Truly a Great Beer

How does someone or something achieve greatness?  Does is take winning a competition or award?  I have a trophy in my closet for winning a Halloween costume contest some years ago.  It’s gathering dust and I don’t have any pretence that this defines me as a great make up artist and I’m absolutely certain no one else puts any stock into it either.

Winning every time?  Sports contests take place every day.  Bad teams win, good teams lose and even the very best players and teams don’t win every time.  Michael Jordan was quoted, “I’ve been given the winning shot 27 times and missed…”  No true basketball fan would question his greatness in the sport (baseball maybe).

How about being popular?  Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards was one of the most popular winter Olympians of all time.  He was also the worst ski jumper in Olympic history.

So what does it take?

It seems that in any competitive field those that are considered great have a few commonalities.  They participate at the very highest level of competition available.  In these competitions, they consistently outperform their peers.  Recognition is given by the most critical authorities of that particular field.

In 2004, the first year of Bitch Creek’s production, Bitch Creek ESB won its first gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival (GABF).  The GABF is considered the largest, most prestigious beer competition in the western hemisphere.  Since its initial win, Bitch Creek ESB has won numerous medals at the GABF including another gold medal.  It has also won awards at the World Beer Cup, LA International Commercial Beer Competition, The US Open Beer Championships, North American Brewers Awards, World Beer Championships and the United States Beer Tasting Championships (USTBC).  No accredited beer critic is going to argue that these constitute the very highest level of beer competition.  Bitch Creek has not been entered into any other national level competitions.

No beer wins every competition and Bitch Creek is no exception.  However, it consistently wins awards, outperforming all of its competition.  This last month was a career milestone for Bitch Creek, earning its 10th time on top the podium when the USTBC announced Bitch Creek as their National Grand Champion in their brown ale category.   How many silvers and bronze medals?  Honestly, I’ve lost count.

What can we conclude from this?  Stated simply, Bitch Creek ESB is a truly great beer.

Why We Brew in Teton Valley, Idaho

We asked our Brewmaster, Rob Mullin, a few questions about his brewing background and what it is like to brew beer in Teton Valley.  Keep reading to find out what makes our beer tastes so good and where Rob would be if it wasn’t for his passion for brewing.

GTBC: How did you start brewing, and how did you make your way to Victor?

Rob: Like many craft brewers, I started by brewing at home. In my former life I managed political campaigns, which was incredibly stressful. My girlfriend at the time gave me a homebrew kit, and brewing became my refuge as a way to escape the stress of work.

Following the 1990 campaign season I was introduced to John Mallet (now at Bell’s Brewing), who was brewmaster at Old Dominion Brewing Company in Ashburn, Virginia. John hired me to help in the brewery and drive the delivery truck.   After a year or two I moved into the brewery full time.  I was lucky enough to learn from both John and Ron Barchet (now at Victory Brewing Company).  Ron took over as brewmaster when John moved on. Those were heady days—lots of talk over the bottling line about the relative merits of decoction and infusion mashing, yeast management, etc. I was exposed at a very early point in my career to two different approaches to brewing—German and American. From Ron I learned the importance of tradition and proven methods. John taught me to question everything, to always be open to new ideas and better ways to do things. I was able to grow with the brewery—from about 2,000 barrels a year when I started to 25,000 barrels the year I left.

I was working at Trap Rock Brewing outside New York City when I learned of the position in the Tetons. Trap Rock might have been the ideal brewery job. I was in a beautiful four-star restaurant, working with someone the NY Times called “the best chef in the state,” making beer to match his cuisine. I was brewing dozens of different beers, working with people passionate about food and beer, serving an incredibly well educated crowd, and I was eating four-star meals twice a day! That’s where my interest in beer and food pairings really took off.  But I was commuting three hours a day, and it was impossible to own a home on a brewer’s salary. I had spent the summer of 1990 in the Tetons and had fallen in love with the mountains. When the brewmaster job opened up here, I jumped at the opportunity. Luckily for me I was able to convince my bride, Constance, that we should make the move, and the rest is history.

GTBC: Your first big project here was Bitch Creek?

Rob: That’s right. We were looking for a dark beer to replace Moose Juice Stout. I had brewed a well-received English-style ESB in New York, and Charlie (Otto, the brewery’s original owner) asked me to do develop a recipe. But this was my first brewery job in the West, the birthplace of American craft brewing. I wasn’t interested in recreating a British style or copying my New York beer. I wanted to create something bold, brash, American. Specifically, Pacific Northwest American.  The beer we ended up with was Bitch Creek ESB (Extra Special Brown.) It inherited its big malt backbone from its British ancestors, but the hops are all American. Two of them, Galena and Chinook, were originally developed right here in Idaho. Bitch Creek has been one of our best-selling beers, and I’ve made it a personal mission to embrace our location ever since.

GTBC: You mean Teton Valley?

Teton Mountain spring water

Rob: That’s right. Over the past couple of years we’ve highlighted Teton Valley, Idaho as The Best Place on Earth to Craft Beer. You might have seen that on our festival banners or posters, but it’s not just marketing. We believe it!  Teton Valley is blessed with some, if not the best, water in the world. It’s Teton Mountain glacial runoff, filtered over the course of 300-500 years through Teton granite and limestone before coming to the surface a half-mile from the brewery. It’s clean, pure, slightly sweet, and almost perfect for brewing.  I say “almost perfect” because it’s not ideal for every style of beer. Like all water, it has a distinctive mineral makeup that favors certain styles of brewing. Teton Valley water is most similar to Munich’s water, so it’s great for malty Bavarian-style beers. One of my favorite beers we’ve brewed was Double Vision Doppelbock, a style we chose purposefully to show off our water.

Most breweries treat their water.  They filter it, add minerals, and adjust the pH to mimic another city’s water or to optimize it for a particular style of beer. We’re committed to creating Teton Valley beer, so our water is left unmolested, able to shine through in all its sweet glory. That’s been a challenge when we’ve brewed hoppy styles. The water just makes it tougher to extract hops’ bitter flavors. Over the years we’ve adjusted our recipes and honed our technique. I think our hoppiest beers—Lost Continent Double IPA, Pursuit of Hoppiness Imperial Red and Idaho Pale Ale—are as good as any beers out there.  Here’s the secret: If we treated our water we’d have an easier time brewing and we’d save money. Since we don’t treat the water, we’re forced to use a lot more hops to get the bitterness we’re looking for. That means that for a given level of bitter flavor, we have a proportionally higher amount of other hop flavors—the citrusy, piney, spicy or tropical fruit nuances that add depth and complexity to our brews. And there’s always some sweet maltiness to add balance.

In Teton Valley we’re actually triply blessed. Besides great water, we’re surrounded by what are widely regarded as the best malting barley fields in the world, and we’re only hours away from four little-known but exceptional Southern Idaho hop farms. Most of our barley is grown and processed within 120 miles of the brewery, and more and more of our hops are from Idaho, too. We’re signing hop contracts five years in advance, so the local growers are planting the varieties we want. In a few years we hope to brew with 100% Southern Idaho hops and Teton Valley barley malt.

GTBC: The brewery’s location has a lot to do with the beer.

Rob: You could say it has everything to do with our beer. Wine people talk a lot about terroir:  the soil, the geology, and the microclimate that determines how a particular wine will taste. That’s an old concept in brewing. At one time all beers were local and styles developed to fit the local conditions: water, weather, local ingredients or trade routes. With the industrial revolution we were able to brew the same beer anywhere in the world, and one style—pilsner—took over.  You can drink a pilsner anywhere in the world, and chances are it will taste an awful lot like the beers back home.

Craft brewers in the U.S. brought back the idea of local beer. Local beer is likely to be fresh, and fresh beer is always better than stale beer. Along with a few other small brewers in America, we’re striving to take the idea of local beer another step, back to its roots, when local not only meant fresh but also distinctive, shaped by location or terroir. Its an idea that drives every recipe we write and every beer we brew.