Interview: brewmaster Kyle Smith (Kern River Brewing)

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Craft Beer California

Kyle Smith previously had a high-pressure role with the forest service before brewing full-time. [Kyle Smith]

The gateway to Sequoia National Forest is a more likely locale for whitewater rafting, kayaking or mountain biking. However, Kyle Smith had other ideas. He grew up in a small town outside of Sacramento called Lincoln and moved south in 1992 to fight fires with the Forest Service. In 2006, he partnered with Rebecca Giddens and Eric Giddens on Kern River Brewing, becoming brewmaster of Kernville’s first brewpub. Between batches, Smith took the time to discuss his background and approach.

Josh Lurie: How did Kern River Brewing come about?

Kyle Smith: Just my love of craft and being in a rural area, there isn’t much craft beer out here, just Sierra Nevada and Samuel Adams. So I started home brewing and from there, I just knew a small little brewpub would work out great in Kernville. I started working on a business plan and funding issues. I met Rebecca and Eric, who are my partners, got things rolling, and opened in 2006.

JL: How do you divide duties at Kern River?

KS: Rebecca handles the restaurant side of things. I handle the brewery. Eric does the books and the financial side of things.

JL: How did you all meet?

KS: They were thinking of the same idea as I was, a brewpub in Kernville. I had been home brewing for awhile. It was word of mouth. Somebody told them I was home brewing. It was right before Rebecca went to the Olympics. She has a silver medal in Kayaking.

JL: What was the very first beer that you brewed?

KS: My first home brew was a pale ale, as most home brewers, it just didn’t turn out that good. I’ve never really named any of my beers

JL: Where did you go to school?

KS: I spent a little bit of time in junior college, and then ended up going right into the forest service. I went into firefighting and worked my way up to the captain’s position in a helicopter rappel crew that was based in Kernville.

JL: Do you think that helps you as a brewer?

KS: Just the work ethic. A lot of people don’t realize how much work is involved in brewing. Long hours and such. I home brewed for about 10 years before we opened up here.

JL: How did you become so interested in beer?

KS: Probably just It’s always been intriguing to me to see the brewing process and just the love of craft beer. When I got older, most people liked craft beer.

JL: Do you have a first beer memory?

KS: Probably like most people, just seeing your dad pulling a beer out of fridge. It was probably Budweiser or something along those lines. I probably ended up sipping a beer as I was bringing it to him. I can’t really remember.

JL: Do you have any brewing mentors?

KS: I have quite a few. One of my mentors would probably be Darin Schwicker from Lengthwise Brewing Company, down in Bakersfield. They’re about 60 miles from us and he kind of helped me a lot when I was home brewing. At the time they just had a microbrewery and now they have a brewpub. I can’t really say enough for his help. It’s kind of the way it goes in the craft beer industry. Everybody’s out to help each other out and we’re all there for each other.

JL: What distinguishes Kern River from other breweries?

KS: The one thing that helps us out a lot – but it’s also frustrating for me – if you find a bottle of keg, it’s fresh. Our beer doesn’t sit around for long time. If it’s out there, it’s a week or two old, and that’s about it. That’s a big deal for most of our beers. For some of our barrel aged beers, that’s not as important. IPA or Stout, it’s best when it’s fresh.

JL: What’s the newest recipe that you brewed, and what was your approach?

KS: The last recipe that I did was a Saison. My approach to that was, I was looking for something that would be traditional to the saison style. I was looking for tartness, but it also has the balance of earthiness. A little bit of coriander, grains of paradise and a little bit of star anise. A lot of saisons are a little overpowering on the yeast side, with really strong Belgian flavors, and I was trying to balance it out. I think I got there. I just have a few tweaks to make for that recipe. It’s just at the brewpub. You can’t find it in bottles or anything.

JL: Who are some other brewers that you respect?

KS: Vinnie Cilurzo, of course, from Russian River, who’s a good friend of ours. Some other folks, Darin from Lengthwise, just a lot of guys who are doing some really good new beers out there. Tomme Arthur from Lost Abbey and Port Brewing. Those guys are doing some really good beers.

JL: How do you feel about collaborating with other breweries? Are any collaborations in the works?

KS: I was just talking with San Diego Brewing about a collaboration, but nothing’s fixed. I think it’s cool. A lot of collaboration stuff is awesome. It just shows what type of industry this is. Everybody’s out there helping each other out.

JL: What do you look for in a collaboration?

KS: What I like to see, are these breweries that are coming together and actually formulating a recipe together and brewing it at each other’s breweries? What I don’t like is calling it a collaboration and they’re just brewing their own beer and blending it. I like it when people come together and bounce ideas off each other.

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

KS: It would probably a Russian River Pliny the Elder, just because it’s a great IPA, a nice crisp clean, hoppy IPA.


Joshua Lurie

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

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Just had their anniversary ale and it was quite good. Now I just have to sample their Citra hop IPA.

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