Interbrew: Striking a Balance with Paul Graham of Central Waters Brewing

Central Waters took root in Amherst, WI over ten years ago, in 1998. The original guys started brewing in consigned dairy equipment tailored to their needs (from one Wisconsin tradition to another). This year they’ve seen unparalleled growth, buoyed by their cask-aged ales worth their weight in gold.

They are also one of the “greenest” breweries in Wisconsin, using recycled bottles, local grains and building a solar system to heat water. Paul Graham has been with Central Waters since the beginning, pushing them to grow and remain sustainable. He was nice enough to answer a few questions from us here at MwBC. I hope you enjoy this as much as we enjoy their Glacial Trail IPA (a lot!).

What started off your interest in brewing? Can you remember a singular event?

We were in college—a friend brought up the idea—said he had done it once before. How hard could it be right? Yeah, didn’t turn out to well…at all. Became a great party joke though! Never turned back from there—it was a constant pursuit to make a better beer and make better equipment

What sort of training do you have?

I was trained by my parents to be a relentless worker—maybe not trained, but it is definitely in my genes. I have a degree in Geography, a minor in homebrewing. Anello (my business partner) has a degree is Pshycology (and the same minor as me). It is really a hobby gone out of control. Brewing and business has really been a school of hard knocks for us.

How did you get into the business? Why did you choose Amherst for the location?

I was asked to come on with Central Waters about eight months after start up. It was a part time gig for a couple of months then they brought me on full time. Within a year or so, I was pushing the owners to grow, or get out of the way. We were all making about $6.50 an hour, but they were hesitant to really let the business take off. I was 23, going into banks and getting laughed out the door when they finally agreed to sell to me! An old homebrewing buddy of mine (former business partner) had a little cash so we were finally able to get a loan and take over in 2001. We quickly outgrew our old building (which was in Junction City) and decided in 2006 to move out. Amherst was an easy choice—very rural area (town of 1,000) but has an unusual sense of community to it. I always joke that there a traffic jam at the four way stop in town because everyone is so nice they always want the other person to go first.

What was the most difficult part about starting up? How many recipes did you start with?

CW originally had 5 recipes when I came on. Most were modified some in the first few years—we were all still learning back then. The hardest part is trying to run a business that small—$100,000 a year in sales leaves no room for paychecks!

Your slogan is “Making the world a better place, one beer at a time. How is your beer doing this?

If I was a Wall Street banker I would have been fired in the first few months of my job. I like to describe our company as one out of the 1940’s. We’re not profit driven, we’re more than fair to our employees (good pay, full benefits and paid vacation), we all sit down and eat lunch together, our green initiatives, our focus. We’re not what you would call a normal corporation. We work directly with some of our organic farmers to produce ingredients for us and it costs us more!

We have built these mutually beneficial relationships to not only take the volatility out of the market (for us and the farmer) but to make sure the guy normally getting the short end of the stick (the farmer) is not—remember, he needs to be in business in order for me to be in business. Our company profits less because of decisions like this, but I sleep comfortably at night (when my kids aren’t waking me up). It is about building not only a sustainable business, but supply chain. Huge breweries are vertically integrating like crazy right now to drive up profits in a tough marketplace—I call what we are doing horizontal integration—not worrying about profits and being concerned with the overall health of every integral part.

If you could change one thing to make the world a better place, what would it be?

I don’t know..end world hunger…create worldwide peace…just kidding—that’s a tough question though. One thing that really pisses me off is American greed. I think it is out of control and can be to blame for a lot of the situation our country is in right now. If that could somehow be stopped (if I had the power to do that) I think you would see a lot more companies like ours—that actually care for everyone involved rather than the pockets of just a few.  I guess that is my quick moment on the soap box!

You guys do so much for the environment, where did all of these ideas come from? Why is it important to you? Why is it such a big part of your brewery?

Our goal here has always been to do whatever we can whenever we can afford it. It isn’t something that stems from any idea that it would be a good “image” for our company, or that you can save a bunch of money either (although both of these are great benefits from what we have done), but it is just something we believe in.

We feel it is just simply right—we all know the effects of our consumption of natural resources or pollution, and if we can do our part to offset what we can in our process, once again, I sleep easier at night.  It isn’t for anybody else.  Going “green” has become such a bastardized term in the last few years that we don’t want people thinking we’re hopping on some bandwagon—that’s why we haven’t been shoving it down people’s throats with advertising and promotion (the DNR actually contacted us to join the Green Tier—we did not seek it out). Its just us, there’s no great explanation for it.

When I visited, you seemed to be doing a lot with bourbon barrels. Why do you think bourbon-barrel beers are so popular right now? Is there something that makes them special besides the aging process?

The use of oak barrels really brings brewing back to its roots. Wood imparts beautiful flavors and complexity to beer that modern day stainless vessels cannot. Bourbon Barrels are used most commonly simply because Bourbon distilleries are required to use brand new barrels every time. You need to design beers that can stand up to the barrels as well—an imperfect recipe will easily become wildly out of balance. It is an area of brewing that has allowed craft brewers to really push the envelope when it comes to new and interesting beers. It is the creativity side that helps you forget that you are really working in a factory day in and day out.

What are your other passions in life? How do they influence your brewing?

Family is number one passion in life—a beautiful (and very understanding) wife, and two young boys. Riding my bike in the summer, and my snowmobile in the winter. How do they influence my brewing? They all bring balance—a very critical part to survival as a small business owner. Now, I do this for my family too—before it was just for myself. It would be great if the boys wanted to be a part of this some day.

Favorite book? Favorite musician? Favorite movie?

They all change so often—all time favorites…

Book: In Search of God and Guiness.  I read this rather recently (my mother gave it to me) but it quickly made it to the top. It is about Arthur Guiness and what he was about—a man I hope to be.

Movie: The Big Lebowski—doesn’t matter how many times I see it, it is just hilarious.

Musician: I know I will be made fun of for this one….Alison Krauss.

Favorite beer (right now)? Favorite beer and food pairing?

Right now…any (good) IPA—I have always been a hop head. Top food pairing? Bourbon Barrel Stout and barbecue.

Check out Central Waters online.

Want to know more about the brewers that brew the beer you love? Check out our Interbrews page. Have a suggestion for an interview? Want to be interviewed? Follow us on Twitter (@midwestbeer) or send us an e-mail at mwbeercollective@gmail.com

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