Jeff Gill of Tallgrass Brewing Company

Going Pro by | Feb 2015 | Issue #97

Jeff Gill started Tallgrass Brewing, his little craft brewery, in the college town of Manhattan, Kan. To make his business work, Gill had to brew with the ambitions of a much larger brewery, targeting casual drinkers and hopheads alike, and carving out a wide distribution footprint that stretches from the Gulf of Mexico to North Dakota. “Brewers who live in Chicago, for example, have plenty of opportunities to sell beer to people who live in Chicago,” Gill reasons. “We only have 50,000 people here. So we have to go where the people are.” Gill’s cans of beer are made to travel. And everywhere they go, they win converts to the little brewery from Manhattan.

1. Tackle complexity head-on
Jeff Gill grew up in Kansas, surrounded by fermentation. His family made homemade wine. He was making mead when he hit legal drinking age. But for years, beermaking felt like it was beyond reach. “Beer was interesting, but I was intimidated by it,” he recalls. Mead was one thing, but he assumed that wrangling malt, hops, yeast and water into a balanced pint was too complicated to be a real hobby. That changed when Gill, while working as an environmental geologist, discovered that his boss had been homebrewing for decades. Gill’s boss talked him through an extract-based Pale Ale recipe, and before he knew it, his garage and basement were stuffed full of homebrewing equipment. “It became an obsession,” he says.

2. Embrace a challenge
Why brew beer, if you’ve grown up around wine? For Gill, half the draw is in beer’s inherent complexity. “In my opinion, intellectually, beer is more of a challenge than wine or mead,” he argues. “You get more interesting flavors. It’s just malt, hops, yeast and water, but within those four ingredients, there’s so much variability to arrive at completely different results, from an Imperial Stout, to the lightest Bitter you can make, to a Berliner Weisse. That intellectual challenge drew me to brewing.”

3. Watch your behind
Gill launched Tallgrass Brewing in 2007 because he was frustrated with his day job, and he loved his homebrewing hobby. So he swapped out one for the other. It’s a familiar story to many pro brewers. But looking back on it, Gill says, he wishes he’d been more deliberate about the transition to brewing on an industrial scale. “There was some ignorance, some false confidence,” he says now. He ran into some turbulence around the nuts and bolts of running a brewery—quality control, record keeping and managing raw materials. “It wasn’t that I didn’t know my recipes. It was all the other things that bite you in the behind,” he says. “I just paid off some stupid hop contracts made in 2008!”

4. Learn your lessons
The bumpy start at Tallgrass matters because the brewery righted the ship and learned to run its business the right way. “We got experience the old fashioned way, by trial and error. You learn those lessons. You try not to repeat mistakes. We got good support from our investors, we made good hires. Now, we have the institutional knowledge to keep us on the right track.” The brewery has expanded distribution into 13 states. This year, it’ll open up a large new production brewery as well as a brewpub and taphouse in downtown Manhattan. The expansion will take Tallgrass’ offerings both deeper and broader: It will allow the brewery to triple its production volume over the next two years, while giving Gill and his brewers the cellar room they need to geek out on barrels and sours. “We wanted the new brewery to be one where we could do anything we wanted to do.”

5. Go for more
Stylistically, Gill’s beers run the gamut from an insanely hoppy Pale Ale, to a classic English Mild, to a Robust Porter and a Belgian Tripel. In Gill’s mind, the thing that unites these disparate styles is what Gill calls “a moreishness character.” Whatever a particular style does, it has to do its thing well enough to demand drinking more of it. Tallgrass beers can run off in any direction, Gill says, “but they’re going to be really smooth. Whether you’re drinking a Berliner or a Russian Imperial Stout, halfway through the glass, we want you to be thinking about how much you’ll enjoy getting the next one.”

6. Brew for the full spectrum
Back when he was homebrewing, Gill knew he’d never come close to drinking all the beer he was brewing. He brewed prodigious quantities anyway, because he loved the act of creating beer. “I’d taste it, but it was really about exploring ideas, making cool beer, and sharing it with as many people as you can,” Gill says. He runs Tallgrass with the same mentality. “We don’t want to brew just for entry level people, or just for total beer geeks. We don’t want to shut anyone out. I look at it as, are we sharing our beers, and the ideas we have, with as many people as we can?”

7. Ride the rocket
With 8-Bit Pale Ale, Gill tried to fill a gap in his portfolio by creating the liquid equivalent of an 8-bit Nintendo video gaming system. Tallgrass needed a kickass Pale Ale, and with 8-Bit, it has one that’s simultaneously rough-edged and awesome. 8-Bit lays loads of Galaxy and Centennial hops on top of a rich malt base. Then, instead of dry-hopping the beer, Gill cycles it through a cylinder stuffed with whole-leaf hops he calls a hop rocket. He says forcing the beer through the hop rocket yields different flavors than dry hopping, and the beer picks them up more quickly. “I like the rougher character we get,” Gill says. “It fits with the name. It’s simple, it’s fairly unsophisticated, but it’s enjoyable.”

8. Normcore, but for beer
Ethos IPA is a big, double-dry-hopped, candy-like IPA, which puts it in a crowded corner of the craft market. Gill tries to stand out by running away from anything resembling a trendy hop. Instead of Citra or Nelson Sauvin, Ethos leans heavily on some decidedly old-school hops, like Crystal, Willamette, Centennial and Cascade. Heavy dry-hopping doses create a hugely aromatic beer, but the recipe winds up standing apart because it runs away from the same hops many other brewers are gobbling up. “I like the fact that it doesn’t use the hot new hop varieties out there, but we were able to make a beer with a unique hop character,” Gill says. “We’re from Kansas, we don’t pay attention to trends!”

9. Be a grizz
Buffalo Sweat, Tallgrass’ signature oatmeal Cream Stout, originated with one of the brewery’s first employees. The beer combines silky oats and piles of lactose sugar with five types of barley. Back when the recipe was still under development, early iterations tasted too thin, and they weren’t creamy or robust enough for Gill’s liking. The brewers wound up hitting gold by simply doubling the amount of lactose and roasted barley in the recipe. “We’ve doubled down on an ingredient a few different times, and more than a few times, that’s been what put a recipe over the edge,” Gill says. “If you’re going to be a bear, be a grizz.”