Hutch Kugeman

Going Pro by | Nov 2008 | Issue #22

How to go from being you to wearing chick-magnet boots in 9 great steps

Great Adirondack Brewing Company is geographically isolated from the state’s brewing community. It’s a tiny, 450-barrel-a-year brewpub cranking out great beer in the reaches of upstate New York, a lonely northern outpost in the war on fizzy beer. Hutch Kugeman is the man who makes it happen. And he may be one of the best brewers you’ve never heard of.

1. Surround yourself with greatness
Kugeman is a former schoolteacher who took up homebrewing as “a way to blow off steam after work.” That all changed when he moved to Portland, Ore., and tasted “what beer really could be.” He took a run at an assistant brewer job at the Pelican Pub in Pacific City, and though he didn’t get it, Pelican’s brewmaster, Darron Welch, soon offered him a summer job as a brewing intern. “At the time,” Kugeman says, “I had no idea who Darron was, and no idea what a lucky situation I was stepping into.”

2. Get lucky
He worked alongside Welch and Travis Zeilstra (now a decorated brewer at Montana Brewing), learning how big-time beermakers run a brewery. But Pelican’s business was seasonal, and as winter approached, Welch gave Kugeman a choice: Transition to sales, or brew for somebody else. Kugeman sent out 200 résumés—most of them “pretty blindly.” If you entered the Great American Beer Festival, chances are, you got one. From that flurry came a call from a small brewpub in upstate New York. The then-head brewer, Rob Davis, had just lost his assistant. There was a job making beer. He took it, sight unseen.

3. See an opening, and then take it
At the time, Great Adirondack was doing just 280 barrels a year. “[Davis] was making good beer when I got here. He really had a good eye for flavor.” Still, Kugeman says his new boss “was happy to cede control of the brewery pretty quickly.” Kugeman came to Lake Placid in December 2002. The following January, a massive fire closed the restaurant down. It reopened in May, and by July, Kugeman says, “I was pretty much running the brewery.” The following February, Davis left. Kugeman had gone from jobless brewer to head brewer in a year.

4. Flavor needs structure, but structure needs flavor
The brewery was clean and churning out tasty beers, but lacked the structure that Kugeman had seen at Pelican. And, he insists, greatness needs consistency, which needs structure. “Operationally, Darron is very regimented. Which is part of why he’s great.” At the same time, Kugeman says that he “really learned how to make beer” from Davis. “For a year, he was letting me run the day-to-day show, and he was there for advice. It was nice to have somebody to bounce ideas off of. Especially in a small town where there isn’t much of a brewing community.”

5. Ladies love ugly brown boots
Under Kugeman, Great Adirondack has, largely, been a one-man show. Kugeman has taken on brewing interns in the summer, but until recently, he’s been the only full-time brewer on the payroll. When his accounts need a fresh keg, he wheels one down Main Street himself (often, to cries of, “Nice boots!”). Great Adirondack has overseen a period of steady 10- to 15-percent annual growth, Kugeman says. Much of the year, he’s working his seven-barrel system to capacity. And he’s having a blast doing it. Unfettered creative freedom tends to have that effect.

6. Tourist newbies breed freedom
Great Adirondack is the “other” brewpub in a tourist destination that, Kugeman says, is “still kind of a Labatt Blue town.” Except that it’s not exactly a brewpub; it’s a restaurant where the food, not the beer, is the draw. That’s part of the challenge—and the fun. Kugeman consistently sees customers walk into his restaurant asking for a light beer, only to walk out craft beer converts. And because his customer base changes over every weekend, he feels “complete freedom” to tweak his recipes and “try pretty much what I need to do. And that’s allowed me to grow a lot as a brewer.”

7. Be flavorful, and be innovative
“I tend to brew beers that I like, and I have to hope that others like it too,” Kugeman says. His beers have to be “interesting, unique, creative and flavorful.” He brews a wicked Stout; a hophead’s Pale Ale (he doubled the IBU on the recipe he inherited, from the low 40s to low 80s); Avalanche Ale, a hop bomb with a mutant malt bill to match; Big Bear, a chocolaty Imperial Brown; and a Wheat Wine he tried because it “sounded cool,” and which won silver at this year’s World Beer Cup. When we spoke, he was filtering Just Hutched, a light-bodied Pale brewed with elderberry and lavender, brewed to celebrate his wedding. Elysian’s Jasmine IPA inspired him to try it. “I never thought I’d enjoy something like that,” he says. “But it’s beautiful. I took it and said, What can I do to make it different, and make it my own?”

8. Create something great
Kugeman talks at length about flavor and uniqueness, so it’s little surprise that he has a special affinity for the work of Belgian brewers. “They’re really not brewing a style at all. They’re creating a product.” And it’s Kugeman’s flavorful Belgians, not his hop bombs, winning over most of his light beer drinkers. Initially, few people ordered his Saison, because few knew what it was. So he changed the name to Belgian Summer Ale. Now, he says, “It flies. Because I renamed it, people were more willing to try it, and once they try it, they love it. It’s a big, pretty spicy and very dry Belgian Saison, and people are taking it out by the growler because they’ve found something they really like.”

9. Dubbel down
Great Adirondack’s Abbey Ale, a Belgian Dubbel, has enjoyed a similar rebirth. Kugeman inherited the recipe when he took the job, and he polished it into a brew that took Silver at 2006’s GABF and at that year’s World Beer Cup. He tweaked the sugar and the malt bill, then changed the yeast, swapping a locally grown Chimay clone for a strain from White Labs that brings out banana and clove esters. “The yeast is so important,” he says. “This yeast wants to do great things.” Success has bred popularity. After winning two medals, Abbey Ale went from the brewery’s second slowest seller to its second strongest.