One of the best parts about brewing in Washington is the other Washington brewers. I have had the privilege of hanging out and talking shop with a lot of great brewers in this area, and I thought it would be fun to profile a few. I am not interviewing them. I am just going to describe them as if you had asked me about them over beers.
Jeff Holcomb is a founder and the brewer at Valholl Brewing in Poulsbo, WA. It is doubtful that many reading this are familiar with that brewery, as they are both quite small and quite new. If you don’t know Jeff, you might be lucky, because there is a reasonable chance that he is crazy. If you do know Jeff, and you’re a total beer fanatic, you are indeed lucky, given that he might just be crazy.
I met Jeff, by chance, while dropping off a keg at Tizley’s Europub in Poulsbo (tizleys.com). I dropped the keg and ordered a beer while I waited to speak with the owners. As per my habit, I ordered what I’d never had, which happened to be Valholl’s first creation: a Belgian Wit. I sipped and began to consider the fact that this was not at all a Belgian Wit. I mean, it sort of tasted like a Belgian Wit, if the Belgian Wit’s angry cousins Ethyl Alcohol and Belgian Golden moved in with it. That isn’t to say it was bad. It was far, far from that. But when you sit down expecting to sip a delicate Belgian Wit, and you get punched in the face with a beer, you’re thrown off a little. I continued sipping and pondering this beer when a tall, excitable, militant man with a very firm handshake approached me asking what I thought and was I the guy from Grove Street. I said I was, and that I liked the beer but that it was not at all a Belgian Wit. I then learned the beer was something like 9.4% alcohol by volume, and thus began my professional relationship with Jeff Holcomb and Valholl Brewing.
Jeff operates his brewery out of a converted garage space, brewing on the Sabco Brew Magic; the same 15-gallon system that Sam Calagione used to start Dogfish Head Brewing in Delaware some years ago. To put this into perspective for those less familiar with commercial breweries, this is like showing up to a tennis match with a fly swatter. Against Andy Roddick. And taking him a full 5 sets. And if it isn’t already apparent, his beers fall into the same arena as Dogfish Head’s also. In fact, I think he calls Sam on a semi-regular basis to discuss who is currently putting the most surprising, or unexpected, or ridiculous ingredients into their beer.
Our time sipping beers at Tizley’s passed pleasantly and I left with the feeling that “this guy is out of his mind, but at least somebody around here is”. He told me his Belgian Wit was a bit strong (obviously) because the fermentation got a little out of control. I am convinced he was lying to me. When you knowingly extract that amount of fermentable into a beer, you know full well that your fermentation will ‘get out of control’ as he calls it, and you also know that this won’t at all be a Belgian Wit. So he played a big joke on me and tricked me into drinking delicious beer that I wasn’t particularly excited about upon ordering. Belgian Wit just isn’t my personal favorite. Score one for Jeff, I guess.
I saw Jeff a second time when our respective breweries poured beers at the Kitsap Oktoberfest. I showed up with our Mr. Spocktoberfest, a traditional Oktoberfest beer. Jeff brought a Smoked Cherry Rye, a Licorice IPA, and an army Valholl fanatics that drank all his beer suspiciously fast. I didn’t get to try those beers, unfortunately, because they were consumed so fast. I heard from, um, everyone in the world though that they were dang good, and I am looking forward to seeing those again. I did get to spend a little bit of time with Jeff at the festival, though. He mostly got super excited to pour his beer for people, talked really fast at everyone, and ran around like a chicken with its head cut off. If you wanted to, you could argue that one shouldn’t put licorice in an IPA, but you can’t argue this guy’s passion for beer, the brewing community, and the community of Washington beer drinkers. I’ll hold my judgment on the L.IPA until I’ve tried it.
I saw Jeff a third time at our own brewer’s night this last month, again, at Tizley’s. He sat next to me as we enjoyed a delicious five-course meal, each paired with a Grove Street beer, prepared by Rob and his amazing kitchen staff. Jeff and I dominated our table’s discussion with beer talk, probably to an inappropriate, or at least a very annoying level, as beer was all we talked about and the volume of Jeff’s voice is matched only by his passion for all things beer. But we had fun, and he had nothing but great things to say to me about our beers. He invited me to follow him to his brewery, where he had some kind of whacked out stout pouring, although the tasting room is neither complete nor open. My coworker and I followed and spent too much time drinking this beer. It was late, and I had had my fair share of beers, but I do remember that it was over 11% alcohol by volume. I am pretty sure it had oats, or rye, or wheat, or buckwheat or something (all of the above?) in it. I remember it was also spiced with something. Cinnamon? Cardamom? Maybe it was vanilla and grains of paradise. Or coffee. Lactose sugar is coming to mind. A coffee vanilla imperial milk stout? Anyway, this beer was great for a whole lot of reasons, the foremost being that it just tasted really really good. Valholl beers are difficult to come by though, as they are the very definition of small-batch. But find Valholl on facebook, or at www.valhollbrewing.com, find out where their beer is, and try to get a pint. Hurry. It is in limited supply.
Adam Orrick is the head brewer at Grove Street Brewhouse in Shelton, WA. He has been brewing professionally since June of 2009, all of which has been spent at GSB, save a brief internship at Lazy Boy Brewing in Everett, WA. For more about Adam and Grove Street, visit their brewery, their facebook page, or the GSB blog at grovestreetbrewhouse.wordpress.com