Talking brews with Brandon Tolbert of The Answer Brewpub (new beers available this weekend!)

by | May 1, 2015 | EAT DRINK

We recently caught up with Brandon Tolbert, head brewer at The Answer Brewpub.

We recently caught up with Brandon Tolbert, head brewer at The Answer Brewpub. Before they joined forces to create The Answer, Brandon and Mekong owner An Bui were longtime friends. Bui knew this was a perfect matchup, and now, together at The Answer Brewpub, they’ll be working to bring their favorite unique brews to RVA.

They already have an extensive section of amazing beers to choose from on the 36 taps at the front bar. Brandon and An bring an extensive knowledge and love for beer and brewing that is contagious to anyone who talks to them. We sat down with Brandon at The Answer and enjoyed a few good beers (Sculpin From Ballast Point & Uberlin from Strangeways) while we discussed brewing and the growth of craft beer in Richmond.

Read more about the new brews being released THIS WEEKEND in this article

The Answer Brewpub is located at 6008 W. Broad St.

What piqued your initial interest in craft beer?

I believe it was 1996. I had a Liefmans Framboise, and I could not believe that was still considered beer. That led me down a path [to discover] that beer could be something different than the beers most people were drinking. I did [previously] have some micro beers and craft brews, but this was the beer that really set me off, got me interested in what you could do with beer. It tasted like some kind of raspberry syrup. I mean, today it’s sweeter to me than it was then. But from there I just got interested in trying new things, because [I thought] maybe I will find more amazing beers just as good as this.

How did you go from a person that likes beer to a person that makes beer as a home brewer?

Really how that started was, probably around 2000-2001, I had friends that had friends that were making beer. I thought it was a cool thing to pursue overall. I can make alcohol at home? That’s pretty tight, right? But I was living in The Fan, so I don’t have room for all that – as many people living in The Fan know. So in 2003 I bought my house, with a detached garage so I actually had space to do it. That Christmas my wife Stacy bought me a home brew kit, because I would talk about it all the time. [She was] finally tired of me constantly talking about it, and she bought me a kit. That started the home brewing. The first beer I ever tried to make was a clone of Newcastle, because at the time I liked drinking Newcastle brown. I started to find out things about beers that I found pretty interesting and so that piqued my interest even more. I was already pretty detail oriented, and I think you have to be detail oriented to make good beer. You have to think about things before you do them, and I liked that about planning out a beer.

Tell me about the jump from home brewer to larger scale brewing.

To be quite honest, I was pretty lucky. I was into home brewing and doing the meetings with the home brewing association–making my home brews and sharing them and so on. The home brew association was talking with Extra Billy’s about a competition with the club, to feature the winner’s beer on tap at Extra Billy’s. So during those talks, Billy’s said they were trying to find a new head brewer, and I was mentioned on that list. They did some interviews, tasted my beers, and I eventually got the job. That really opened the door to… well, me talking to you now, and where I am [today]. When I came in, I had to learn the equipment and started to revamp the place to get things going. Once again it’s attention to detail and noticing what things need to be done. So yeah, I got things running while revamping the place, [and] started to plan out the beers. Within 6 months I won the Gold Medal for best IPA in Virginia, and got a Silver for pale ale. I would have been happy to get a Bronze on any of the beers, so it was not expected, but I was happy about it of course.

What would you say is your style of brewing?

I’m not sure you have a particular direction or style. Some might say I am IPA focused, for sure. But there are reasons for that. What we are going to do here is make beers that come to you fresh. When you think about how long a beer takes to get to you from a brewery, [from] the West Coast, for example – like this Sculpin we are drinking. I mean, how old is this beer? At least three weeks, right? What The Answer is going to do is make brews that are of this caliber but come to you at one day old. The IPA’s we serve here are going to be directly out of the serving tanks. It does not get any fresher than that; the tanks we are carbonating from are coming to you directly from the back bar. You can’t say that for any of the other bottled beer you have–not to say that they are any worse off because of that time. Honestly, what I envision us doing–by us, I mean me and An–we want to make beers we want to drink. So I guess thats my style. Of course, we will eventually be doing some barreling, and doing sours in the future.

What do you think of the growth of craft brewing in RVA? Where would you like to see it?

You know, before Prohibition, and distribution on a major scale, if you got beer, you got it from someone who made it in town. Every town had their own little spot. I hope we are seeing a resurgence of that. I mean, how many breweries do we have in town these days? Eleven or twelve, maybe, but thinking about Richmond’s population, and the surrounding area of like 30 miles, we are looking at like 1.5 million people. So we’re not near any kind of saturation rate, if you ask me. I would like to see the culture of people change, and thats what it really is going to take. From a culture of people that really prefer drinking American light lagers–and that’s all they drink! It’s just weird to me–to be able to go to the place that local craft beer is made, and talk to the brewer and the people who make what you drink. To get excited about beer, talk to your friends about it. Not fuss over it or anything like that, but care about it like you would the food you eat. Things should stand alone on taste–that’s how food stands alone, right? As far as growth of craft brew in Richmond, in the years to come I want to see us grow to be mentioned as one of the top places in the country. I think the Stone deal will help that. Hardywood has got a lot of notoriety, and I think that’s great. Because I like them – and they are in our town, so good for them–and good for us. So that’s where I want to be–it’s not just for the recognition, but that I know and make beer well enough that people [who] don’t live here are talking about it.

When did you and An start working together?

I was a patron of Mekong, and had been going to just get the food since the 90’s. He started getting into Belgian, and Mekong grew, started getting more beer. It was great food and beer, so a no-brainer for me. Then Jacob Brunow introduced me to An. Over the years I would give him my home brews and hang out. I just wanted his opinion on them; he would try them and tell me what he thought. So I was striving to make something that An liked. [We’ve] been talking for years about beers. We had similar philosophies about craft beer, and we believed in supporting and cultivating your local community people and giving them a spot for craft beer.

What breweries and beers inspired you overall?

Off the top, I would say Cigar City, Perennial, Russian River, Farmstead, Lawson’s Finest Liquids. There are just too many to name, so many people in this country doing great things. People ask me all the time, what’s your favorite beer? I mean, I just don’t have one, and that’s a great thing – there are so many to choose. As for influences, I think I like a lot – but I’m not trying to be anyone in particular. If you ever heard of Treehouse in Massachusetts, they have some great IPA’s. I don’t know–this is to hard to choose. I mean, if I was to pick one …. (laughs)

Oh wait, you’re gonna actually do this?

OK, uh, I’m gonna pick Double Sunshine by Lawson’s Finest as my favorite Double IPA. It’s great; it’s hard to get, of course. But yeah – it’s just good. Now, am I going to try and make this beer? Of course not. I’m gonna be influenced by it, of course, because I like it. Why would I make something I don’t like? I’m always going to strive for things I like in others’ beers. Isn’t that how all brewers work on some level?

Brad Kutner

Brad Kutner

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