Brewing, Green Flash and Lost Abbey, all progenitors of big bold beers. Not surprisingly, when Kevin took the job after a stint at Alpine Beer Company, Kevin’s first order of business was to bring home an Imperial IPA, the signature bourbonesque brew of San Diego (by the way, Kevin is an avowed fan of bourbon).

Kevin, who grew up wanting to be a chef, loves hops the way a pastry chef loves sugar. He uses lots of hops – in fact, ton’s of them. He brews using a vintage, 1990-ish Bohemian 21 BBL kettle and a series of 15 bbl capacity fermentation tanks. For his Rydin’ Dirty Rye IPA, he uses about 3 pounds of hop pellets per barrel. For his Ali Rae Imperial IPA, he uses a whopping 5.5 pounds per barrel! My mouth waters at the thought. Ok, I admit it’s watering partially because both of those weighty concoctions showcase Indie Hops’ Cascade and Centennial pellets, and heavens they’re tasty!

Since his arrival at Backstreet only 6 months ago, Kevin has doubled the output from around 250 barrels per year to a pace that will generate about 550 barrels per year. He does it his way: no assistants, not much mentoring, and very little oversight. He doesn’t have a filter or hop back, so he improvises. He’s a quick study with a brain like a sponge, eyes like a hawk and ears like a cat. He’s confident, but far from cocky. He’s humble, but clearly unafraid to push the envelope.

I caught up with Kevin at Back Street the other day. He’s been buying a fair amount of our hops and I wanted his feedback.

RGW: Tell us about your experience with using Indie Hops pellets for dry hopping.

KB: I heard about your coarse design and wanted to check it out. When I opened the foil, I sensed right away a difference. Your hops were thicker and oilier. They looked greener and fresher. It was always a mystery to me why Type 90 pellets were so fine and tiny – they just tended to sink to the bottom and sit there. Yours didn’t quickly settle, they sort of bloomed, like you’d expect of a flower.

RGW: What about the aroma?

KB: Your Cascades have that quintessential floral, grapefruity aroma. When I brewed with your Cascade whole leaf hops, the brew house filled with that special aroma, the way a kitchen fills with that smell of homemade cookies in the oven.

RGW: How did you add the pellets to your tank? Did you use a bag or drop ‘em right in.

KB: I use a small muslin bag when I pull off casks. But for dry hopping, I just poured them from the top. Your pellets are slightly bigger than average, so I rigged up a White Labs’ Yeast jug, which has a 2 inch diameter pour spout which matches up with the portal on the roof of our tank. Just weighed out what I needed and poured ‘em right in.

RGW: Do you do anything to recirculate or re-entrain the hop mash after it has settled?

KB: I usually ferment for about a week and dry hop for two. Every few days dry hopping I would rouse or blast CO2 for a few seconds through the bottom. I’m mindful that CO2 may impact the aromatics of the hop oils but I haven’t detected any off flavors. On balance, between a pump and the CO2 to rouse, it’s more efficient for me in terms of labor and sanitation to rouse the tanks every 2-3 days, so you get that contact with the hop plant surface area. Sort of like a tea bag: you want to let it steep but then punch it a few times to draw out as much oil and flavor as you can.

RGW: Any drainage issues?

KB: Nope. I just draw out the hop sediment and divert it to the drain into the public sewer. It’s not a problem, although the drain screen wasn’t exactly designed for a thick mash of hop sludge.

RGW: So what are you looking for from your hop suppliers?

KB: Two things: an open line of communication and dedication to quality. Look, I know we’re not a huge account. That’s why we need quality hops, so we can attract more customers. When I have a question, or an issue, I’d like for my supplier to listen. For example, at a different brewery, when I opened up the bags, I had to pre-sift the whole hops for sticks, stones, stems, wires and debris. In fact we thought about collecting all the junk in a bucket, weighing it, and asking for a refund!

Another example: with our Amarillos, we were getting a steady stream of seeds. The seeds were clogging up the screen filter in our heat exchanger. We need hops that are as seed-free as possible. They can clog, but the tannins can also deliver funky off-flavors.

In any case, the attitude from our supplier was dismissive. Yeah, I know, we’re not a huge brewer, but I don’t get it. If I brew a sucky beer, I lose business and they lose another customer purchasing their hops.

I’m not a big fan of the Starbucks, ‘standardized mediocrity’ model. Craft brewers need a supplier who will charge a fair price – not $21 a pound for Cascades! And don’t get me started about storage fees. We need a hop supplier who focuses on flavor, aroma and oil. I think it’s great that Indie Hops has come along to help fill this niche.

RGW: Well, thank you sir. What do you think Indie Hops could do better in terms of its pellet design?

KB: Well, every brew system is slightly different. The bigger the tank, the more challenging it is to simply drop pellets through the roof for dry hopping. We don’t have a hop back or filter, so I’m sure those might present challenges if you want to design an even bigger diameter pellet. Overall, I like the idea of preserving as much of the lupulin as you can. It’s sort of like what the doctors tell you about vitamins: it’s better to get your Vitamin C from real fruits and veggies than relying on a pulverized pill.

RGW: What do you like most about brewing?

KB: The feedback. Nothing sweeter than the smile on a satisfied customer. That smile doesn’t come from magic. A lot goes into making a beer special: quality ingredients, perspiration, inspiration and a bit of luck. It’s great to get paid for doing what I enjoy. I love being a part of the craft beer movement, a competitive but incredibly cooperative industry. I suppose like any brewer I want to earn the respect of my fellow brewers and one day, like Vinnie, or Jim Koch, or Sam Calgione or Ken Grossman, maybe Kevin Buckley will have his line of signature beers.

At about that time – around noonish -- an elderly couple ambled in and took a seat on the bar. The wife robustly ordered an IPA, offering: “We were just up in Mammoth at the Bluesapoolooza. We tried your beer up there, loved it and decided to track you down.” This is how the revolution is won, one satisfied customer at a time.

Roger Worthington


  1. I find it interesting that your brewer in the above article discusses the seed problem in his hops;

    I am wondering what Indie Hop is planning on doing to deal with the seriousness of the "seed issue" in Oregon hops???

    A quick look at the 2009 HGA stat pack shows that 20% of Oregon's hop bales last year had a seed content on 3% or higher; and, fully 7% of the Oregon hop crop had a seed content of 7% or HIGHER in 2009;

    contrast that with Washington state; in crop year 2009, only 9% of the crop had seed content of 3% or higher; and, only .3% of the crop had seed content 7% or higher.

    the "dirty little secret" about Oregon hops is that they are typically loaded with seed........

    If Mr. Buckley is as concerned about seed as he indicates, then he should probably be looking towards WA state aroma hops instead of OR aroma hops.

    It's funny, I never read any reference to the seed problems that OR has on the Indie Hops website??

  2. I don’t think Mr. Nike and Mr. Asbestos have made it to the chapter on seed yet.

    Let me give you a quick summary: Oregon growers have long used male plants to stimulate yields, thus producing high seed counts.

    A warning to all craft brewers: If you buy hops from the Indie Hopsters you will have high seed counts in your hops.

  3. First off the main hop in question about seed content was a Washington variety. Second, when mentioned during the conversation one of the big points that was brought up was that the supplier made no mention of the issue and was unconcerned with the issues it posed. The hops that have a higher seed content would still be suitable for a dry hopping application. I would just rather not have them clogging my heat exchanger and spray balls.