This is one in an occasional series of 7 Sips interviews, where we sit down for a pint and seven questions with someone active in the local craft beer community. Today we catch up with Zach Shaw, who began his brewing career in Northern California in the early 1990s, including co-ownership of Pacific Hop Exchange in Novato from 1992 through 1996. After moving to Spokane, he became a regular customer at Bennidito’s Pizza on the South Hill and teamed with owner Chris Bennett to launch the new Bennidito’s Brewpub, which opened on East Sprague last month.
Q: So how are things going so far? You’ve been making a lot of beer.
A: Much more than I thought we would. We started in the slow time of year, (but) everything’s been just very steady. Essentially we’ve done 100 barrels in a month and four days. I did not expect that at all, so thank you very much, Spokane! If we keep on this track we’ll be doing 1,200 barrels the first year. I would have been absolutely satisfied with 650 to 700 – even 500, I would have been fine with. Obviously we’ve got the two stores, so that’s a big benefit. I’m doing half-batches now, because we own 72 kegs, and when you’re getting yields of 17 to 20 kegs per (full) batch, to keep a few more handles on (of different styles) you’ve got to ration. So I do half-batches and spread everything around a little bit. We’re shopping for about 20 more kegs, if we get those in that will be good. I could use probably 30 more, 40 more, but you’ve got to do this out of cash flow. And it’s still going to be maybe October-December before I get another fermenter, which I desperately need. The backlog is the fermentation, and then you’ve got to wait for kegs to put it in.
Q: What’s your favorite? What are you most proud of that you’ve done here?
A: The one in my hand (Old Bill dry Irish stout). I can get this a little bit closer (to Beamish), I think, but it’s pretty good.
Q: You started brewing commercially back in the 1990s. A lot has obviously changed since then – what do you think are the biggest differences between then and now?
A: The biggest thing is the (long-term) hop contract nonsense. That’s a completely different world. They charge way too much for their product, and they’re gouging the market. They hold the brewing industry hostage. … When we started, everything was new (in terms of equipment). There was no used stuff, there wasn’t even any new stuff. Everything was being built, so everything was very expensive. And the permitting process – nobody knew what to do with these things. Banks had no clue what it was, they thought it was a restaurant. The failure rate of brewpubs for a very long time was 1 percent, so you really had to majorly screw up in a brewpub for it to fail, compared to a restaurant, they fail all the time. Banks didn’t quite get that concept, so getting money then was hard. Getting money now is a little easier, so that’s changed. (And) in a lot of ways, the market is a lot better, because people are far more educated now about the product. You have a much better consumer, they know what they’re looking at, and they enjoy it. You don’t have to filter as much, and I don’t filter. I think filtering strips out about 30 percent of your flavor profile. So if you’re going to filter, you have to build a bigger beer.
Q: You’ve talked before about how brewers have gotten so much into the higher-gravity beers, and hoppier beers, and how things have taken off more in that direction, right?
A: That kind of started as a shelf space thing, a marketing ploy just to get names out, to make something different. A lot of breweries started trying to one-up each other – how many hops can we get in this? And to get all those hops in there, you’ve got to have this monster that makes a whole lot of alcohol, to support that. Yeah, I’ve got 100 IBUs, and it’s 8 percent, because you have to have that type of malt structure to support that type of hop presence. And that’s where a lot of my old compatriots, they’re locked into that, they have to kind of sustain that because that’s a market share for them. But at some point people need a way out of that. That’s all great beer, but you can have one, maybe two if you’re at home. If you’re at home, knock yourself out – which you will do, in about 45 minutes. I think for the general public now, bring it down a notch. Try to get the big hop in there, but keep the alcohol down to a manageable level. Get a nicer nose, more mouthfeel out of the hops, keep it moderated.
Q: You also worked in the wine industry for many years, with a company that fixed flawed wines. What did you take away from that experience that has affected you as a brewer?
A: A lot of technology that I had access to, and can still probably acquire in time. Little tweaking things, especially if we ever get into the distillation side. A few different ideas for hopping, seeing if I can do some breaking down of structures and compounds using some of the technology that we had, getting it into solution a little more effectively and using less of it. And it’s simply because of this hop contract nonsense. I’m not even sure if these techniques will work, the chemistry suggests that it might work, so I want to try it on a small scale and see what happens.
Q: If you could be drinking any beer right now, other than one you make yourself, what would it be?
A: I love (Georgetown’s) Lucille and Bale Breaker (Topcutter IPA), for the hop side – there’s several in the hop category, those two just pop into my head. There are many great IPAs. But if I could find a Beamish, that’s what I would drink. They don’t even bring it here anymore. Some damn Dutch outfit bought them (Heineken), and now it’s just locally in Ireland, so I have to have my cousin send it over. I grew up on stout, Guinness and Beamish.
Q: What are your goals here? Where do you see things in a year, or maybe five years?
A: There’s a quirk in the Washington liquor laws that I cannot have all the tap handles in there (for house beers), because this is a beer and wine license, so one quarter of what we sell has to be somebody else. I think we can do that with bottles (from other breweries), but we’d still have a couple of guest beers (on tap), there’s a lot of great beer out there and it’s all welcome. I’m very happy to take something off and put somebody else on. That’s the deal, just build the camaraderie in the industry. Beer is great food, and it’s great comradeship. That’s what needs to be built here, the Ale Trail thing, this really needs to be solidified. We need to start being a brewers’ union, and I’d like to get that going in five years, really making something happen in the state of Washington.