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Features Interviews Iron Hops

Iron Hops: An Interview with Joel Miller – Head Brewer at Heavenly Goat Brewing Co.

It only seems fitting that for our last installment of Iron Hops for 2017–and our last post of 2017, period–we turn our attention back to Heavenly Goat Brewing Co. I’ve made reference more than once in various places (mostly my Instagram, but also on our Facebook page in one of our Second Anniversary Giveaway posts) that I consider the Goat to be my IMV office. Most people probably think I’m joking when I say that, but there’s legitimately about a 70/30 chance that anything I’ve done for the site since like July was at least partly written or edited at my usual spot at the bar. Clearly, the “Wastrel music writer” part of my IG bio isn’t just hyperbole…

I wouldn’t do so much of my writing there, however, if the beer wasn’t so uniformly fucking fantastic. Not everything on their tap tower might be to my taste (not really a fan of Helles Lagers, for example), but I’ve tried pretty much every beer they’ve had on tap including the special firkin releases, and there’s not a single one I would call poorly crafted or undrinkable. Simply put: owner/head brewer Joel Miller knows his shit, and under his guidance Heavenly Goat well on its way to becoming one of the elite breweries not just in Indiana, but in all of the Midwest.

After trying for several months to get our schedules to line up, I was finally able to sit down with Joel a couple of weeks ago and talk to him about his brewing background, philosophy, and his long-term(ish) plans for Heavenly Goat. Joel’s an intelligent, articulate guy with a clear passion for brewing, so I think it makes for an interesting read and the perfect way to close out the year.

Iron Hops will be taking a break to observe #DryJanuary (and give my middle-aged liver a much needed respite), so I’ll see you again in February with more beer reviews and interviews. Until then, enjoy my conversation with Joel Miller.

Indy Metal Vault: First of all, thank you – glad we’re finally doing this. I know it’s been a little while, but congrats on the third place finishes in the Indiana Brewers Cup for your Purveyor ESB and The Greys APA.

Joel Miller: Thank you.

IMV: For those readers who aren’t familiar, what is the Indiana Brewers Cup?

JM: It’s a beer competition for professional brewers. It’s not open to just Indiana breweries, but they really take entries from all over the world. I don’t remember off the top of my head how many entries there were, but there were several hundred breweries that participated. I know that there were over a thousand different beers submitted.

IMV: Oh, really? So it’s a smaller scale thing, like a smaller scale version of the Great American Beer Fest and not just an Indiana-based thing?

JM: Right.

IMV: Okay. That’s more or less what I was wondering about. So let’s just start at the beginning – when did you catch the brewing bug? I’m going to assume that you were a home brewer first, right?

JM: Yeah, home brewing first. I started that when I was 21, shortly after discovering craft beer. I picked up my first craft beer two months after I turned 21. It was a Goose Island Nut Brown Ale, and I remember I like poured it out in my glass and it was just like the color and how it smelled and I was like “oh, this is going to be badass.” And I took a drink of it and just all the flavors – it blew my mind, because all I was drinking before that was like Bud Light. It was shit beer. So it was amazing how they were able to get all those flavors in there. And I’m a DIY kind of guy with a thirst for knowledge, so I was like how did they do this? So then I started researching how did they brew beer and it was like you can do it at home, and I was like “okay, I drink a lot, so let’s brew it.” Why not? Let’s do the other part. And the first beer I did was awful – it wasn’t even drinkable. The second beer I did was really good. And then the next ten beers were just like awful, but I stuck with it and continued to develop my techniques and learn as much as I could. I ended up going to Seibel Institute three or four years later – four years later, after I started home brewing…

IMV: And that was going to be my next question. So then how did you get from home brewing to…Germany, right?

JM: Right, part of my course was in Germany. I was in college, wasn’t really digging it. I was in marketing – I was either going to change schools and go to Western in Kalamazoo or go to Seibel. And I was on a waiting list at Seibel, and I was waiting to transfer over to Western – so I’m on a waiting list for several months, and within days of getting my acceptance letter and like “your transfer is all good,” I also got an email from Seibel saying that several people on the waiting list dropped off and do you want to join? And I was like “yeah.” So that was the big course. That was like a sixteen-week course or something like that. Half of it was in Chicago, a lot of classroom-based lecture and whatnot from raw materials all the way through packaging beer. And then we flew over to Germany, over to Doemens Academy, which is just outside of Munich, and spent my other half there actually brewing and also touring a bunch of breweries, seeing some of the bigger breweries make their beer over there. It was a great learning experience, a lot of really great instructors are a part of that school.

IMV: So do they still have all of those brewing laws on the books in Germany? Or have those gone…because there used to be all of those laws where if you’re going to call it a doppelbock then it must be XYZ and use like…they’re very strict about classification, much more than I think we are.

JM: Yeah…they’ve got laws…so you bring up doppebock, that has to start at a certain gravity for it to be a doppelbock over there. The German Purity Law, the famous one…

IMV: That’s what I was thinking of.

JM: That’s changed over time. They’ve modified that to suit brewers. It’s still kind of restrictive in what they can do. Some of the rules are really silly, but it’s their law, it’s their claim to fame. If you talk to brewers over there, they hate the restrictions but they like…I don’t know, I guess they like that all their labels get this little stamp on it that has this Purity Law seal of approval.

IMV: And I imagine it makes the styles a little bit more consistent than they are over here, where if you just like pick up an IPA, who knows what it’s going to taste like.

JM: It does box them in a little bit in what they can produce, for sure.

Front door, or work of art?

IMV: How much of your brewing philosophy was shaped by that time in Germany? I know that it’s still early, but from what I’ve observed from what’s on your tap tower, you seem to brew very true to style. And you’ve got a nice mix of the more expected beer styles that your inexperienced craft beer drinker and your Midwest drinkers—like you’ve got your porters and you’ve got your stouts and your IPAs for the Midwest crowd—but I had never seen a Schwarzbier on tap before at a craft brewery in the area, or a Berliner Weisse, and I’ve very rarely seen an ESB. I’m curious as to why you chose to go with that diverse set right out of the gate.

JM: So my brewing philosophy…what I like to brew wasn’t shaped by going to Seibel. It was actually really before that. I had gone to Europe a few times before that, and going over there and tasting a beer that you can get here versus what it tastes like over there – so like Fuller’s ESB, or their London Pride. Drinking a London Pride here on the shelf, it’s probably sat there for who knows…up to a year? It sat on a boat on its way over here for three months, it went through customs, through exporting in their country…it’s a really old beer by the time it gets here and tastes nothing like what you get at Fuller’s Brewery. I was kind of mind blowing going over there and tasting some of these beers that I had written off and didn’t think were very good, and then like “oh shit, these are really good – these cask ales are just absolutely delicious.” And there was really nothing – and this is going back like seven years ago, eight years ago when I went over there – nobody was doing cask beer. Here, nobody was really doing cask beer, nobody was really venturing into European styles. Everybody was still really heavy on pale ales at that point. So I wanted to create this brewery that brought some of that over here, some of that tradition, that philosophy, those styles, those flavors and give people on this side of the pond a fresh example.

IMV: Do you think you’re going to stick with those true to style beers? Or do you see yourself ever adding hybrid styles like Belgian IPAs or spiced beers or fruit beers? Or would you rather be known for doing the traditional styles and doing them very well?

JM: Both, really. I mean, we’re working on some hybrid styles ourselves.

IMV: I’ve heard rumors of an India Pale Lager…

JM: Yeah, we’ve got an IPL coming on pretty soon here, in the next few weeks. We also have in the works…it’s kind of rough now, but we’re trying to pick what flavors we want out of the beer, but it’s basically a New England IPA mixed up with a witbier – the hops of a New England IPA but spiced like a wit, so you’ll have your coriander, you’ll have some orange peel in there.

IMV: That sounds interesting. I’ve noticed that instead of using the more familiar IBU scale, you rate your beers according to something called a Hop Scale. I have attempted to research this Hop Scale and I have found absolutely nothing about it. So can you explain – is this something you yourself dreamed up? Where did this come from and how does it differ from the IBUs?

JM: No, I kind of ripped off…there’s a scale in England, and the name escapes me [ed. note: it’s called the Cyclops Scale] but instead of going by IBUs it goes off of like sight, smell, and taste. So like, what does the beer look like, what does it smell like, what does it taste like – and it’s a way to get new beer drinkers in to try beers. So instead of being like…because nobody knows what an IBU is, it’s not…across your palate it’s not consistent because the beer can be really sweet and heavy on IBUs but that doesn’t translate over to bitterness to you. So the IBU scale means nothing – that’s for brewers.

IMV: And that makes a lot of sense, because something like [Founder’s Triple IPA] Devil Dancer is off the scale in terms of IBUs, but that tastes more malty to me than anything else.

JM: Right. So it’s just a scale of how many alpha acids—alpha acids you get from hops, the alpha acids are what makes beer bitter—so it’s just how many grams per liter of alpha acid you have. But when you drink it, that doesn’t translate to more or less bitter. Breweries just use that for whatever reason, I don’t know why or how it started off, but it’s really only for brewers to make consistent beer from batch to batch.

IMV: So then can you explain the Hop Scale?

JM: The Hop Scale is just the intensity, the flavor intensity brought on by the hops. So it’s not just bitterness, it’s not just flavor, it’s not just aroma – it’s all of those together.

IMV: So looking at your beer menu, for everything…

JM: It is going to change, though, because people find it confusing, and we’re going to go with something a little different, but it still has the same idea that allows them to select the beer that best suits their taste at that particular time.

IMV: Because you do it for yeast and malts too, right? It’s like a 1-5…

JM: Right, because we use different yeasts – some yeasts have a huge flavor impact, such as Saison yeast, such as some wild yeasts, such as bacteria that has a huge flavor impact. Lager yeast, not so much. So again, if you want something…if you want a Belgian and you want something with a lot of yeast character, then you would select one of our Belgian-style beers.

IMV: So 5 being more of an impact on the…

JM: Yeah.

IMV: Alright. So…it seems that craft brewing goes through certain cycles. For a long time, everybody brewed massive IPAs, and now barrel-aging everything is all the rage. Founders even barrel-aged a malt liquor that I didn’t try – I didn’t see any way that could possibly be any good. Any thoughts on what the next cycle in craft brewing might be? I’m seeing a lot of sours and fruit beers on the shelves lately. And then there’s the whole New England IPA thing.

JM: I think the trend will continue to be more palatable beers, but still highly flavorful. That’s where the New England IPA comes in, that’s where your fruited IPAs come in. I wouldn’t be surprised if you saw stouts start going the same way, maybe you’ll see more stouts cutting roast and bitterness as well. I think that’s more the trend. I think you’ll always have the barrel-aged or sours. I’m not sure how much those will take off. I see some success with the Berliner Weisse that some breweries have with it, especially fruited Berliner Weisse, but again you’re trying to get that more palatable kind of beer. Like when we add our [fruit] reduction to our Berliner Weisse here – it cuts that sour, it brings…you get more flavor out of it, and it’s just easier drinking.

IMV: So then do you…

JM: I think the extreme beers of yesteryear, I think that’s toning down. Just being like the “everything but the kitchen sink” kind of beers, the palate wreckers, I don’t think there’s a huge demand for those.

Bad Reputation (Belgian Dark Strong)

IMV: Do you think that’s what driving it then? Just a desire to reach as many different drinkers as possible at this point instead of…because everybody talks about the craft beer bubble and “oh, there are way too many craft breweries and they’re going to start closing down unless…” kind of effect. I’ve got a friend whose son is a brewer out in Seattle, and they’re starting to see some…like, the breweries aren’t completely disappearing, but they’re closing down tap rooms and consolidating and stuff like that. So the bubble has started to “burst” out there…so do you think that it’s more of like “meeting the masses where they are” instead of trying to bring the masses to you?

JM: Yeah, absolutely. Breweries need to continue to grow just like any other business, and we’re not adding as many craft drinkers at the same rate we were years ago. So if we’re going to continue to grow then we need to continue to seek out customers that have a different palate than what your regular base may have to continue to grow. And people’s palates change, too. I know people that would, you know…I’ll say Smuttynose Finestkind, great IPA – diehard Finestkinds, but now that’s too bitter and want a New England. So there’s also that, too. They’ll just change their taste as well.

IMV: Or they’ll burn themselves out on something because they’ve had it for too long.

JM: Yeah.

IMV: I can see that. So you’ve been open for less than a year, right?

JM: Yeah, we’re just over eight months now.

IMV: Okay. So what were some of the biggest surprises you encountered in trying to get Heavenly Goat up and running? Is there anything you know now that you wish someone had told you before you tried to open your own shop?

JM: Oh man, there’s…the surprises were a lot of maintenance issues right off the bat that we weren’t expecting. Like our opening, our grand opening, we had to shut down 30 minutes into it because the plumbing underneath, that all backed up…and it started to back up into the bathrooms, and we shut everything down. Our plumbing was wrecked underneath the concrete, and we hadn’t had that many people in here before and the plumbing wasn’t working right. And that was the test of the plumbing.

IMV: Surprise!

JM: Surprise! So we kicked everyone out for the first half of the day while we fixed that, had Roto-Rooter come out, and then there was a quite lengthy fix to that. That was a surprise you just can’t plan for. Other surprises…you don’t know how people are really going to react to your menu once they come in and really eat all the food, so trying to please as many people as you can and juggling the menu around – we’re working on a menu rewrite right now. I didn’t think we’d have to rewrite a food menu this early, so that was pretty surprising.

Their signature poutine.

IMV: This is a weird area, I think. Granger is just kind of weird.

JM: It’s a weird area, yeah…and no at the same time. It’s upper class, but people are really laid back. They have a lot of money, but they’re not the type of people overall that are big into going out and spending a ton of money. They’re Midwesterners too, just like everybody else, they just happen to earn a higher income overall. So we want a more approachable food menu.

IMV: Right. So I don’t think that you see the foodies around here that you do when you go up to some of the Michigan breweries. You know, like a lot of those are also…maybe “foodie” is not the right word, but they’re basically gatropubs, too.

JM: Yeah, the menu has to be flavorful, and it has to be high quality food. But there’s a limit to that. It still needs to be really approachable, and what we’ve got coming down the line we’re really excited about and I think everyone’s going to like it.

IMV: Was this the first big brewing setup like this that you put together on your own?

JM: Yeah. So I put this together pretty much on my own. I used advice from colleagues, suppliers were a big help, and really what I learned through Seibel. I just put it together off of that.

IMV: What’s your capacity, if you don’t mind my asking?

JM: Our batch size is a little bit over twelve hectoliters, so a bit more than ten barrels. Our yearly capacity here, we can do up to 700 barrels.

IMV: That’s a pretty decent amount. Do you see yourself ever distributing across the state, or bottling any of that?

JM: Well, we’ve been talking about bottling some of our barrel-aged sour beers and Saisons, bottle conditioning those. We’ve got four barrels going right now – we’ve got a wine barrel, bourbon barrel, gin barrel, and a rum barrel aging some beer right now. I’m thinking about as we expand that barrel program, putting some of that beer in some larger quantity bottles.

IMV: Like bombers?

JM: Like cages, bombers, that sort of thing. As far as trying to play the six-pack game, I don’t really feel like that’s us. If you’re going to go for that, you really need to invest and go for that. You need to set your brewery up to be able to get beer on the shelf at that nice, low price that Joe Six-Pack can come in on a Friday and get his flavorful craft beer and go home and drink away.

IMV: So you mentioned earlier something about talking to colleagues. So there are what, four or five craft breweries in the area-ish? There’s Bare Hands, there’s Evil Czech, there’s Crooked Ewe, there’s Goshen, there’s Brew Works…

JM: Yeah, Brew Works…um, I know Chris over at Wedgewood in Middlebury, he’s a super cool dude. I know some of the guys over at Burn ‘Em.

IMV: I forgot about Burn ‘Em.

JM: And then our whole network of alumni from Seibel.

IMV: So in terms of the area brewers, do you guys talk to each other a lot? Is there some sort of camaraderie, or is it more competition, or…

JM: There is a little bit here and there as far as camaraderie, but the area’s kind of weird as far as breweries go. Regarding the rest of the country, we’re not as close-knit as Grand Rapids or places like that, the bigger cities like Portland, Oregon, where I have good friends who know most of the brewers in their town. Here is not like that. I’m not sure why – I don’t know if so many of us are late to game in the “craft beer revolution” where we didn’t really need to rely on a bunch of other breweries to get going, and used the Internet where you can kind of outsource all your information here and there. You didn’t need to go and find another brewery and be like “you’ve done this – I have no information regarding this and I need help,” and you build a strong relationship with people that way. So I think that might be why. I wish there was more camaraderie, but it is what it is.

IMV: Is there an Indiana Brewer’s Guild like there is a Michigan Brewer’s Guild?

JM: There is. It’s not as strong as the Michigan guild. Michigan does a really, really good job with their guild. Our guild is really young, and has kind of been this really small entity for a while. But I see some really good push to grow that, so I hope that continues.

IMV: Last question: and I always like to ask beer people this, and they always give me the same answer, but I have a feeling I’m going to get something different from you. If you could only drink one beer for the rest of your life that you yourself didn’t brew, what would it be and why?

JM: Ooh.

IMV: Everyone else I’ve ever asked this has answered Two Hearted. Literally everyone.

JM: I would say…man, you’re really putting me on the spot here…I don’t know if I have a specific beer, but I would say a Saison that had a little bit of brett [ed. note: brettanomyces, a type of yeast] in it, because it would always change. So my beer would always be a little bit different every time I drank it because it’s always developing.

IMV: Because it’s always developing. So a nice, bretty Saison.

JM: Yep.

IMV: All right, man. Thank you very much.

JM: Thank you.

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