The long road to brewmaster

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How does a Brazilian man who came to the United States for art school, who got married to a Pennsylvanian, who worked for a decade as a graphic artist, who quit his job to travel across the country, who moved to Germany to learn how to brew beer and who returned to the northeastern part of the U.S. to settle down end up as the head brewer of the Herkimer Pub and Brewery at Lyn-Lake? 

“Minnesota is not a place I ever thought I would live,” Gustavo Vale said. “It’s a really long story.”

Many parts of his life may seem unlikely. But perhaps the most unlikely of all is that his first full-time brewing job is as the person in charge of a brew house that has won two gold medals at the Great American Beer Festival — perhaps the national Olympic Games of beer.

“In the beginning, I thought maybe I got in way over my head. It’s not like I’m an assistant brewer. If it’s not me, it’s nobody else,” Vale said.

The pressure, admittedly, is great.

Blake Richardson founded the Herkimer in 1999 after seeing a lack of German-style beers in Southwest. It was a market saturated with ales, not the lagers Richardson is partial to.

“It thought it was silly there wasn’t a brew club in Uptown,” he said.

Richardson took it upon himself to give the public darker beers, even starting out as the Herkimer’s original head brewer. Since then, business has seen consistent growth. Richardson said close to 1,000 barrels are sold each year. Fourteen more hectoliters of beer were brewed in 2007 than in 2006, according to a “Hectalitre Meter” mounted on the pub’s southern wall. In layman’s terms, that’s an additional 370 gallons.

Dipped in lager

Even Vale (pronounced similarly to “valet”) wouldn’t have predicted finding himself in this position, producing some of the world’s darker brews. In Brazil, he was raised on light beer, much like this country’s Budweiser- and Miller-prone college students.

“That’s what I thought beer was supposed to be for most of my life,” he said. “And then, slowly, I discovered Sam Adams after I moved [to the U.S.]. I remember when I was in art school, I’d spend the extra five bucks and buy that.

“I finally figured out beer is supposed to taste like something. It’s not supposed to be just freezing cold with no taste.”

That knowledge grew into a larger appreciation. Soon, he was brewing at home, digging into books and being careful almost to a fault.

“I was so paranoid about doing it right,” Vale said.

The first beer he ever made was a pale ale, one that was neither perfect nor undrinkable. His friends were complimentary across the board. Even when Vale felt he’d screwed up a Scotch ale, “they were pounding it,” he said.

That’s where he found his confidence.

In the meantime, Vale was working a desk job he was getting increasingly bored by. After 10 years, he decided he’d had enough. He convinced his wife to quit her job and embark on a cross-country journey. By trip’s end a couple of months later, Vale had his eyes set on living the brew master’s life.

He took a six-month course at the Versuchs- und Lehranstalt für Brauerei in Berlin, followed by a three-month apprenticeship at the Paulaner Bräuhaus in Munich.

“Basically, he got dipped in lager when he was over there,” Richardson said. “He just has great experience.”

Vale tried taking that back to the Northeast, close to his wife’s family. But neither of them was able to find a job. After eyeing the Herkimer’s opening since December 2007, Vale finally applied in early February.

Within weeks, he was the brew master.

Part plumber, part janitor

It may be a cool job, producing a prized drink for so many people. But Vale warned about calling it glamorous.

“It’s not a comfy desk job,” he said. “… You’re basically part plumber, part engineer, part janitor.”

Ninety percent of his work deals with cleaning. When a beer is all tapped out, he cleans the tank. When a beer is done fermenting, he has to clear out the yeast for reharvesting. Every tube, handle, tank and glass he handles has to be disinfected. Vale wants to avoid even the slightest bit of bacteria sticking around and risking his beers’ flavors.

On top of that, he does his work between two floors without the help of an elevator. When a shipment of malts and hops comes in, he carries it from the first floor to his basement workspace. After he’s ground the malts, he carries them upstairs to his brewing space. He collects the beer for tapping purposes back in the basement. Then he returns upstairs to clean. And back downstairs to clean.

It’s hard on the knees, perhaps, but Vale is keeping a positive attitude.

“At least I don’t have to join a gym,” he said.

And for a beginning brew master, it’s not a bad place to be. He’s not yet looking too far into the future, happy that he’s found somewhere — as improbable as it might have seemed years ago — where he’s proud of his work.

“I’m focusing on getting the basics right,” he said. “Then I can start rolling up my sleeves and getting cocky.”

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Beyond the Herkimer

Blake Richardson founded the Herkimer in 1999 and has seen a steady increase in business almost every year since. But he hasn’t been content with just that. Here are a couple of his other ventures, one of which caught on quickly and another that could do the same very soon.

TripleCaff

Fed up paying for expensive energy drinks imported to his pub, Richardson and crew thought they would be better off brewing their own. That’s how TripleCaff was born. The carbonated and caffeinated drink made with taurine, vitamin B complex and yohimbee root caught on well with the Herkimer crowd. Although it originally was planned as an in-house drink, Richardson said other vendors in Southwest soon were asking if they could sell it. TripleCaff now can be found at such locations as the Independent, Chino Latino, Stella’s Fish Café and Bar Abilene.

Moto-i

Richardson considers his latest business venture a unique experience for Southwest restaurant- and bar-goers. He won’t reveal everything about the spot’s concept, other than that it will be a casual Asian restaurant that will feel more like a bar than a sit-down restaurant. The menu will consist partly of Japanese street food, such as ramen noodles and squid jerky. Construction is currently under way at the former site of Macchu Pichu — just a couple of doors down from the Herkimer — a space that will accommodate a 150-seat dining room and a rooftop patio. Richardson said he expects to open Moto-i in mid-September.

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The master’s perspective

We asked new brew master Gustavo Vale to talk about each of the six beers on tap at the Herkimer in late August.

Dortmunder
“The Dortmunder is one of our lightest lagers. … Some customers expect a filtered beer. For those drinkers who like Budweiser, they’re looking for the lightest beer; you need to have one like that.”

Alt Bier

“That is one of our gold medal beers and one of my favorites. That one’s definitely our hoppiest beer. People that are used to having English ales or I.P.A.’s, when they come here and they ask for the hoppiest thing, that’s usually what they get. I have a keg of it at home.”

Sky Pilot Kellerbier
“The Sky Pilot is our other gold medal beer. It’s basically an unfiltered pilsner.”

High Point Dunkel
“If a German saw it, he would not think it’s a Dunkel beer. The Dunkel that I make here, it’s almost like a porter. We put a lot of roasted malt in it to give a lot of body to it. Unlike a German Dunkel, where you can see through it, this one you can’t see through. But it doesn’t have the sweetness of a porter — it’s still a lager.”

Dunkel Weiss

“The Dunkel Weiss has a bit of a smoky aroma to it, and if you hold it up to the light, it’s got a slight red tint to it. It’s essentially a dark Hefeweizen with a little bit of smoked malt added to it. It’s one of my favorite beers — I’m really proud of that one.”

Gose
“I was very nervous about that beer because it’s not a normal beer to make. You don’t use hops — you use sea salt and coriander. And the most dangerous part about it, you have to introduce lactic acid into the beer. … That’s very tricky because you can easily infect the rest of your beers, and everything will start tasting sour.”