Ahead of Suwanee’s new hometown brewery opening in September, we chatted with StillFire Brewing’s new brewmaster about his favorite style of beer, craft trends, and the legend of his famous rubber chicken.
By: Randall Veugeler, Co-Founder of StillFire Brewing
MMBEER license plate – check. Brewery logo cap – check. “I 🖤Beer” T-shirt – check. Massive beer belly?
Not on Phil Farrell.
You would think after judging over ten thousand beers, the Cumming, Georgia resident would at least sport a little sumpin’ sumpin’ around his midsection but there is nary a hint of a bulge on his slender frame. The genetically blessed brewer has some impressive creds having judged every preeminent beer contest in the world: The Great American Beer Festival, The World Beer Cup, Copa Cerveza (Mexican Beer Cup), The Great British Beer Festival, etc. As a Grand Master Level V Beer Judge of the BJCP (Beer Judge Certification Program), Phil is ranked in the top 12 in the world. He can also brag of sampling beers in every state in the Union (including U.S. territories), every country in Europe, and places as far flung as Vatican City and Turkey in his never-ending quest to educate his palate about the precious liquid. That wealth of beer knowledge served him well when he competed in and won the prestigious Wynkoop Brewery “Beer Drinker of the Year” contest in 2011 earning him beer for life at the Colorado brewery.
After nearly four decades of beer adventures, Farrell has guest brewed batches of beer with some of the world’s top breweries including Sierra Nevada and Rogue. He calls heavy hitters in the brewniverse friends: Charlie Papazian, “The Godfather of Homebrewing.” author, Michael Jackson, and Mitch Steele of Stone Brewing (and now of Atlanta’s New Realm Brewing). As a home brewer, he has won over 500 awards including Mid-South Home Brewer of the Year (twice) and is the only home brewer to win a gold medal at the U.S. Open Beer Championship beating all the pros in his category.
As I sat down to chat with Farrell over a pint of his delicious Glory Haze IPA (which will soon be available at StillFire Brewing), it was immediately clear that Suwanee has a lot to look forward to with him manning the tanks at Suwanee’s new Hometown Brewery.
A chicken walks into a brewery – finish the joke.
The chicken says: “I’m having what Phil is drinking.”
Since my homebrew club was The Chicken City Ale Raisers, it seemed to me that a rubber chicken was an appropriate mascot. The club got that name because the founder lived in Gainesville, Georgia. All of the major chicken producers have a plant in Gainesville, so they produce more chicken than any other city in the USA. Detroit is Motown, Nashville is Music City, and Gainesville is Chicken City.
I started taking the rubber chicken to club meetings for good luck. I thought if I waived the rubber chicken over beer we were brewing, the chicken mojo would make the beer better. It did. Some would say it was because we were learning the skills necessary to be good brewers. I say it was the chicken.
In 2004, I brought the fledgling rubber chicken to our annual club Oktoberfest party. The kids there decided to play tug of war with him, leaving me with two legs, a breast and a neck. The “new” rubber chicken then started to travel with me, avoiding all small chicken destroyers, and making its way to breweries with me. I would try to bring a little mojo back from each trip. My beer kept getting better.
In 2005, the AHA Convention was in Baltimore. I drove there not really thinking that I would do anything with the rubber chicken. Once I arrived there, I “hatched” the idea of having as many homebrewers touch the rubber chicken as I could, gaining maximum mojo. When I asked Charlie Papazian, probably the single most brewing mojo-laden individual at the conference to hold the rubber chicken, he had a simple question. He asked how would anyone know he had held the chicken? I didn’t have a good answer even though I never doubted people would believe me. Charlie was also a photographer, so he posed with the rubber chicken for me to document the moment. From that point forward I would photograph the chicken with various homebrewers, brewers, and beer celebrities. Before the legend of the rubber chicken had spread, some people would resist the photo. That is when the photo of Charlie grinning like the Cheshire Cat cradling the rubber chicken was pure gold. I would bust out that photo and essentially challenge them with: “Charlie had his photo taken with the chicken.” Despite being stolen and held for ransom several times, the rubber chicken always returned. When it was losing its ability to hold its beer, I pressed a new chicken into service. The first traveling chicken was also the one that the late, great Beer Hunter, Michael Jackson had his photo taken with. Rather than let this piece of beer memorabilia be lost forever, I had it bronzed. Each new chicken has been properly initiated by Charlie and I at the AHA Convention. We take the convention beer, pour it into the chicken, then drink a toast.
After homebrewing for decades, what made you decide to become a professional brewer? Why StillFire Brewing?
I think I always thought it would be really cool to brew professionally. I have so many friends in the brewing industry it just always seemed like I was missing out. I didn’t jump earlier because I had the best of both worlds where I had a great day job and I would get invited to a friend’s brewery to brew a recipe with them, and leave before all the hard work started. A long time ago I thought brewing professionally would give me more resources than I had at home, but that really wasn’t true. Larger equipment and larger batches maybe, but in some ways I had more freedom at home because only one person had to like the beer I made (me!). I never gravitated to beers that only I would like, though, because I am not wired that way. I think I always want to make beers that impress other brewers. That doesn’t mean the beer has to be something crazy, it just has to be what it is supposed to be. There are certain beer styles that are simple yet very good at what they are. There is a reason why they are called “classics.”On the experimental side, it is always fun using a new ingredient for the first time. A large part of the explosion in popularity and redefinition of what flavors and aromas we associate with IPA is because of numerous new hop strains. There are probably twice as many hop flavors and aromas than just a decade ago. When using new ingredients or new combinations of ingredients, it is always important to make things better than they were. Two hundred out of tune instruments never sound better than a four piece rock band, unless they are just as out of tune. Complexity and nuance are moving targets depending on what your vision is. You want a beer that is complex, not complicated. At times simple and straightforward, but never boring.
When I was approached by the StillFire team, I listened to their vision, and I was immediately sold. I would be able to brew recipes I have been perfecting for 20 years, and at the same time try to brew beers I heard about 20 minutes ago. I would get a NASCAR ride and there was going to be no restrictor plate. The one thing that I didn’t like about the production brewery experience in Georgia was taken care of with a really important recent law change. Production breweries used to load their beer on a truck and only occasionally bumped into a customer after their beer had spent weeks on trucks, shelves, and in warehouses. At StillFire, I will get to speak to our customers every day. Just like our brewing team collaborates on each brew, I want to hear feedback from the people drinking our beer to always make the best beer humanly possible. We are committed to continual improvement as well as innovation. Our team is chock-full of beer enthusiasts and home brewers who rather than hide behind WHY, instead ask WHY NOT?
Which brewery/brewer has inspired you the most?
Like many of my contemporaries, I read Charlie Papazian’s Joy of Homebrewing, then copied the technique and recipes. I read a few of Fred Eckhardt’s early works also. Dave Miller, Schlafly Beer’s first head brewer and founder of Blackstone Brewing Company, added ideas I had not been exposed to and Greg Noonan, co- founder of Vermont Pub and Brewery, gave me the clues I needed to make my lagers work. Randy Mosher, the author of Radical Brewing, several times gave me unconventional ideas to create new beers rather than stay on the tracks where the rest of the railroad cars were. I started looking for breweries on every trip I took. Ken Grossman and Steve Dressler at Sierra Nevada gave me Americanized versions of English classics I could shoot for such as Pale Ale, Porter, IPA and Barleywine. John Maier at Rogue for knowing what he wants to do and doing it well. Dick Cantwell, originally at Elysian, who always had a wide variety of tasty beers. Alan Sprints at Hair of the Dog and Sam Calagione at Dogfish Head for numerous unconventional beers. Vinnie Cilurzo for taking both IPAs and sour beer to the next level. Gabe Fletcher, Barb Miller, and Ben Johnson at Midnight Sun for making me part of the family there. All of these brewers inspired me to set my goals high, not be afraid to experiment, and trust my palate to tell me what is good. They always gave me great ideas and lots of encouragement. As John would say, “When all else fails, add more hops!”
What is your favorite style to brew and why? Will it be available at StillFire Brewing?
That question would be like me telling you which child or dog is my favorite. I have a lot of favorites and YES, if I think it is good, I will brew it at StillFire for you to try. I am partial to Scotch Ale, English Barleywine, German Lagers (especially Bock, Helles, and Oktoberfest), American IPAs, especially West Coast versions, barrel-aged anything, Milk Stouts, Belgian Abbey beer, and Saison. We will do simple Kettle soured beer, and as time goes on, add a sour barrel program. We will have access to four sets of brewing equipment to make small batches from 1 gallon in a PicoBrew to 4 Barrels (124 Gallons) in our Blichmann pilot system. Our head brewer, Walt has a 10 gallon system and I have a 20 gallon brewing system. We will use all 4 for recipe development before we brew a recipe on our primary 20 barrel system. We will brew seasonal beer styles, have special beers, and rotate many popular beers in and out. I want there to be both a wide variety of flavors as well as new things as often as we can brew it.
You’ve circled the globe tasting beer. What’s your strangest beer-related story?
Before a talk, Randy Mosher once told me that his wife would take him down a notch when people recognized him by saying “Randy you may think you are famous, but you’re only beer famous.” I was taking an Alaska cruise porting out of Seattle with my wife and we checked in early. She was done unpacking but decided since we had a few hours, we should leave the ship and take a short walk through the Pike Market. We were across the street from the market one door down from the original Starbucks store, and a person walking the other way stopped in front of me and did a double take. He said “Hey you’re Phil Farrell.” My wife thought I had set her up but we had only gone places she had wanted me to go. It turned out we had worked together at the World Beer Cup in Seattle and just happened to run into each other.
Another different but similar situation happened to me at an RV Rally in Burlington, Vermont. We had just left Greg Noonan’s Brewpub and I was taking my non-brewing friend to Magic Hat Brewing for a tour. I wanted to go there to see the new brewery they built years before, but I had never visited. We waited downstairs in the tasting room/souvenir shop for our group to be called. They took us up the stairs to a balcony that fed us into a large alcove that had a white wall. The lights dimmed and a short film started up. The large disembodied head of Magic Hat founder Alan Neuman complete with Elton John glasses and outrageous hat began by shouting at us like Big Brother. He told us that the USA used to have thousands of breweries as small shots of vintage breweries shot up on the screen around his head. He chronicled the drop during Prohibition with bubble popping sounds as each photo disappeared from the screen.
There weren’t that many breweries reappearing after Repeal and then he mentioned that despite a recovery, by 1976 there were less than 100 breweries left, all making similar uninspired beers. He said one man saved American beer: Fritz Maytag. Alan showed black and white vintage photos of Anchor Brewing in San Francisco from the late 1800s. He said the brewery was set to close in the 1960s, yet Fritz Maytag not only bought the brewery and kept it running, he single- handedly created the Craft Beer Movement by Americanizing English IPA, Pale Ale, Barleywine, recreating Anchor Steam Beer and resurrecting Porter from a dead beer style. Alan’s head and the small black and white thumbnails disappeared from the screen to be replaced with a full color photo of him posing by the highly polished Fred Daft designed copper kettles. Next to him was a bright yellow rubber chicken. My buddy Mike who had just that day found out about the chicken and the photos, pointed up at the screen and asked “Is that yours?” He didn’t believe that my rubber chicken’s photo was in a brewery I had never set foot in. I spoke to the tour guide and they enabled me to speak to the person who shot and edited the video. It turns out they asked Anchor for a photo of Fritz and they sent them the one I shot. They said it was Fritz’s favorite photo.
What’s your all-time favorite beer? What are you digging now? Why?
I was really blown away by my first Thomas Hardy, my first bourbon barrel-aged Dark Lord, the first fresh Pliny the Elder, the original test batch for Hunahpu, and any time I taste Westvleteren 12. I would call all of them life altering beers for me. As far as beers that I always go back to, I love Duval, and a great Helles or fresh Weissbier. I could drink a Pilsner winter or summer. I am currently exploring the simple lactic fruited sours, because many give the impression of fruit juice without a lot of alcohol or calories.
What’s the next big thing in craft beer?
There will always be fads, just like there have always been novelty songs. I couldn’t even begin to predict the next beer fad, because there will be a little bit of a bandwagon effect as people try to get on board early to get the label as a trendsetter, only to ride it down when it turns out to be literally just a fad. Tropical beers, specifically IPAs came about because of the new tropical hop strains. In contrast, the introduction of onion and garlic hop strains didn’t start a trend. The tropical hops helped to create the subset of Tropical IPAs that are hazy that we know today as New England IPAs, abbreviated as NEIPA. I would never have predicted it to have been a trend or that it would last so long. Part of the reason this blew up is that a lot of people who thought they hated IPAs suddenly were fans of NEIPA. To answer the question, I think drinkers will start to again be taken by lagers. Well-crafted lagers with both classical roots and new twists will never go out of style and garner a lot of new fans. Drinkability, balance and nuance will be the keys to riding this wave.