Sunday, May 24, 2009

In the Shade with Iron Hill's Chris Lapierre

Iron Hill’s Chris Lapierre will notch a dozen years as a pro brewer this summer, around the time the restaurant and brewery opens its Maple Shade location with him at the helm as brewmaster.

Chris was cool enough to spare time from his schedule and field some questions, via email, about his well-seasoned chops as a brewer. He also reveals an appreciation for lager beers and fondness for a dessert of stout and chocolate cake.

Here's the interview:

Q: How long have you been a professional brewer, and what route did you take to that career path?

A: I've been getting paid to brew since July of 1997. I had homebrewed for about two years before becoming the assistant brewer at the original Dock Street in Philadelphia. The next brewery I worked for, Harpoon in Boston, sent me to Siebel’s concise course in brewing in 2000. Two years ago, Iron Hill split the cost of the American Brewers Guild’s six-month correspondence course with me. I think it’s important to work in a brewery before spending the time and money on school. You need to make sure it’s for you first and get a realistic picture of the work. Also, I think the science and theory stick better if you can visualize the physical aspects in your head while sitting in a classroom, so that’s how I did it.

As far as my skill set goes, I’d say my job is a lot like that of a chef. Not as far as food knowledge and multitasking skills go, but in terms of balancing social and hands-on skills in the same job. I love crafting a tangible product, something you can point at and say, “I made that.” I also love the social aspect of the job. I like teaching people about beer, converting wine drinkers and watery beer drinkers to craft beer, getting people excited about beer. Not too many jobs, including most brewing jobs, incorporate both.

Q: If you weren’t brewing beer, what would you be doing?
A: I’m an avid cyclist. I ride my bike to work when I can. From home to Iron Hill West Chester is 45 miles where I worked as head brewer until now. Maple Shade will be 23 miles from home, a shorter commute! I founded the West Chester Cycling Club, and I’m a member of it and the Bike Club of Philadelphia. So if I had to pick another career, I’d love to guide bicycle tours. Maybe even bike tours with a gastronomic focus.

Q: What are your favorite style(s) to brew and what is it about them you like?
A: In competitions, I’ve been most successful with dry, yeast-driven Belgians, and I really enjoy drinking those beers. But I think the beers I take the most pride in are clean and balanced lagers. They’re often overlooked in a world that’s enamored with “extreme” beers. But they require a lot more skill to get them to taste right than beers loaded with hops, dark malts or booze.

Q: Similar question, favorite style(s) to drink and what is it you enjoy about them?
A: That’s a bit like asking a conductor what his favorite song is. It really depends. It depends on what the weather is like, or what I’m eating or whether I’m drinking just one or several, etc. But, if you ask me right now, this minute, I’m craving either a crisp German pils or a balanced pale ale.

Q: What's your favorite beer and food pairing?
A: Somehow that’s easier for me ... The classic saison and goat cheese is one. But chocolate cake and Russian stout probably wins it for me. I can’t think of a better way to finish a great meal.

Q: How important is it to interact with patrons, and how do you see yourself getting reaction from the folks who come in for a beer?
A: Like I mentioned earlier, mingling and getting to know our customers is a big part of my job. It's something the owners at Iron Hill have always been committed to when it comes to their product. Iron Hill wouldn’t hire a brewer that wasn’t a people person, even if they made the best beer in the world. Customer reaction is always very important as well. I’ve been asked what sort of seasonals I’ll be brewing in Maple Shade, and my answer has been that a lot of it will depend on what our guests want me to brew.

Q: Iron Hill will be the first new brewery in New Jersey in quite some time, and there’s a fair amount of anticipation on the part of beer enthusiasts. Are you folks feeling that as well?
A: Absolutely. I talk to lots of people from New Jersey at beer bars and festivals who have all expressed excitement, and I’ve also been following BeerAdvocate and people are definitely looking forward to our opening.

Q: What do you think beer drinkers in New Jersey will be saying about Iron Hill in the Garden State.
A: I think they’ll be really glad they don’t have to cross a bridge to drink a variety of micros. I live in Philly and a lot of people I meet in some of the city’s best beer bars are from New Jersey who come into town just to drink beer. New Jersey has come a long way as far as beer goes, but it still needs a few more places that focus on craft beer to be on the level with Philadelphia and its suburbs. We’re hoping to get that ball rolling.