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Interview With International Beer Expert Gwen Conley

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International Beer expert Gwen Conley
Photo © 2015 Lyne Noella/WavePlay LLC
Photo courtesy of Gwen Conley

The sum total of my knowledge about beer is that I enjoy it, it comes in light and dark, and there's about a bazillion brands. I sensed there might be more to beer than that and I was curious as to what that might be. Luckily, I was connected with Gwen Conley, an internationally renowned beer expert. As a result, I found that what Aristotle said is so true: "The more you know, the more you know you don't know." Hope you enjoy our chat. Cheers!

Gwen Conley holds the position of Director of Brewery Production and Quality Assurance at Port Brewing / The Lost Abbey in San Marcos, CA. Gwen's path to the Craft Beer world included being a biology teacher, environmental chemist, microbiologist, and Flavor Panel Leader at Ball Corporation in Broomfield, CO. Prior to moving to San Diego, Gwen was the Quality Assurance / Sensory Director at Flying Dog Brewery in Frederick, MD.

She has a Bachelor's in Biology with a minor in Chemistry. She is a veteran judge at the World Beer Cup and the Great American Beer Festival. In addition to all this fun, she is also an Instructor for the American Brewer's Guild and at UCSD Brewing Program.

Finally, Conley is the co-author, with Julia Herz, a certified Cicerone and craft beer program director for the Brewers Association (BA), of the definitive guide to the art of marrying quality beer and cuisine. Beer Pairing: The Essential Guide from the Pairings Pros, goes on sale later this year (but you can pre-order it now in preparation for the gift-giving season).

Gwen, I assume that when you were a little girl dreaming of what you'd be when you grew up, one of your dreams was not "Director of Brewery Production and Quality Assurance at Port Brewing / The Lost Abbey in San Marcos, CA." How did that happen?
I like to describe it as dumb luck and an eclectic gypsy career path. Plants, teaching, chemistry, and then doing what I refer to as "grunt microbiology" at Coors which consisted of collecting and processing brewery samples. Because of my experience at Coors and beer, I was very fortunate to land a lab position at Ball Corporation where I worked for 9 years with the Sensory/Flavor Panel. I went through 18 months of intensive sensory training so that I could train new panel members and keep the entire panel calibrated, like a well-oiled tasting machine. Our biggest customers were big breweries, big beverage companies, and canned food manufactures. Training consisted of being trained with food items, beverages, wine, and beer. Next move was from Colorado to Maryland to work for Flying Dog Brewery as Director of Quality and Sensory. I actually grew up in Maryland and thought this is a weird circle of coincidences but all part of the dumb luck. What a wonderful decision that was. Craft breweries are so fun to work for that your job isn't a job at all, but a lifestyle. After a few years back on the East coast, the amazing opportunity to move to San Diego and work for Lost Abbey arose. Hard to pass up living in paradise and working with such an amazing brewery, so that is how I got to where I am today.

You were a Biology Teacher, Environmental Chemist, and a Microbiologist. Do you use the skills from any of those positions in your current beer work? How so?
A craft brewery really is a marriage of science and art. The more science you know, the better picture you have of the entire process. This helps with making consistent quality beer all the time. I started off in college with Biology and was going for the double minor in Chemistry and Criminal Justice so I could go into police forensics. Although it isn't police work, part of my duties now are very much like CSI for the brewery. Looking for potential issues before they happen, coming up with solutions when they do happen, finding the cause of the problem, and finally implementing procedures so they don't happen again. Science, it is so much better than guessing!

Is the beer biz male-dominated? How did you break through?
I really wish I had a good answer for this question, because I seem to be asked it in some form or another frequently. Yes the beer biz is quite male-dominated, but that is changing quite a bit. I don't know that I would call it breaking through, but just a passion for what I do. Caring about what you doing, the product you put out, being positive, working hard are all qualities that help anyone break through, no matter what your gender.

You've been a veteran judge at the World Beer Cup and the Great American Beer Festival. Could you describe the judging process? Did you have a designated driver? Anyone ever tried bribing you?
Judging is an invigorating and humbling experience every year. Imagine a group of well-known brewers, writers, and industry people just sitting at a table, quietly evaluating individual beers identified only by a number. Each judge taking notes recording the good, the bad, and if it fits into the style in which it is entered. Once we are all done, we discuss, debate, and decide which beers will move to the next round or win a medal. You are happy for the winners and sad for the ones that don't make it. Since beers are identified only by a number, judges have really no idea what the beer's identity is. We are also not allowed to use our phones during judging, so no pictures or looking up any information. It is quite liberating to be sequestered! Most of us are from out of town so walking, cabs, and Uber are the way we all travel. When I did live in Denver, I would just take the bus.

You teach beer in college at the UCSD Brewing Program. Is that the most popular class ever in college? What's the curriculum? Is drinking allowed in class?
I teach Beer Sensory and Styles as part of the core curriculum as well as Beer and Food Pairing as an elective. Tasting, not drinking, is allowed in class. Ok, it isn't just allowed, it is pretty much mandatory. How else can you learn about aromas, flavors, styles, how all the different beer ingredients interact? Spiking beers with off-flavors is always fun for me because these are sometimes terrible attributes (vomit, goat, sweat-sock, old cheese) or they are at levels that are almost overpowering. They are high so that everyone can identify them. Beer and food pairing gives some insight into deconstructing your beer and your food to match the pieces and parts together, kind of like a jig-saw puzzle. They get to experience beers with foods they wouldn't typically eat together, like roasted seaweed snack with a Belgian Dubbel.

What do you mean above by "They are high so that everyone can identify them"?
I also teach at the American Brewer's Guild in Vermont a couple of weeks a year. It is a very intensive hands-on scenario and my area of teaching is Quality Assurance and laboratory techniques. Quality and consistency are vital to beer.

Your brewery's website features a Ten Commandments of Beer. Number four is: "Fresh beer is great, aged beer is better." Why is aged beer better? How long ideally should one age the beer?
Sorry that sounds like something marketing wrote. I think fresh beer is great and aged beer is great, but that all depends on the style you are dealing with. Beers that you really don't want to taste old would be styles like IPA's, Pilsners, Ambers, or any beer that is going to have off-notes of cardboard, paper, or metal. Beers that age well will create flavors that are pleasantly more complex. Barrel-aged beers when first bottled might give an impression of whatever spirit was in the barrel previously, bourbon for instance, but as the beer ages, the balance of perceptions can change. The bourbon characteristic subsides and the perception of chocolate and vanilla might dominate. Since there are so many different styles of beer in many different variations, there is no one set of guidelines that can apply here. Some the shelf-life might be 120 days, while others, if cellared at a proper temperature, might be delightful now and years from now. You best bet is to purchase many bottles of the same beer, drink one now, drink one later, repeat until you run out. We all like different things; what I like aged, you might not. Figure out what you like and do that.

At the 2014 Great American Beer Festival, Port Brewing brought home two medals: Silver for Hop-15 in the Imperial India Pale Ale category, and Bronze for Shark Attack in the Imperial Red category. What in your opinion makes these award-winning beers?
They are delicious! No really, they are delicious. They exemplify what those styles are. We at the brewery love them, so they are made with love, surrounded by love, and it shows. Did I mention that they are delicious?

You've just co-written a book titled, Beer Pairing: The Essential Guide from the Pairings Pros. Could you describe the book and how and why you came to write it?
Julia and I knew that there really aren't any good references out there that say what we are looking for, so we wrote one ourselves. We want people to wake up and start being conscious tasters and find their own individual pairing passions. Perception is a personal experience; no two people are the same. We might all agree on pizza, but we are not going to agree on the same toppings. Pairings are the same way. What works for you might not work for me. We are trying to teach people to just experience what they are tasting, why the interactions happen, and keep learning.

What are your thoughts on wine and other alcoholic beverages?
I like all alcoholic beverages. This is why I love working with beer in barrels. We work with wine, bourbon, brandy, rye, rum, tequila, cognac, and whatever else we can get our hands on. Embrace it all.

What other beers do you like/recommend besides those of your brewery?
I have "go-to" beers like Firestone Walker and Sierra Nevada because they make quality, consistent beer. With so many new breweries opening up every day, I say go try them. You never know when you are going to stumble onto your next "go-to" beer.

Do you have a favorite book, movie, play or TV show that deals with drinking?
Books would be The Drunken Botantist by Amy Stewart and anything that explains the what and why about boozing things, like What Einstein Told His Cook by Robert Wolke, Whiskey and Wine by Henry Work. Movie wise for some reason I thought of "Leaving Las Vegas". Kind of dark, but good movie. TV show would definitely be "Drunk History"!

Any goals for the future you can share?
Who knows what road dumb luck will take me on, but I am sure it will be a fun adventure.

What do you like best/worst about your job?
I truly enjoy growing wild yeast and bacteria. They are always changing aromas and flavors. When you add beer, wild yeast and/or bacteria to a barrel it is such a sensory experience to watch what happens over time. The best part about beer is it is a living thing. The worst part about beer is it is a living thing. Sometimes things go wrong and the beer cannot be fixed. The worst part about my job is deciding that beer needs to be dumped. That can mean packaged beer is too old, a barrel isn't what we intended, or even an entire tank of beer.

How does the "Quality Assurance" part of your job manifest itself?
Assurance means being proactive and not reactive. Quality Assurance isn't just about the beer, but also about the people. If you can keep your people happy and proud of what they are making, then they want to make the best they can make. Teaching people why they are doing what they are doing and what can happen if they do it wrong goes a long way when it comes to quality assurance of the beer. The beer is the baby, we are just raising it to go off into the world and make us proud.

What does a microbiologist do?
Science! Microbiology is used throughout the brewery to check that the yeast we are using is happy and healthy and what we intended to be in the tank. Free of possible contaminations. Microbiology is also used to make sure that the non-sour barrel aged beers are free of any of our funky friends. Our funky friends are wild yeast and bacteria, which we also embrace and love at The Lost Abbey. We just want them to live where we want them and not where they aren't supposed to. Quality Assurance in action, baby!

What does an Environmental Chemist do?
That was quite a while ago, but essentially what I did was cooking with chemicals. It involved titrations and distillations to check for hazardous chemicals in water, soil, materials. You know, very Dexter's Laboratory like. I had a lot of acid holes in my clothing, which was kind of cool.

Do you recommend any of the make-your-own-beer-at-home kits they sell?
I really don't know much about them so I can't say yes or no. I think if you are interested in something, then go for it. I would recommend finding a local home brew shop or club and joining up with other home brewers. In San Diego we have Quaff, which is a very enthusiastic group of home brewers who are more than happy to share their ideas of what to do and what not to do to make consistent beer at home.

How do your friends, neighbors and family view your new job?
Everyone like free beer. :)

What other hobbies/interests do you have?
Yikes! What is free time? I love yard work, cooking, taking the dogs for long walks, and football! I have an 80" TV and NFL tickets.

Could you describe your family life?
I have the best husband, who is also my best friend. We have been married to for 26 years. He supports and helps me with whatever he can. He likes to call himself my roadie, but I think that's because he likes free beer. We have 2 dogs, Ursa and Ralph Steadman.

Do you have a philosophy of business success? Of life?
Don't be afraid and just do it. Live in the moment and go with whatever opportunities the universe throws your way. Have fun, because if you aren't having fun, you need to change what you are doing.

Any particular music you like when drinking beer?
Music, like beer, is season, time of day, and mood-dependent, don't you think?

Do you ever get tired of drinking beer?
YES! Seriously, there are times when I just can't turn off evaluating beer, so I just switch gears for a bit. This doesn't mean that I am not consciously tasting, quite the contrary. Different aromas and flavors simulate different taste receptor cells. I am just recalibrating and relaxing. I am a big fan of bourbon. Just like you work out your body to keep it healthy, you play brain games to keep your mind sharp, you have to work out your senses as well. If you are always eating and drinking the same things, you are dulling your senses. This is probably the reason as you get older you over salt everything. You've dulled your senses! Boo, hiss, people. Change it up and eat and drink different stuff at least once a week.

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