Travis Smith of Societe Brewing on Hoppy Burps and Trusting Your Palate

Going Pro by | Oct 2013 | Issue #81

Photo by Amber Robertson

Travis Smith used to be in law enforcement, but he gave up that pursuit to brew beer. The hours are longer at the brewery, the pay is lower, and the time spent cleaning industrial equipment is exponentially greater, but the job offers a quality of life Smith wouldn’t trade. “It’s an awesome job, and people love you for it,” he says. A veteran of The Bruery and Russian River Brewing, Smith co-founded San Diego’s Societe Brewing Co. last year; alongside his friend, co-founder and brewery curator Doug Constantiner, he’s now making his kind of IPAs and Belgians, in one of the best beer towns in America. The city is littered with great beer—a fact that Smith and Constantiner see as an opportunity, not a challenge. “There’s no better place to make an impact,” Smith says.

1. Obsess
Travis Smith didn’t drink beer until he turned 21. Once he started, though, he ramped things up pretty quickly, jumping immediately to craft brews from Sierra Nevada and Third Street AleWorks. Drinking good beer drove him to begin brewing at home, and Smith wasn’t a casual homebrew hobbyist, but a prolific fixture in local homebrewing circles that attracted the interest of Russian River’s Vinnie Cilurzo. At first, Smith didn’t think his stint volunteering at Cilurzo’s brewpub would turn into a career. He just wanted to see how beer came together from a brewer’s perspective. Of course, things turned out differently.

2. Brew to taste
Homebrewing didn’t teach Smith what he knows about the craft of making beer. Home systems don’t scale up to the commercial level; the equipment isn’t the same, and home procedures produce far different results when executed on commercial systems. For Smith, brewing is about “what I like in beer, what I want it to taste like, and how to make it happen.” That’s a critical point, because Smith and his Societe Brewing co-founder, Doug Constantiner, are essentially producing beers for their own consumption on a commercial scale, and inviting anyone with a similar palate to grab a pint. They brew what they like to drink, and nothing else.

3. Heavy are the feet that wear the rubber work boots
Asked whether he’d always wanted to run his own brewery, Smith’s response is instant: “Oh yeah! What brewer doesn’t?” Smith and Constantiner talked about opening their own respective breweries when both were working at The Bruery, carpooling to work every day together. They hatched Societe over beers at O’Brien’s Pub in San Diego. They now enjoy the creative control they’d long chased; it’s everything else that comes along with creative control that’s taken some getting used to. “Every single thing falls on us now,” Smith says. “We have employees now, and if they make a mistake, it’s our mistake. It’s no longer, That’s out of my control, I don’t have to worry about it. Even if it’s out of my control, I still have to worry about it.”

4. Trust your palate
Societe hawks hop-forward IPAs in a town that goes wild for the style. “Opening a brewery in San Diego and not brewing an IPA would be crazy,” Smith reasons. Still, the reason San Diego is a great IPA town is that breweries like Stone, Pizza Port, Ballast Point, Green Flash and Alpine all flood the market with great product. Smith tries not to overthink where his IPAs would fit into the town spectrum, and not to go extreme for extremity’s sake. He and Constantiner just try to brew clean, hop-forward recipes they themselves want to drink, and trust that’s enough to attract customers.

5. Change it up
Societe keeps two flagship IPAs in near-constant production. The Pupil and The Apprentice are both moderately strong recipes with restrained, comparable malt profiles. Similar malt bills provide springboards for wildly different takes on hopping. The Pupil is a showcase for Nelson Sauvin hops, with some Citra and Centennial coming along to smooth out the rough edges, while The Apprentice lays a heavy hand to classic Pacific Northwest hops like Cascade, Centennial, Columbus and Simcoe. The beers—one loaded with exotic tropical fruit aromas, the other a celebration of citrus and resin—are tributes to the adaptability of the West Coast IPA, and reminders that the style is ever-evolving.

6. Taste it twice
When Smith is drinking his own brew, he’s usually drinking The Harlot. Societe’s take on a sessionable IPA sports a subdued malt backbone, which Smith meets with balanced hop bitterness, and a heavy hand of hops for flavor and aroma. “It’s not about destroying your taste buds with bitterness,” Smith says. “Everything is balanced. It’s still pretty hoppy, though. When you drink it, you still get hop burps. To me, that’s the sign of a good beer—how hoppy the burps taste.”

7. Straddle the border
Societe produces beers its brewers like to drink, and on the Belgian side of the ledger, this means clean, dry recipes—nothing too chewy, nothing too loaded with esters. The Harlot is a cross between a Czech Pils and a Belgian ale that Smith and Constantiner have dubbed a Belgian Extra. It has a traditional Pils malt bill, and it’s fermented cool to bring out a lager-like crispness, but since it’s fermented with a Belgian ale yeast, it’s far more complex than a Pils normally is. The beer’s a total original. Which is why it’s also the beer Smith is proudest of.

8. Mix it up
Working at Russian River and The Bruery put barrel-aging in Smith’s blood. Societe’s barrel program focuses on creating sours in neutral oak wine barrels. Smith and Constantiner are embracing the inherently unpredictable nature of sour beers. Societe’s barrels are filled with several different base beers. Some are aging on fruit, some aren’t. The idea is to create custom sour blends, combining the contents of different barrels to round out any harsh edges and create new, complex flavors. “You can’t expect to release the same beer every time,” Smith says of the sour blends. “There’s too much that’s out of your control. You don’t have the same stuff to work with, but you do have your taste buds, and that’s the biggest tool in making these blends.”

9. Stretched thin is the price of success
Societe just installed a pair of new fermentors, but even with the added capacity (they’re now producing 200-250 barrels a month), demand for beer far outstrips supply. Smith is OK with that. “It’s a problem, and problems aren’t good,” Smith allows. “But it’s better than the other way around, and having to push our beer on places. We’re really only in accounts we want to be in.”