Questions for Richard Grant (Head Brewer & Owner), Finch’s Beer Company
Richard Grant is a guy that loves his beer. From his first attempt at homebrewing on a dry campus, to taking the role of lead brewer at Finch’s, Richard has always loved beer. Earlier this month I had the good fortune to speak with Richard about his start in beer, his brewing career, his love for sours, and what’s going on at Finch’s Beer Company..
Illinois Craft Brewers Guild (ICBG) – To begin, perhaps I should just ask you where do beer and you begin? What and when was your introduction to beer?
Richard Grant – That’s a good question. I started brewing, actually, at the School of the Art Institute. Kind of as a joke. As, sort of, a project. I was like ‘Ok, I am going to brew this beer, in this conceptual art class (for photography), and that’s going to be my project’. On a dry campus that does not actually allow you to brew beer. So, I didn’t end up doing it for the project, and I ended up brewing it for myself, and forcing it upon every friend that would be willing to drink the beer. Once you get the bug of homebrewing, “I kept buying equipment, one thing led to another, took Siebel classes, started assisting, and the rest is where I’m at now”.
RG – I would have to say Rodenbach. Sours, and getting into lambics really knocked me off my feet. Agreeing with my stomach as much as they do. Just amazing. And stouts, I mean, that was some of the earliest stouts. Like Russian Imperial. Not necessarily hops right off the bat. I think I needed to actually grow into hops more than most people. Definitely the sours. Sitll a fan of sours.
ICBG – It’s just that based on the other folks I have talked to for the guild, and other beer loving friends, sours are not often an introductory point for most beer fans. I do not think it’s a bad thing. It is unique for sure.
RG – I still like to get my hands on one and still sit there and be like ‘aaaahhh’. All that lacto and the tart. Sounds good right now (laughs). We don’t do sours here.
ICBG – You don’t or you don’t yet?
RG – We don’t yet only because we don’t have the facility to keep it separate. I really don’t want to introduce that into our house strain. Bourbon barrels are as far as we go for that. We are not inoculating them with anything funky.
ICBG – How did you get started in the beer industry? Was it straight out of Siebel or..?
RG – Actually no, I did not go straight from Siebel into doing anything with beer. It took a year or so. I don’t know if it was the courage or the push to say ‘okay, it’s time. I am not going to do photography anymore. It’s time to actually do this.’ I assisted at Rock Bottom in both Orland Park and Chicago where I worked with Iain Wilson and Pete (Crowley). That was my first introduction there. It was great. A great learning experience. I still look back on it (and think) it was great.
ICBG – What made you consider the beer industry in the first place? Was it that homebrewing bug or was it just the desire to see what else there was in beer?
RG – I think it came down to, partially from, my art background. The blend of photography being art and science, and taking that being like, ‘Well, I can do this and have this art and science be a liquid form instead of a visual form.’. Which, maybe at the time, I did not think exactly that, but looking back its been about being able to experiment with it. More so now, just like everybody is experimenting with different styles, but being able to blend, to do this or that with it. It’s like ‘Wow, this is great!’. When I was doing photography it was, you’re putting it in chemical. It wasn’t digital even. So, I was still doing the old processes. Looking at old stuff from the 1800s. Just like when I picked up (Charlie) Papazian’s ‘Joy of Homebrewing’, it’s like ‘Wow! You can do a beer like that?’ Of course you read up as much as you can, and there’s all of this other wonderful things you can do. I would say a blend of the art and science of it.
ICBG – How did you become a part of Finch’s Beer Company?
RG – My wife got an email through meetup, which I don’t believe exists anymore. I had heard people approach and say ‘yeah they want to open a brewery’. (I had) heard that before. I was like, ‘Ok, I’ll meet them’. One thing led to another, we talked about what his vision was versus my vision. It gelled up and we did recipes. I’m brewing, he knows about the business and the design. It was a good marriage of the two.
ICBG – Having celebrated your one year anniversary recently, and with the addition of 5 new tanks, do you feel that after a year, and with that addition, do you feel that your feet are under you as a beer company or are you still working some stuff out?
RG – I feel that we are always learning. I’d be fooling myself to say otherwise, but as a beer company have we found what we latch onto? Yes. It takes a year, but everybody has their growing pains, learning. Especially with this expansion, and being in multiple states as we are, there’s always going to be some curveball. I think we will continue to learn, and we will continue to try, in my opinion, to push that inner envelope that we can do.
ICBG – Have you felt a need to find a an additional or a larger space that will allow you to continue expanding?
RG – At this time we are not looking to expand to another facility.
ICBG – What is Finch’s Beer Company to you?
RG – A giant finch waving a top hat, bowler cap.
ICBG – Five stories tall
RG – With smokestacks. Finch’s, to me, is the joy of being able to make my beers and have people drink them especially. Without it, I can make all the beer I want. If no one out there is drinking it it’s pointless. The joy of being a head brewer at a place, coming to work, being with the people who we have here, that I work with and being able to say ‘Okay, today we are doing this.’ Is great. I guess, to be cliche, it is the dream. I’m living the dream. But it really is the dream. I hear a lot of people say that. Finch’s to me is being able to live that dream.
ICBG – Based on what you and I discussed when you were showing me around here, it seems that you are lucky enough to work with a bunch of people that share that dream. That love beer, love what Finch’s is doing, and want nothing more than to see it continue and to see it succeed.
RG – Yeah, definitely. Everybody is gung-ho and excited about being here, and they have input. And I think that is important. Ultimately, with the beer, the decisions come to me, but I listen to that (the input of co-workers). It’s very democratic and that’s good. I need that opening input. Everybody should have that. People are very happy, thank goodness, to come to work.
ICBG – I see you have some Fascist Pig that is ready to go out, and I am also aware that you have made some other specialty beers such as Secret Stache, Dirtier Bird Dopplebock. Can you say anything about the other beers in that vein that you have in the works that you have in your queue or that you have in your mind to do?
RG – Lots of things that would probably be more practical not on this system. We are going to be doing our Shakanaw brown ale. That’s going to be a straight-forward American brown ale for mid-September. That will be in bombers as well as 1/6th barrels, and available in Chicago. Keep it local. Keep it here.
ICBG – Through the tour, I saw some barrels. Would you mind talking a little bit about your barrel aging program and what you have in there now?
RG – ‘Program’ is actually a very nice word for it (laughs). Right now I think it’s like the infancy of a barrel aging program. Right now we are using Koval barrels. Most of it is Fascist Pig and a we have done a little bit with the Secret Stash. Adding some ancho chiles in one of them. We also did one where we (added) some coffee in there. Most of other barrels are just straight barrel aging. We do want to expand on that as much as we can as space permits. Once we do, I am going to be putting the brown (Shakanaw brown ale) in some barrels. Put that off for a little bit and see what we get.
ICBG – What kind of barrels are you using from Koval? Straight whiskey?
RG – It is the rye and the oat. Those are some of my favorites that you are able to inspect when you go there. It’s nice to actually talk to them and say ‘Hey, that’s the barrel you’re going home with.’ ‘Okay! That’s wonderful! I’ll take that one.’ It’s like shopping for a cat or something when you go to the pet store except it smells a lot better.
ICBG – Just because I am looking at it now, would you mind talking a little bit about Fascist Pig?
RG – It’s an American ale but it tends to be more of an imperial red, without giving it a direct category, but I would call it an imperial red. It is at 8 %. It’s got rye in it. It’s got zythos and palisades, and dry hopped with that as well. It’s a pretty unique, pretty full bodied beer. People seem to be enjoying it. So, that’s great.
ICBG – What are your thoughts on the current state of beer and breweries in Chicago?
RG – They are growing exponentially which is wonderful. The more the merrier. I mean, it would be great if we had more breweries, more collaborations, more people to talk to about it. That’s great. Chicago is, I would say, in a renaissance of beer. That’s where we need to be. Everywhere else in the midwest is hopefully now starting to come into us and be like ‘Oh great!. We can get all of this Chicago beer.’ Hopefully it will continue to go that way.
ICBG – How does Chicago compare to other beer cities you have visited?
RG – It seems very experimenting here. Obviously they’re experimenting at other places but just what I am seeing now is that a lot of the nanobreweries are popping up. I can’t say it’s unique to us, but it seems kind of a niche that is happening more here, in the Chicagoland area, and I would say the experimentation. We’re doing a lot. We have the barrel aging and that’s something that seems very Illinois on the whole, in Chicago. You travel and you kind of see that, but you don’t see it like you see it here in the midwest. Which is great. I will take that any day. We want to do all of the barrel aging here we can.
ICBG – What is your favorite event that the IL brewers guild puts on?
RG – I have to say FoBAB (Festival of Barrel Aged Beers). That’s always a wonderful time. It’s great to see people come out for that, and people continue to come out for that, and that’s great. Definitely that event.
ICBG – How was your Chicago beer week this year?
RG – We had a great CCBW with a number of events from an art show at the brewery to a beer dinner at City Provisions.
ICBG – What are your thoughts on the IL Brewers guild going forward? What your hopes are for it and what you appreciate about it.
RG – I appreciate that we are promoting craft beer in all of Illinois, and getting the word out there on all of these breweries. Ones that have been around and ones that are starting up. And continue to promote craft beer to the point that we here in Illinois do appreciate it. We have more breweries, and more people getting interested in it. We are not isolated here. Come to Illinois it’s like Pure Michigan or something from the ad. Come to Illinois and have a craft beer. The guild has done a great job pushing forward, and representing us on that.
ICBG – Are able to say what’s in store for Finch’s for the rest of 2012?
RG – I wouldn’t mind a nap, and a vacation.. No no (laughs). We are going to be doing a number of specialties. Starting to get that in there for the rest of the year. And continuing to expand. It looks like it’s going that route.