Interview: brewmaster Will Kemper (Chuckanut Brewery)

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Photo courtesy of the Chuckanut Brewery and Kitchen website

I briefly met Will Kemper at the Great American Beer Festival earlier this year, through my Washington beer blogger contact, BrewDad.  A few short minutes later, Kemper and his Chuckanut Brewery cohorts won GABF medals again. He graciously answered questions via e-mail after the festival.

At what point did you know you’d work with beer for a living?

I was working for an engineering firm responding to hazardous chemical issues and realized that that work was only going to lead to horrible physical issues. Additionally the politics and ethical shortcomings of many of the people involved was not so gratifying. My heart was in making beer as I was a homebrewer for quite awhile so the switch was rather easy.

Is there anybody who mentored you along the way? If so, what did they teach you that was so valuable?

I started in the 1980s when there were less than 30 total craft breweries in America. So by default I have never been less than the Brewmaster as no one else really had any understanding back then. When I took the first Masterbrewers Program at UC Davis, around 1990, from Prof. Michael Lewis he very early on impressed upon me that I knew nothing and that I had to apply myself much more than I had to succeed. I have a degree in Chemical Engineering and had overseen several breweries by that time so I had become complacent. Besides being the most extraordinary teacher I have ever had he created an environment whereby I learned much more than the technical side of brewing.

What was the first beer you ever brewed, and how did it turn out?

I suspect it was an ale from an old book written by Fred Eckhardt. I remember the book but the exact beer escapes me as it was so long ago. I believe I was probably excited that I indeed made BEER, but I cannot imagine that it was so good.

What’s the criteria for a beer that you brew at your brewery? What does a beer have to be?

We will never be known for our PR or BS abilities. Our beers are simply right on for the technical aspects. To that end we are cutting edge as far as many modern day brewing techniques and procedures. For example, our beers are largely PC controlled and driven in production and monitoring. For me, it would be foolish and backward not to use what avails itself so positively to brewers today.

What’s your top selling beer, and why do you think that’s the case?

The German Pilsner is easily the biggest seller away from the pub. That is because more Americans are familiar with the word Pilsner than other styles. Also, that beer is an exceptional representation of a good German style Pilsner. At the pub the British IPA is probably the biggest seller. I believe it is because people have an easier time spelling and saying IPA than many of the other styles we have available.

How do you go about naming your beers?

As I mentioned before, we will not win contests with our PR or BS abilities. Our German Pilsner is named Chuckanut German Pilsner, our Dunkel is named Chuckanut Dunkel, our Vienna Lager is named Chuckanut Vienna Lager. You see the pattern? Perhaps someday we will expand upon that, but fortunately the demand for our beers is so positive that we do not have to resort to our very limited cleverness.

What was the most recent beer that you brewed, and what was your inspiration and approach?

We usually brew two or three different types of beer every week. Yesterday we brewed Pilsner again. I must say probably the biggest inspiration for that was to satisfy the demand from existing accounts for that beer. So it was largely economically driven. Our approach though is to always get better. Constantly evaluate and be critical of every step along the way. I consider none of our beers fixed and finished in regards to recipe and approach. This last year we learned a lot more about what we feel needs to be done to improve the beers. That has been the case for the last 25 or so years I have been brewing professionally.

What was your favorite beer at GABF this year?

I have a rather sensitive palate so I am inclined to want to taste beers that are technically well made and finish clean and balanced correctly to style. That is also why I probably choose the styles I work with. So when Devil’s Backbone did so well at the 2012 GABF I also was extremely happy for them. Also, Steve Crandall and Jason Oliver of Devil’s Backbone are friends and professional colleagues which I have come to truly respect and can only hope the best for.

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Sean Inman

Find more of Sean Inman's writing on his blog, Beer Search Party.

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