Wine County Beer People - Brad Smisloff

Sixth in the series

 

Smisloff expands the Napa taste profile

 

In 1987, a mere 11 years after its Calistoga neighbor Chateau Montelena shocked the wine world at the Judgement of Paris, the Calistoga Inn electrified the beer world by establishing the first brewery in Napa County since the days of Prohibition. Licensed as the Napa Valley Brewing Company, it has won it’s own share of medals through the years.


Brad Smisloff

 
Today the man charged with keeping that experience stellar is Calistoga Inn brewmaster Brad Smisloff. Wine Country Beer caught up with Brad at the brewery and got him talking about what it’s like to be a brewer in northern Napa wine country.

Wine Country BeerSince Northern California has so many incredible wineries and quite a few larger craft breweries too, does that make it hard to be a successful small brewer here? 

Brad Smisloff:  I think that what ends up happening is that brewers tend to be kind of a tight knit group. It’s one of the few professions I’m aware of that in a pinch you can call one of your closest competitors and say oh I goofed and I need a pound of hops. Do you have any Cascade. They’ll say, “Oh sure. Come on by.” So you’ll bring them a growler of your beer, and they’ll say “You’re not leaving without taking a growler of our beer.” It’s a friendly competition. It’s fantastic. Everybody shares ideas, good sources of products, techniques. It really just raises the bar and helps everyone make better beer.”

WCBWhat makes wine industry people such good customers of local craft beer?

Smisloff:  When you are out working, doing hard work and you’ve been tasting wine blending, or sampling barrels or things like that. A lot of people after work just want to get away come down to a relaxed atmosphere at the pub. They’ve all got fantastic palates as well, and they just kind of transfer that over to beer. They tend to be the ones who like the much more interesting or complex styles, things that aren’t so cookie-cutter.

WCBDo you ever have wine people who may not be very knowledgeable about craft brewing stop in and want to see the brewery and talk to you about the brewing process?

Smisloff:  Yes, they find it fascinating. There’s been a couple times when I’ve been just starting a brewery tour and a local regular who is a winemaker will go “Oh you’re giving a tour. Can I join in?”  They’re always quite fascinated. They realize it has similarities, like fermentation; but then when they see the intricacies of the process they start to realize the many differences between making beer and making wine.

WCB:  What’s the biggest difference that jumps out at you when you compare brewing to wine making?

Smisloff:  Wineries are much more dependent on the growing season—on what’s growing well, and what they’ve decided to make. Whereas brewing ingredients are really quite static. Generally there are adequate supplies of special malted barleys from anywhere around the world. There’s a great selection of hops available year round.

WCBFrom wine drinkers, do you see affinities for certain beer styles?

Smisloff: I’m  not sure if there’s a correlation like that. Usually there’s two things that people either like of dislike. the biggest one from my experience is hops — the bitterness. Someone may love the big tannic wines but that doesn’t mean they’ll enjoy a real bitter beer. The other one is residual sweetness. If someone really doesn’t like sweeter white wines, they’re probably not going to like the residual sweetness in a beer either. We encourage our bartenders to sample their customers. We have some quite distinct flavors in a lot of the beers I have on tap. Our bartenders try to help customers find beer styles they’ll really enjoy.

WCBHow do you handle seasonal beers?

Smisloff:  In addition to the four regular house beers, I just create whatever I want. I can really make on a whim whatever I want to. Certain beers I plan out more specifically like Octoberfest or my Blitzen IPA which is very popular at Christmas time.

WCB:  Do you ever hit on a special or seasonal beer that becomes so much in demand that you have to keep making it? 

Smisloff: There’s a Blackberry Pale Ale that I’m going to be forced to make for the rest of my time here I’m sure. I just do one batch of it a year and that’s made around the time blackberries are in season in the summer.

WCB:  Where do you get your inspiration for some of your special beers?

Smisloff:  Sometimes I’ll get and inspiration from drinking other beers that are unique—especially the Belgian-style ones. I like their free style and creativity. Belgians have no qualms about adding fruits, herbs, spices, candy sugars, or even critters like brett. They’ll use whatever they want to cause it’s all about making a better, more interesting beer than your neighbor. Sometimes I’ll get inspired by ingredients and figure out a beer around them. Other times it’s a main theme, like I want to make a hop-centric beer, or a pale ale, or an ESB.

WCB:  Your beers are largely very drinkable beers that pair well with food. Is that something you think about more because you are located at a restaurant?

Smisloff:  That’s one of the reason’s I strive toward such unique flavors in the beers. It’s very discouraging to me to go into a place and they’ve got five beers on taps; they’re all different colors but they all taste pretty much the same. It’s easy to do. You source your grain from the same place, have one house yeast in house that gives a characteristic taste to all the beers. I really, really strive to avoid that here. I think that helps in being able to pair it with food. You’ve got such a selection you can find something that pairs really well.

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In contrast to wineries, which are pretty much limited to the grapes they either grow or source once a year, a brewery has much greater flexibility. Smisloff uses this flexibility to his advantage keeping four regular beers and two seasonal beers on tap at all times. His tasty regular brews include a Wheat Ale, Pilsner, Red Ale and Calistoga Porter.  If this isn’t enough for the discriminating customer, his seasonal selections will be.

Seasonally Smisloff brews IPA, Rye P.A., Belgian Pale Ale, Pumpkin Wheat Beer, Oatmeal Stout, Octoberfest, Bitter, Dubbel and Tripel, just to name a few. No matter the season, he has a beer just for it. Any wine tourist could benefit by taking a break from a day of wine tasting to sample this Napa brewer’s art. Brewery tours are available Monday to Friday by appointment.

For more information go to: Calistoga Inn and Brewery profile page

 

PHOTO KEY

Top: Calistoga Inn seen from the street.

2nd Top: Brad Smisloff at work in the brewery.

3rd Top: This building houses the brewery.

4th Top: Look for this sign and come on in.

5th Top: Shaded tables on the patio overlook the Napa River.

6th Top: Out back of the restaurant is a Bavarian-style beer garden.


Photo Credits

All photos by Charles Bockway for Wine Country Beer.