Earlier this year, Bathtub Row Brewing (“the Tub”) lost its head brewer, Brandon Venaglia, who decided it was time to head back to Albuquerque. Venaglia is now running the show at Toltec Brewing, so all of us in Los Alamos say thanks for all of the great beers, Brandon, and good luck! (Toltec is one of those lucky finds where they have both good beer and good food; check ’em out if you haven’t already.)
The remaining team, including newly-promoted brewer Justin Sapp, soldiered on while a search began for Brandon’s replacement. Through an odd series of connections, David Seymour heard the call. David has been a brewer for years at some much larger brewing operations in the St. Louis area, and he’s been itching to move to New Mexico. It seemed like a match made in heaven, and before too long, David was on the payroll.
(Editor’s note: It also represents an interesting bit of history repeating itself, in a way. Jacob Loeb, the brewmaster of the Southwestern Brewery and Ice Company in Albuquerque in the late 19th/early 20th centuries, came to New Mexico from a brewery in St. Louis. — S)
I sat down with David for an old-fashioned in-person interview. In a sign of the times, we also conducted part of the interview via e-mail beforehand, so we’ll start off with that. In addition to brewing, David has also worked as a writer, and it shows.
Dark Side Brew Crew: What’s your background? Where were you born and raised?
David Seymour: I was born in Texas but my family moved around a lot, so I grew up mostly in rural Wisconsin, then St Louis, Missouri. I went to college in Chicago and Nashville. My wife is from St Louis, which has been home for the last 20 years.
DSBC: I hear you were a beer writer and consultant; what was that like? What made you want to transition to brewing, and how long have you been doing that?
DS: From the time I was old enough to buy beer, I have preferred local, independent craft breweries. I’m very interested in history and culture and sustainable living, and how people imaginatively survive and thrive using what grows around them. Beer is part of that story back to the beginning of time. At one point, while researching juniper, I learned of sahti, an ancient, unboiled, unhopped beer style from Finland. I couldn’t find a way to buy any, so I learned how to home brew it, thus kicking off a lifelong obsession. I’ve done deep dives into Belgian brewing and Trappist traditions, the brewing history of England, Scotland, Ireland, Germany, Holland, Australia, New Zealand, etc, Chicha de Jora from South America … basically collecting stories of people anywhere fermenting things from their environment. Reproducing and then drinking these things is a really fun and sensory way to connect with the past.
Nowadays, it’s not necessary to drop everything in your life to attend a four-year brewing program in Germany, England, UC Davis, or wherever. You have easy access to so much great information online, and excellent true-to-style beers from all over the world. It’s hopelessly nerdy, but I started posting detailed notes on Ratebeer.com of every beer I tasted, and kept my own spreadsheets of hop varieties and cross-referenced yeast strains, meticulously training my palate in such a way that I can always go back and refresh my memory. After years of homebrewing and independent study, I became a moderator on an English brewing forum, and consulting with breweries, writing beer descriptions for their packaging and websites, analyzing their beers, providing recipes and suggesting improvements to their ingredients, equipment, processes, business building strategies, and so on. When my favorite brewery, Civil Life, had an opening for a new brewer, I jumped at the opportunity. I was hired from a pool of over 40 highly qualified applicants, and the owner said it was because of my “intellectual curiosity and sense of story,” which is possibly the highest compliment I’ve ever received. From there, I transitioned to Urban Chestnut Brewing Company, a huge regional production facility under Bavarian brewmaster and former Anheuser Busch yeast lab director Florian Kuplent.
DSBC: What made you want to join Bathtub Row Brewing? Did northern New Mexico, and Los Alamos in particular, interest you?
DS: My wife was a professional ballet dancer, and one of her best friends, Erin from St. Louis Ballet, moved back here and started a racehorse rescue ranch. We would come stay with her and her family as much as possible, and just fell in love with New Mexico — the climate, the scenery, the complicated histories and intersecting cultures, the quirky lifestyle. During the pandemic shutdown, Missouri had one of the worst responses and New Mexico was among the best. That and other timing issues in our family life got us thinking seriously about permanently moving here. Erin introduced us to Jason Fitzpatrick, a Bathtub Row founder and now co-owner of Tumbleroot Brewing and Distilling. He told me about this head brewer opening. I applied, they expressed immediate interest, flew us out for an interview weekend, and now after several months to sell our house and settle our affairs … here we are.
As far as Los Alamos, I had never been here before my interview, but I’ve been intrigued for years by the odd part it plays in modern science. Since arriving here, I’ve re-read the books Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman and American Prometheus, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Oppenheimer biography. You can already see my new beers on the board with local place names, references to Manhattan Project scientists, etc. Stay tuned for more, including beers with locally foraged ingredients. I’m also obsessed with pueblo pottery, Cormac McCarthy novels, gravel biking, etc, so this is an awesome place for me to have landed. My family and I have begun exploring and hiking some of the area trails, are looking forward to upcoming festivals on the Pajarito ski slopes, etc. “Los Alamos: Where Discoveries Are Made”, right? So far, my best discovery is the chile relleno burrito from Rigoberto’s next door.
It’s fun brewing on a relative tiny scale again, it’s much more hands-on and freeing. Previously, I brewed 60-barrel batches, twice a day into 120-barrel fermenters, and then blended two of those into 240-barrel brite tanks for packaging, but as you can imagine there’s not much willingness to try an imaginative, unproven recipe on such a system. A brewpub system is much more nimble. We can pretty much brew a 7-barrel batch of whatever we want, whenever we want, with total control over the drinking experience and near-immediate feedback from drinkers.
DSBC: Being a co-op, BRB has a bit of an unusual business model. Did you see that as a plus or minus? How do you think that will affect your job?
DS: I think the co-op business model is really cool, definitely lots of pluses. I think Bathtub Row was the fourth (co-op) brewery ever, and there are still fewer than 10 nationwide. It makes for a lot of community interaction, with everyone “thinking like an owner,” with a lot of local pride involved. There’s a board which meets monthly, but from what I can tell, everyone is supportive and on the same team. As you can see, we have greatly expanded our outdoor biergarten during the pandemic, which leads to all kinds of direct interaction with the grateful drinkers of our beer. I can already tell our proximity to the National Labs means a clientele with a passion for knowledge, interest, and understanding in the stories we’re telling, our unique mix of brewing art and science.
DSBC: What kinds of beers do you personally enjoy?
DS: Oh man, that’s like asking a dad who his favorite child is! All of them! I guess I approach beer styles much like musical genres; there are excellent, stand-out artists in every style. I dislike a lot of country music, but some of my all-time musicians would fall broadly in that style. I dislike many mass-produced American lagers, but then, there are some glorious examples within that style (like our New Mexi Lager). My personal favorite beer style in English Mild, an obscure one, but when done right can really tick all the boxes of what beer can be — malty, caramelly, bready, toasty, just a little roasty, with a subtle citrusy, herbal, earthy, floral hop balance. I also love a good, strong stout which finishes dry, a fresh German Pilsner, and I can’t help but love New Mexico’s obsession with strong IPAs (so long as the over-hopping isn’t simply done to cover up brewing mistakes).
DSBC: It seems like past brewers had a big impact on the beer styles that found their way to the BRB taps, which is no surprise; do you see yourself changing things much?
DS: Yes, absolutely. The head brewer sets the whole beer program, creates the recipes, diversifies the tap list, etc, so you can already get a sense of my vision here. Of course, we’ll keep tried-and-true brands that everyone loves. For instance, I have no interest in changing our flagship, Hoppenheimer IPA. But, lots of new brands are here and in the pipeline, and I’ll make minor tweaks (hopefully improvements) to some seasonals. I have a database of literally thousands of commercial beer recipes, past and present, plus my own creations from past brewery jobs, including some big award-winners and Untappd toppers. Customer comments (and rapid sales) have all been very encouraging so far.
Because of my background, I am approaching everything with the same high standards of a regional production brewery, especially with regards to sanitation, quality control, equipment maintenance, workflow efficiency, cellar management, data analytics, cost management. The co-op board has plans for expansion and distribution, so the whole “good enough for a brewpub” mentality just won’t fly. Our system is very small and simple, but we’re getting it dialed in with great precision.
DSBC: Are there any special plans you might have for barrelling, bottling, etc.? Do you plan to change much in the brewhouse?
DS: We do a little small-scale hand-bottling of special releases, but frankly it’s a pain in the ass. I don’t want to do much more canning or bottling unless we build out the space and equipment to really do it right. However, we have recently obtained a distribution license, so our kegged beers will likely start appearing on tap around the area. I do love well-done wood-aged beers. I managed the barrel program at both Civil Life and Urban Chestnut, and have some blending and coopering skills. But, I’ve been told barrel beers aren’t really popular at Bathtub Row, or around New Mexico in general (with the exception of our friends at Rowley Farmhouse). I don’t really know yet, we’ll see. I’ll probably try again sometime. We’ll likely start small with just a few barrels or a foeder on a holiday beer or something. You’ll probably see quick sours first, like a nice fruited Berliner Weisse.
We covered a few more items of interest in the in-person portion of the interview. Bathtub Row will be submitting several beers to the Great American Beer Festival this year, including the Campfire S’mores Milk Stout (brewer Sapp’s recipe, made with hand-torched marshmallows), the Pajarito Red Lager, the Canyon Rim Rye, the Extra Stout, and the just-released DIPAcabra double IPA. Bottling of the beers and hand-delivering them to Denver for the Festival has already happened by now, so we just hope they bring home some medals.
David has a keen mind for science, which is appropriate for this town. He’s bringing a more rigorous, detail-oriented approach to the brewing process. For example, the Tub now owns a microscope and hemocytometer for counting yeast cells. They also own a Raspberry Pi (a tiny, very cheap computer) that runs powerful open-source brewing software developed by Deschutes Brewery in Oregon. All of the fermenters now have a spunding valve, which naturally, inexpensively, and safely carbonates the beer, versus forcing CO2 into it. Detailed records are kept about each brew throughout the process. The goal is to be able to brew the exact same beer time after time. David comes from a much larger operation that distributed a lot of beers; there, consistency is critical. The Tub now has a distribution license and plans to start sending kegs to local restaurants.
“Once it’s going out into the market like that, you you really want it to be 100-percernt predictable and pour the same every time,” he said.
David said he plans to continue the Tub’s (and the nation’s) trend towards lagers and other lower ABV beers. He loves a good, strong IPA, and rest assured that Hoppenheimer IPA isn’t going anywhere, but you will continue to see plenty of sessionable offerings like their American Wheat, Kiwi Lager, or a kolsch. Especially in the summer, those are very popular offerings.
The Tub once again managed to latch onto a talented brewer. Stop by and say hello, and try one of his recipes!