Ryan Huff, co-owner of Huff Brewing Company in Bellville, is passionate about craft brewing—and he talks really fast. My note-taking hand couldn’t keep up with his mouth. Read on for the parts of our free-flowing conversation that I managed to catch.
RTR: Give me an overview of the beer brewing process.
RH: The beer making process starts with malted barley. We grind it and soak it in hot water, so the grain will release its sugar. Then, we drain and rinse the grain to collect the “sugar water,” which is then boiled with hops and spices. Once it’s ready, we add yeast to the mixture, so fermentation will occur. After the yeast has done its job, we have beer.
RTR: So it all gets back to sugar, yeast, water and the “magic” of fermentation?
RH: I love the process of fermentation—the interaction of sugar and yeast in all its forms. I’ve tried to ferment yogurt, kombucha [a fermented Chinese tea drink], kefir [a fermented Eurasian milk drink] and sauerkraut. I only tried sauerkraut one time, though. Whew.
What we can do with yeast, sugar and water is limitless. As brewers what we do is steeped in history and tradition, but I’m not constrained by that. Instead, I’m challenged to push the boundaries a bit every time we brew.
RTR: What is the timeline for a batch?
RH: It depends on what type of beer we’re making. For our products the timeline ranges from four to eight weeks. Sometimes we have lagers that we’ll let age for 10 weeks. We’re small enough that we don’t have to rush things to market and generally flavors, especially in lagers, improve with time.
Brewing has taught me patience and helped me mature, but I’m not so mature that I can wait two or three years to taste the product like the wine and bourbon people do.
RTR: In your opinion, what makes a good beer?
RH: To me good beer is brewed with a purpose. I’ve had a lot of good beer and a lot of bad beer. If I can understand what the brewer is trying to express, then I can appreciate the beer even if it’s not to my taste.
RTR: What’s the difference between beer and ale?
RH: All ale is beer, but not all beer is ale. What you’re referring to as beer is actually a lager. All lager is beer, but not all beer is lager.
There are two big differences between a lager and ale. The first is where the yeast hangs out. Lager, which is what most people think of as beer, is made from bottom fermenting yeast while ale is made from top fermenting yeast.
These yeasts act at different temperatures, which results in a different product. Lagers are brewed at colder temperatures, which slows the yeast’s metabolism and results in a cleaner, crisper tasting beverage. Ales are brewed at higher temperatures, which produces a fruitier, thicker beverage.
RTR: What’s the difference between craft beer and mass-produced beer?
RH: That’s an ongoing, unsettled industry debate. For me a comfortable comparison is a small, one-off kitchen and a fast food chain; therein lies the difference. Both restaurants produce food, but they have different systems and different results because they have different goals.
RTR: Where do you get your ingredients?
RH: From all over the place. We get the bulk of our malted barley from Wisconsin and the Grain Belt, but for specialty products like the Original Amber, which is a German lager, we import the malted barley from Germany, so it’s authentic. With the global nature of the industry, we can get ingredients from anywhere.
It’s really cool to get hops from Germany or spices directly from the islands where they’re grown; it brings a taste of the world to my hometown.
RTR: Talk to me about the water you use.
RH: Water is an important source of flavor in beer. It’s subtle, but if you change the water source it will change the beer’s flavor. We use local groundwater—and we’re very protective of it.
In fact, we opened the brewery in the summer of 2011 at the height of the drought. We lived in fear that the well would run dry, so we developed a process that used as little water as possible—and then reclaimed, reprocessed and re-used as much as possible.
As a kid in a farming and ranching family, there’s a stewardship ethic built in. Anyone who has ever lived through a drought with a dad who is a farmer or rancher has a deep, abiding respect for water.
RTR: What’s the best part of being a brewmaster?
RH: The people we get to deal with. I know it sounds trite, but it’s true. It becomes truer with every product we develop and every beer we pour.
To me brewing is like farming. It’s creative and intense, but it involves a lot of hard work and manual labor. Every day I have to be a mathematician, biologist, chemist, mechanic, plumber and custodian. It’s hard sweaty smart work—and there aren’t many jobs that allow you to do all that at one time.
Then, at the end of the day, you get to leave your hutch of a brewery and take the work of your hands out to share with other people. When our hand-crafted product hits the mark, you know. You see it on their faces. Their reactions are addictive. They’re what keep me shoveling out the mash tub on 100-degree days.
Information on Tap
Huff Brewing Company
9805 Koehn Rd.
Open every Friday from 5 p.m. – 9 p.m. and by appointment on Saturdays. The atmosphere is family friendly, and children are welcome.
_______________________________________________________________by Lorie A. Woodward
photos by Dixie Ray Hamilton, Dixie Ray Photography