Interview: brewmaster Andy Ingram (Four Peaks Brewing Co.)

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Brewmaster Arizona

Photo courtesy of Four Peaks Brewing Co.

Most people look at the desert and see cacti, craggy rock formations and swirling sand. In 1996, the Four Peaks Brewing Co. founders had visions of beer. Brewmaster Andy Ingram currently owns Four Peaks with Jim Scussel and Randy Schultz, their Tempe brewery named for the quartet of 7500-foot mountains located 35 miles northeast of Phoenix. Four Peaks is on the upswing, with a recent jump in production from 20,000 to 40,000 barrels per year. However, the partners haven’t expanded beyond Arizona, opting to supply their core constituency. I recently caught up with Ingram, who shared more insight into his background and approach.

How did you become so interested in beer?

At a pre-legal age I had a friend whose dad homebrewed. It always fascinated me to think that you could make your own beer because my knowledge of beer-making (I won’t call it brewing because I didn’t know what that was at the time) was that beer had to be made from some concoction of fifteen-letter chemicals. So, we “liberated” his homebrew kit and tried it ourselves. Although it was horrible, it did spark a small flame in me that maybe there’s something to this “beer-making”. Years later I went to school in London and discovered what my friend’s dad was trying to do; make great beers that you just couldn’t buy in the USA. I fell in love with English beer and English pub culture and on my return jumped into full-scale, take-over-the-garage homebrewing.

Do you have a first beer memory?

I have an early beer memory (we’ll not talk about the first), and it wasn’t all that good in terms of beer. My Dad drank A-1 which was a local regional beer that died out in 1987. Not known for quality toward the end, A-1 was certainly known for quantity, as in cheap. I was probably 17, watching a football game, when my Dad came in with two beers; one for me. We talked about football and family and life; it was great. It was like some rite of passage; but the beer was rough.

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

The first beer that I brewed on my own, with my own equipment, was probably the same beer a lot of first-timers made; a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale Clone. I wanted to replicate something I knew to test myself and my system. Despite my efforts to screw it up, the beer turned out great, thank God. Wow, that was 1991.

Where did you go to college, and what was your major?

I went to Arizona State University on a football scholarship and I majored in psychology (the psych building seemed to have the cutest girls).

What was your path before arriving at Four Peaks?

I was set to go to graduate school and get into forensic psychology. The summer before I was about to start school, I took a part time job at a brewpub scrubbing floors. After a few weeks I was brewing. I couldn’t believe that they were paying me to make beer and I decided, on-the-spot, to see how far this could take me. Risky, but I hated school that much.

Would you say that you have any brewing mentors?

Two, actually. First, Clark Nelson, who was Head Brewer at Coyote Springs Brewpub (my first brewing job). He was a good boss and a great seat-of-the-pants brewer. When he was in the Navy he once brewed “beer” in a galley sink on a submarine…

Second, Barry John, who for 35 years was one of three brewers at the Young’s Brewery in London. He moved to Scottsdale, AZ, of all places, in 1995. A mutual friend gave me his number and I called to see if he wanted to come down and check out a new brewery we were starting called Four Peaks. He came down the next day; and stayed for 10 months. We tried to pay him (not that we had any money) but he’d refuse and say, “What else am I going to do? Start a garden?”

Every day with BJ was worth a month of learning how to brew. We all owe BJ a little debt of gratitude. A good man.

How did Four Peaks come about?

After being at Coyote Springs for a while, Clark and I decided to write a business plan and start our own brewery. At about the same time my current partners were planning their own brewery. They were regulars at Coyote and one day we decided to pool our resources and go in together. We found a GREAT old building and, since we couldn’t get financing for our great OLD building, we financed it through student-rate credit cards. For two years we kept rotating the balance from new card to new card. We essentially had a 0% loan for two years.

What do you think distinguishes Four Peaks beer from other breweries?

I like to think that it’s the quality because, really, we aren’t doing anything that different from the other 99% of breweries out there. We really pride ourselves on making clean, fresh, flavorful beer. We never really saw beer as a dare and therefore never really got into a lot of the extreme styles. BJ instilled (insisted) on a need for balance over anything else and that beer is a social drink; it doesn’t need to be the center of the conversation but it should move the conversation along.

Why is it important to only offer your beer in Arizona?

We always thought it was important to own our own backyard before we went into someone else’s. Plus, when you work so hard to be a local beer and set down deep roots it’s a good hedge against a bad economy; people tend to stay loyal. It’s actually a luxury to only be in one state; we have one distributor, we can control sales, and we’re not flinging beer across the country hoping it does well. Besides, we have a hard time keeping up; we’ll make and sell 23,000 barrels of beer in AZ this year, but we’re not ruling anything out.

Who are some other brewers you respect and how come?

I respect anyone who straps on boots at 5am just to do what they love. It’s hard to get rich doing this so you know they’re passionate about the craft. You can learn something new from any brewer whether they’re on a 3 barrel system in Massachusetts or a 120 barrel system in California. And that’s really the best part of this industry; everyone’s willingness to share.

What are some beers that you typically enjoy drinking?

I tend to like more sessionable beers; one’s that I finish and realize, wow, that was really good, I’ll have another.

What’s the latest beer you’ve been developing and what’s your approach been?

With the new brewery expansion we’ve been afforded some tank space to mess around with lagers. We’ve only done a handful in the past 12 years but so far this year we’ve done a German Pilsner called Poppin’ Pils and a Vienna Lager. The approach has been to go back to all the lager brewing texts we can find. It’s a bit like re-learning what you’ve been doing for all these years.

How do you feel about collaborating with another brewery?

We love it! We’ve done two this year; a collaboration with all the Valley independent brewers. We made a Dark RyePA called Motley Brue, very tasty. The Pilsner I mentioned before was also a collaboration with a local brewpub. They needed lagering space and we wanted to do a good pilsner. We split some knowledge and some tank space and it turned out great.

If you could only drink one more glass of beer, what would be in it?

Hopefully that never happens but my go-to beer has always been our 8th Street Ale. It is one of our original beers; co-developed by BJ and me. He missed Young’s Ram Rod Bitter and I missed the beers I had in London. It is to this day the most balanced beer we make. It’s beautiful.

Would you eat anything with it?

Yes; a magic pill that would allow me to have another beer…And maybe a nice English Farmhouse Cheddar.


Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

Blog Comments

Andy. I have dealt with AB for over 50 years. We invented all their CIP solutions. I recently was in St .Louis and all the micros will be advised shortly regarding a standardization of all the AB micros regarding CIP. I live in Gilbert and would like to meet you personally. I am in town all this coming week. I can meet any time. Please letme know when we could personally meet. Lance Renfrow President. 480-678-4766 cell

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