Article By: Liza Weisstuch
Alongside a swinging door to the kitchen, sacks of malt are stacked up on pallets. Collectively, the piles could easily serve as a retaining wall, of sorts, if it weren’t for one thing: bag by bag, the heap will quickly be depleted within the week, leaving an empty space where the barrier sat on the Thursday afternoon I spent with Will Meyers, Brew Master at Cambridge Brewing Company (CBC). Meyers casually noted that the bags of malt arrived at the Kendall Square brewpub from all around the world.
“We get malts that are Canadian, English, Belgian, French, and from the United States – every maltster is doing things differently,” he said. “The quality of malts around the world is really high right now. This is about one week’s worth – 5OOO pounds. We can easily go through 42 bags once or twice a week.” It all depends on what he’s making and how many times a week he’s brewing.
That first day of April that I met with Meyers happened to mark the seventeenth anniversary of his first day on the job. Indeed, his work has changed drastically over the years. When he was hired by owner and founder Phil Bannatyne to assist then Head Brewer Darryl Goss, Meyers was an avid home brewer with indomitable determination and remarkable intuition. Nevertheless, he worked about 2O hours a week washing kegs and scrubbing the floors and learning from Goss, a pioneer in the craft brewing movement. Goss set several precedents in the American beer world. He was the first to brew a Belgian-style tripel in an American production facility. Bannatyne, meanwhile, was the first to produce a pumpkin ale east of the Mississippi. As a team, the three broke new ground together with feats like being the first in New England to make authentic Bavarian Hefeweizen.
Before long, Meyers had his hands deep in the beer making process, from wort production to fermentation monitoring to cellaring and putting beers on tap. “It was sort of like jumping into the fire pit,” he remembers. “The Tripel Threat was the first beer I brewed with Darryl here and I was blown away by how complex it was,” Meyers recalled. Until then, his experience making rich, powerful Belgians had been as a home brewer, re-culturing yeast from bottles he drank and using that for fermentation. But even home brewing Belgians was rather progressive for the early 199Os. As Meyers pointed out, in the late ’8Os and early ’9Os, American brewers were principally influenced by the traditions of Great Britain and Germany. Goss was among the first to travel through Belgium and learn from the rich brewing heritage of that nation and come home to make an Abbey-style strong ale.
With the advantage of hindsight, however, you have to figure that any career that begins with what could arguably be called one of the most complex and intense beer styles is bound to be a forceful and influential one that’s loaded with recognition. Indeed, Meyers’s lifetime of beer brewing has been nothing less. Throughout his tenure at CBC, Meyers, 41, has scored the brewpub six medals at the Great American Beer Festival. Among them is a gold medal for the Heather Ale and a gold for the inventive Arquebus, which he loosely refers to as a summer barley wine, but explains it as the “beer interpretation of a white dessert wine”. Brewed with white wine grapes and local honey (in addition to barley), it was then aged in chardonnay barrels. He was a featured speaker at the Craft Brewers’ Conference last year, when he also was asked to brew the symposium beer. Last fall, he spoke at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver. And last summer, CBC was awarded the Champion American Beer title for its Imperial Stout at the Great British Beer Festival. He’s been invited to brew at brewpubs around the world, from Copenhagen to San Diego.
To hear Meyers tell it, a series of unrelated experiences and instincts landed him in the craft beer world. As a child living outside Philadelphia, the idea of a grown-up regularly reaching for the same branded bottle was a far-fetched idea. His father favored variety in his beer drinking regimen. But by the time Meyers got to college, he was immersed in the world of music, and as an arts major, he studied voice performance and music composition and theory. Meantime, however, he developed an insatiable interest in home brewing. He learned about microbiology and yeast handling from biology and chemistry books that hadn’t interested him much when he was fulfilling his undergrad science prerequisites.
“Not to say I had a strong, deep-rooted desire to ferment things, but it was probably always in my sub-conscience. I’d brew batches every weekend. I wanted to know how things happen,” he said. But even if he did use his college science books for reference “the artistic impulse was always there. Beer is actually a great and interesting creative outlet. There are so many permutations of styles you could create.” So in his twenties, he’d have up to ten of his homebrewed beers on a hand-rigged soda tap each week. Of course, there’s no way he could go through 2O cases of beer weekly, so he’d host house parties. His guests were encouraged to sample with just one caveat: before leaving, they’d have to fill out a questionnaire so he could get feedback.
“There was a dearth of beer with integrity in this country,” he said, thinking back to that time when, aside from Sam Adams and Sierra Nevada, there wasn’t much variety available. He figured he’d get a job as a brewer, not that anyone was hiring at the time. Instead, he started working at The Modern Brewer (now the Modern Homebrew Emporium) in Cambridge. On days off he traveled around New England asking for a job. His strategy was informal, to say the least, often approaching brewers at their facilities and offering to clean kegs.
At that time, he met Tod Mott, who was head brewer at Harpoon. Meyers offered him some samples of his homebrews and a mentorship was born.
“He came in and asked for a job, but I wasn’t hiring. He said he’d work for free, but nobody works for free. I paid him – and made up the rest of it in beer,” said Mott, jokingly, from Portsmouth Brewery, where he’s now Head Brewer. “I’m a firm believer that you gotta get your foot in the door somehow. Besides, he brought in his home brews and they blew me away. He was really on top of his game at such an early age, it was ridiculous. And he was determined. He was brewing neat styles from the get-go, so I knew he had a knack. He was doing stuff that I hadn’t known about – he was doing sour beers in 1993!”
As far as Mott sees it, Meyers finds expression for his instincts as an artist through creating beers. “Some are built to be in business, some are built on performance, some are artistic – it’s just part of your genetic inclination, there’s something in you that gives you the drive. Will has a really good voice, but the music industry is a tough road, so he combined both music and beer.” So for six months, he trained under Mott’s watch before finding his way to CBC.
And it’s that innate drive that has kept him at it since. Boston and Cambridge are representative of the entire nation in the sense that in the later half of the 199Os, a number of craft brewing enterprises vanished, a phenomenon often attributed to their either being undercapitalized or the fact that many were started by disinterested parties simply to latch onto a trend and make some fast cash. What was once the Back Bay Brewing Company, for instance, is now the sleek, lounge-y bar, Vox. Around 1998, Goss left to open a brew pub in Nashua, New Hampshire, and passed the torch to Meyers, who took advantage of the creative control. The list of seasonal and special beers offered at the brewpub hasn’t stopped growing – bocks, pilseners, dubbels, tripels have all been on tap. Meyers says he has a “broader view now of what beer can be. Twelve years ago when I made new beers, I asked whether people would be interested. I don’t have to question that now.”
But then, around that time in the late 199Os, one thing he did question was whether or not brewing was actually his calling. He devised a challenge for himself that turned out to be his chef d’oeuvre: Benevolence.
“I decided that to solve my artistic angst, I needed to make a beer that involved an aspect of every brewing tradition I was aware of. I wanted something that had a strong barley wine strength with different sugars in boil, so I used Belgian candi sugar and raisins. I wanted to ferment it with multiple yeast strains, which was a no-no at the time. I decided I wanted to put it in a barrel, so I got 6O used bourbon barrels.” And the list goes on: He added honey, raspberry to sweeten it like Belgians have historically done, and like a Flemish Red, he added wild yeast like brettanomyces and other micro-flora that contribute sourness to the beer. It sat two and a half years in the barrels and got sour, dry and concentrated. Then he brewed more to blend, fulfilling various blending traditions. He added herbs and spices like the Scots had long done to produce Gruit.
“I called it ‘Benevolence’ because as I presented the beer to Phil, I told him he wouldn’t sell it for three years. If it’s any good, it would only be because of the benevolent hand of God. And if it’s good, that’d be reason enough to continue as a brewer, and I’d solve my angst.” What’s more is that he burned all the notes he took on its creation. “I wanted it to be ephemeral,” he said. It’s not hard to equate that move to how a singer must feel after a remarkable live performance: the artistic feat lends itself to an experience – both for the performer and the spectator – that’s remembered, but likely cannot be recreated. Nevertheless, Benevolence was such a success that he did end up recreating it. (It won a silver medal in the Great American Beer Fest’s Experimental Beer category.) The second batch was just unveiled in May in honor of CBC’s twenty-first anniversary.
Throughout his tenure, Meyers has worked with Bannatyne to update the Cambridge facility and implement sustainable practices. One of Bannatyne’s initiatives was to install a secondary water tank in the basement that captures the water that would otherwise go down the drain during brewing. That water gets used on subsequent brewing days. Now, according to Bannatyne, it saves 2OO gallons a week, so 8OO gallons a month. Meyers is also increasingly sourcing more malts and materials from North America.
Meyers is consistently turning out CBC’s four house beers: Regatta Golden, Cambridge Amber, Tall Tale Pale Ale, and Charles River Porter. (These beers are also on tap at nearly four dozen restaurants in the area.) Additionally, there are the rotating seasonals: Spring Training IPA, CBC Hefeweizen, Great Pumpkin Ale, and Big Man Ale in the winter. But one necessity for keeping a small operation fresh is perpetual innovation. He’s created 3O different beers that are single batch and one-off beers, and is always looking to add to the portfolio.
“I’m interested in aged beer, sour beer and Madeira-ization,” he said. He was particularly intrigued when he learned from a California winemaking friend about winemakers who leave their wine barrels outdoors where they’re subject to the elements, causing the contents to brown and evaporate and concentrate. He wanted to try that with beer. Figuring he couldn’t do it with a hopped beer because hops go skunk in the sunlight, he made beer without hops and introduced it to nature. “I like to abuse them. It’s a little counterintuitive, but sometimes it works.”
But none of the success has gone to his head. Meyers refers to CBC as “a tiny little brewpub known around the world”. “It’s pretty far out to me. It’s weird when I’m in Belgium or San Diego or Denmark, and people know who I am,” he said.