Interview with Harvest Moon Brewery By: Ben Bakelaar
I continue my monthly interview series by speaking to Kyle McDonald, head brewer at Harvest Moon Brewery and Cafe in New Brunswick, NJ. Last month I interviewed homebrewer Bob Olson who is in the process of starting his own brewery, Bolero Snort. In the coming months, look for interviews with Michael Kane, founder of Kane Brewing; former WHALES member Justin who is now a shift brewer at Ommegang Brewery in Cooperstown, NY; and current WHALES member and gold medal-winning homebrewer Don Boyle!
Tell us a little about yourself and how you first got involved in brewing
My name is Kyle McDonald. I grew up in Iowa, and moved to New Jersey in 2007. I first got interested in brewing during the summer of 1996 when I did a 6 week exchange program in Germany. It was the summer after my junior year of high school, and I really fell in love with German beer and the whole culture around it. Every town has a few beer gardens, and many towns also have a local brewery. When I started my senior year, I signed up for a class where you spend a whole semester writing a research paper, and I got special permission to write mine on the German brewing process. So I spent several months researching and writing this 15 page paper about brewing! Despite all the research though, I wasn’t really drinking in high school, or even college because I wasn’t interested in low-quality American beers compared to the tasty German brews I had experienced there. After college I was thinking about going to culinary school and started working in kitchens, and ended up working at a brewpub in Iowa.
So, obviously, I just harassed the brewing staff every day for months on end to let me help them out. Finally they gave me 1 shift cleaning kegs, which was no small task because this brewpub didn’t have serving tanks which meant everything was kegged. It ended up being about 75-100 kegs every week that I had to clean. After a while, the assistant brewer left and they decided to let me take on more responsibility – basically everything except brewing. I was doing all the cleaning, racking beers, carbonating, even delivering kegs. That was in 2006, and then when I moved to New Jersey in 2007 I got a job at Harvest Moon as the assistant brewer based on my experience there.
How long have you been brewing for?
Basically once I came to Harvest Moon, after the Iowa brewpub. Unlike a lot of current brewers, I did not start as a homebrewer, but I had hands-on experience in Iowa with a brewing system and a lot of knowledge of the brewing process. So the first week on the job as assistant brewer I was up in the brewhouse mashing in. That was cool, the head brewer knew I had the knowledge and trusted me enough to jump in head first and learn on the job.
When did you become head brewer?
In May of 2010. The previous head brewer had a 3+ hour commute each day since he lived far away, and after about 10 years he was getting a little worn down. One day I was upstairs eating lunch and the owner came up to me and said “You have a new job”! It wasn’t a total surprise, since I knew the head brewer had been talking about finding something closer to home for a while. The timing was a little surprising though, and starting that day I had two weeks to learn the entire system before he left. Even though I had been assistant for a while, it’s totally different when you are in charge of ordering, planning, and executing every single step in the process.
How much do you learn by reading versus hands-on experience?
I am definitely more of a hands-on visual type learner, whether it is figuring it out for myself, being shown how to do something in person, or even watching a video. That being said, once you reach a certain point, it’s hard to learn more. Every brewing system has its quirks and limitations, and at this point I feel like I know everything there is to know about brewing on my system. Also, being the head brewer there is no one else to learn from unless I was going to shadow another local brewer or something, which is not really practical. So the only way I learn new things now is by reading. I attended an intensive brewery training program before I became head brewer, so I have a lot of DVDs and notes from that, very technical information about brewing science. I’ll also read the style books put out by Brewers Publication, or books like the one Garrett Oliver of Brooklyn Brewery put out about how to pair beer with food.
I know you didn't start out as a homebrewer, why do you think that is?
I don’t know, probably a combination of laziness and something else. I mean, I only had one friend that homebrewed back in Iowa. Any time I tried a homebrew, it was inevitably from one of those starter kits and the beer tasted bad, so I kind of said to myself why would I want to spend time making bad beer. Plus I had a solid understanding of the brewing process and the memories of those delicious German beers. Also remember that this was back a few years when homebrewing wasn’t quite as popular as it is now. So overall I would say it was just a lack of information and access.
Eventually though I did end up homebrewing, around March 2009. I brewed about 8 or 10 batches between March and September. Then winter came, and by next January I was starting brewing school and had no free time. As soon as school was over I was head brewer, and spending my time brewing at work all day, I didn’t really feel like going home and brewing more. In a few months I am hopeful that we can start brewing small pilot batches at Harvest Moon, essentially the same thing as homebrewing, so that I can experiment with wild ales and other uncommon styles.
What is the difference between homebrewing and commercial brewing in your mind?
To me, equipment is the obvious one and the biggest difference. Generally in a commercial setting you have a lot more control over everything – temperature, mash water, sparge water, chilling your wort efficiently, monitoring fermentation temperature, all that. Those are the big differences in my mind. Control of details is generally easier in commercial setting. Also, if you are brewing a 5 gallon batch for yourself, only one person really has to like the beer. When you brew commercially, unless you have a pilot system, you have to be more conservative in your approach to writing recipes.
Do you have any memorable homebrews you created in the past couple of years?
The Iowa Farmhouse Ale which is sometimes on tap at Harvest Moon, that was a homebrewed beer first. And honestly, I liked the homebrew better than my commercial batches, even though it was the same recipe. What’s special about this brew is that there is a significant amount of corn, as a tribute to where I grew up. It’s a nice light blonde ale, and the corn gives it a certain sweetness.
What advice do you have for homebrewer’s dreaming of starting their own brewery?
Win the lottery? No, seriously. The first thing that comes to my mind, if you really want to start up a brewery, is come up with your plan and what your niche is going to be. Obviously if you are brewpub it’s a little different. But if you look at any of the newer successful breweries, they have picked something to stand out. Some of them are all barrel aged, Jolly Pumpkin is all sour and wild ales. I recently read some articles about breweries making only wheat beers, or only authentic German lagers. There are more and more breweries opening all the time, so it’s important to iron out what part of the market share you are after. For example, do you want to focus on hoppy stuff? Initially, that is really important. I know you recently interviewed Bob from Bolero Snort, and I’ve had a few of his homebrewed beers. I would say he is specialized; it seems like he is going after a different market, sort of working with spices in the beer to make them pair well with food.
So to sum it up, have a goal in mind that is more specific than “I want to brew beer for a living”. It requires finer details now than 2 or 3 years ago. Carve out what part of the market you want, at least initially. Are you going to brew approachable craft beer for the new craft beer drinker? Or will you brew everything over 10% and barrel age it, which is a really tiny market but the buyers will spend a lot of money on a few beers.
Thanks so much for taking time out of your schedule to talk to the Love2Brew community! One final question, what’s one thing that you still wish you were better at on brew day?
Hm, that’s a hard one. I guess I could be better at timing in general. I still feel like I wait too long to do something, there is always one 15-30 minute period in my brewday where I am all of a sudden realizing something else should have been done already, and then I end up running around trying to get it done. That throws me off, and then I am a little behind in something else somewhere in the day. Being better at timing would definitely lower my stress level.