Adler Lentz, Brewer and Co-Founder, Smith & Lentz Brewing Company

9 Steps to Beerdom by | Apr 2017 | Issue #123

When Adler Lentz and his old homebrewing buddy Kurt Smith moved from Austin to Nashville 3 1/2 years ago to found a brewery, they were as deliberate about what they didn’t want Smith & Lentz to become, as they were sure of what they did want to build. The surety sprang from Lentz’s experiences collected during years of brewing and installing brewing systems of all shapes and sizes across the country. Since opening in October 2015, Smith & Lentz has quickly become an East Nashville institution. From its little 5-barrel brewhouse, Smith & Lentz churns out a massive variety of highly drinkable ales and lagers designed for its neighborhood taproom setting. “That community aspect is the most important thing,” Lentz says. “We like having regulars who you see every Tuesday. That’s a lot more important to me than having beers on a shelf 100 miles away.”

1. Get cultured
When Adler Lentz was 18, he spent six months after high school traveling Europe by train. That trip introduced him to Pilsners, Stouts, and Porters. But more than those flavors, Lentz recalls being wowed by the family members in the Netherlands who introduced him to homebrewing, and by the culture surrounding the pubs he visited. “At the time, the beer was secondary,” he recalls. “The cool thing about beer was, it was the great communicator, it was a catalyst for conversation. More than anything, beer was always associated with good times.”

2. Move, if you have to
As a broke, under-aged college student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, homebrewing offered Lentz the right mix of volume, value, and accessibility. But he grew to love the way the scientific brewing process yielded a tangible, consumable finished product. So when he began wondering how to parlay a history degree into an actual job, especially at the depths of a recession, he dropped out and spent a year hunting for brewing work. “I was getting down and out,” he recalls. “I was willing to move to wherever. I was on ProBrewer, looking for jobs, thinking, I could picture myself in Antarctica, if I could brew there.”

3. Push the pedal
The first brewing gig Lentz landed in 2008 came from equal parts persistence and luck. Lentz knew a guy who was helping start up a new brewpub on the south side of Milwaukee called St. Francis Brewery, and he leveraged the introduction into a successful interview for assistant brewer. That’s all he needed to seize a career. “I showed up on the first day they were installing the equipment, I really put myself out there, working hard, and people noticed. And because of that enthusiasm and work ethic, there were more job opportunities down the road.”

4. Make growth deliberate
“My goal has always been to have my own brewery,” Lentz says, “so I’ve looked at different jobs as different steps along the way.” In that vein, the 1 1/2 years Lentz spent on the road installing brewing equipment wasn’t just about mastering brewhouse mechanics; it was a chance to see how brewers approached their craft. “Every brewer does it differently, and their way was always better than the guy next door,” he says. The experience sold Lentz on starting small. “We started this way assuming we will grow, but it leaves everything completely open,” Lentz says. “By starting smaller, we gain more of a grasp on what we’re doing, and we can grow in exactly the way we want to.”

5. Pitch a big tent
Right now, Smith & Lentz sells nearly all of its beer through the brewery’s taproom. That means Lentz is in the business of selling pints, and the brewery’s portfolio flows from that simple fact. Lentz will churn through several dozen new recipes per year. At any given time, the 22 taps will include a half-dozen IPAs, alongside a dizzying array of Stouts, Browns, German-style lagers, and Belgian styles. “I wanted people to feel comfortable experimenting, trying something they haven’t tried before,” Lentz explains. “And I don’t feel like I should tell people what they should drink. So we started off brewing a bunch of beer, and we’ll see what people like.”

6. Evolve
Five recipes—three distinct IPAs, a German Pilsner, and a Vienna Lager—have risen to become customer favorites, and Lentz keeps them in heavy rotation. But even those core recipes remain in a highly deliberate and incremental process of refinement. “I think it’s important to get that continuity from batch to batch, so you understand what it is that you want to change. If you’re living in a constant state of change, it’s hard to keep track of everything,” he says. “I like to let a recipe breathe, and talk to people about it. But I don’t think I’m ever done. […] Beer can always get better.”

7. Search out stank
Humdinger was Lentz’s 12th shot at releasing a session IPA; the other 11 had been numbered, not named. Number Twelve had staying power. Humdinger weighs in at a sneaky 4 percent ABV and pops with a combination of Eureka and Citra hops that Lentz describes as “fruity stank.” Through those 12 iterations, Lentz played with different hop varieties, malt bills, and water profiles, searching for a dry, sharp, drinkable ale. “Humdinger has been a work in progress since we started up,” Lentz says. “It’s the culmination of a lot of work to put it together, and that’s a really cool aspect.”

8. Get four on the floor
Lentz calls Humdinger a beer he had to engineer with sweat and patience. Then there are recipes like El Cuatro, a tropical IPA that hit nearly every note it was supposed to hit, the first time out. “We knew what we wanted, and when we tasted it we said, ‘This is a winner,’” Lentz recalls. To avoid excessive similarity among his 22 taps, Lentz goes for big swings in flavors between varieties. He wanted El Cuatro to be what he calls a “beach IPA”—crushable and loaded with light, juicy, tropical flavors. A blend of Calypso and El Dorado hops did that job from the jump.

9. Chase perfection
Right now, Lentz feels like he’s making a good German Pilsner. To him, the beauty of the style is in its elusiveness. “This beer will be a lifetime project—we’re always trying to make it better,” Lentz says. “There is a challenge in making this style well, in executing something that’s been done for hundreds of years.” But the reward is worth the challenge, he says, and more people are growing to appreciate the efforts. “We’re obviously in this IPA craze, but I feel like the delicate beer revolution is stirring underneath.” 

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