Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Phillips Interview #2: Bodybuilders with Bad Backs

In this second part of three in the Phillips Brewery interview series, Matt Phillips talks about his taste in beers, and the challenges of producing and drinking a good India Pale Ale. Also, I get to drink three new Phillips brews — one of which is still in the testing phase.
Phillips tells me that his best sellers are the Blue Buck ale and the IPA — which surprised me, as I thought the Phoenix Gold lager would outsell the IPA. Obviously you'd never mess with your best-sellers, right? Wrong. "Hop Circle," Phillips' new IPA, is actually an unfiltered reworking of the original recipe, and the impression I got is that Phillips sees it as a permanent replacement.

I'm a big fan of the original IPA, so my first instinct was to grab Phillips by the lapels and slap him around a bit. But before I could act he handed me the freshest-possible glass of Hop Circle, and I got over it pretty quick. This beer is simply better. It pours a lemony-gold colour, with a substantial haze (although my glass was the result of a near-explosive pour, which may have contributed to the suspension). The aroma is a blast of resiny hops — it actually smells very much like marijuana. The taste is rounder, a touch sweeter, but at least as bitter as the old IPA. I can't comment on the carbonation (my one problem with the old IPA was that it was always a bit too fizzy) — because the pour on this one left it kind-of flat, but the taste is spot-on. It *might* even be what at least one giddy blogger has called it — "the current IPA champion of BC" — but I'd have to drink some store-bought Hop Circle before I kicked Central City's Red Racer IPA off its throne.

Naturally, talk turned to IPA at this point, a beer that Phillips himself "drinks every day." The "raunchy and coarse" northwestern hops are clearly fundamental to his enjoyment of beer, and Phillips states bluntly that his own tastes govern what he brews (have you noticed that Phillips wide array of seasonals contains no sours? He's not particularly into them.) So, while I fail to draw Phillips on his favourite BC IPAs, he does offer a poetic angle on his go-to style:
MP: I've had some so-called "great" IPAs that have been sensational, and I've had them other times when they've been so-so. It all depends. You have to get them fresh. IPAs are so delicate. They're kind of like the bodybuilder with a bad back: they look really tough, but if you kick them in the knee they fall down. All the things that make an IPA really exciting are fleeting. You have to get them close to a brewery, you have to get them kept right, and without — say — a good bottle-filler? It's all wasted. 
During this speech something awakens in Phillips. He drops his measured, friendly demeanor, and excitement takes over. He calls out to a nearby worker and gestures at me to follow:
"Where's the Double Barrelled at?"
"Wherever that hose is going!"
Ten seconds later we're both drinking the Phillips Double Barrel — a Scotch Ale aged in fresh bourbon casks — poured from a tap set in the side of one of the thirty-foot tanks. It's a classy scotch ale, and I preferred it to the pretty decent Swans Brewpub version I had last week. "It's not so bourbony: less heat than last year," Phillips tells me. But I still get a powerful slug of bourbon, woody-vanilla, and figs from it. The booze is up-front, but not unpleasant.
- As a craft-brewer, are you comfortable with interesting inconsistencies between batches?
MP: Yes and no. With our regular beers, consistency is very important, and it's something we're always striving to perfect here. We're excited by the year-to-year variations in our seasonals. Some years we do the raspberry and it's blood-red, other times it might be a mild pink — but it could taste more powerful than the redder batch. It's really interesting. But our IPA should taste like an IPA every time, and our major aim is to deliver that.
I'm still finishing the scotch ale when Phillips makes another quick move and takes me to a tap poking out of a refrigerator. He pours me a pale-looking ale with a musky aroma I can't quite place. It tastes kind of sweet, like a malty brown-ale, but I also get a melony kick from it.
MP: This is a stone beer. It's fired with hot stones, so you get some caramelization when the hot stones hit the wort. It gives a lot of body and roundness and a real smokey flavour. It's a scottish style, light on the hops. Right now it's just a pilot beer but it could go forward.

- Do you brew a lot of experimental stuff?
MP: Oh sure. We could have three batches a week of experimental stuff. The stone beer is shaping up pretty well. Hey, let me show you the bottling line.
With that, I'm whisked to another part of the brewery, where we talk about the future of Phillips Brewery. I also manage to get Phillips to comment on a subject that has touched his own brewery — legal wrangles over copyright between craft-breweries.

But that's enough typing tonight. Catch it in part three.


  1. I'd love a steinbier. I'm all about the endangered styles.

  2. Me too man, I have fantasies about eating a panda sandwich.

  3. Dude, hot rocks?!? WTF? The possibilities of play seem endless. These guys have the best job....ever.

    Hurry and post part three. The anticipation is killing me!