Tuesday, 22nd August 2017

Nick Funnell

Posted on 01. May, 2012 by in LEADERSHIP

Photography by Ali Vonal

Everyone loves a good beer. An ice cold pilsner after a long day toiling under the summer sun, or a hearty stout paired with a juicy steak, or a Belgian wheat beer topped with an orange wedge are all things of exceeding beauty and delight. Beer is the every-man’s drink, but is also highly refined and as sophisticated as the brewer wants it to be. Enter Nick Funnell. Nick is Great American Restaurant’s master brewer and the creator of some truly magnificent beers, some of which have garnered him professional plaudits and won him award after award. Nick took some time off his busy schedule to speak with us about our favorite drink.

Tell us a bit about your past. Where are you from originally? What made you come to the United States? To Virginia?
Originally I am from York, in the north of England. I worked at a summer camp in New York State after university and, subsequently, traveled from coast to coast and spent several vacations in the U.S. I was very taken with the country and people and decided to look in to working here for an extended period. I got a job in Philadelphia as Head Brewer with Dock Street Brewing Company and then moved to the D.C. area to open a second location. I heard about Great American Restaurants’ plans to open some breweries in Virginia. I applied and was lucky enough to be hired as the Head Brewer for the company in 1996. I’m still here. When did you decide to become a brewer? Was it always your calling? I fell into brewing by pure good luck. I studied chemistry in college, with a minor in economics and, after returning from the States, I was looking for a career where I could use my degree. I stumbled upon an advertisement for an assistant brewer and as I read the description and required qualifications, I realized it matched me pretty closely. Having been a student, I was pretty familiar with the product − if not the production of beer − but once I started as a brewer I found I enjoyed it and was fairly good at it. I worked my way from assistant brewer to running a chain of brewpubs in South East England and then got itchy feet about moving to the U.S. for a fresh challenge.

Do you remember the first instance when you really enjoyed a beer?
I have many distinct memories of beer enjoyment, but it’s hard to say the first. I do remember a couple of standouts, though. When I was in Germany, I went into a bar and asked the bartender what he drank, and he gave me my first wheat beer. That was a revelation for someone who had spent his formative years with English ales and yellow lagers. I also clearly remember the first time I had a great beer in the States. I was in California in a restaurant overlooking the Pacific Ocean and ordered an Anchor Steam Beer. That was an eye opener as it was the first time I realized that American beer wasn’t all the fizzy yellow stuff that I assumed it was.

GREAT BEERS AREN’T NECESSARILY BORN THAT WAY, BUT THEY TEND TO EVOLVE AND IMPROVE OVER TIME

Where do you get your recipes? Do you come up with every beer served at Sweetwater Tavern? How often do you get a chance to experiment?
Most of the recipes started out as mine, but all of our brewers have, over the years, had a hand in improving our beers and developing new ones. Great beers aren’t necessarily born that way, but they tend to evolve and improve over time as they are refined by people who care.

Where do you get your supplies? Do some countries produce better hops than others?
We get our malts from Germany and England and hops from Germany, England, Slovenia, the Czech Republic and the U.S. Th e ingredients we use are all from farms, and the growing conditions and dedication of the producers determine the quality.

Nick Funnell

Nick Funnell

What separates a good beer brewer from the mediocre one?
Hard to say about brewers themselves, but I always think you can tell from the product if the brewer is passionate about what they do. What do you think about the regional and national beer industries? Th e national brewers have quality control that is second to none and make some excellent beers. All of them make some beers I really like, but they are generally not my first choice when I drink as I am often looking for something new. They got big by giving lots of people exactly what they wanted, and we shouldn’t begrudge them their success. Regional breweries similarly have gotten to their size by satisfying large numbers of drinkers. However, they tend to take fewer risks as the cost of failure on that scale can be very high. Each of our breweries makes around 1,000 barrels a year, and some of the big breweries make that much in one batch.

It seems that locally produced craft beers and brewpubs are growing in popularity. Why do you think that is?

Local products have a close connection to the people consuming them. We are able to talk with many of the drinkers of our beers directly and find out what they think without running focus groups. We can respond quickly to the needs of our customers, and they can have a direct involvement with what we are doing.

What’s you favorite beer? Which one do you find yourself going back to year after year?
I have many favorite beers. I want a completely different beer on a hot day than I do on a cold day, or when it is raining. It is hard to pick out just one or two, but I often enjoy a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale as it always brings back fond memories of the first time I had such a great fresh, hoppy beer, and I always enjoy a glass of our Crazy Jackass Ale, a complex and slightly spicy rye beer. I could go on, but then it becomes unfair to the many great beers I love but would have to leave out.

There’s a movement within the beer industry to treat beer as a more refined culinary product. Do you believe that beer has the potential to be taken as seriously as wine?
Beer is too good a value to be treated like wine. There are people willing to spend thousands on fine wines, which don’t cost much more to make than the average plonk, but we have been selling the best beers for low prices for so long that it will take a while to change the mind set.

What are the major differences between American craft-brew culture and the more traditional beer brewing cultures of places like Germany, the Czech Republic and Belgium?
Some of the older beer cultures are now catching up with U.S. craft brewing. There was a tendency for many years to rely on tradition and stifle innovation, but as brewers are exposed to other ways of doing things, there has been a great acceptance of new ideas.

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