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7 Sips With … Craig Deitz, Big Barn

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 Craig Deitz of Big Barn Brewing on Green Bluff. He left his teaching career at Mead High School this fall to focus on the brewery, where he’s beginning to bottle his beers, and his Bodacious Berries Fruits and Brews farm.

Q: You just retired from teaching after 32 years to go full-time with the brewery. What prompted that?

A: We were pretty sure we were going that way, but the bottling was kind of an extra little nudge. My brother-in-law built me a four-head bottler and we’re looking this winter to move into that new marketing arena. We’re kind of excited about our labels – they play off of the farm, everything from our dog (Black Dog Stout) to sunflowers with our Mead Honey Lager and wheat fields for the Peone Wheat. When the bottler was built, we put 22-ouncers together and they were carbonated and they tasted good, and we were like, all right, we’re going to make it. But like any profession, you step away from something you’ve done for a long time and it’s a little scary. My wife, Jane, was great – she was like, you know, you need to do this. We decided if this really was to all fall apart, we would just move on, it would just be that it wasn’t meant to be. I don’t think that’s going to happen – we’re pretty blessed with the land we have and so forth, and with (partner) Brad (Paulson)’s help on the buildings, the fact we’ve done so much of it with volunteer help, we were affordable in what we’ve done, we’ve self-financed, we haven’t leveraged ourselves.

Q: How many styles have you been bottling?

A: We have the Dunn Day IPA, we have the honey lager and we have the Black Dog Stout, and we’ve got the Golden Pumpkin approved (for next year). We have the labels for the other ones all ready (to submit for approval). So far we have only sold bottles at two markets – we’ve sold them at Fairwood Market, when we were doing the farmers market there, and we’ve sold them at Perry Street. We’ve been selling bottles here, though I don’t even have any out right now. So we are just on the very cusp of breaking into that market. Probably one of our big first steps will be, this winter I want to make some Christmas packages where you might have four bottles and a couple of glasses, and we could package it up where it could be a gift. It could be kind of fun, I’ve got a spiced Belgian which I think would be really awesome in a bottle, let it sit for a while and give it a wax dip.

Q: Your taproom building isn’t insulated, but you’re going to be open again this winter in the big barn (where the brewery is located), right?

A: Last year was the first year we did the winter, and it worked out OK. We shut down until Thanksgiving weekend (after the farm season ended in October). This year’s a little different, we’re going to go ahead and close for a week, then we’ll start back up the weekend of Nov. 13 and we’ll go Friday-Saturday-Sunday. Half the time on weekends we’re down here working anyway. We do Christmas trees, so that will run us through the first of the year, and we’ll do the (NFL) playoffs, we had a fun time with that last year – hopefully the Seahawks will step it up again. We’ve got this fireplace, and I’ve got a fire pit on the back side. People just love getting out in the country, and in the winter if there’s some snow on the ground, you can sit out there with some picnic chairs and you’ve got a nice bonfire going and you can have a little beer to sip on, and you’re away from town, what a great venue, huh? 

Q: One question I ask everybody is, what’s the first craft beer you remember trying?

A: When I was homebrewing, I look back in my homebrew notes and I was really OCD about trying to match up Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. They had that, and they had their Celebration, and I was really into Sierra Nevada for a while. In the old days, as a runner, and a single-income teacher, basically when I drank beer I was looking for something cold to drink after a long run. We didn’t really drink a lot of beer, but if I got back from a hot run in the summer and I wanted something cold, I’d drink something cheap. We went through the Miller stage, we went through the Rainier stage, we went through Keystone, and I think probably the first place where I started diverging a little bit – and again, this wasn’t craft beer, but it probably was a little bit of a change from the norm – was Dos Equis dark and Negra Modelo. Those were the beginnings of my movement from the classic pilsner lager to something a little more crafty.

Q: Do you have any new beer styles coming up?

A: Right now, no. Our main goal is to hone in our mainstay beers. I want to continue to do seasonal stuff, we want to do a peach, we wanted to do a cherry lambic, I did a small-scale batch that was real well-received of a honey sage, and I can grow a culinary sage. I think most of our seasonals probably will be a single batch, so I’m not tying up my tanks for the mainstays. As our demand goes up, we may pick up another fermenter to mainly run my lager, because that’s a delay on tanks (with the extra fermentation time). I think we’ve probably got enough equipment to double one more time. From last year to this year we’re double (to around 350 barrels produced), I think we could max out on our (seven-barrel) system around 700, and then at that point in time we have to decide is 700 where we want to stay and just be comfortable with that. Otherwise you’ve got to add a lot of equipment. So it would be a huge step, maybe a couple of years down the road.

Q: Where would you like to see Big Barn in a year or two?

A: I’d like to see us have a broader exposure here in the greater Spokane area. We’re self-distributing (kegs), off and on we’ve probably been in 60 places, everything from out in Rockford at little Fredneck’s, who takes one beer every three months, to Growler Guys north, which has just been excellent for us. I’ve got a few other places on the North Side that pretty much keep my beer on all the time, and the turnover’s pretty good. … I’d like to get to the point where people feel really good about the consistency of our beer. If you think about Deschutes, what beer are you going to think of? Black Butte Porter. And so I definitely want us to be noted for, you think of Big Barn Brewing, it’s their Dunn Day IPA, or their honey lager, or their Mountain Smoke Porter. If we can get three or four, that would be great, but sometimes it only takes one.

Q: The final thing I ask people is, what question should I have asked you that I didn’t?

A: Whatever moved you to be so crazy as to do this? (laughs) I kid with a lot of these young guys that are starting these breweries, like, man, how do you have the guts to do this, whose wallet are you feeding off? I some ways, I think I would like to have started earlier, but then I look at it like, you should never regret what you do in life. I coached (track and cross country) for 28 years, I got to have all my kids in class, I coached my three boys on my teams, they all ran varsity for me. I ended up using up two hips, I ran since I was 14 years old, I can’t tell you how many marathons I did, and if I had known I was going to end up with hip replacements because I ran when I was younger, would I have not run? I wouldn’t have wanted to know that, because all those things I did along the way I thoroughly enjoyed. Right now, there’s some days in here when I’m just working my butt off, it’s hard physical labor. Down the road, I look forward to having some of that pass over to maybe my son. The demands of this, the way we’re doing it, I couldn’t do it forever, but right now I’m still healthy enough to do it for a while longer. We call it Club Big Barn – who needs to go lift?