An Interview with Rob Walker, Head Brewer at Weatheroak Hill Brewery

I am pleased to be able to present the following interview I recently did with Rob Walker, the Head Brewer of Weatheroak Hill Brewery and ex Head Brewer at Black Tap Brewing Company. Rob is also a music producer, with a number of tracks released onto the market. He is an agnostic, libertarian and all round nice guy!

In this interview we cover:

  • How Rob got started in the brewing industry, transitioning from kitchen top brewing to 10bbl plant!
  • The differences between home brewing and commercial brewing.
  • His role at Weatheroak Hill Brewery.
  • Access to awesome hop varieties.
  • Lessons learned along the way.
  • Bad home brewing habits to avoid and eliminate.
  • The correlation between drum and base and brewing.

 Here’s the interview …

Tell me a bit about Rob Walker: Music Producer, Head Brewer, Agnostic, Libertarian.

Agnostic and Libertarian yes, but Music Producer and Head Brewer are probably open for debate! I’m a pretty average guy I guess. I listen to everything from Iron Chic to Jon Hopkins, Etherwood, Reuben and Craig Armstrong. I love beer, I love food, I love beer in food, I once tried food in beer but that wasn’t great. I still play Skyrim regularly and have done since it was released over 4 years ago, and I have no idea how to put cupboards up onto walls. I bought a new sound bar the other day and hugged it before I went to bed.

How did you get started in the brewing industry?

Like many, I’m part of a strange new generation of home brewer turned micro professional with not much in the way of formal training to speak of. 7 or 8 years ago I lugged a cider kit and fermenting bucket home on the bus, starting all grain brewing, and most importantly picked up some pretty good reading material – there’s an amazing wealth of knowledge available now for ridiculously cheap prices, it goes without saying – and years of home brewing and beer “research” eventually lead to an open door, brewing on what’s essentially a large home brew kit. I also started volunteering at Ambridge Brewery around that time, a 13 barrel plant, which taught me a lot about larger scale brewing.

Tell me a bit about your current role at Weatheroak Hill Brewery? What does a typical brewday look like?

I’m brewing two or three times a week right now. The core range is being tweaked a little, and I’m also starting up a few beer ranges in the realm of “craft” and some single hop pales too, as we’ve got access to some pretty awesome varieties. Then there’s casking, brewery maintenance (both kit and the building itself), cleaning (LOTS of cleaning), ordering, liaising with the pub, regular stock take, sales, building the brand, social networking, visiting other breweries – you can see why I like to sample a few of our products when I finish on a Friday.

It sounds like you have a very varied role at Weatheroak Hill Brewery. You mention having access to some pretty awesome hop varieties. Is this through contract arrangements with the suppliers? If so, does this really open the door to bypass crop shortage problems? What are your favourite varieties so far?

At Weatheroak Hill Brewery, I’m tweaking most of the recipes slightly to work with hops that have a couple of seasons crop readily available. Contracting forward is definitely essential for larger scale operations or breweries that sell beer out a lot, but we’re mostly focused on selling within the pub, so we can allow for some changes. I guess we’re adapting rather than coping like some breweries are. I’m a fan of Moteuka at the moment as it’s got an interesting mix of mint and fruit, but Cascade and me will always be secret lovers.

I want to get into recipe design a bit more. Our subscribers will find this useful. Tell me a bit creativity in design and how you go about designing a recipe from scratch.

For most of the core stuff I looked at established breweries and figured out what works well. These are our bread and butter pints that we sell all day every day – we now have our IPA, Gold (hoppy citrus) and Hill Top Best (traditional bitter) at Weatheroak Hill Brewery. They’re fairly simple traditional recipes, but I tend to work in percentages for the malt bill then adjust the quantity to match the gravity I want. We’ve also got a Single Hop range and a pump to do whatever I want with – the single hoppers focus mostly on heavy flame out additions with some dry hopping too, and a clean yeast and malt bill to let them sing – it’s always good to start at the aroma additions when creating a recipe, then work in order, making up the remaining ibus with your bittering addition.

You started out at my own brewery Black Tap Brewing Company. What was the top lesson you took away from that experience?

Rob WalkerHygiene. It’s quite easy to throw the word around, but I’m talking real hygiene procedures set in stone and never deviated from. One mistake that turned out to be pretty major was keeping the transfer cane in a beer cellar rather than a dry room when not in use – it would inevitably get dirty down there, this made it very hard to clean inside, and infection ensued. We had an added challenge that we had to avoid the standard chemicals like Caustic Soda due to safety concerns – the brew kit is behind the bar with full and part time bar staff working around it, and I don’t think Eyes Dissolving would be an overstatement for Caustic. It’s also very important to handle your yeast with the strictest procedures possible – it’s the only ingredient that won’t be sanitized in some form, and while home brewers have got it good with single use packets, even dry yeast needs to be properly cared for, rehydrated in vessels totally free from contamination, carefully added to the beer and checked for activity after 24 hours. I treated it like an afterthought in a very home-brewery way, and you just can’t approach it like that.

So, you brewed at home for a number of years before moving into the commercial arena. How different is the reality of brewing commercially (the dream job!) to what you expected?

It’s not so terrifying, although everything is bigger initially. The main eye opening difference was just how essential getting temperatures right really is on this scale – right now in a brewery that can drop to 2c overnight, I’m pitching yeast rehydrated at around 32c into 26c wort – unless you’ve got some pretty mean temperature control, you’re probably relying on fermentation for heat – although all breweries should have some form of cooling in place. Otherwise it was reasonably comfortable, particularly on the mash tun/boiler side – I love beer, I love designing beers and brewing is great fun. I’m improving my knowledge every day too.

What advice would you give to someone only just making the transition from home brew to commercial brewing (like you did) around yeast handling and storage? What are your basic processes for preparing yeast for the pitch? Going from ripping open a sachet of S04 to using bigger packs of dry yeast or even liquid yeast must require different approaches.

Starting out, use one dry yeast and work on getting that right – your gravities consistent, no off flavours and clear beer. If you’re unsure about contamination then just dump it – yeast isn’t expensive for the most part and it’s really bloody easy to ruin a whole batch with it. Play with them on a smaller scale too – a Nottingham starter froths up like crazy in half an hour, but Safale US-05 can take ages to get going.

What bad habits do transitioning home brewers need to eliminate or avoid?

It’s not so much a bad habit, but focus on the brew itself. When I started,  I used to dig my mash tun out after sparging and clean my copper straight after brewing – these are the times I should have been putting the feckin’ yeast plug in and checking my calculations. Take a coffee break and flick through some reference material, check your hop varieties, read over chemical data sheets – then act out the next part of your brew before you do it and see what tool you’re missing, because it’s probably not where you want it to be.

Weatheroak BreweryYou’re into drum and base music right? And you’ve had a number of tracks or EPs released. Tell me a bit about that. Tell me a bit about Strife II. Is he the evil side of your personality?

Hahah – don’t think I’m really capable of evil to be honest! I’ve been producing since I was around 12 and had some pretty cool releases over the years. I’ve been MrSuicideSheep and Liquicity YouTube channels and their labels too, with a few more releases scheduled soon on other labels. I once dreamed of being a rich and famous music producer, but I’ve been lucky enough to chase my other passion professionally. I spend a lot more time playing instruments and listening to music than actually producing now, but I’ll always do it and always love it.

Where can people hear your tracks? What name are you currently going by?

I’ve been Strife II for some time – you can hear my music here.

So, you’re obviously a creative guy. Do you think that’s something you can learn? Or do you think that’s something that’s in-built and you just need to find outlets to express it? Such as the music and the brewing.

Everybody is creative. I don’t trust people who don’t appreciate and seek out creative arts, to be honest – I once met somebody who said they had no taste in music whatsoever and didn’t really listen to it. What the fuck? Hahah. Okay, practically everybody is creative. I think you can have all the creativity in the world, but if you lack drive, you won’t be able to do much with it – a pinhead of creativity acted upon is better than an island of creativity left alone. The ideas will come, and you’ll need to decide when to implement them.

“A pinhead of creativity acted upon is better than an island of creativity left alone” is that a quote from somewhere? If so, who?

Blush – just me. But it’s true, without the drive you’ll get nowhere.

What hope is there for the aspiring brewer who lacks the creative element?

Plenty. I think there’s a lot of pressure on brewers to be creative at the moment, but that doesn’t mean it’s necessary to brew good beer – bonkers ideas can end up in the drain or not selling, and simple beers brewed right are usually fantastic. If I were to brew a Pilsner Lager, I’d probably look at doing it as traditionally and as technically accurate as possible, track down some recipes and mash schedules – rather than get too creative with the ingredients and process.

How important is creativity in beer design?

Creativity in brewing is usually just a spark. I’m sure the first Granola Stout was created by a brewer over a quick breakfast – I think knowing whether or not you should pursue it is where the real art comes in. Artisan beers can really work if you can think like a drinker rather than a brewer. Should you really brew a Naga Chilli Lager (I’ve got dibs on Naga Lager, before you ask) – probably not. Would that Tayberry Wit work? Yeah, there’s a good chance. I think everybody is capable of coming up with a good idea and trying new things, and brewing can be a great outlet for it.

What’s the most creative beer recipe you’ve produced so far?

I brewed a pineapple and mango saison once which I felt was pretty bad ass.

Are there any habits or attitudes you’ve been able to take from the music production thing and apply in the brewing arena? I’m keen to understand whether there is any correlation between the creative processes you apply in developing your music and those you use when you’re creating a perfect beer recipe!

Organization. It’s essential in music production, and it’s essential in brewing. In the same way I keep my project folders and samples organized, I keep my malts, hops and yeast organized, and that makes your workflow simple and relaxed – any brewer will tell you that a chilled out brew day is a good day. Always take time to enjoy your end product too – listen to your music in the car, play the songs on your instrument you know well and love, and drink the beer you made.

What advice would you give to our subscribers who share your dream of transitioning from home brewing to the commercial arena, either by setting up on their own or by working with an established brewery like you have?

In terms of getting employed, just get yourself out there. Check SIBA regularly and put CVs in with local breweries – brewers are odd buggers at the best of times (ask anyone and they’ll tell you the same), and you just don’t know when a brewery will require a little extra help. Don’t be afraid to pay your dues too – you might be working for peanuts for a while, but with a good reference and some commercial experience you’ll walk into an assistant’s job.

If you had to recommend one book or tool related to brewing, what would it be?

I learned a lot from Designing Great Beers by Ray Daniels. It’s reasonably extensive and will teach you a lot about creating great recipes – I have the Brewing Elements series on hand at all times too, they’re great for referencing.

You’re a pretty chilled out guy! What’s your secret?

I’ve heard it all of my life – my maths teacher told me I was too relaxed for my own good. I’m mistaken for a stoner all the time. I’m just quietly ambitious – it’s not to be taken for laziness, I’ve worked 6 days a week for the last 8 months to chase this dream and I’m now pushing myself into new weird and wonderful places. Also, beer.

And lastly, are there any role models or people who inspire you in the brewing industry? 

I have a few, and beer wise I would love to match the quality of beers being put out by Byatt’s Brewery. They brew traditional beers that taste absolutely incredible, definitely masters of their craft. I’ve got a lot of respect for Scott who runs Fixed Wheel too – he’s just full of positivity and drive – how many brewers go to the gym before brewing a batch of beer? I don’t think I’ve ever complained about having to wait for the sun to come up to go for my morning jog while holidaying in Mexico.

Further reads, links and other awesome shit:

Check out Weatheroak Hill Brewery here.

Check out Rob’s music here.

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Rob Walker: Head Brewer at Weatheroak Hill Brewery, on Creativity in Beer Design and Brewing Commercially!

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