A brewing hobbyist-turned-master, Will Meyers of the Cambridge Brewing Company in Massachusetts brings an innovative approach to American beer-making. The American craft-brewing industry, still in its infancy at a mere 28 years old, is all about ingenuity, and Meyers is at the forefront with his award-winning experimental beers, incorporating unusual ingredients like heather flowers, jasmine and lavender. His heather ale The Wind Cried Mari won Meyers a gold medal at the 2006 Great American Beer Fest, and his Great Pumpkin Ale is a local favorite. He tells Smithsonian.com what it takes to make a great beer. Cheers!
How did you get into this line of work?
I started as a homebrewer about 17 years ago. I had just turned 21 and had always had an interest in homebrewing. I had an uncle who brewed beer when I was a kid, a grandfather who made wine and a dad who had a taste for all different sorts of beer. When I had my first couple of batches of homebrewed beer and they turned out quite well, I was quickly smitten. I found myself pretty much obsessing over the hobby, brewing almost every weekend. It morphed along to the point where eventually I figured I had to find out if I could get someone to pay me to make beer.
What's the most exciting part of your job?
The conception and production of a new beer, particularly when we have an idea to make some new, unusual, experimental beer—something that's potentially never been seen on the face of the earth, or something that somebody else has done that I think I can engineer to be even better. Probably my second biggest thrill would be in taking such a beer and explaining it to somebody and serving it to them and having them like it and understand it.
Why is a beer's back story so important?
If you make a beer and say, "Here, try this. It has no hops in it, but it's got heather, lavender, sweet gale and yarrow," people are going to look at you like you have two heads. But if you explain what's going on—that it's styled after a beer brewed by wild Pictish warriors in the Northern British isles long before the Middle Ages—they become intrigued by the story. Their brains tell their palates that this is something cool.
So what is your creative process?
I don't begin a beer by thinking of a recipe and a scientific formula. I think about the beer that I want to hold in my hand and what it's going to smell like and taste like and feel like on my palate, and the reaction I want other people to have to it. Then I just kind of run through my mental catalog of ingredients that will contribute what I'm looking for—different yeast strains, different methods of fermentation and aging. I kind of end up working backwards and coming up with a recipe that way. I think that brewing has an incredible history. For well over 5,000 years we've had documented civilization with recipes and hymns and prayers to various gods and goddesses of harvests and brewing, and I think that puts a lot of weight on a contemporary brewer's shoulders.
You seem interested in the history and traditions of brewing.
I've always been a bit of a history buff. I would read stories and sagas from the Norse countries about the Vikings and the Berserkers and their traditions of making nectars or ambrosias. I knew that no matter how much research I did, I would never make a beer that tasted exactly like what they drank a thousand years ago. We'll never know. We can't even really know exactly what beer tasted like a hundred years ago. People took terrible notes, and all of our ingredients, due to the methods that they're grown, handled and processed, are pretty significantly different. The best we can do is try to approximate those beers through a combination of historical reference, and recipes that we find, what people wrote about them and what they liked and disliked.
What's the biggest misconception about brewing?
That it's incredibly glamorous. A lot of people seem to think that I spend my day wearing a white lab coat, walking around with a clipboard making notes, taking small samples of beer from various tanks and holding them up to the light and sniffing and sipping and looking at the beers under microscopes. The other misconception would be the opposite—that we're all a bunch of crazy alcoholics.
What inspires you when creating a new beer?
Music inspires me a lot. I studied music as a student and had some training in music theory and composition and vocal performance. In particular, I'd say I've always been inspired by improvisational music, particularly late 20th-century jazz, a lot of the music that came out of the 60's that I guess could be termed more or less progressive rock, contemporary so-called classical composers—people that really look to the idea that the creative process itself is just as important as the end result.
Are there any downsides to your job?
Of course, I'm not making tons of money. I'm not fabulously wealthy. I should've gotten into computers when my dad told me to. Actually, I don't necessarily aspire to have scads of money, so it doesn't really bother me that much.
What is your advice for someone going into this field?
Run away. [Laughs] You're going to be asked to work really hard for insanely long hours for ridiculously low pay, especially for somebody who's just getting in as an entry level brewer. For anybody who's really serious about it, I would recommend that they spend their time homebrewing and reading every book they can find on brewing, particularly practical science brewing books. They should knock on a lot of doors, generally make pests of themselves, as I did 15, 16 years ago, and convince some local brewer that they should have the opportunity to get an internship, or see if there's a part-time job cleaning kegs or helping to empty the mash tun and work their way up.
What makes a great beer?
A great beer, whether it's some novel experimental beer or a replication of some traditional style, shows when tasted and appreciated that it's made with quality ingredients at the hands of an experienced brewer who has a sense of finesse and a sense of self to impart to his beers. I think that a great beer, a world-class beer, isn't necessarily produced in some of the most technically proficient breweries in the world. It's one that maybe is a little bit idiosyncratic, but that benefits from that little extra bit of style.
Julia Kaganskiy is a freelance writer in Boston.