Interview with Larry Sidor, Deschutes Brewmaster, Part 1

Deschutes brewmaster, Larry Sidor, has a background that may surprise some. For someone who has come up with such boldly innovated recipes at Deschutes such as The Dissident and The Abyss, many may not guess that Larry got his start at the Olympia Brewing Company.

“I spent 23 years at Olympia. You name it I did. It started as a journeyman situation after I graduated from OSU with a degree in the food sciences. From there I did a six-month brewing apprenticeship and performed every aspect in brewing possible. After that I was sent to Siebels, and back at that time it was a four-month course. When I returned I was named project assistant brewmaster at Olympia.”

From there Larry was promoted to Operations Manager for the entire brewery and during that time Pabst bought out Olympia. Larry remained with the company and became the R&D Manager, QA Manager, wrote and developed contract brewing situations and even brewed in Japan and China. Larry brewed such brands as Stroh’s, Lone Star, Lucky Lager, Brew 102 and even the Beer Beer (the can just said “Beer” on the side) and of course all the Pabst’s Brands.

In 1997, Larry quit his position at Olympia/Pabst without another job lined up. He confessed that he had had enough of the revolving door of ownership. Recently, I had a chance to meet with Larry and talk about his past, where he is at now and how he sees the future of craft beer.

Margaret Lut: So how did you transition from Olympia to Deschutes?

Larry Sidor: Well, I am an Oregon boy. At least a Northwest guy. I love it out here. I grew up in Corvallis and spent my formative years in La Grande. I ended up going back to Corvallis and graduated from Corvallis High and then went to Oregon State University. When I quit Olympia without a job and went home to my wife and told her and she was like “OK, that is nice” “She was completely OK with it. So I starting looking around for a job and a hop dealer in Yakima offered me a job and I thought “Oh that sounds great! I have always wanted to learn more about hops.” I ended up spending seven years in Yakima in the hop business. I worked in technical sales and operations of pelletizing hops. One of my greatest accomplishments was pretty much revolutionizing hop pellet production. I made a lot of changes to improve pelletization and starting running a super critical carbon dioxide plant that extracted the essential ingredients in hops. Then it was put in a can. Not very glamorous but very interesting from a technical standpoint.

Here at Deschutes, I use a little bit of hop extract here but we are a whole hop user here. Occasionally I might use a pellet or two but only when whole hops aren’t available for what I want to do. While working at the hop farm someone from Deschutes called me and asked if I was interested in getting back to brewing. My response was “OK, when is the interview?” So I came down for the interview and it was right in the transition of getting ready to open this brewhouse (Bend production brewery) and it was really like the perfect fit.

Oh, here is another great story of how I decided Deschutes was the right choice:
I was looking through (different beers) my beer fridge and I was thinking, ‘Wow they use whole hops. They use whole hops. They use whole hops.  Hmm…they use pellets, but I’ll forgive them” and it occurred to me that I am naturally drawn to beers made with whole hops. I can notice the beers that are made with pelletized hops and those made with whole hops and I lean towards those beers made with whole hops. So when Deschutes called me up I was like well I always have Deschutes beers in my fridge. It is funny how you kind of go down a path that you don’t really know you are going down until you open up that door on the beer fridge and you go “Oh wow … whole hops!”

ML: Before you came to Deschutes were you brewing or home brewing in Yakima?

LS: No, I copped out. I bought a vineyard and starting making wine. When I was looking for a place to live in Yakima I found a place that had 3 acres of wine grapes. When I was at OSU I interned at a winery and it was my dream to someday own and operate my own vineyard. I sold most of the grapes to other vineyards and legally you can make 200 gallons of wine a year so that is what I would do (three whites and a red) and it was awfully fun. I would call up my friends and they would come and we could have a big spread. They would bring their campers and it would just be this big gathering of folks. I soon realized that my food bill was bigger then what it would cost to hire commercial pickers. So the following year I hired commercial pickers and people were like “What are you doing?!”. So the year after I would have people waiting in the parking lot waiting for the grapes to ripen for harvest.

ML: Having a winemaker’s background (temporarily) how did that transition into brewing? Did you bring your winemakers background into brewing, as far as the Dissidents or anything else?

LS: Absolutely, but I really bring more of my experience of brewing at Olympia and I also bring a whole load of information and technique from my days in the hop industry. I mean, I know more about hops then I care to admit. I spent seven years just living the dream of working with hops. So I am connected with the hop industry from a technical research stand point and from knowing growers and basically knowing how the system works. For example, you know the latest hop shortage, well guess what; we had no hop shortage here. In fact, we actually sold hops back into the brewing community to help them out. For us, the shortage was no big deal. I have a hop contract for the next 5 years already planned.

As for wine making and how it has helped me out in this job. The barrel information I had accumulated from wine making has helped. We get barrels from Hedges Cellars, his brother used to be my chemist at Olympia. So when I need grapes or wine barrels they are always there for me. A good friend of mine owns King Estates, east of Eugene, so you know, same thing. Through out the industry, wine and beer are kind of woven together. There is this great sharing of information between ex-beer guys that are now wine guys and vice-a-versa. So the two vineyards I mentioned, they have about 15-20 year careers in the beer industry so they understand the beer industry and so now they have 10 years of wine making under their belts and it is pretty good to be able to share that information.

Winemaking is fairly simple compared to making beer but wine growing is very complex. So I think that the agronomics of growing wine grapes is the most technically challenging part of making wine. If you look at beer making, we go from a very light Kolsch-type beer to a very dark Imperial Stout like Abyss and the wine folks can’t claim that. They play in this little flavor profile here and we have flavors that will just blow you away. That is why working with Brett or Acetobactor or some of the other funky yeast is just amazing. We can layer those flavors in our advantage where the wine makers can’t really do so. The wine consumer has a very close mine where the beer drinkers, especially those who like the The Dissident, The Abyss, Black Butte XX, etc. are like “Bring it on!” We don’t have limitations like the wine industry does so it is pretty rewarding and pretty darn cool. We can go play while they have to labor.

ML: When did you know craft beer was your path?

LS: I live to make beer. When I was in Olympia, and I know people don’t think this is right but they make great beer. They had great processes and it was a fun, entertaining, and wonderful place to work. I had a lot of creative outlet there, definitely not anywhere close to here, the yellow fizzy beer consumer was pretty picky and you couldn’t go too far out but one of the fun things I did at Olympia was I made a beer called Olympia Dark. I went from making it once a beer to making it year round. At Deschutes there is no boundaries. The boundaries we have are how do we get it done.

A focus project I am working on right now is making a Belgium Quad. We have made them off and on over the past few years and right now we are on batch number four. We have yet to make one that we are proud of.

ML: Which was the batch at the Portland Cheers to Belgium Beers?

LS: That was batch number three. For me what it was missing was the layering and the complexity of what I really wanted. The yeast we had to use, well…. We had some problems with that yeast. Once we figured out how to use it though, it was one of those situations where the horse was out of the barn type things. It was a great learning experience. Stay tuned, when you are at the Oregon Brewer’s Festival this year, they are having a Buzz Tent. We have three beers we are going to contribute. An Organic Sour Amber Ale, it’s going to be fairly hoppy and I will be curious to hear what the feedback will be on this one. For the buzz tent we will have a quad that has been aging in 14-year old bourbon barrels and for the event itself we will have a beer called Miss Spelt. I am very enthused with the Miss Spelt. I don’t think it will take the beer bloggers by storm or anything, it is not meant to be that kind of beer. It is meant to be a more full-bodied wheat style beer made with spelt that has notes of banana, clove and bubble-gum. Spelt is an ancient grain that has a very unique cereal flavor to it. When I first started brewing it, I used 50% spelt and it was way too much. It tasted like liquid bread. Since then we have cut back to where it is now and I don’t think I will mess with the formula anymore. One of the keys in making that beer for us has been how to manage the fermentation. We think we are there.

ML: Is this going to be Deschutes “Hefeweizen”?

LS: I don’t think we are going down that pathway. I think it is its own unique beer. We have never had ambitions to get into the Hefeweizen game. There are no spices in it so we are not trying to do the Belgium Wit type thing either. We are trying to let the yeast speak for itself really. We don’t want to call it a Hefeweizen, so we are messing around with some concepts. When you asked about creativity and this will make some people mad, but I don’t even look at style guidelines. One of my most anguished days is entering beers in the Great American Beer Festival. We simply don’t fit into the beer judging guidelines for most any beer that we make. I don’t really pay attention to it, it doesn’t really matter to me. We can call something a Pale ale or a Porter, Stout or an Imperial Stout but for example we make a beer called the Red Chair IPA and we call it an IPA because we don’t really know what else to call it. There are people out there that want to identify with a particular style. Red Chair is not really a Pale and it is not really an IPA, its just good beer. I think that from a creativity standpoint we are definitely doing the right thing. Maybe from a consumer confusion point we need a little education. But I like the way we do it. We strive to make a great beer for the consumer and we struggle putting a label on it or a verity or brand.

Another project I am working on right now is a gluten-free beer. I got a call from one of my brewers and he went “Larry, I don’t even want to call this beer gluten-free. I just want to put it out in the pub and call it beer. Larry, you can put a tag on it but I don’t want to call it gluten-free.” And I said, “Wow, you are that proud of that beer that we can do that.” And he said “Absolutely!” (That beer is the gluten free Wiess beer and it is on tap at the Portland pub as of this past weekend.)

ML: Do you have any beers that have inspired you along the way?

LS: Oh, there is a long list! Bridgeport IPA is a great IPA and the first time I ever tasted Black Butte Porter that was a turning point in my brewing career. A lot of the Belgium beers are just…. Wow. The Westmalles, to the Westvelterens, they are just incredible beers that make you wonder how did they do that. Some of the beers out of Germany and Pilsner Urquell were very inspiring beers for me back in the day and Guinness. I was in Germany in the early 1970’s and the beers of Munich were just amazing. One my more recent experience was going to Bamberg and visiting Schlenkerla and having their smoked beer. Their rauch beer was just incredible. Every place you turn in the beer industry there is inspiration. Someone is making fantastic beers, just waiting to be discovered. I back to the CBC and went to where Brooklyn beers are made and Cooperstown and Ommegang and Allagash and had some fantastic beers there. Inspiration is everywhere. We could talk for days on that subject.

ML: So what do you enjoy drinking these days?

LS: Allagash and Russian River just to name a few.

When I go out I don’t want to drink Deschutes, I know what it tastes like and I am not out to do QA to see if the beer traveled well or not. I want to try other brewer’s beers and see what is out on the market. I end up ordering some samples and analyzing the beers to the point to where I know the server gets frustrated with me and wants me to just decide what to drink.

Although, I will never pass up a chance to drink Dissidents or Abyss. I think Red Chair is a revolutionary beer. The marriage of malt and hop aroma and hop flavor without the rip your tonsils out type of bitterness that usually has to come with those kind of beers. The hop aroma in that beer just keeps coming back as you drink it. Where with bitter backwards beer that is somewhat unbalanced from a malts stand point, the brewer has gone way to far with the bitterness approach because they think that if it is bitter that people will like it.

Stay tuned for the second part of the interview where Larry tells of his passion for hops, Salmon Safe not organic hops and trends he sees coming to brewing.