Four Brewers

This first appeared in the November 15-22, 1995, Syracuse New Times and revised in the May 1996 All About Beer.

* * *

Four Brewers:

David Hartmann, Empire Brewing; Jim Kuhr, F.X. Matt Brewing Company; Jim Misthos, Anheuser-Busch; Marc Rubenstein, Middle Ages Brewing Company

Have you ever found yourself tasting a beer and wondering if its brewer was just like you — good looking, strong but sensitive — or a humorless android who blends in with the stainless steel lagering tanks? Sharing that curiosity, we sought out four markedly different brewers in Upstate New York to see who they are, how they work and where they came from.

Just outside Baldwinsville, the mammoth white Anheuser-Busch plant produces its internationally known exemplars of the American Light Lager style. An hour to the east in Utica, the century-old brick F.X. Matt Brewing Company brews the growing family of Saranac beers and has become a national brewer of choice for contract brewers.

On the edge of downtown Syracuse, a city otherwise known for snow and college basketball, the Middle Ages Brewing Company produces rich, flavorful ales from a custom-built British brewhouse in the shell of an old ice cream factory. Nearby, in the basement of an old warehouse in Syracuse’s Armory Square district, the Empire Brewing Company, a brewpub, treats its patrons to adventures like Peach Buzz, Raspberry Wheat and Apple Beer.

Together, these four represent the oldest and newest in American brewing: venerable family-owned lager breweries and the vanguard of the microbrewery and brewpub revolution. Their brewers are different in predictable ways. You would expect Jim Misthos at Anheuser-Busch to wear a tie, and he does. You would expect David Hartmann at Empire Brewing to wear a t-shirt, jeans and sneakers, listen to alternative rock in the brewhouse and offer a visitor an Apple Beer at 8:00 a.m. He does. (And he hand-picked the apples for the beer as well.)

:: Boxers or Briefs? ::

Clothes may not make the man, but they do suggest how “hands on” a brewer is in the brewery. In the smaller breweries, brewery t-shirts are de rigueur to soak up the steam, sweat and splashes that accompany every step of the brewing process.

Marc Rubenstein of Middle Ages accordingly accents his ensemble with shiny rubber boots and short rubber gloves that leave his forearms stained russet from the iodine-based disinfectant he sloshes about when working with anything that is going to touch the brew. Later in the day, you might find him ripping open 50-pound bags of English malt and loading the grain into a hopper, or cleaning out kegs in a torrent of hot water.

His main assistant, a grinning giant named Tony, previously worked on a farm. “He knows the meaning of work,” Rubenstein noted. “I was lucky to find him.”

Although Empire’s Hartmann has an assistant as well, he makes a point of periodically doing every job in the brewhouse himself. “I don’t want to forget how they’re done, and I don’t want to forget how hard they are, either.”

At F.X. Matt, Jim Kuhr is a man on the cusp, wearing a manager’s dress slacks but topping his outfit with a casual shirt. “Sometimes you have to get dirty,” he said, “and you get tired of paying to clean all those dress shirts.”

As the breweries vary, so do the challenges. Kuhr has to keep his eye on F.X. Matt’s numerous contract brews for out-of-town clients, and make sure that every new variety of the flagship beer, Saranac, is unique. At Anheuser-Busch, on the other hand, Jim Misthos has to be sure that his beers are identical to those of every other A-B brewery in the country, a challenge every bit as difficult. When you’re brewing to match exacting standards, it is possible to create something excellent but unacceptable.

:: Listening to the Brews ::

The differences among these brewers are obvious, but the similarities are surprising. Hartmann, whose brewhouse could fit in a doll house, learned brewing at the same school as A-B’s Misthos, whose plant should have its own zip code. Rubenstein at Middle Ages and Kuhr at F.X. Matt both learned to brew by tackling one job at a time in a brewery. And all credit homebrewing with sparking their interest.

All four emphasized the need to be physically present, walking around to see everything and everybody where the beer is being brewed. Rubenstein at Middle Ages takes it a step farther. “There’s no music here, because I have to be able to listen to everything. An old brewer told me, ‘If something goes wrong, you’ll hear it first.’ ” Jim Kuhr prefers quiet as well, but that’s because his favorite task is creating new beers in the lab at F.X. Matt.

Typically, brewers start early and finish late. An enthusiastic evening crowd at Empire Brewing can prompt David Hartmann to transfer a new batch of beer from the aging tanks to the tap lines after midnight. A few blocks away, a spirited fermentation that finishes earlier than scheduled can rouse Marc Rubenstein from bed and begin his day at 3:00 a.m. Misthos and Kuhr have larger staffs and more civilized hours, but they are still far from nine-to-five types.

:: Diplomatic Immunity ::

All four brewers drink the beers they brew, and are deathly serious about quality. They talk about their beers with reverence as well as enthusiasm. In conversations, it is their pauses and silences that underscore their greatest similarity. Asked about their least favorite jobs, everyone became, well, diplomatic. The bottom line is that they all love to brew, and don’t have much affection for the tasks that take them away from the process itself. In ties or t-shirts, they are brewers.

:: David Hartmann, Empire Brewing ::

Born: 1969
Title: Director of Brewing Operations
Brew School: University of California at Davis
Began: Homebrewing in college
Brewing Day: 8:00 a.m. to 2:30 a.m.<
Employees: 1
Barrels per Brew (Brew Kettle Size): 7
Estimated Barrels for 1995: 1,000
Favorite Part: Mashing. “It’s fun; it’s kind of mysterious and it makes the place smell great.”
Least Favorite: Cleaning, especially the outside of the brewing vessels
Involvement in Creating New Beers: Intimate; creates all recipes; complete freedom
No. of Different Beers: 6 at any given time; 30+ over the year
Favorite Beers: Empire Amber, Stout and whatever is new
Main Concerns: “Making sure we have beer on tap, and that the beer is good.”
Free Time: The outdoors, camping, fishing, rollerblading, friends’ weddings
Favorite Reading: A Son of the Circus, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, brewing magazines
Favorite Food: Everything on the menu at the Empire
Favorite Film: The Blues Brothers, Fandango
Favorite Music: Belly, Blues Explosion; “James Brown is a must for mashing-in, and I like classical for doing paperwork.”

:: Jim Kuhr, F.X. Matt Brewing Company ::

Born: 1962
Title: Brewing Manager
Brew School: G. Heileman Brewing Company, Frankenmuth, Michigan<
How Began: Homebrewing in college
Brewing Day: 7:00 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Employees: 9
Barrels per Brew (Brew Kettle Size): 500
Estimated Barrels for 1995: 300,000
Favorite Part: Creating new brews in the brewing lab, exploring characteristics of new ingredients
Least Favorite: Anything that takes him away from brewingInvolvement in Creating New Beers: Very involved
No. of Different Beers: 40+, the brewery’s own Saranac beers plus contract brews
Favorite Beer: Saranac Pale Ale, “That’s my baby.”
Main Concerns: Quality control, creating new beers and “fitting our future into the constraints of the brewery.”
Free Time: Wife and two children
Favorite Reading: Tom Clancy, home improvement and woodworking magazines, brewing journals
Favorite Food: German food, but open to everything
Favorite Film: Action-adventure movies, when there’s time
Favorite Music: Country, classic rock

:: Jim Misthos, Anheuser-Busch ::

Born: 1960
Title: Resident Brewmaster
Brew School: University of California at Davis
How Began: Homebrewing in college
Brewing Day: 7:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
Employees: 180
Barrels per Brew (Brew Kettle Size): 800<
Estimated Barrels for 1995: 7,000,000
Favorite Part: Fermentation and maturation. “That’s where you develop flavor and character in a beer.”
Least Favorite: “I can’t complain.”
Involvement in Creating New Beers: Recipes from St. Louis, but involvement grows as new beers are created.
No. of Different Beers: 16 or 17 in a year
Favorite Beer: Budweiser, “The King”
Main Concerns: Quality control, work flow, monitoring lab data, coordinating efforts
Free Time: Wife and two children
Favorite Reading: Tom Clancy, stacks of mail
Favorite Food: Cajun, Mexican, spicy
Favorite Film: A good drama or comedy
Favorite Music: Blues, classic rock, classical, but…”I’ve been hearing a lot of Disney.”

:: Marc Rubenstein, Middle Ages Brewing Company ::

Born: 1955
Title: Head Brewer
Brew School: Kennebunkport Brewing Company, Maine
How Began: Homebrewing in kitchen
Brewing Day: 6:30 a.m. to 6:15 p.m.<
Employees: 6<
Barrels per Brew (Brew Kettle Size): 30
Total Barrels for 1995: 2,000 – 3,000
Favorite Part: The brewing boil, “although fermentation is the prettiest thing.”
Least Favorite: Shoveling out the mash tun; cleaning the open fermenters
Involvement in Creating New Beers: Total, “I do it all.”
No. of Different Beers: 3, plus 3 seasonals
Favorite Beers: White Knight and Wizard’s Winter Ale
Main Concerns: The whole brewing process, quality control, consistency.
Free Time: Wife and two children
Favorite Reading: Brewing magazines, “There’s no time to read anything else.”
Favorite Food: “I eat anything.”
Favorite Film: It’s a Wonderful Life, Close Encounters, Monty Python and the Holy Grail
Favorite Music: Classic rock, but no music in the brewery. “If something goes wrong, you’ll hear it first. You have to listen to the brewery.”

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