Master Cicerone: Gavin "The Beer Maestro" Harper
A quick trip inside the mind of a Beer God.
Shaolin Kung Fu: Sending Bridge Stance
Warcloud Brewing Company: Gavin what’s up man how’ve you been? Everything good?
Gavin Harper: Always good! In these times we’re experiencing right now I can only focus on what I can control, which is my attitude and look for opportunity if available.
WBC: Right out of the gate amazing opening statement, we're sure you changed the outlook of some readers just now, Ha, for the better! Where’d you grow up man? What we’re you doing before beer?
Gavin: I moved a lot as a kid, eight different schools up through high school. I always say I’m from Atlanta, where I finished high school. Prior, I was born in Alabama, lived in South Carolina and a small town outside of Boston. I have always had a lot of interests and started out as a philosophy major but ended up pursuing music. After finishing school I lived in Athens, GA for a few years growing into the music scene before moving to NYC where I spent 10 years as a professional jazz musician, composer and instructor at a music school. It was a good life, a grind, and exciting.
WBC: You got into beer because of..... and what made you decide to go for master cicerone let alone the cicerone program?
Gavin: I was introduced to beer, however indirectly, from my dad. Growing up he was always into beer. His job took him around the world where he was exposed to other beer cultures. He always returned home with a love of new beers, stories, and searching for similar beers here in the states.
He spent a lot of time in England. At some point in the late nineties he was looking at setting up an importing business for some of the English beers he enjoyed. Through this venture he got to know several of the brewery owners/brewers up in Yorkshire. Beginning in 2003 I travelled over there during the summers and got connected with a few of these breweries to learn a bit more about the craft. I actually brewed my first batch of home brew in 2001 with some buddies in Athens. There isn’t much else to say about that.
Throughout my music career beer was just a hobby, even my time in England was just pure exposure and interest. I never saw a profession or a desire to become a full-time brewer.
In 2012 my dad’s business was picking up and I came on as the technical director, working with his team from the technical brewing side and a few of the head brewers in England on the development of beers for our own label. It was around this point when I began looking into the Cicerone Certification Program and became a Certified Cicerone®.
It wasn’t until I moved to Southern California in 2014 when beer became my full time profession. I worked for a couple breweries as a brewer and head brewer before spending about 2 years as the brewmaster for a production brewery in San Diego. In 2016 I won a seat for the Master Cicerone® exam and decided to take it. I had never really thought about it, but it became a challenge and provided an opportunity to learn aspects about beer that I probably wouldn't learn just as a brewer. I didn’t pass in 2016, but passed on my second attempt in 2017.
WBC: The rise of craft beer you saw it in its infancy Like many of us, name some of your favorite moments bro?
Gavin: Well, I wasn’t around for the early stages in the 70’s, and too young in the 80’s, but during the 90’s, although I wasn’t quite of drinking age we saw a big shift. I remember the excitement my dad had one day he found Red Hook ESB in the grocery store on the east coast. He had this beer during a trip to Seattle and really enjoyed it. He was like a kid when he saw it. We should all look for opportunities to act a bit childish at times. This of course was a result of one of the first early acquisitions from the large breweries.
I’m a huge fan of the brewpub. We moved around a bit, but also traveled and often found ourselves at a brewpub somewhere around the country. For me it was exciting seeing the vessels behind the bar or in the hall as you walk in. There was always something special about visiting a brewpub and seeing styles of beer you could usually only find in Europe. During my time in Athens in the early naughts my favorite place was a small brew pub called Copper Creek. They only had 3 beers on draught with no branding— just a simple chalk board with Pale Ale, Kӧlsch, Porter written or whatever they had at the time.
In 2004 Georgia changed a law that allowed beer to be up to 14% ABV. This allowed many of the Belgian beers and other high ABV beers like Bigfoot allowed to be sold in the state. The anticipation leading up was absorbing. This was certainly a favorite moment.
I 2007 I got to visit Firestone Walker for the first time and had a fresh DBA, it was quite tasty.
It’s hard to pinpoint specific moments, but overall I’m glad to see a more local focus as this typically means fresh beer. Very few beers improve as time goes by in my opinion, so the sooner you drink it the better.
WBC: What’s it like being in one of the wildest and most notable communities in craft beer?
We certainly live in a great beer community, but there are so many great beer communities out there. Southern California is interesting in that you have a more established market in San Diego with Orange County and Los Angeles seeing growth and recognition in recent years. I’ve worked in all three counties and met a lot great people in the industry. I’m certainly glad to be here.
WBC: Now we know you took up a head brewer recently.. tell us about it?
Gavin: I actually left my most recent gig in March to be with my son during this COVID-19 situation.
WBC: Fatherhood! That's honorable in every way right there, powerful really... You can brew, how does being a Master Cicerone help you in your brewing operations. Detail out some of the intricacies for our readers. Does anything come easy? Do you know TOO much? Still learning?
Gavin: l certainly don’t know too much and being a Master Cicerone® doesn’t do much of anything in itself. However, preparing to take the exam certainly provided me insight into areas I may not have ventured had I not been preparing for the exam.
For starters the intensive palate training I went and continue to go through, without a doubt, has made me a better brewer. I have an IBD diploma in brewing and can speak to the microbiological and biochemical aspects of brewing but connecting this too actual flavor compounds and correlating that into a solution for a problem with a beer from a sensory aspect is quite valuable. In addition, training for pairing beer with food— again adding sensory aspects— also provides another perspective in thinking about flavor and building flavor interactions.
On the technical side I had to prepare myself to be an authority on all types of equipment that I had never used on even seen in case something came up on the exam. Things certainly did come up which I had never actually touched, but I was able to discuss them in detail and if and when I do come across them I will have a head start in figuring out how best to use them within a process.
With regard to styles I certainly dove into styles in more depth than I would have or at least styles I haven’t brewed. I’m a bit of a traditionalist and feel its very important to understand history and the roots in order to then go beyond these precepts and fully flex one’s creativity. There is an argument for the complete opposite approach in terms of creativity however. Some may feel there is no purpose to understanding history or even fundamentals if all they’re going to do is something unrelated. I feel this is a mistake in judgement. Very much like music, I knew some great jazz cats who bypassed learning from the masters, transcribing their improvisations, meditating on their sound, and just focused on chops and modern techniques. To me, there was always something missing.
Nothing is easy or everything is easy, this is simply mindset. I try to focus on what I need to do and try not to let any judgement on the task enter my mind as it really is only a distraction.
Always learning, the beginner's mind is open.
WBC: Talk about your successors, those who learned or still learn from you, (us included). What is it that you’d like to bestow upon those who learn from you? Any apprentices?
Gavin: I have always enjoyed teaching in some capacity. Don’t think this is some benevolent duty, no it’s totally selfish, but it is gratifying if people actually do gain some benefit from me. For me the more you teach something the more you learn it yourself.
I’ve had a number of people who worked for me who are now established brewers and continuing their journey in beer. There are several others who reach out to me somewhat regularly to discuss an issue they may be having. It’s always fun trying to troubleshoot issues from 2500 miles away.
I’ve also worked with a lot of people on their path within the Cicerone Certification Program. I’m certainly an advocate for the program as I feel they have and will continue to improve the quality of beer, both directly and indirectly.
WBC: Where do you see craft beer in a decade? Yea think far out?
Gavin: For beer I think we’ll continue to see more high quality lagers, at least hopefully. I‘ve been happy to see a lager trend recently in the states, but overall I think they need a lot of work. But in ten years I think you will be able to find a consistently well made lager in most areas around the country.
Additionally I expect craft maltsters to be somewhat of the norm around the country. Brewers are at the mercy of their maltster and as brewers continue to learn and improve their craft having a more intimate relationship with the maltster can be invaluable. Brewers need to understand their grain and how to use it with their system. This is a key component to being a good brewer. Working with maltsters to develop malt specific to one’s needs and/or proprietary techniques can help separate one brewer’s beer from another. As they say malt is the soul of beer.
WBC: Favorite beer, be honest! And then favorite beer to brew?
Gavin: My favorite beer is Timothy Taylor Landlord on cask. It’s only available in England, a proper pint from Yorkshire. You can find the bottled version here in the states, but its a completely different beer and probably quite old if you come across it.
In terms of brewing what I enjoy is the smell as I brew, especially anything with dark Munich or other higher kilned malts. During the lauter, I’m a huge fan of the prominent linalool aromas while standing over the manway of the kettle when using many American hops as first wort additions, like Columbus.
WBC: Talk about programs in place, canning, souring, front of the house, back of the house. What are the most important? list them top to bottom. And which ones would you like to execute in the near future?
Gavin: Regardless of the type of establishment all components are important for a successful business. The key is effective communication and understanding of roles or in the case of many small businesses multiple roles. Empathy plays an integral part with discussions on important decisions. The finance person will have a different priority than the quality person in many cases so there needs to be understanding and compromise.
I think I would like to focus on the brewpub. Have a badass chef and culinary team, top notch operations team/general manager, the right business people in place from a finance and accounting perspective, a solid brew team and maintenance team, and an amazing forward facing, FOH, staff. Everyone has their essential job and is critical to the business. Beer and food are the reason society is what it is today. The reason humans began an agricultural life form a hunting and gathering one some 12,000 years ago. Whether this was beneficial to humans is another debate, but in today’s landscape, within the Tao of society, the brewpub is probably the most fundamental to the human existence. I think art has its place adding some personal and emotional element as well. Be it poetry, painting, drawing, sculpture, music, philosophy.
WBC: Being a leader is hard work. If there’s something you could pass on to future leaders who want to be just like you at some point, what wisdom would you shed upon them?
Gavin: There are so many facets of leadership in life, family, community, the workplace. I feel I’ve learned a lot from the many mistakes I’ve made and still have quite a bit to learn. A critical aspect is not allowing ego to dictate action. It’s not about being in charge, one’s job is to take care of the situation and others. Leadership involves empathy and trust, which sometimes means you don’t say what others want to hear. The truth can be tough and having empathy can help frame a situation effectively, and if there is trust then you have effective communication and hence effective leadership. Leadership is refusing to quit on others. One person’s failure in an organization is everyone’s failure. This is the mindset from top down. It’s important to allow others to make mistakes and learn, then provide them additional opportunities for success. Always having an open mind is critical for all, especially leaders. No one feels comfortable around didactic and pedantic lecture. One should encourage others to ask for help when they need it, but also be comfortable when help is offered in either direction. Great leaders don’t issue blame, they work to sharpen the tools they have to work with. I wish I had understood that last sentence several years ago.
WBC: Do you pay close attention to trends and the rest of craft beer scene? How do you stay on top of heads like a bald spot or stay on top of the industry?
Gavin: A quote I like, but don’t remember who to credit, is “I don’t stay on top of things, I prefer to get to the bottom of things.” I’m not too concerned about the transient news and what the latest things are. I guess I follow to some degree what is happening in the industry, but usually I here about happenings from interacting with others. I can let others stay on top of things and I won’t lose any sleep. If I’m in a situation that requires me to know something or follow something then I certainly will maintain a focus, but I’m comfortable doing what I’m doing whatever they may be.
This is another example of why its important to have a strong team within a business. Obviously in today’s market you need to have people not only staying on top of current trends but all visionaries who can stay ahead and have open discussions with the creative team in creating paths and action plans to sustain and grow the business. I’ve never really been that person, but as I’m sure many whom I have worked with will tell you, I do have an opinion. It took me a while to come around to the hazy IPA and wouldn't brew one for a while even though the sales guys kept asking and asking for one. I was a little too stubborn and learned from that experience.
WBC: Talk to us about where you see the industry going... do you think something new will evolve out of the pandemic setback?
Gavin: Right now with COVID-19 its hard to predict anything a week out let alone any further. But unfortunately there have been and will continue to be brewery closures until there are some solutions provided. What things will look like I’m not sure, but there will be opportunity. This may be growth for established breweries, particularly for the regional breweries who have had a hard time over the past several years. There also may be cheap money available to start something up.
Beyond that I think there is an opportunity for the high quality brew pub. Not a snobby privileged type of place. A place where the food and beer is top notch, parings are very thoughtfully put together, creativity and simplicity both exist, and the experience centers around both the beer and food. I honestly only know of one or two places like this in the country, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t more out there.
A concept I seen a bit around the country and can see continuing to gain steam is the all in one type of place. The ‘communal brewery’. Essentially a single place where you have multiple breweries, or all least tasting room(s). Ideally different types of breweries, say a lager brewery, a wild/sour brewery(if production is off-site), Belgian brewery, etc. There are some legal issues that may prevent this concept in some areas from taking hold. Also I’ve seen several breweries try to do this themselves and it isn’t successful in terms of the beer in my opinion. Very few brewers, if any, are specialists in all types of beers.
WBC: What does Gavin Harper’s retirement program look like?
Gavin: This is very simple. Live until I die in a small town in West Yorkshire, UK drinking a cask pint of bitter.