Stan Hieronymus Interview
Mr. Stan Hieronymus was gracious enough to answer a few questions in an email interview recently. Stan is "always ready to write about what's around the next bend in the road. Sometimes that's beer." Stan has been a journalist for 40 years, and a homebrewer since 1989. He has been writing about beer since 1983 and is one of the most recognizable names in brewing literature. He is the author of Brew Like a Monk: Trappist, Abbey, and Strong Belgian Ales and How to Brew Them. Brewing with Wheat, and The Beer Lover's Guide to the USA: Brewpubs, Taverns, and Good Beer Bars. Stan lives and writes in Corrales, New Mexico, near Albuquerque.
Look for his website at: BrewLikeaMonk.com
• Do you feel you have an edge over other beer writers because you are also a homebrewer?
I don't think in terms of an "edge" or competition with other writers when I'm working on an article. I became hooked on journalism when I was in my teens, and obviously there are times when specialized knowledge makes stories better. At one point in my life it was knowledge about Illinois high school basketball. If I'm writing something specifically for homebrewers then it helps to know what interests them, what limitations they face (compared to commercial brewers), stuff like that. But most of my brewing knowledge has come from visiting hundreds of brewers the last 18 years.
• Do you have one beer that you have brewed over and over to perfect the recipe and/or process? Why this style?
I don't brew enough to brew anything over and over. I tend to make beers I can't buy - like a lower alcohol saison. Why should I be trying to perfect an IPA when I can buy some many excellent ones?
• Do you enjoy being thought of as an “expert” in Belgian beer and brewing? Which American brewermasters do you admire and consider experts in brewing Belgian style beer?
I don't view myself as an expert. The experts are the people who actually brew day-in and day-out. It may seem like I am picking a nit but there's a difference between having specialized knowledge and being an expert.
As to brewers, we need more time so we can see what "sticks." The most popular "craft beer" styles today almost all have an American twist to them - often hops - and that will likely be true of Belgian-inspired beers as well (Americanized, not necessarily the hops). If I start naming names then I wouldn't know where to stop. At 21? At 35?
• How do you feel about “Americanized” versions of Belgian styles (ie. Highly hopped with American hops for instance). Is there room in the market place for Belgian “inspired” beer? Or do you think most beer enthusiasts want to drink a beer that is very close to those brewed in Belgium?
I'd say there's room for both, and offer the wide variety of choices in Belgium as evidence. There are many good reasons to talk about "beer styles," but we should not let definitions limit where brewers might choose to take their beers.
• Belgian beer is very popular with homebrewers. When you judge Belgians, do you see the same old “copies” of the typical Belgian styles laid down by the BJCP or BA, or do you notice homebrewers and professional brewers applying the Belgian brewer’s attitude toward not brewing to a particular style?
In homebrew competitions the beers that don't match style guidelines too often taste like mistakes (astringent, too much alcohol, under-attenuated) because they are not pleasant to drink. The style guidelines, if not all judges, are plenty broad enough to allow for creativity. I'd simply say that cloning, "brewing to style," and brewing within guidelines are all different.
If you (as a homebrewer) are making a beer you really like and it doesn't seem to fit within any style guidelines then enjoy it yourself and don't worry about entering it in a competition.
• If you were going to start a small brewery, either a nano-brewery or brewpub, what five beer styles would constitute your main offerings? And what beer style would be your flagship beer?
I would never do that. So this is totally hypothetical. It would be small. It would be a hobby. The only bottled beers would be those that need higher carbonation to be at their best. Otherwise the focus would be on selling beers best without top pressure. Be it 4% beers vaguely approximating bitters otherwise found in the UK or pale lagers made with pilsner malt and noble hops.
• In your book, Brew Like a Monk, Brother Pierre from the Rochefort Trappist Monestery says that anyone can brew his beers, but their (the monks) “secret” is the their attitude towards life and their relationship to God and Nature” that makes their beers truly special. In what way do you think a good homebrewer can use their “secret” to make better beer? Is it all in choosing the proper ingredients that will make the best beer possible?
First, they make only a few beers over and over. Second, beer is not their top priority.
Clearly the quality of ingredients is important, but so is a brewer's relationship with them. Knowing your yeast, for instance. Or tasting a beer out of secondary and thinking "this will taste better with a little less (or more) carbonation in the bottle" and making that adjustment. Visiting monastery breweries I was struck how the rhythm of life, reflected for instance in seven daily prayers, extends into the brewery.
• Is there any hope that the US can fix the archaic beer distribution system that was put into place after prohibition?
Hasn't happened to far.
• If any of the homebrewers reading this interview wanted to become a beer writer, how important is having a good support system? Ie. A wife that nurtures your creativity and understands that you have to travel and drink a lot of different beers, etc.
See the comment above about the rhythm of life.
• Where do you see the US craft beer market going in the future? Any trends we can watch out for?
Choice is going to continue to grow. That means beer with flavor will be available more places, that consumers are going to continue to want what's "new" (right now that's often strong, often hoppy, sometimes sour) but that beers that don't necessarily get a lot of attention will continue to reach a wider audience.
• Do you lay down any Belgian or other imported beers in a cellar? Does the fact that they cannot be as fresh and “healthy” when shipped to the US as they are in their home country influence your choice of beer to age?
I do age a few beers, mostly American barleywines and imperial stouts. Only occasionally something Belgian, in which case it would be dark and strong (Rochefort 10, Cuvee de Kaizer). There are plenty of beers I won't buy from Europe simply because they weren't meant to age even as long as it takes to travel to New Mexico.
• Do you see the diversity of the US craft beer industry as a blessing or a curse? Ie. We brew so many styles and push the boundaries of brewing science, but we don’t have a "beer culture" that the rest of the world understands.
Diversity is a blessing, I would describe our beer culture as occasionally uneven, but "maturing." That's a good thing.
• I have to admit that I didn’t know you had written two other books besides Brew Like a Monk. One is Brewing with Wheat, and the other The Beer Lover’s Guide to the USA. I’m definitely going to have to add Brewing with Wheat to my brewing library. What’s next? What are you working on these days?
Short term I'm working on things still related to wheat. Like a panel for the Craft Brewers Conference in April. In June I'll be at the National Homebrew Conference in Minneapolis, having fun but also making a presentation. At NHC I'll talk about "plastic yeasts," a chance to point out the similarities and differences of working with wheat and Belgian yeast strains.
Longer term, I'm starting the research for a book about hops. It's a monstrous project that will take a couple years to complete.
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