Interview with Double Mountain Brewmaster Matt Swihart

Here is a Brewpublic exclusive interview, conducted on January 8, 2009 at the Double Mountain Brewery taproom, with Brewmaster Matt Swihart.

Margaret Lut:  There is quite a bit of noise in the background (sound of drills, other power tools and hammering in the background). Matt, can fill us in on why all the noise?

Matt Swihart: Oh, we are putting some lights outside the building so people can read the sign when they go by. It’s a novel idea we read somewhere in a marketing magazine or something. (Laughing) This was a pretty bare bones operation when we started so we are playing catch up on some little things. We’ve been in business for about a year and a half, we started on St. Patrick’s Day. It’s a beautiful time to start up a brewery. Every anniversary from here until time ends will be celebrated on St. Patrick’s Day and I think that is just a beautiful thing.

ML: Your two year anniversary party is coming up here in about a couple of months. Any big plans?

MS:  We will do a big anniversary party with bands playing most of the day like we did last year. We will probably have it on a Saturday, hopefully block off the street and have some special beers on tap. Last year we had about 14 beers on tap and we hope to have close to that again this year. So we are trying to put a lot in the tank right now.

ML: Any special beers that you know will be on tap for the second anniversary party right now?

Matt Swihart

MS:  I’m hoping my Devil’s Kriek will be available by then which is our cherry Lambic beer. I also have a beer we made called the Uber Brown which is a large imperial style brown ale and that has been aging in some Elijah Craig bourbon barrels for about 7-8 months. It is ready right now but sometimes the longer you wait the better it gets. We will also have on nitro our Black Irish Stout along with some other things. The Cheers to Belgian Beers is coming up and I image I’ll have my entry available for the anniversary as well.  I hope to do some other projects yet to be created so I don’t really know what they are right now but I have a couple of months, right?

ML: So now that you have been in operation for about two years what does the future have in store for Double Mountain?

MS: Well, we are really trying to make a large footprint in the brewer’s world by just making some really creative beers and being a brewer’s brewery. Charlie (Devereux) and I always wanted to make beers that we like and that spoke to us and that we would drink. It’s never been “what does the market want”, “what can we sell” kind of thing.   That was always what  we thought was important to the beer world. We are doing a lot of experimentation. We use the Rochford Belgian yeast strain for the bulk of our beers so we are doing a little Belgium character to our beers but obviously there is a huge NW influence with the great hops and the wonderful organic malts that we use. So to continue with the experimentation that we have already done, we are doing a lot more cask aging and wood aging and I would like to continue that. I have been playing around with a lot of different yeast strains and a lot of Belgian cultures and wild yeast and bacteria, trying to gain some experience as to what works, how to work with it, what temperature to work with things and I am really intrigued to that whole wine markers approach to making beer and not so much knocking out large qualities of the exact same things all the time which is traditional of industrial brewing. I take more of the approach of batch to batch variations, a little artist flare in between brews and some blending, some wood and some different cultures and some older beers blended in with some newer beers and just trying to creative some real complexity in what people get with the ultimate goal that it needs to be really good to drink. You don’t want it to be some esoteric that it’s impossible to get past your nose. It’s a an odd thing to try to get a beer that will appeal to people who aren’t really beer  aficionados  in the beer culture but yet will also appeal to those folks as well and that is kind of the edge that we are trying to walk. So I think that if you make a balanced beer that has a lot of interest in it and some history as to how you got there I think that makes a pretty compelling case. (laughing) If I am in business again next year you know it is still working but if I am in the street playing banjo then I know I kind of screwed up somewhere. Which is always a possibility but my banjo skills are not so good.

Double Mountain Brewery
Double Mountain Brewery

ML: How has the first almost two years been going as far as getting the brewery off the ground, getting things going and getting name Double Mountain out there?

MS: It has gone great! When you start a business you have to do a business plan and we are in year five or six so it is going really well. We had planned to bottle immediately when we opened and we under estimated some much beer we would serve here in the tap room and we had under estimated the thrust of the wonderful city of Portland so we are still under the curve of getting enough draft out there. There was really no coming out with something in the bottle as much as we want to do it we wanted to be able to supple enough when we do as to not short anybody and not create a demand that we can’t fulfill and we have kind of maxed out our space here so I think that the bottles are a little ways off. We are trying to maximize the amount of draft out of here and get as many interesting bands as we can to play in the tap room. I love music and I love doing live music here…we are trying to focus on that and making this a cozy place. Trying to come up with a great variety of beers that will keep Portlanders excited about Double Mountain and excited about the beer world. It is such a great time to be in Portland right now, to be in the northwest, when you got what Christian (Ettinger, Hopworks) is doing and it is just fun and you know Jamie (Floyd, Ninkasi) down in Eugene and you know Hair of the dog has been around for a while but there is some really great stuff going on in the beer world.

ML: I had read on your website that you had gone in on some barrels with Alan (Sprints) from Hair of the Dog.

MS: Yeah. There are a whole group of folks that went in on that. Alan and I did, and Tonya (Cornett) from Bend Brewing, and she has been playing around with making some barrel aged beers and it’s been fun. I had done a little bit of work at Full Sail with bourbon barrels before so it is a continuation of that interest.

ML: I am sampling the IRB (India Red Blend) right now, what can you tell us about that beer?

IRB (left) and Ardennes
IRB (left) and Ardennes

MS:  Well, the IRB is my continuing quest to make a beer that I like as much as Duchesse de Bourgogne. That beer, many years ago, struck my interest in Brettanomycces as a wild yeast culture, which brings some many wonderful characters to a beer and just the Belgium approach in general. I had made a beer called the Brett Devil which is a strong red ale with a 100% brett yeast fermentation…that was tart but not overly so…that was kind of an interesting beer. At the same time I had been taking our IRA and aging it in some different barrels to see what the different barrels would lend to that beer. We had done an IRA which was solely aged in new oak, these Bordeaux barrel that I got, and that was a very intense vanilla, high tannin kind of beer….I released that last year. I think we just called that IRA in the wood. So, I had some more of that beer and I then I had an IRA that I had aging in 12 year old bourbon barrels and so I started mixing the sour brett beer with those beers trying to come up with a blend, together that would kind of make it a beer that the some was greater than the sum of its parts kind of thing. That was the intend with the IRB. Which can stand for India Red Blend or India Red Bordeaux or the second IRA… the coming of Christ or I don’t know what you call it. What’s in a name?  We are continuing to try to nail that wine makers art to the beer world but I think it will continue to change. If I make that beer again next year I think it will be different. Not out of intention but it is just an evolving, living process, and I like that.  I like if you have a Pinot from one year to the next that they are a little different and it is a great thing and I try to embrace that a little bit. That is a new thought to a beer maker. Because the strive is, you are always thought consistency, consistency, consistency and I am trying to pull back into a couple of centuries ago where there was a little more spiritual alignment with things happening we didn’t quite fully  understand. I approach this (beer making) from a scientific stand point but I love the fact that you will never understand everything. Sometimes you just really have to make a judgment call and say that you really like the taste of something and maybe I don’t have to know the reason why.  So the faith can sometimes make a really good beer. So the idea is to negotiate with them so they treat you kindly. (Chuckling)

ML: Was the IRB Double Mountain’s first blended beer?

MS: Was that our first blended beer?….I believe it was. Everything else we have kept very separate. Well…that is not true. We did a beer called the Devil’s Kitchen which was a strong Belgian blonde ale that was a few yeast strains that were blended together different times in the fermentation. Our Kriek from this year, which has not been released yet, that beer is three different fermentations brought together and then those fermentations have cherries added to them. There are three different fermentations  with three different cultures, you know,  different yeasts, and then the cherries came in and the three of them acted in concert together  differently with the cherries so that is kind of a big blend. The cherries came from an orchard I have here in town. I have two ferments going on; one with Bings and one with Rainers. One throws an intense red color and the other one is much more subtle and pinkish. I’m looking forward to doing some releases around the Portland area were we look varietally at the different fruit in the beer…(and to) do some comparison tastings in a couple places around town.

ML: You have touched on this a little bit, with the consistency of beer and having a creative spin to the beers you make here: How has being a brewer at Full Sail differed from being a brewer here at Double Mountain?

MS:  I love the consistency and the approach larger breweries take to the process. I started my life as an engineer so that part of me really likes that scientific and statistical approach and really nailing down your parameters and there can only be so much variation from time to time. When I was the head brewer at Full Sail and I worked with our brewers it was all about our consistency and their performance was based on was the alcohol the same each time, was the pH the same and the extraction rate the same…we were all trying to get that beer right now. After doing that for 13 or 14 years I’m really enjoying pulling back just a little bit and just allowing myself to have some more fun and not getting unnerved when things start do start to vary a little bit because you can get some wonderful variances that you didn’t except that you can then work with and learn from. It’s not that I try to be inconsistent, I’m still trying to approach things so our IRA would not strike someone as not the IRA the next time they have it. That would not be my intend, I’m just not as rigid in the statistical process. If I feel like the beer needs a little more hops for whatever reason that day because the night before I had a pint and thought the aroma was not quite where I thought it would be then I’m at liberty to monkey with it as it goes.  The beer that we do for (Mount Hood) Meadows, the Alpenbrew, was different last year then what our approach was to it this year. We wanted it to be more of a pale ale and less of an ESB. Just because I wanted people to think of it as more of a Double Mountain Beer and less of a Meadows beer so we got a little more aggressive with it this year. I want that flexibility and that ownership to be able to monkey with it. So they are definitely different animals, brewing at one place from another but I couldn’t brew here unless I had that 13 years of experience with Full Sail. I’m much more comfortable in this kind of crazy environment with this patchwork of used equipment with duct tape kind of thing having approached it with the sky’s the limit technology. I kind of feel like I’m in my retirement phase, I can do whatever I want. Not that I am decrepit or old or anything but….this is my fun stage of brewing. Hopefully I won’t get too successful where I can’t continue to do that, I’m sure Charlie will kill me for saying that.

ML: Any style of beer you are looking forward to brewing this year that you have not brewed yet?

MS: I want to do more with the Lambic version of things. I want to work more with the fruit from my orchards. I grow cherries and peaches as well which we market to some fruit stands in Portland; they are just dynamite. So many Lambic brewers in Belgium and here both are buying syrups and concentrates, and like anything, if you use fresh ingredients, fresh fruits ripened from the tree, that is the most amazing fruit to eat and you are going to make the best beer too. Learning to work with those fruits in the brewing environment is what is going to be new to me. I changed how I processed the cherries this year from last year and I think I have gotten a lot better just in terms of handling them and being more gentle with them and getting the most aroma kind of thing. I want to start experimenting with the peaches we have and starting making ciders since I have apples trees. Some French apple cider varieties up there and some English varieties. And I want to continue to have fun with the big hoppy beers that are kind of our signature. The Killer Green last yea…we had used some hop varieties that we hadn’t used in years past and we will do that again, just using whatever hop speaks to us. I’d also like to do a couple different wet hop beers cause they are some much fun and people really enjoy them.

ML: Charlie is your partner here at Double Mountain, how are the duties split between the two of you?

MS: Charlie is what I like to call the “kitchen inspiration” so he came up with our New York style pizzas that we do so he is the “foodie” among us. He demands that we use the most expensive cheese in all of Italy, thanks  Charlie, and then he does sales and marketing. He is always pounding the pavement in Portland and Hood River talking to all the tavern owners. He is also on the marketing board at the (Oregon Brewer’s) Guild so he is very active that way, too. I cover the whole brew house side and brewery production and some of the

Tap List as of Jan. 8, 2009
Tap List as of Jan. 8, 2009

accounting, which isn’t really exciting. It works out really well, when we started we wanted to have a clear sphere of influence as to what we could do so I try to not to tell Charlie what the name of the beer should be because that is kind of his realm and then he tries not to tell me that he thinks that beer needs more hops. We are respectful of each other’s strengths so it has been working really well for us.

ML: You met Charlie over at Full Sail?

MS:  He was John Harris’s first assistant brewer at the Harbor Side location, the Pilsner Room, and then he came over to work at the big plant here in Hood River at Full Sail. He had been there about a year when I got a job there and moved out from the east coast from Maryland where I was working. So we worked together for about a year when he left to start a brewery but we remained friends and drinking companions for a lot of years and we found ourselves scheming often together and then one day we were like “We really should to do this”. We hit a point where we found a space which was kind of hard for us and we went for it and it worked out really well.

ML: Was Full Sail your first brewing job?

MS: I worked at Frederick Brewing Company which was a new start at the time and I think they have been bought out about three times now so I’m not sure of the name of the place now. I apprenticed or begged to work at a lot of different breweries. I did some bottling for Old Dominion and did whatever it took to get my foot in the door for a few months. When I was in Maryland working at the brewery I got a scholarship to attend the long course at the Siebel Institute. That really accelerated my interest in brewing even more so and I felt like I had to move to the Portland area to get a job at a brewery. This (Portland), I thought, was the place where the most interesting beers were evolving where the breweries were being the most aggressive with some of the hopping rights. There were little breweries that were becoming little regional powerhouses; Widmer, Full Sail, Deschutes, Red Hook…and this was back in the early 1990’s.  It was exciting stuff. I figured if it didn’t work at one place then I could always walk across the street and get a job someplace else. I ended up really falling in love with Hood River and enjoying my experience at Full Sail for the 13 years I was there.

ML: How did you come up with the name Double Mountain?

MS: It is the name of our orchard. Double Mountain Orchards. There is a crest in the mid-valley and you can look in one direction and see Mt. Adams and then look in the other direction and see Mt. Hood. It was an informal name. We tossed around a few names but always came back to Double Mountain so we figured that is what it was going to be. It seemed to fit Hood River with how it is nestled between the two   mountains.

ML: How many employees do you have at Double Mountain?

Greg Balch, Assistant Brewer
Greg Balch, Assistant Brewer

MS: It hovers right around 10 to 12, almost solely in the kitchen and bar tending area. I have an assistant brewer, Greg Balch. He worked at McMenamin’s and he was a cook at Fire on the Mountain. He has done a lot of different things. He started part-time here last summer and just became full-time. When we first started here I was doing almost everything. I wanted that connectivity to the brewery and I still brew 90% of the beers. But, like I said Greg has started working here full-time a couple of months ago and he is really good and he is brewing today. He does all the kegging and cleaning of the kegs as well.

ML: To wrap things up do you have any final words?

MS: Beer is a beautiful thing. There is no finer occupation in life then to be involved in the brewing industry.

Next time you are in picturesque Hood River, Oregon, stop by Double Mountain for a sampling of their wonderful craft beers and artisan New York style pizza.  And say hi to Matt, Charlie, Greg and the crew for us.  Prost!

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