Our interview with October PIONEER speaker, Tod Mott - Founder and head brewer at Tributary Brewing Company in Kittery, Maine.
PKX: Tell us about your journey to becoming a master beer brewer.
Tod: In 2003 I was in an interview with Portsmouth Brewing and they asked me to critique all 8 of their beers. I literally tore every single one of the beers apart, except their brainchild called Old Brown Dog. But the other 7 - I said, hey “Sky’s the limit.” They hired me, and we turned what was floundering little brewery into a world class one. We all loved it, but over the course of 8.5 years you just get tired of the same thing.
My creative process really evolved at Portsmouth Brewery.
Instead of just having a set of beers set in stone and maybe one or two seasonal beers, we rotated the stouts. That kept things interesting. We tried all kinds of stouts - we had a Black Cat Stout, Le Chat Noir which was a Belgian Stout, we had an Oatmeal Stout, a Milk Stout, a Russian Imperial Stout called Kate the Great.
Kate the Great got this crazy cult following.
We went from being little Portsmouth Brewery making good beer, to now all of the sudden we were a destination brewery one day a year - the first Monday in March - we would release Kate the Great. At midnight when we closed on Sunday night, there was a line. People would spend the night, in March, in New Hampshire. The governor gave us a proclamation - Kate The Great day.
This all happened because of The Beer Advocate. Jason and Tom Alstrom put out this issue once a year for the best beers. in 2007 they called Kate the Great the second best beer on the planet and the best beer in America.
A Russian imperial stout being called the best beer in America? It was so humbling.
There are so many great beers in America.
At Tributary we have taken the recipe from Kate the Great, not the name, just the recipe because that recipe has followed me since I started brewing in 1996 at the Back Bay Brewing company where we were calling it The Boston Strangler Stout. We got a cease and desist on that name from the families of the victims, which we honored, and just called it a Russian Imperial Stout. Every year I would make the stout wherever I was brewing.
PKX: When did you know you were on to something with beer with your palette?
Tod: Because I drank so many out of balance beers.
So many craft breweries are putting out these "hops bombs” that are too bitter.
My father was a wine enthusiast. I got the taste for wine as a 14 year old.
We went to Switzerland and on Sunday afternoons my father implemented a rule that we would have a small glass of wine as was the custom there for teens. So I started tasting and finding nuance - and we would sit and talk about it. Why does this pair well with food? So I was way ahead of the curve and I’ve developed a really great palette. I am a national judge on the World Beer Cup and the Great American Beer Festival. I’m getting pretty burnt out on it. It’s not just hanging out and getting drunk. You have three flights a day of 7 beers, three days in a row. A lot of paperwork and tasting notes. It’s a lot harder than it sounds. It’s a big responsibility and I take it very seriously.
PKX: So talk about this explosion in craft beer.
Tod: I’ve been waiting for this to happen to since 1996. It’s been outrageous! Took a while to get momentum, but now I’m concerned about the sustainability. The cream will rise to the top. Not everyone is going to make it.
I think it’s a reaction to the big guys.
Kids of brewers my age grew up with a refrigerator full of really good beer.
There was never Budweiser in my refrigerator.
PKX: Is Budweiser not a good beer?
Tod: It’s an incredibly consistent good beer. It just not very engaging. It doesn’t “rub the wrong the way” like a great beer does - it has no edge to it. But they are consistent. They are the American Society of Brewing Chemists and I have all the respect in the world for them, I just don’t particularly like that beer.
I drank a lot of it in college because you could get a suitcase of it for nothing. But as I got older and starting brewing beer and my wife got me a home brewing kit I realized it’s all process. And since I had my master’s in ceramics, which is also all about process, it made sense to me.
Brewing is art and science. It’s about understanding your ingredients, it’s recipe formulation, it’s time and temperature, and it’s chemistry and a little microbiology.
And it was so easy for me to transition from ceramics to beer. I have this idea to put a kiln in the brewery and have the best mug club ever! I haven’t done that yet…
PKX: Talk to us more about the craft.
Tod: Here at Tributary we are making Pumpkin Ale right now using pumpkins from a local farm. The pumpkins weren’t ready until two days ago. It’s very seasonal and a lot of work. We shred the pumpkins in a giant Hobart over at Portsmouth Brewery, then we use the enzymes in the barley to break down the pumpkin starch down into a fermentable sugar. It’s actually made out of pumpkins. Most pumpkin beers are just spice - there is not a single piece of food in it. We put actual food in our beer.
I make traditional beers that were historically made for a reason.
People made beer out of pumpkins because they had pumpkins laying around.
Like with the origins of IPA, India Pale Ale. The ale was traveling from Europe to India by ship. It went through 7 climactic changes in the holds of ships in big huge barrels. Over the course of the time it took to get there, 3-6 months, it would go bad. The English figured out that what made it more microbiologically stable, was the hops. Hops are an antimicrobial, they are in the beer for a reason. So they upped the alcohol level, which is also a preservative and they added the hops. So the India Pale Ales, the stronger beers, were given to the officers as a straight beverage. And the enlisted men were given watered down versions.
So historically, India Pale Ale came about as necessity.
When the first settlers came to the new world, their beers were running out. They had to use whatever they could find. They had barley - they had stores of it along with hops they brought with them, but they were running short. They were trying to figure out, what could they use to augment the fermentability of the beer, and they started using pumpkins and squashes and apples - anything that had a sugar source for a starch and they would use the enzymes from the barley to start to break it down for the brewing process.
The early settlers figured it out. History is so cool.
So Imperial Stout and Kate the Great, now this is probably more along the lines of folklore that history, but the story goes the Czarina Katherine was looking for something to drink with her vodka. Beer just wasn’t doing it for her. So the English made an Imperial Stout that was upwards of 12%.
Kate would have shots of vodka and a stout chaser. That’s why she was so great.
PKX: If you could open up a door to anywhere in time, where would you go and why?
Tod: I would open up a door to circa 1980, because my father was still alive then, and I would carry all this baggage I have now and go back i time and prove to him that I was so appreciative of what he gave me. My parents gave me my palette. My mom is still alive, she’s 90, and she’s so cool.
But I would love for him to meet my kids, and drink my beer.
He actually loved beer. Every once and awhile he would splurge and get some German lager.
PKX: Why do you think your talk will appeal to our CreativeMornings community?
Tod: Creative community is exactly where we live.
Brewers are a creative bunch. We are troubleshooters, we are creative, we are inventive, we are imaginative, we use ingredients that most people won’t.
I’ve done collaborations with some really interesting people. We did an Oyster Stout. And again - like the settlers - it’s a necessity. During WWII there wasn’t a supply of calcium. But there was an abundance of oysters. The British, so ingenious, used oysters to bring the PH down in the stout, and they used the limestone from the calcium in the shells. I think that is brilliant and creative.
So brewers are pretty creative and very resourceful. We are all Macgyvers.
PKX: If we could have any speaker at PKX, who would you like to see?
Tod: I saw Ken Burns at the Music Hall, now that he and Lynn Novick have Vietnam out, I’d love to see either of them. I bet Lynn has a lot to say.
Thanks Tod. Some pumpkin ale sounds good right about now.