If you’re the Answer Brewpub’s Brandon Tolbert, you’re marveling that a beer-making hobby led to a career: “I had no idea it would turn into this.”
After graduating from Virginia Commonwealth University with a degree in painting and printmaking, Tolbert took a job as a technician with a printing company, brewing beer and comparing notes with fellow home brewers during off hours. In 2013, after a friend in the James River Homebrewers Association suggested Tolbert for consideration, Extra Billy’s BBQ in Midlothian offered him a job as head brewer.
“I don’t know why anyone would do that,” Tolbert says, looking back. “It’s a risk. There are a lot of differences between home brewing and commercial brewing. When you do it at home, it’s for yourself. I’m now in the position of making beer people want to buy.”
Because Extra Billy’s former head brewer was long gone, Tolbert was on his own while he learned the ins and outs of commercial equipment. He visited other breweries in town to study what they did and asked questions of professional brewers to fill in the gaps. “Mostly you just have to be there and do things with water,” he says. “It turned out pretty well.”
And by well, he means earning gold and silver medals at the Virginia Craft Brewers Cup that August — within six months of his starting to brew commercially.
In June 2014, Tolbert was tapped as head brewer at Answer Brewpub, the project of Mekong and Commercial Taphouse owner An Bui. And while it opened in July with a mind-boggling 56 taps, brewing equipment wasn’t installed until early this year. On March 17, Tolbert and Bui got the long-awaited federal approval from the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, the first essential regulatory step before Tolbert could begin brewing. April 29 marked the first beer’s release.
Being head brewer may seem glamorous until a closer look reveals the amount of time spent actually brewing.
“It’s 90 percent cleaning tanks, floors, everything that the beer comes in contact with,” Tolbert says. “Microbes can destroy an entire batch.” Then add the paperwork, ordering, inventorying and what he refers to as “the scientific stuff,” such as taking pH measurements and gravity readings. “You don’t have to like that stuff but you have to understand it,” he says.
The Answer will produce more than 200 barrels this year, a drop in the bucket of the craft beer movement, which has seen the number of brew pubs and microbreweries more than double between 2008 and 2014. That’s according to the Brewers Association, a trade group that defines craft brewers as producing fewer than 6 million barrels annually and being less than 25 percent owned by a large beverage maker.
So many beer options can overwhelm the public, which Tolbert acknowledges, although he questions those who limit their tasting: “You wouldn’t eat the same food every day, so I think it’s odd when people drink the same beer every time.”
Many factors affect taste. Before it got to the bar, did it sit in a hot truck? How well does the bar maintain its beer lines? “Every beer I love now, I had to make myself try and keep trying,” he says. “The freshest beer is always at the source.”
Last summer’s Virginia Craft Brewers Cup has him excited about the possibilities of what’s next. “I’m not sure a lot of people know who we are yet,” he says. “If we walk away with a medal, it would help get the word out.”
The Answer Brewpub
6008 W. Broad St.