NMBCo. x Cigar City Pt. 2: A Brewer's Memoir

Man drinking and spilling dark beer

This past year had been an incredible journey for us at Northern Monk Brew Co. and surely for all the gracious souls who appreciate what we do as well. Throughout the year, we had introduced the Twist, Patrons Projects, and Trilogy series as part of our beer range to great success, which we hope to further continue through our forthcoming expansionary phase. As the finale to our monumental accomplishments this year, we brewed Trilogy Yeast Tripel, the third and final installment to The Trilogy MMXVI series, in collaboration with the world-renowned Cigar City Brewing from Florida.

yeast beer can in middle of bread
(photo by Tom Joy)
In Part 1 of the dual NMBCo. x Cigar City blog posts, we interviewed Cigar City's brewmaster Wayne Wambles when he came into our brewery to brew with us. You may not know this, but our breweries' cross-continental relationship was a sort of exchange programme, in which we reciprocate Wayne's visit by sending our brewer Adam Lyle over to Cigar City HQ in Tampa for a two-week stage. In this second part of our double blog feature, we present to you Adam's journal entry about the time he spent there, an in-depth reflection on his experiences of living and working with one of the world's best breweries...

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By Adam Lyle:

black beer bottle golden wax opeth
"The paths that our collaborations take us on have led us on some great adventures. Late last year, we had the honour of collaborating with Opeth, the masters of progressive metal from Sweden. For the band's 25th anniversary, we channelled a quarter century's worth of creativity into two celebratory beers, one a whopping imperial stout as intense as their music and the other a sessionable pale ale designed to be enjoyed with their live shows. This opened us up to Opeth's massive global fan base who also happen to be pretty big into their craft beer. Upon the launch of the Opeth XXV Anniversary Imperial Stout, we were flooded with e-mails from all around the world inquiring for its availability all the way from Peru to Japan! We naturally did all we could to send it out to wherever it was demanded. We then thought to ourselves "wow! wasn't that something" and sat back to enjoy ourselves proudly watching the worldwide check-ins to see how far this beer of ours would venture out around the globe. Little did we know, this beer would become Northern Monk's ticket to make first contact with the Brewmaster of the world renowned Cigar City Brewing himself, Wayne Wambles.

The folks at Cigar City just so happen to be fans of Opeth's music and obviously craft beer veterans by trade. So naturally, they wanted to try our progressive band-beer collaboration and reached out to us and introduced us to Wayne in the process. This was such a pleasant surprise, and we enthusiastically responded with an accompanying shipment of the beer as soon as we could. Getting the chance to correspond directly with the Brewmaster of one of America's (and world's) best breweries was a phenomenal opportunity for an aspiring young brewery like us. Soon enough, we struck upon the idea of swapping brewers for a couple of weeks to cross-pollinate our knowledge and ideas and also discover new inventive techniques in our mutual pursuit of brewing excellence. Their end of the bargain ended up being Wayne's collaboration with us on Trilogy Yeast MMXVI, but I still got the opportunity to stage for two weeks at Cigar City Brewing in Florida. In a way, this stint breaks the mould of the traditional collaboration model in the brewing industry, in which two brewers typically work together for a much briefer period of time.

beer barrel fermenters
The notion of an extended cross-training stint at another highly respected brewery just seemed like a great way to expand a brewer's knowledge and shake up perspectives. This prospect is clearly an advantage for us here at NMBCo., as we are on the cusp of a major expansion. Whilst it allows us to get ahead of the game, this two-way visit also allows Cigar City to observe different processes beyond those that have already been established for nearly over a decade. This is the kind of cross-camp sharing and learning that will push the brewing industry as a whole to progress and evolve, and us brewers at Northern Monk Brew Co. are all keen to participate in this process. Needless to say however, Cigar City has probably seen and done everything there is to be seen and done in the industry, but it's always good to keep an open mind to different approaches.

So after a rather pleasant weekend shift at Indy Man Beer Con 2016 festival, I packed my bags and set off to Tampa, Florida, to see for myself what is brewing in the sunshine state. My arrival was welcomed by the warmth of both the glorious Floridian sunshine and the hospitality from the guys at Cigar City who immediately took me on a tour around their brewery's labyrinth of spaces and warehouses. It became immediately obvious to me that they started very small and organically grew into their surroundings over time, occupying and converting what used to be a series of businesses into the current HQ of Cigar City Brewing.

brewing tanks
Cigar City was founded a little under ten years ago by Joey Redner who hired Wayne as their head brewer right from the get go. Their first commercially brewed beer was a brown ale called Maduro. It was quickly followed by the iconic Jai Alai IPA, and the rest was beer history. The brewery itself has been heavily influenced by the Cuban culture that proliferated in and around Tampa which included (no surprise) cigar factories that once populated the city perimeters. If you know me, you'd know that this is my kind of brewery. It all began with a 15BBL kit with six fermenters that were quickly dwarfed by the surging demand for local beer. They now run a 30BBL kit 24/7 to keep up with the demand and have to outsource some of the production on the side. I spent my first few days at the brewery learning their systems and their ethos of brewing quality beers from quality ingredients whilst providing the staff the space to do it. It became clear that this mantra allows for the evolution of the company to come naturally and comfortably without ever losing the character that makes them who they are.

cigar city beer pallets devils horns
There are definitely some idiosyncrasies within their brew house. But all good breweries do things their own way, and it is these idiosyncrasies that allow Cigar City to continue to stand out in the ever-changing brewing world. One major curiosity that I had going into the first week was the production of their beers that use wood, i.e. White Oak Jai Alai and Humidor series of IPAs. These are techniques that are not often seen in the UK brewing scene, and so I was eager to observe this process. For this, the brewers at Cigar City have constructed their own lovingly named "spin bot" that enables them to age their beers on a selected wood to achieve the desired results in a matter of only a couple of days. This asset is the envy of most brewers who have to run the gauntlet of barrel aging. It had also helped create a scene in Tampa which favours seeking out new inventive flavours from unlikely sources, an attitude that helps foster an environment of constructive competition.

In general, the beer scene in Tampa is one of sharing as well as a bit of friendly competition held in good spirits and better company. For instance, Cigar City runs El Catador Club, a one-time fee that grants entry into their exclusive beer launches. This promotes people to get their bottles and then share them in clubs with friends. I myself was lucky enough to share in on a Double Barrel-aged Hunahpu's imperial stout, a truly astounding beer. All this went on whilst others around me were sipping on exclusive beers from all across the state. This sense of community in turn feeds back into the scene with independent bars opening up and championing beers that are locally brewed.


Whilst soaking all of this up, I had been putting an effort into learning from as many aspects of this remarkable brewing company as I can manage, from providing assistance on their brew days to packaging and lab work. One of the most interesting days was spent with Jason Fromm, their Lead Treatments & Cask Manager (yes, they do casks there, too!). Jason is in charge of coming up with and putting on exclusive kegs and casks for their taproom, whether it be a one-off beer or an old favourite brought back to plug a hole in their tap lineup. The freedom to invent there is absolutely brilliant. He practically creates anything that he can think of as well as taking suggestions from all members of staff. To this point, he had added everything from liquor-soaked wood chips to cereals and sweets into their beers in search of iconic flavours. Whilst I was on duty, he conjured up a strawberry margarita gose and a raspberry twist on their classic Jai Alai. This job is another one of those idiosyncrasies that allow Cigar City to have fun with beer and keep the inventive ideas coming which may just lead to the next best thing!

monk wall art
Beyond Cigar City, the local brewing scene is also thriving. I was lucky enough to tag along to many breweries around the vicinity. A few that stood out were of course Angry Chair Brewing, Coppertail Brewing Co., Arkane Aleworks, Cycle Brewing, and Hidden Springs Ale Works, all of whom greeted the Cigar City guys and myself as friends and were more than happy to divulge their stories and ambitions for each of their beers. And of course, each of them were keen to share their latest beers with off-the-wall style and flavour combinations. Suffice to say, this led to many a sore head in the brew house the following day...

Heading into my last week at Cigar City Brewing, my time there had most definitely shaped up to be an incredible experience for me. They had been a great host, and I'd been able to learn all sorts of new things. Everyone there was a joy to spend time with, and they didn't balk at answering the million and one questions that I threw at them! I'm now looking to forward to take home this whole experience and get started on progressing the way that we brew here in the North to make sure that we're taking steps in the right direction to become the best brewery that we can be. I'd just like to end my journal entry with a massive thanks to everyone at Cigar City Brewing for their hospitality and general awesomeness. Until next time... Adam out."

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