Tyler Jones, Head Brewer, Black Hog Brewing Co.

9 Steps to Beerdom by | Mar 2017 | Issue #122

Tyler Jones matured as a brewer in a pub, slinging out six or seven dozen recipes every year. He’s brought that drive to Black Hog Brewing Co., the Oxford, Conn., production brewery Jones helped launch in May 2014. Black Hog’s core beers are creative twists on classic styles, and the brewery produces a steady flow of ales brewed with experimental hops, farm-fresh produce, and adjuncts like ginger, sage, and rosemary. “When I would go into a pub, my first question was always, What’s new, what’s interesting?” Jones recalls. “And I knew if I ever opened my own place, I’d need to have an answer to that question.” At the same time, Jones says, variety isn’t enough, because consumers have too many choices to settle for less than excellent beer. “I’m just trying to make better beer today than yesterday.”

1. Blow up your palate
Tyler Jones appreciates brewing for keeping both sides of his brain firing in a way that his degree in chemical engineering or his desk job in sales never could. Jones initially dove into brewing for less lofty reasons: He came into his first brewing kit by way of a roommate who was disinterested in the hobby, and as a broke college kid, he discovered that a batch of homebrew and a couple weeks of patience would deliver more volume than a 30-pack of his old standby, Keystone Light. “The beers that came from that simple extract kit opened my mind to these new flavors and aromatics,” Jones recalls. “They totally blew my palate up.”

2. Join a brotherhood
While attending the University of New Hampshire, Jones would make weekend pilgrimages down to Portsmouth Brewery and stare at the pub’s glassed-in brewhouse from the bar. “I thought it would be really fun to play with that equipment one day,” he recalls. Months of steady phone calls and emails resulted in a shift filling in for a sick brewer, and that working interview turned into a six-and-a-half year brewing job. Legendary former brewmaster Tod Mott taught Jones how to build recipes and brew creatively at an industrial scale. Mott also imparted an appreciation for brewhouse camaraderie. “Brewing is a brotherhood,” Jones says. “We’re working in close quarters. I see my lead brewer Justin Benvenuto more than my wife. If you can’t work with people in that environment, you’re in trouble.”

3. Change it up, and hit the gas
Black Hog Brewing Co. sprang from Jones’ desire to move to Connecticut to be closer to his wife’s family, and the urge felt by a couple of family friends, Jason and Tom Sobocinski, to open a brewery. The plan was to start small and grow organically. But when they found a shuttered Oxford, Conn., brewhouse—fully built-out and stocked with 30-barrel fermentors—they hit the gas far harder than anticipated. The place saved months of construction, but it also came with significant fermentor capacity, and those tanks needed filling. So the Black Hog crew had to figure out how to brew at scale, and distribute to a broad customer base, from day one.

4. Drink your meals
Black Hog’s founding team is as steeped in food as it is in beer: Jones brewed in a pub, and the Sobocinskis operate two New Haven spots, Caseus Fromagerie & Bistro, and Ordinary. That’s why Black Hog’s beers, from cores to collaborations with local chefs and farmers and experiments with funky yeast, are built to shine next to a knife and fork. “They’re beers chefs are able to cook with or have alongside a dish, and that pairing makes the food taste better, and the beer taste better,” Jones explains. “From farm to table, we want to use quality ingredients to make quality food, and quality liquid.”

5. Show up for the right reasons
Craft brewing’s current boom means there are more American customers spending more money on good beer than ever before. But that growth has also attracted piles of cash from outside the industry. “There are a lot of people jumping on the bandwagon, on the financial side,” Jones says. So Jones plans to keep his head down, and focus on producing good beer. “This is a craft. It’s an art. Consistency and quality are of the utmost importance. … The people who are getting into the business to profit are doing it for the wrong reasons, and they will fail in the long term.”

6. Layer it on
“The malt side is the most important thing a brewer can do, because brewing is really just making sugar water,” Jones argues. “So mastering your mash tun is mastering beer making.” Black Hog’s 2016 World Beer Cup gold medal-winning Granola Brown Ale is an exercise in subtle, hyper-intentional recipe development. A reaction against caramel-sweet Brown Ales, Jones built his to drink like a granola bar, with a big, oat-heavy body and notes of raisins and chocolate. “I just wanted this beer to showcase recipe development,” he says. “The truth is, every brewer makes the beer they like to drink. I’m just happy our customers like to drink it, too.”

7. Be a ninja
Jones first began experimenting with ginger in Portsmouth, because he was intrigued by the way its herbal characteristics could mimic hops. So, instead of relegating the adjunct to winter warmers, Jones has put the spicy root to work like a hop. In Ginga Ninja, Black Hog’s flagship red IPA, the ginger balances out juicy Amarillo and Falconer’s Flight hops in a highly unusual way. Ginga Ninja also embodies the brewery’s commitment to making beer that grows in stature alongside food. Barbecue brings out the sweetness of the red malt, while sushi makes the ginger pop, and spicy Thai dishes highlight the citrusy hop notes.

8. Brew real seasonals
Jones can’t stand seasonal creep, like pumpkin beers that hit the shelves in August, well before the harvest. Instead, Black Hog has forged deep relationships with local farmers, allowing Jones to release seasonals that follow the rhythm of New England’s seasons. He’s done Gose variations with fresh local peaches, strawberries, and Italian plums; a summer grapefruit American wheat with fresh sage; and a Dunkelweizen with local rosemary. In the fall, Jones eschews pumpkins for a spicy Saison brewed with hundreds of pounds of Connecticut squash. An upcoming iteration of the brewery’s experimental Bush Pig label will be a Witbier showcasing foraged ingredients; Jones doesn’t know what those foraged finds will be, and that’s the point.

9. Drink critically
“I’m my own worst critic on all my beers,” Jones says. “There’s always a chance to make the beer better.” To best understand opportunities for improvement, Jones tastes his beer at every stage—the first runnings, the knockout, at every gravity reading—and then again, finally, in a glass. By sampling so often, he can pick out where in the brewing process each flavor appears. “That’s where the art side of brewing comes in. … There are so many things you can’t calculate out. You tweak the small stuff, and keep that mental rolodex of every step along the way.” 

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