Interbrew: Getting Scientific and Making Great Beer with Ashton Lewis of Springfield Brewing Company

When we ran our interview with Mother’s a few weeks back, we neglected a huge part of Springfield’s brewing culture: the Springfield Brewing Company. Founded in 1997 by Paul Mueller Company, a brewing equipment manufacturer, Springfield Brewing Company has become a staple of any visit to Springfield. Master brewer Ashton Lewis was nice enough to get in touch with us and answer a couple questions about what it was like to brew beer on the West Coast and return back to the Heartland. Read more after the jump!

What is your role at Springfield Brewing Co.?

I am the Master Brewer and oversee brewing operations. My primary role these days is to come up with new recipes and bother Trey Manning, the man who does all of the brewing, with nagging questions. Since our brewery is owned by an equipment manufacturer I have migrated into a Technical Sales role for my company’s brewing equipment.

Where did you get started brewing?

Like many craft brewers I began brewing in a kitchen. That was back in 1986 and the kitchen was that of Janice Flores. Her son Tommy, Tom today, and I were best childhood friends and we are both professional brewers today.

My first several “paid brewing gigs” were at the Sudwerk Brewery in Davis, California and at UC Davis as a graduate teaching assistant where I was mentored by Professor Michael J. Lewis who influenced professional brewers in the US like no other individual.

What made you decide to take the plunge to become a brewmaster?

I was teaching and consulting with my mentor, Michael Lewis, and colleague Dr. Tom Shellhammer, who now has his own brewing program at Oregon State, and in 1997 saw a decline in the growth of new breweries. This was the first dip in craft brewing and I decided that I needed to put up or shut up.  Our consulting company was hired by Mueller (my current employer and supplier of brewing company to great US breweries) and Mueller offered me the job as Master Brewer of Springfield Brewing Company. So with a very short period of deliberation I decided that the offer was an excellent move. The rest is a vital part of my career history.

How did Springfield Brewing Co. get started? Why Springfield?

I work for Paul Mueller Company which is located here in Springfield. Mueller was founded in 1940 and began building tanks for Anheuser-Busch in about 1964. This marked Mueller’s entry into the US brewing equipment market and Mueller built a lot of brewery fermenters, chip tanks, aging tanks and other vessels for US brewers.

The growth of craft brewing brought a new page to Mueller’s portfolio and in 1996 the plans for Springfield Brewing Company began. That is when Mueller hired Lewis-Twice & Shellhammer, my former consulting partnership with Michael and Tom. The initial idea was to build a showcase brewery and, by golly, Mueller did just that. Springfield Brewing Company opened its doors in December, 1997.

How much beer are you producing every year?

We pay tax on right at 1300 BBLs per year and about 80% of that volume is sold across the taps at our brewpub.

What challenges to do you face as an established brewery?

Our challenges are different than most breweries. Since Mueller sells equipment to other brewers we do not want to compete with our customers. One of our biggest challenges is answering the question “Why have you guys not made an effort to grow productions and sales?”  That is a maddening question to answer because many of our customers have no idea what Mueller provides to our nation’s great craft brewers.

When we opened our doors August Busch III., nicknamed “Augie” by Anheuser-Busch acolytes, called Mueller asking what the heck we were thinking about opening a brewery to compete with AB. Remember, this was back in the days when Augie had a campaign with distributors called “100% Share of Mind.”  In response we decided that we would never attempt to grow sales beyond our pub and extremely limited local markets.

With new breweries opening all over the country, what do you think it takes to make it in this business?

In today’s market all breweries must be able to brew great beer, provide great packaged beer to their customers and be savvy in the ways of the brewing business. This was not true when there were relatively few craft brewers.

How many recipes did Springfield start off with and what has been the most successful?

We are a pub and can only serve 6 draft beers at any given time. This is still the case, although we have done more with special bottled beers that are brewed to commemorate our anniversary. Our most successful beer has been our Unfiltered Wheat. This is an American-style wheat beer that we chose to offer as a bridge beer. I had to endure critiques from many beer “geeks” about this beer (by the way, I am a major beer geek) over the years, but to my pleasure this beer has won a Gold and Bronze medal at the GABF.

What beer are you most proud of from your time at Springfield Brewing Co.?

I have no children, but if I did I would not have a favorite. If I were not proud of our beers they would not be served, and that has happened on the odd occasion when my palate said “no.”  I am partial to some of the weird barrel-aged beers we have brewed … if I must answer this awful question.

Any interesting new recipes your working on that you could tell us about?

A funky sour beer that has been aging in oak for 2 ½ years. This beer will be sold in bottles only in about 2 months. This beer is really nice for devotees of Belgian-style sours.

What is it about beer that means so much to us as a society?

Really? That’s a whole philosophical treatise in the making! Beer makes people articulate and well balanced … it also provides immense pleasure to our senses and makes us dream about what we all can do to be meaningful beings. I guess I think that a society without beer would really suck. Oh yeah, Prohibition kind of proved that notion!

What are your other passions in life? Do they influence your brewing?

Listening to jazz, appreciating great food, scuba diving and spending time with family. I also write for a homebrew magazine, lecture about beer when I can and dream about my fantasy brewery.  Yeah, I would say these things influence my brewing. Why? Because they stimulate my hoppy bone.  Did you doubt that I am indeed a beer geek?

Favorite beer and food pairing?

The beer I have pulled from my fridge with the food that’s on my plate. Seriously, let the wine snob crowd attempt to convince you that ‘x’ is best with ‘y’ and tell me how free you feel with that restricted view of personal preference. Beer and wine should be paired with what you like to share with your choice of beverage.

What are you reading right now?

Ludlum’s Icarus Agenda (1988). I haven’t figured out how this tome relates to Icarus or his agenda, but I am sure there will be some connection to brewing.

What are you listening to right now?

My Dexter Gordon channel on Pandora. At this moment Pepper Adams, known as “The Knife”, is reminding me of why playing the baritone saxophone was a pretty nice choice. The “Bari” is the stout of the sax world!

For more information about Springfield Brewing Company, visit their website here.

Need more? Follow us on Twitter (@MidwestBeer) and on Facebook. Interested in being featured in an Interbrew? E-mail us at mwbeercollective@gmail.com.

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