Last week I got the chance for a two-for-one interview with our two local brewers who brought home silver medals from the Great American Beer Festival. Kaylynn McKnight of Nexus and I traveled over to Boxing Bear to join Justin Hamilton over a few pints to talk about their medal-winning experiences. Once I was able to sort through all the random tangents that we kept going off on, I got the pertinent parts of the interview typed up. Hang on, it is a bit of a wild ride with these two characters. We discuss everything from brewer fashion (sorry in advance, Marble staff) to barrel aging to driving on the freeway to the most important question everyone has been asking us in the Crew: When will the Chocolate Milk Stout be back on tap at Boxing Bear?
Oh, and in case you already forgot who won what, here is the link to the GABF story.
NMDSBC: Congratulations to you both for the silver medals at GABF. I know it was your (Kaylynn’s) first. Was it your first, Justin?
Justin: No, this was my second medal as a head brewer.
NMDSBC: So you did win one at Chama. I wasn’t sure going back through the records if you were there yet.
Justin: My first year at Chama in 2010, I won gold for the Baltic porter (Three Dog Night). That was the first year I had taken over at Chama, the first year I had entered at GABF as a head brewer.
Kaylynn: It was actually your recipe at the time?
Justin: Yeah, the Baltic porter was originally Jeff’s. I had changed the recipe. I altered it a fair amount, but I didn’t change the name. I’ve always regretted that. It was always associated with Jeff. It was his base recipe, I just changed it up. It was one of those things where I always to prove to myself that I could win a gold medal with my own recipe.
Being that the competition now is so much more fierce than it was in 2010, it’s a good medal to win. Especially being that there were some really good breweries that entered the Sweet Stout category including places like … Left Hand, they’re standard.
NMDSBC: (Justin) were the last one announced and (Kaylynn) as the first.
Justin: Yeah, I was actually driving in my car. I had to come here in the morning and of course that day things were all (screwed) up with our deposit, I had to go get change, I was like “Goddamn it!” So I had to run to the bank. Everyone was watching at La Cumbre. I left here and was driving. I knew it started. I had the Bluetooth in my car so I pulled up The Brewing Network on my phone and had it on my seat as I was driving.
The first category we were in was (number) 16, Session IPA, which was the biggest it’s ever been (161 entries). I was driving and thinking, “I’m going to be in the car when they announce it. Damn it, damn it, damn it!” I wanted to be at La Cumbre for that. What was yours? 14 or something like that?
Kaylynn: Something like that.
Justin: I heard Nexus Brewery and I was screaming while I was driving, “Way to go, Kaylynn!” People probably thought I was going crazy. I’m hauling ass down the freeway going 80, just trying to get to La Cumbre just to see this (online). I’m freaking out.
I come into La Cumbre, I park in the fire (lane) spot. I run into the pub and said, “I heard Kaylynn won!” They tell me, “John (Bullard) just won gold!” From there on out we were able to watch it all.
I missed those two, but then there wasn’t another New Mexico brewery winning for like another 20 categories.
Kaylynn: At least you got to see yours, though.
Justin: That was awesome. The worst part about watching it at La Cumbre or anywhere, The Brewing Network was lagging considerably. For at least two of my categories, it was stuck right in the middle. There were a couple where I had to go look online to figure out who won those. It was so stressful. Thankfully when our medal came up and got announced, it was live and it was working. I was sitting right next to Daniel (Jaramillo) and we both jumped up and yelled “Holy shit!”
Kaylynn: My parents were watching the awards ceremony, too. I guess right when I got to go up on stage the feed cut out.
Justin: The same thing happened during our medal! Because I was about to take a picture of those guys up on stage and send it to them. I see Kevin, he’s at the edge of the stage and then … pfft! I thought, “You pieces of shit, you’re called The Brewing Network! Network!”
Kaylynn: Right? You have to do better.
Justin: You know you’re going to have thousands of people streaming this thing. Get your shit right!
NMDSBC: It’s 2015, you would think they would know how to handle heavy traffic on the internet.
NMDSBC: You kind of wonder, though, did they plan properly with so many people this year competing, so many more people who love craft beer watching that thing, dragging that server down.
Justin: It’s incredibly hard, it’s got to be hard to deal with. But there’s people on this planet who know how to handle that stream.
It was so incredibly maddening. It was so hard to watch. For a brewer, it’s probably the most anxious you’ll ever feel in your life. Especially when you’re at the ceremony, being there is so much worse.
Kaylynn: And you’re hungover …
Justin: Yeah, you’re hungover. You’ve already done two beer festivals and you’re about to do another two more in the same day. You wake up early, you might have had breakfast, you might not. Who knows what you’ve done in the last two nights?
Kaylynn: And then they make you sit there the entire time, especially when the IPA category is last now.
Justin: And whoever chooses the music is just killing you. You’re just sitting there like on the edge of your seat, you’re getting this terrible feeling, unless you win. Then it’s great because you get to go up in front of all these people.
Kaylynn: I thought I was going to have a heart attack. In the 30 minutes after I sat back down my heart was beating so hard.
Justin: In 2010 when I won my medal, just to give you an idea of how different the event was, the awards ceremony took up a room about the size of three booths. I was maybe the size of this, this upper deck. You just had a little booth, they’d announce it. Then they started doing it in the hall. I haven’t gone in two years, so I only saw pictures. I heard there wasn’t a seat available. I was just like, this is getting insane.
Kaylynn: A lot of beards.
Justin: A lot of beards, a lot of weirdos, a lot of smelly guys. These guys can’t even clean up for potentially the one thing they’re going to be in front of a national audience for? It’s kind of funny. They’re all wearing foot-flops and looking kind of dirty.
NMDSBC: I even noticed that Marble’s group compared to last year when they all looked so well-dressed. Leah (Black) was wearing a nice dress, Anna (Kornke) had the stylish boots …
Justin: Where Josh (Trujillo) was wearing a suit!
NMDSBC: Yeah, this year everybody was up there in T-shirts and jeans.
Justin: I hope that’s not what it’s turning into. (But) the competition is so fierce. If you win a medal, it’s awesome. You have this really great thing to build your career. The whole thing is a crazy mess.
NMDSBC: (to Kaylynn) So you’re there — he’s watching from down here, driving like a maniac on the freeway — you’re actually having to sit there in that audience. Was that the first category you were entered in that came up?
Kaylynn: Yes, well, maybe. Did Other Strong Beer come up before that? It might have been later.
NMDSBC: I’ll look it up.
(Other Strong came after Honey Beer, as it turns out.)
Kaylynn: I’m pretty it was the first beer after Other Strong. Then we had the Scottish, then the weird Belgian, the Other Belgian Strong.
NMDSBC: At least you got it out of the way early. You’re sitting there with the hangover, waiting to hear something. Was it a shot of adrenaline when you heard your name?
Kaylynn: Oh, yeah, I remember standing up, waiting for Reina, skipping down the stairs while holding her hand. I remember going up on the stage, still questioning if I had heard it right. I was wondering if I was going up there and taking someone else’s medal?
I had to ask them and they were like, “You’re Nexus?” and I was like, “It is mine!” It was great. An amazing feeling.
NMDSBC: Correct me if I’m wrong, but wasn’t that one of the first new beers you ever made at Nexus? It was Altbier and then that one.
Kaylynn: I’m pretty sure you’re right, yeah.
NMDSBC: I remember the first place I tried it was at the Railyards.
Kaylynn: That was the second seasonal I made at Nexus and it sold out pretty quickly, so I was able to convince Ken to put it on (permanently and replace the White. I was glad he did.
NMDSBC: It reminds me of something I heard from the Bosque guys when I interviewed them. John said the one thing he wants to win for in the future is for a house beer, rather than a specialty beer that costs a lot of money (to make) or something. And you did! For a house beer, is there a little something extra that comes with that? You can always tell people, don’t worry, it’s on tap at all times.
Kaylynn: I love that one. It’s really nice to always have it on.
Justin: I think the face that it’s a house beer for you is fucking amazing. That’s so great. I can’t imagine winning with a house beer, it would be great.
It’s one thing to have a one-off. We brewed the Chocolate Milk Stout once. I was lucky it came out so well. I was lucky to put some of it away for competition because it was so good. But for the fact that’s always on tap, that’s such a great marketing tool. I think it’s awesome. That’s so cool.
Kaylynn: I’m happy. (Laughs) I actually got phone calls from the National Honey Board today, they did an interview with me on the phone. I called to get the honey (locally). I sent Jim a text message, said thank you for selling me honey.
Justin: We used to use their honey at Chama. The fact that it’s local is cool.
NMDSBC: It’s almost a 100-percent local beer, basically.
Justin: He’s a great guy to deal with, too.
NMDSBC: It’s always good to have easy people to work with be a part of the supply chain.
Kaylynn: I wish I could get the chamomile locally. We have to get it from San Francisco.
NMDSBC: I don’t think it can grow locally in our climate.
Kaylynn: I’ve never seen a chamomile flower here.
NMDSBC: It probably needs more of a coastal, moisture-heavy environment.
Kaylynn: That sounds right.
NMDSBC: (to Justin) And then since yours isn’t on tap all the time, people are asking, when is it coming back? Are you guys making a fresh batch?
Justin: Yeah, we just got the ingredients for it. I have to make another couple batches of house beer first. We just got our new 20-barrel (fermenters) in, so we’re going to make a 20-barrel batch. We’re going to do a 20-barrel next Friday (Oct. 9). So we’re hoping it will be on tap, I’m guessing probably by the end of October. We’re planning to hit it hard. I’m planning to do some nitro versions, we’re going to do some cask versions, we’re actually going to take some and hopefully barrel age a little bit of it.
Kaylynn: You have barrels already?
Justin: We do have barrels, yeah. Right now we have our house stout in it’s Cabernet Sauvignon barrels, I believe. Or is it Pinot Noir? It’s a dry red. But it’s been aging in there for a few months. So we’re going to rack that off probably later this month. Then we’re going to rack on some brown, our Oso Otono Ale. We’re going to try to get some of that Chocolate Milk Stout racked on as soon as it’s ready. It will be the first round with the whiskey barrels. I’m hoping it will be nice and oaky and roasty and chocolate. That sounds great to me.
NMDSBC: I had a barrel-aged milk stout (35K) from one of the breweries in Louisville. They had it on tap at Anodyne. … I got a whole pint and said “This is outstanding.”
Justin: That’s what I’m hoping for. I haven’t played with a sweet stout in a barrel. I think it will work. If it comes out OK, that’s fine. Hopefully it comes out as something amazing.
NMDSBC: Well, I remember how popular it was on cask. You told me to come try it last year and I got here at 8 (p.m.) and it was out. Your staff said they had never had a cask run out that quickly.
Justin: I don’t know if I’m going to do the exact same (way). I did the Chocolate Milk Stout on vanilla beans that time.
NMDSBC: Well, to kind of wrap it up, for each of you personally, to go to a place with 1,552 breweries competing in 92 categories, out of 6,738 beers entered in competition, you each came away with a medal. The odds were stacked against you. What does it mean for you as a brewer and what you’ve been able to accomplish in the short time you (Justin) have been in this place and you (Kaylynn) have been in charge at Nexus?
Kaylynn: I’m just really appreciate all the people who have helped me out on the journey. It means a ton to me, I’m overjoyed, but I would not be here without Ken and all of my fellow brewers who help me out every day, let me borrow something, let me wash kegs at their brewery, anything. I’m overjoyed, but I feel it took a lot of teamwork to help me make good beer.
Justin: I think it’s cool because you’re such a good role model for people in this business. I think it’s awesome, actually. I remember talking about you at GABF like back when you started with Jeff in 2010. We go up there and there was some girl who was brewing at Pizza Port and I told her “there’s a girl who brews in Albuquerque!” There was like Jordy in Santa Fe and you were the only girl I knew that brewed here.
For me that was like, I was so psyched! Not only for the fact you came up in a male-dominated industry, but for the fact you shined, you kicked all those bearded assholes’ asses! Literally there were so many guys up there that were hurt because you went and brewed a better beer than they did. That to me is awesome, that’s so cool to me.
Kaylynn: I was wondering when I was looking at the Brewers Association (website), to see if they have any way to track all the female brewers that won. They said they didn’t know how to track that information, but they suggested getting a post out asking who else won. I don’t know if I’m willing to go to that length.
Justin: I don’t think there’s a lot of female winners. People like Anna are part of a brew team. She’s another awesome person, but it’s a lot more rare that I see female head brewers. It’s awesome that you’re putting up your recipes against a lot of dudes.
NMDSBC: Anyway, same question to you (Justin) before we drift too far off topic.
Justin: Honestly, it means a lot, for more than one reason. For the fact it was 100-percent my recipe, it was my company. I was thinking about it today the fact that … it’s weird to think back about these things. Going back a few years, I laid out the design for the brewhouse, I designed the beers, I designed a lot of stuff that’s happening here. So it’s really cool to have some reassurance that I’m doing a good job. Being in such a saturated, a really saturated industry, and then being someone who’s been in this industry for almost a decade, to keep yourself relevant in brewing I think is a fear, a little bit. You always want to be proudly remembered in this industry. You don’t want to be left behind.
I think GABF this year was kind of showing we’re still here. You (Kaylynn) are doing good, John is doing good, Marble is doing great. Not to say that nobody else is making good beer. It just really gave me that pat on the back I’ve been looking for a while. It lets me know I’m doing my job and going in the right direction, with not only my business, but my life. You put so much into a business and a career, you sacrifice so much of my life and my time, now I’m sacrificing time with my new child to do this. At least I know it’s for a reason.
It’s for something that not only means a lot to me, it’s starting to mean a lot to another people. That’s really good. Like Kaylynn said, it means a lot to the community, for me the support of the brewers, the community we know. There’s a group of really good brewers and friends that help us in anything we need. I think that community aspect is really important.
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A big thanks to Justin and Kaylynn for taking some time to talk. And for the pints. And all the stories I could not share, but enjoyed hearing nonetheless.