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John Trogner: Brewer, Welder, Coffee-roaster

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Interview with John Trogner, head brewer and co-founder/owner of Tröegs Brewing B 1/8/05

I called John Trogner for an interview back in January; they were putting together the plans for the arrival of their new brewhouse...kind of; they were actually adding on to their current system...well, you'll see that below. We talked real technical about what the new system can do for them, then got into some historical stuff, the Single Batch beers, Harrisburg, and as you'll see right up front, we talked about John's welding fetish. My apologies for taking so long to get this up; too bad, really, because it's a good one. I talked to John today to go over anything that may have changed; those changes are made in bold italics.

Lew: You do your own welding?

John: Yeah, I used to do it all the time in Colorado. But we just never got a welder while we were here, and finally I said, I=m gonna go get one.

Is this an arc kit?

No, TIG. I actually did a lot of stainless pipe welding in CO. There are a lot of little projects around here. We bring in people to do most of our sanitary work, but there=s a lot of little stuff that needs done that just doesn't make sense for them to do.

Especially at those rates.

Yeah! I have seven projects to do, just little things, and each one is going to cost $500 to $1,000.

I=m really thinking about trying to talk my son out of going to college: dude, little man B stainless steel welding, it=s where the money is.

Yeah, you know, the industry=s booming.

Okay, let=s get this new brewhouse thing out of the way. I obviously misunderstood what the hell you were talking about when I talked to you in December. You have a 20 bbl. system now, that can't keep up; why is that?

It can keep up.

Then what are you getting a new system for?

There are two new vessels. It=s actually a 25 bbl. on the new system. There are two issues with the old system. One is, the boil in the kettle is done with direct fire, so it=s like a giant flamethrower: high temperature, high stress on the wort. It does boil, but it also stresses out the wort quite a bit.

When you say it stresses the wort, is that because there are hot spots on the kettle?

Because of the differential temperature between the heating media and the wort itself. The higher that differential is, the higher the heating temperature is, the more thermal stress you put on the wort itself.

Which has an effect of...?

Well, one, it can caramelize the flavor, give you a charred flavor. So it=s very hard to do pilsners; very delicate beers can be hard to do because of that charring factor. But it can also affect the wort so that when the beer ages, it doesn't age well. It doesn't necessarily not age well, but it won't have as long a lifespan, let=s say that.

So it=s another case of when you shove excess energy into a chemical equation, you change the equation?

Yeah, that=s close enough. Plus, it is a waste of energy. On top of that, because it=s direct fire, it=s putting a lot of stress on the actual metal at the bottom of the kettle. So it only has a certain lifespan, and now that we=re brewing as much beer as we are, it=s kind of getting beyond its design characteristics. JV NorthWest kind of talked me into it on day one, before I really had a good understanding of a lot of the engineering in the brewkettle design.

That=s one of the reasons we=re doing it, because that tank needs replacing. We could have repaired the old one, but we would have been just stuck with the same boiling system. So I started looking into new boiling systems. We were actually going to design our own, an external heat exchanger, just like Victory has B which is a very good system, a great system. We were going to design and build one of those, but the more I looked into it, the more expensive it was getting. So I started talking to B I talked to Steinecker first, a very big German manufacturer. They were very helpful, lined me out exactly how to do everything, in theory, but they wouldn't build a little 25 bbl. system. They said it was too small for them.

What did they want you to go to?

I think they would have done a 50 bbl., but they prefer to do 100 and up.

Oh, you won't need that for at least five years, right?

At least a couple of years. That=s what I said, I won't need that for a couple of years! They were great, and if we ever get that big, I will definitely call them. Which would be amazing in itself, because that=s not really our goal. So when I went to the Craftbrewer=s Conference, out in California, I talked to JV, the people who built our system, about putting in either an external boiler, or an internal boiler, like a steam system. They said, go talk to BrauKon. See, I wanted low-pressure steam, it=s back to that heat thing. The higher the pressure, the hotter the steam. I wanted steam that was 14 psi, so the heat differential is very low and you=re not stressing out your wort as much.

Does that take longer to come to a boil, then?

Not if you design it correctly. And they were never able to get a low-pressure steam boiler to work well. So I talked to BrauKon. Of course, everyone you talk to is, sure, we can do it. When I talked to JV, it was the first time someone actually admitted they didn't want to do it. But the BrauKon guys said yes, we can do it. No problem, no problem, in broken English. I talked to them for a while, and in designing the new brewkettle we went through the whole system. He said, oh, you must have mash vessel. I don't want to do a mash vessel, I have a mash/lauter tun and it works very well. But that was the same exact thing that Steinecker said: "Oh, we will make you boil well, and then you will need a mash vessel.@ Seeing this kind of commonality, and because we were talking about getting one anyway B so we could get more beer through the system.

See, with the mash vessel, you've got full temperature control. The way we=re doing it now, we only have two temperatures in our mash. You have your saccharification temperature and your mash-out temperature. You have fairly decent control over that, but you can't do anything else. With the new system, I can make up to 50 steps, if we wanted to. I don't want to do 50 steps, but we can. You literally hit a button and pull open a gate, and the computer takes it through as many steps at whatever heating rate I want.

When you say >pull open a gate,= do you mean to let steam flow?

No, the gate valve=s just to let the grain in. All you have to do it hit go and pull the gate open to let in the grain, and it'll mash, whatever you want. That will transfer into our lauter tun, which works really well as a lauter tun, just not as a mash tun. We'll lauter with that. You could have one mash mashing, one mash lautering, we'll lauter into our old brewkettle, which will be a wort receiver, because that=s the longest thing you do: lauter. We'll also have wort boiling in the wort kettle with the new wort boiling technology, an internal boiler, an internal percolator.

So you've got the mash tun, the lauter tun, the wort receiving vessel, and the wort kettle?

The new things are the wort kettle and the mash tun and all the automation to go with it. And all the really neat PC touchscreen stuff that runs it.

Tell me about the wort kettle.

The wort kettle uses an internal percolator, which is kind of a standard design, in essence, but this internal percolator has two to three times as much surface area as B

Is this "percolator"@ the same as the thing that=s also known as a calandria, or is it different from that?

It=s a calandria. You talk to English brewers, talk to Germany... It=s a tube bundle, with a china hat on top. But this has a lot more surface area, so the steam can be much cooler in temperature, and still have the same heat transfer. You=re not stressing your wort as much.

There=s more surface area because you have...more tubes?

Yeah, more tubes. It=s a little different design, it=s a ripple design rather than a flat design, but I won't know that exactly, they wouldn't share all the specifics until we pay the final check, I guess. We'll boil from 45 minutes to an hour, then shut it down. But since it=s insulated pretty well, it keeps the temperature pretty well. Then a pump will pull wort off the bottom and pump it back in the top of that little china hat. So it still continues on that thin-film spraying. This is all closed-door boil, so it doesn't have air coming in contact with it, which is pretty cool, too. Right now we have a door open all the time, so it has air in contact with it.

Can you explain what the >china hat= does? (A >china hat= is a shallow steel cone, placed above the top end of the calandria, pointy end up.)

Sure. The two bundles are what causes your wort to boil, they=re just vertical tubes (with a steam jacket). The wort shoots straight up out of that.

It=s shooting up because of convection, it=s boiling?

Yeah. Then it hits the bottom of the china hat, and the angle of the hat causes the wort to spray back down in a thin film around the entire perimeter of the tank. What that thin film does is allow more surface area of the wort to come in contact with the steam. It actually causes a little bit of a vacuum that causes microscopic bubbles blahblahblah...we don't need to go into all of that. But what it does is, it cause the volatiles to volatilize off so much more efficiently: DMS, some of the fusel aldehydes, all that fun stuff gets volatilized off a lot easier and goes up the stack and outside.

We only use the two bundles for part of the boil and shut that down. There=s still that temperature and now you use the china hat in the opposite way: you=re spraying from the top and hitting the top, but it still causes it to spray in that thin film. But you=re not wasting energy, and you=re not thermal-stressing your wort any more, it=s not boiling. But you=re still getting the volatilization.

So you=re still getting that >thin film= effect, but the only energy you=re using is the pump.

Exactly. It=s pretty freaking cool. That=s what it really comes down to, they=re pretty clever. That=s the exact same thing I wanted to design, but they have a lot more experience, obviously.

From there, that will run the wort into the whirlpool, that=s our normal whirlpool. It=s a good design, we kept that. The rest is the same. We also just ordered two 100-bbl. fermenters to keep up with Troegenator, and with Mad Elf when that comes back outYthat little beast of burden...

The sum effect of the new brew system: more production?

Yes, way more production. It will be able to do up to 10 brews a day. Right now we could do six, maybe five and a half. We haven't done it, so I don't know. That wasn't really the goal. We always look at that, you want the ability, but we=re not anywhere near needing that.

We needed to replace the brewkettle. We looked at the best technology out there to do it, and in doing that, we realized we should do the mashtun at the same time. It wasn't really that much more to do both. That gave us full control over the mash, and full control over the boil. You have much more consistency B and we try real hard on that anyway, but every little step helps when you=re putting that beer in the bottle, every little step makes a big difference.

You=re going to have more consistency from process to process, that=s going to come from the control and the automation, right?

As long as it=s operating properly...yes. You need to watch everything, you need to be there. What=s great is, Chris Brugger, who=s doing 99% of our brewing, is very consistent in what he does. So I=m not really worried about him, but we=re getting to the point where we need to add an assistant brewer (They’ve since added him: Andrew Dickson started in March). And if you=re adding another person to the mix with a fully manual system B I learned this real quick when I was brewing in Colorado. I had eight guys working for me. You train the first three, and they end up training the next guy, who trains the next guy...

And it=s whisper down the line.

Yeah, I was brewing with the eighth guy one day, he did things totally different than I was teaching people how to do it. What the hell=s going on?! We didn't want to run into that, we didn't want to leave room for that error. They still have to weigh out the hops, they still have to weigh out the malt, but this will give them more time to do that. Two hours between brews is not a lot of time. They=re going to be moving.

Let=s go back to the beginning. You've told me you were never a homebrewer; what was it that got you and your brother Chris into this?

Chris actually homebrewed. He was in Boulder, studying entrepreneurship, how to start young companies, and saw the brewpubs exploding. He was 19 at the time, started homebrewing as a project B because he couldn't go buy beer. {laughter} I was in Philly, and at the time you could get Brooklyn Brown, Sierra Nevada Celebration all year long, and Dock Street. I used to work above the Dock Street pub while I was going to college for finance. I thought I wanted to do commercial real estate, which I definitely don't want anything to do with. Funny thing, that=s what my wife does now. I was on the 19th floor of the high-rise above Dock Street, hated it all day, and then I=d go down and have a pint of Dock Street. I=m thinking, this is pretty cool, and Chris is seeing the brewpubs, and he=s thinking the same thing: this is pretty cool, we've got to start a brewpub.

I graduated two years ahead of him. We were saying, oh we=re going to start a brewpub, we=re going to open a brewpub. And my dad said, you better actually get a job at one to figure out how to do it. We weren't thinking, we were just going to do it.

Oh sure, how hard could it be?

Right! It=s >just brewing beer and running a restaurant,= we went to restaurants all the time, right? That=s why I moved out to Colorado and lived with Chris. I had a room for the summer for free, and I got a job with Oasis just by luck. I went in one day when their little hand-held bottler blew up, and they needed help. I was in luck. Bill Sherwood was the brewmaster, and I was, I guess you=d call it general manager, or second head brewer under Bill, in like six months. They had a lot of guys working there. At the same time they had the brewpub, and were building the bottling facility. So Bill was concentrating on building the facility. All the brewers ended up all over the place, which was one of the reason I stepped up so fast; they were all leaving to do other breweries. Dean Coffey is the head brewer for Angelic, in Madison. He was one of the first brewers I worked with a lot. Then Sweetwater Brewing in Atlanta, Fredrick {Bensch}, one of the owners, actually worked for me a little while. It was a little breeding ground for brewers. That=s where we got our first taste of brewing and restaurants. Chris got a job at a restaurant, ran a kitchen for a little bit, and that=s when we realized we wanted nothing to with a restaurant.

You've been pretty emphatic about that in the past.

We were just talking about that the other day, someone wanted to do a brewpub. No, no, no. We didn't tell them that yet... I just want to make beer.

How long were you there?

Two and a half years. I=d work first shift at the pub, and then second shift at the microbrewery. I was there to learn to brew. I wanted to ski and do all that, but that=s not why I was there. They wouldn't pay for tradesmen, so that=s where I learned to weld. They threw a welder at me, and said here, learn how to weld. I learned MIG and TIG, how to weld stainless, all sorts of stuff, learned the electrical, plumbing. I got a great learning experience there. A lot of what not to do, a lot of what to do. I went to Siebel, to Davis, and some other places to supplement what I was getting on the job.

Rumor has it that you=re backed by family money that lets you take a longer, slower approach to this business. True, partially true?


What=s it like being in a family business?

{Laughs} You never leave it. You=re always working, you=re almost always with your family. No matter where Chris and I are, it=s work. That=s with running your own business anyway, but having a business partner probably doesn't get as emotional, as heated, as with family. You know each other so well, you don't hesitate, you just snap.

But there=s plenty of >two brother= breweries out there: Widmer, Great Lakes, Two Brothers, you guys... it works, evidently.

There=s a lot of trust needed for a partnership. If he=s your brother, what=s the likelihood of something going wrong? I=d like to think there=s not a big chance of that. And I know that when he=s out, he=s not fooling around, he=s working. You would assume that with any partner, but I know it for a fact with Chris. I know him and trust him a lot better than any business partner.

You=re making some pretty big beers these days B Mad Elf, Troegenator, Nugget Nectar B but when you started, you were almost a joke in the geek community for your very well-made but mild-mannered beer. What was the original thinking, and what=s changed?

It was just expanded on. The other beers are still around. We=re definitely not concentrating on big beers by any means. Even the Troegenator=s not necessarily respected within the beer geek community.


It depends on who you talk to, I guess.

What are they, crazy?

Yeah, I=d agree. Most of them are used to Salvator: big, chewy, malty, sweet. I guarantee most of them haven't had Andechs, which is the model for the beer. I love it, it=s my favorite.

And I guess our tastes changed. We took care of our basic needs, a hoppy amber ale (but not so hoppy that you die when you drink it, it=s got a good malt backbone), I wanted a crisp, hoppy pale ale. And my favorite is the Bavarian Lager, I always wind up just going back to that, a good, well-balanced lager. Once you have them taken care of... We didn't really look at it from a sales point of view, neither of us are very good salesmen. We just looked at it as >these are the beers we want to drink.= We expanded upon them. Like Nugget Nectar: I've been dying to do that beer. From Day One I wanted to do that beer. The name came up in our second year. I love that name.

And the graphic, the hand squeezing the hop cone, that=s beautiful.

That was the graphic for my coffee shop. I wanted to have a hand squeezing a coffee bean into a mug. I also roast my own coffee, I don't know if you knew that.

Oh, yeah. That came up the night in Pittsburgh when we were talking about your >latent homebrewing tendencies.=

Right. We've been dying to do that beer, and it finally fit in. The other beers are the base of everything, that=s what pays the bills. They=re fun, but... Mad Elf isn't B no, actually it is starting to pay some bills. We=re going to do 100 bbls. of Nugget Nectar this year (And they did.). That=s a lot, we did about 20 bbls. last year. The big beers are a lot of fun, and that=s why we do them. We've got some ideas rolling around that I can't wait to do, and it=s just because we feel like drinking them. Like Dreamweaver Wheat, it=s not that complicated. We just wanted a wheat that wasn't a normal hefeweizen. Just today we were saying, when is Dreamweaver coming back?

You've got a solid rep for consistency. I've never talked to anyone who=s had a bad Tröegs. What do you credit for that?

Luck? We try. That=s what we mainly strive for, consistency, but without a giant budget to do it, sometimes it=s hard. We don't waver when it comes to that. A lot of times you can substitute; if you don't have the hop that day, you can substitute a different hop, you can substitute a different malt. We don't do that. Consistency is key. If we have to lose sales because of it, we do.

Same thing with freshness. We=re very persistent with freshness. The farther out the wholesaler is, we'll give them a week or two weeks= supply. Usually it=s not a big enough supply, so they=re running out and losing sales, but we=d rather do that than let it sit. When we first started in Philadelphia, we had three wholesalers that would share a truckload, then we wouldn't hear from them in three months. It was ridiculous. And our sales in Philadelphia were really, really bad. We re-did our whole distribution network, and keep them supplied with fresh beer all the time, and sales are through the roof. I think Philly=s up a ridiculous amount this year.

All our sales were up 30% in 2004, and they=re all the same markets we had for two years. Other breweries are taking a different approach, they=re throwing beers across the country or whatever. More power to them, but that=s not our pattern.

Going back to that >latent homebrewing tendencies= remark that Dan Weirback made about you; you like to have your nose in every detail in the process, you like to diddle with the details and keep your hands on the valves. Assuming that=s true, what=s that mean for your job as the brewer? Chris Brugger is making most of the beer, but you love to fiddle with the process.

I still filter. I=m the only one that knows how to run the filter,  (Yeah, well, he doesn’t even do much of that anymore; Andrew's doing that, mostly.) the only who knows how to run the filler, the whole bottling line, and I still fix everything ("I do still fix everything," John said). Today was the first time I let an electrician run a wire. It=s getting harder and harder for me to do everything anymore; I can't. Which is why Chris is so great, because we trust him. He is that beer, he feels like he=s part of the beer. A brewer, any time, just not pitch a hop, or weigh out the wrong hop, if they wanted to, and you wouldn't catch it till it=s too late, and that=s why he=s so great. But I miss brewing. The other day I brewed, and I thought, oh, I miss this. The smell of the mash, and taking out the grain and having the hot grain and the steam.

Chris Brugger: what can you legally reveal about his background?

He was in the Reserves, went to Bosnia right out of high school and came back. He=s a hardcore homebrewer; he was working at the homebrew store locally, and stocking shelves at the Giant. One day I was doing a beer dinner in Carlisle at Market Cross, and this little voice from the back of the room called out, "Hey, do you need any help at the brewery or the warehouse? I'll do anything.@ And there he was.

We needed part-time work in the warehouse, so he started on that. There were a couple other guys working in the brewery at the time. We weren't producing a lot of beer, so I did all the brewing. He cleaned tanks, he did everything, and he picked things up quickly, he=s a smart guy. Other than homebrewing, he doesn't have a brewing background. We=re going to send him to the Weihenstephan class this year. He and I are both going to take it. I like talking to the Germans about how they brew.

Single batch: how far do you stretch on them? Will you stretch further?

Oh, yeah. We don't really look at what other people are brewing. We've come up with a couple of them that we haven't brewed because we look up and realize, oh crap, someone just did that. Which kind of kills it for me. Nugget Nectar is an imperial amber ale, which hasn't been done too much on the east coast; it has been done, but they've called it something else. We just said screw it, we=re doing it. The hardest part is coming up with what we haven't done. We did a porter that was very small B

Dead Reckoning? I loved that beer.

Yeah, me too. I=m dying to bring that back. (And they did, as the first batch on the new brewhouse, 75 bbls., cask and straight push, already out and consumed.) It was all cask or nitrogen. That=s why we can't do it in large quantities. Too early to hint on any upcoming ones. I=m going to Germany next week, that might give me some ideas. I've had some blonde bocks that were fabulous, and I=m thinking about a hoppy blonde bock. Not sure if we'll do anything about that or not. I don't know, depends on where our taste buds take us. We=re mood drinkers. That=s how Mad Elf came about. Chris and I were going crazy one day, building variety cases, just nuts. A delivery truck pulled up to deliver grain, and inside were these giant oak casks. We started throwing out ideas on what we could fill them with, beers, cherries... The casks kind of went away and the cherries stayed, and the yeast stayed, and the beer stayed. That=s usually how it happens, just fooling around.

Cask-conditioned beer: how many outlets are there in your markets?

Our market=s mid-Atlantic, so there=s a lot.

Your main market=s central PA, right?

For now. So there=s KClinger=s, Market Cross... and that=s about it. There=s one up in Perry County, or there used to be, Middle Ridge Tavern, that was as of 6 months ago. Otherwise, the casks to go Baltimore or Philly. I don't think we've sent any to Pittsburgh yet. Pittsburgh=s been a pretty good market for us, and we haven't really paid it that much attention. If we wanted, I=m sure we could do multiple cask beers, or nitrogen beers. It=s not a huge market, that=s more for fun. It takes a special place to take care of those.

Does it take a lot more work on your end?

Depends on the beer. Like Nugget Nectar: you have to clean it manually, you hop it manually, you fill it manually, if it needs more carbonation you have to prime it. Keeping it warm in the winter can be difficult. Our beers are almost >cask-carbonated= during fermentation anyway, so it=s really a matter of racking into the keg, rather than having to prime it. It depends on the beer. Nugget Nectar doesn't carbonate real easily.

What community projects are you involved in? Do you have causes?

We=re in so many causes. Any non-profit organization in the are that comes to us, we give to.

Are you sure you want to put that out?

No, don't say that! We just looked at it today, and oh my God, look at all we do. Most of our friends and family are on boards of those programs. We do a lot, we do as much as we can. We give them a few cases of beer, and to us, that=s not a lot: to them, it might make one of their little fundraisers a little better, and people might give more money. We try to select a couple art societies, and original music, but otherwise we do leukemia benefits, the Cystic Fibrosis festival we do. The fests we go to, we only like to go to the ones that are for a cause. There=s a few we do that aren't, they=re the only ones in the area. Okay, we do them because we do them.

Harrisburg really seems to be coming along lately; I've had four e-mails from readers in the past week about McGrath=s new taplines. What do you credit for all that, and where do you like to go for a beer?

McGrath=s. We do a ginger beer for them, too, for Moscow Mules. The owner and the bar manager are two of the coolest people in the industry, and it feels like home when I go there. When I walk in, the owners are great. It=s always packed, it=s a good neighborhood bar; it=s smoky, but...

When we moved back, we kind of looked at the whole area. The reason we were here were for the water, but Harrisburg had great bones. It=s on the river, it had a lot of things going for it, but it had nothing when we moved here. Two or three restaurants we were scared to go to, and Scott=s Bar and Grill, we=d been going there for years. But we thought, Harrisburg=s got the bones, we=re close to Philly, we=re close to Baltimore, New York, in the middle of everything and warehouses everywhere, so something=s going on. Why it=s boomed? Probably because we came to town.

No, really, we=d like to think that, but most people still don't even know we=re here. I ran into someone the other day: "Tröegs? You work for them? That=s a great import!@ AAAK! And we ran those ads in State College? We got an e-mail: "Wow, it=s great to see a small brewery bring their products to Pennsylvania.@ Stuff like that. They don't even know we=re here. The cost of living in Harrisburg is low, the wages are good, and there=s a good professional population. Not that they=re our target market, I wouldn't necessarily say they=re the biggest market. I would say it has more to do with education. The more educated you are, the more you=re into what=s going into it. But that=s not necessarily the only way it goes, either.

We just love Harrisburg in general. I want to raise a family with my wife, we=re both from the area, and this is a great place to do it. We also knew both wholesalers, Chris worked for the A-B wholesaler in high school, and they offered to take us on right away. They=re the real reason we made it through the first three years, they did so well for us. Starting up, that=s how we were able to take that slow growth approach. We weren't growing slow, we were just growing in areas no one saw. Where do you come from? We=re from here, we weren't going everywhere else.

Everyone else tries to do Philly first, and then move out. We just stayed here, and at the time, no one else went here. It=s a great island for us. But if you=re a brewer, are you going to go here, or to a bigger market. But the locals are seeing it: Lancaster, ABC. They=re doing better, I heard someone say they were doing 5500 bbls., that=s awesome. That=s great for the area. Pennsylvania in general is such a great brewing place. That makes us all look good. I=d put Pennsylvania beer up against anyone. We've got the variety, it=s not single-dimensional.

We don't have a bunch of Neanderthals throwing another bale of hops in the kettle.

That drives me nuts.

Steve up at Selin's Grove told me, "They=re going to make me make the IPA all the time. It=s driving me nuts! It=s the dumbest beer I make!@

Yeah. {laughter} I think a lot of people don't have the taste buds to know what they=re drinking. Hops! Cool! OoooY I=m waiting for the day when the average consumer will say, ooo, that=s oxidized. And not to be in a geek bar, where they think they know what they=re tasting, but to be in Appleby=s and hear someone say, whoa, the DMS is a little high in this one! That=s a good consumer.

Okay, I=m gonna have to send you back to work.

That=s okay, I=m gonna go buy a welder. Good talking to you.

Thanks, John.

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