Is it possible for a brewmaster to be on the job for over a decade and still be under-appreciated? If so, a prime example could easily be Victor Novak, who’s manned the fermenters at TAPS since Joe Manzella opened his initial brewpub, in Brea, back in 1999. As Manzella’s business has grown, so has Novak’s role. He now heads brewing in Brea and Corona and curates the taps at sister establishment The Catch, which resides in the shadow of Angel Stadium. TAPS’ European style ales and lagers have started to appear at high-profile bars like The Surly Goat and Blue Palms Brewhouse, and Novak is once again racking up awards. At the recent Great American Beer Festival, TAPS won Brewpub Group of the Year, a gold medal for Belgian White, a silver medal for Remy, an Imperial Russian Stout aged in Bourbon barrels, and a bronze medal for the Schwarzbier. Novak was even named Brewpub Group Brewmaster of the Year. We recently caught up by phone, where Novak described his background and approach.
How did you become so interested in beer?
I went to UC Berkeley in the Bay Area. That’s where I first fell in love with Sierra Nevada. It’s kind of a cliché, but that’s the amazing thing about Ken Grossman – just how many brewers he’s inspired…The girl I was dating got into grad school at Penn. We could not get Sierra Nevada in Pennsylvania, so she got me a home brew kit for Christmas in ’92. I read Michael Jackson’s World Guide to Beer, got a job at Dock Street Brewery and Restaurant, and the rest is history.
In San Francisco and the Bay Area, you’d think they’d be at the forefront of everything, wine, beer and food. When I moved to the East Coast and started brewing at Dock Street, they had Kolsch, Dunkel, Helles, Doppelbock, beers that I really didn’t know because in the Bay Area, they made beer and gave them interesting names like Boont Amber and Red Tail Ale, but didn’t always narrow them down to a particular style. Back east, they seemed more interested in brewing to style. In the Bay Area it was about making beer and adding a unique twist to it. We don’t name a lot of our beers at TAPS. It’s more in the European tradition of just having the brewery name and style. Plus, I’m not clever enough to give cool names to more than 40 different beers.
Do you have a first beer memory?
I remember watching a Rams and Vikings game with my dad when I was five and he had these funny half cans of Coors or Budweiser. He gave me a sip and I didn’t think it was that great. My parents gave me tastes of margarita or beer, so I grew up thinking alcohol was something you enjoyed with a meal an in moderation.
What was the first beer you ever brewed, and how did it turn out?
Typically, it was a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale knockoff. We didn’t get Sierra Nevada in Philadelphia, so we decided to make our own. The thing about homebrewing is that the equipment is clean when you get it and the first beer tastes pretty good. But subsequent batches, if you’re not cleaning everything properly, batches won’t turn out very well.
So Dock Street was your first beer related job?
I started as a server with the intention of working my way into the brewery. In June 1993, I became a server and in the fall of 1995, I became assistant brewer [to Nick Funnell]. He gave me good advice on cleaning and sanitizing, so knock on wood, we don’t have any sanitation issues, because we’re very careful about that. He was also well steeped in British and Continental brewing traditions so I learned a lot.
What was your major at Berkeley?
I studied cultural and political geography.
How do you think that impacts your job now?
I was 19, 20 years old and very idealistic. What that really entailed was water, land and human rights for indigenous people. I did an internship on the Harvard campus for Cultural Survival Quarterly…When I didn’t get a paid job, I came back to California, got a job, met a girl, and later moved to Philly. After reading Michael Jackson’s book, which demonstrated how history, culture, and food and beverage are so intertwined. I decided my small contribution to society would be to make some great beer and, hopefully, people a lot smarter than I am would try to solve the world’s problems over a couple of pints.
What was your path before arriving at TAPS?
At the time I worked at Dock Street, because of those funny blue laws, if you brewed beer on premise, that’s all you could serve. A law passed that would take effect Jan 1, 1997, that would allow brewpubs to have a full bar. I was working with another guy who had six months seniority on me. I saw the writing on the wall and knew they wouldn’t need both of us, so I moved back to Southern California. In 1997, from May to October, I worked at Doc’s Brewpub in Simi Valley. I later met Joe Manzanella in the parking lot of BJ’s, but I didn’t start at TAPS until January 1999. So much of this industry is who you know. I worked with a gal named Sonnet Goodenough at Dock Street, and her father, Don Goodenough, owned Liquid Assets. I also met David Smith who was also a brewer. They ended up at Liquid Assets, so when Joe Manzella was looking for a brewer they both recommended me.
Would you say that you have any brewing mentors?
Nick [Funnell] was certainly a mentor. He was from London so he was a very well trained British brewer. We also did a lot of German lagers. He was well versed in that as well. But Will Kemper was the original brewer at Dock Street and developed a lot of those lager recipes. He’s now the brewmaster at Chuckanut in Bellingham, Washington. Even though I’ve never met him, so much of what I do is inspired by those original recipes. Of course I’ve adapted everything to my own palate. When I’m looking to do a new style, I definitely refer to those Dock Street lager recipes for inspiration.