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 Ben Quick, who started as an assistant at the Steam Plant in 2007 when it was an offshoot of the former Coeur d’Alene Brewing, then returned as head brewer under the current ownership in December 2012.
Q: How did you get into brewing, and what were you doing before this?
A: I started homebrewing when I was 16 with the family, we made wine and mead and apple cider. We had an apple tree, and a cider press. We were just using what we had available on the farm (in Colville). Beer came a couple of years later, I think I was just out of high school when I started making beer. I pretty much fully transitioned to beer because it was a lot faster, and I like beer more. It accelerated from there. It was the curiosity of the process, different techniques, different styles, very much just a culinary interest that developed, and the science of it, too.
I was going to school, I got an art degree, I did construction. When I was 26, I got a job with the Coeur d’Alene Brewing Co. I worked there between 2007 and 2009, and got laid off in 2009 with a lot of other people during that time in the country. I was the sole brewer here, so that’s kind of how the foot got in this door. At that time, they had three locations (Coeur d’Alene, Spokane, Moscow) and two with breweries. I was the only brewer who lived in Spokane, so they had me take over the Steam Plant location. Rather than have a guy drive over from Idaho, I was 15 minutes away. So I worked half the time there, half the time here. It wasn’t full production here the way it is now, it was supplementary, so we’d brew five different kinds here of the 12, and then the rest of it was brought over in kegs.
I worked for the parks department (after the layoff), I worked for various different operations, and I kept up with my homebrewing. I went to school to get a master’s degree in occupational therapy, and then right when I was kind of getting to the halfway point with that, I got offered a job with No-Li, then two weeks later I got offered the head brewer job here at the Steam Plant.
Q: How would you describe your brewing philosophy?
A: I just try to go for quality. I typically am not satisfied – I was telling my assistant brewer, Kevin (Green), the other day that it’s kind of funny how good beer, you almost have no comment for, it’s like, eh. Because you’re waiting for something more exceptional all the time, how can we make it better? It’s like, at some point, isn’t a good beer good enough? But it’s a constant, how can we make it better, even though it doesn’t really need to be, or maybe can’t be. … You kind of need to be a little bit OCD to be a good brewer, because then you can go for more consistency and quality and you’re clean with everything. I don’t think I’m OCD, but some people might say I am (laughs). … I guess my only other philosophy would be, don’t brew anything that you wouldn’t drink yourself.
Q: What’s your favorite beer that you’ve made here?
A: My favorite is our Oktoberfest. That’s the one I look forward to brewing the most. It’s pretty rare that a small brewery gets to dabble in lagers (because of the extra time involved). And then maybe a close second would be the summer seasonal, the blood orange ale. I’m not typically a fruit beer person, but I was pretty happy with that one. It’s got the citrus, it’s pretty balanced. I’m not really a hophead like a lot of brewers are, I like wheat beers, I like balanced beers. A pale ale is probably my typical go-to, or I’ll go with a blonde ale, the lighter stuff. I like the big beers, too, but to me they’re more dessert wine-like, where I just want something to sip on. If I want to have more than one, I can’t go barleywine.
With the (new) Boiler 7, we want to keep that rolling as far as a one-off, experimental kind of IPA – we’ll probably call them different things, like Boiler 7, Boiler 8. We kind of went for the number being the alcohol level. The idea for the next one was maybe doing a session IPA for summer, we’ll just see how quickly this first one goes, and adjust from there.
Q: One thing I ask everybody is, what’s the first craft beer you remember trying?
A: Deschutes is probably the first one I latched on to, unless you count Henry Weinhard’s. Deschutes Mirror Pond pale ale was definitely, and I still think is one of the best beers out there. It’s just a solid beer. In the craft beer world, like I talked about earlier, we’re always trying to find that next, best beer, when there’s so many right in front of us that are plenty good. It’s funny how they just kind of get forgotten because it’s been there, done that, had that, what’s new? That’s the irony of it, we get all these complications and then we end up finding that, I think I just want to go back to two malts, one hop, and that’s it.
There’s a lot of breweries in Seattle that I’d like to try. One of the ones I’ve tried, they’re not big-time yet is Odin, I think they’re making some solid products. There’s probably more beer options out there than I have days left in my life.
Q: The other thing I always ask, if you could be drinking any beer right now, other that something you make yourself, what would it be?
A: I’d like to drink a Belgian strong blonde ale. If I was picking something out to drink right now, I’d probably go with that. I like a lot of different Belgian ales, but the wheats and the blondes, I don’t know if it’s just that they’re not very hoppy … I do hoppy beers, but if I pick a random beer as a go-to, like if this was what you had to drink for the rest of your life, I would probably go with a hefeweizen or a Belgian wit or a Belgian strong. Those monks spent a lot of time perfecting that craft.
Q: Besides beers, any there any other new things coming up that people should be looking out for?
A: One of the things we’ve been trying to do for quite a while is get back open for lunch. They have an idea and a plan that they’re working on right now, and it’s to get another taproom in our annex over here, the Seehorn Building. Part of the problem with the space here in the main portion of the building is that it’s a 270-plus seat restaurant, so for a lunch crowd, it’s kind of hard to staff because you could have a volleyball team come in one day, and two guys come in the next day. They talked about maybe just opening the downstairs bar, but there’s no bathroom down here. So the new plan is to put it over in the Seehorn Building, and it will have its own menu, more of a pub menu, gastropub, probably some flatbreads and stuff like that. Maybe we’ll put in a couple of extra taps over there so if we do have some beers that we don’t have enough room to put on over here, they can be exclusive to the taproom. They’re in the design phase right now, there’s no definitive date just yet.
A: I think it’s going to be a really good thing for Spokane, especially with us taking over what kind of has been the dark corner of downtown. It might actually clean up, the rents will go up and new people will move in. It will be good for not only cleaning up that corner of town, but being a destination for people who want craft beer. They can come to one area of the city and hit up seven breweries in a very short amount of time, walking and being safe about it. Because there are seven, I’ve actually thought having a poker run would be fun, walk around and get a poker card at each brewery and make the best hand and get a dollar off, or a T-shirt.
We’re not like some other businesses where it’s a competition between the restaurant here and the restaurant across the street, we’re more of a, hey, let’s get together and promote people coming to both of us. It’s something our industry is lucky to have, and I guess it’s because we have a common enemy (the macrobrewers). The trick is to make sure everyone’s brewing good beer. You want to be the best one, but everybody else should be at least good. (People) get a general opinion of craft beer, and they might judge a whole city based on a handful of breweries. I was down in Bend one time talking to some people at Deschutes and told them where I was from, and they said, eh, the beer’s OK there. You don’t want to be that city, you want to be the next Portland, in the sense of beer quality. So we’re working on that.