Works and Days

Interview with Van Havig

Madeline Wagar ’16, Assistant Editor with Works & Days, interviewed Van Havig '92, Master Brewer and Founder at Gigantic Brewing in Portland, OR.

Why beer? Why brewing? How did you get into it?

I am a class of ‘92 graduate. At the time at Reed, there was the general feeling that what you do when you get out of Reed was go to grad school. So right out of Reed I went to a Ph.D. program in Minnesota, studying economics. I did that for two and half years and as I went through I lost faith in economics. I was interested in it as a social science, not as business. Then I realized economics wasn’t great as a social science. I dropped out of grad school, and I wanted to do something that allowed me to work more with my hands. I am a very mechanical person. I was still in Minnesota and I decided to try to get a job at a brewery.

I knew I was interested in beer and brewing. My junior year I studied abroad at the London School of Economics. The academics weren’t challenging, so I spent a lot of time at the pub. Twenty odd years later, it turns out that was a good investment for me!

I began to get in to brewing for what I call the Canadian reason: I didn’t have enough money to drink the beer I wanted to drink, so I had to make it myself. I had to brew out of poverty. But, I found out I was good at it.

So, I found a job at Minnesota brewing company. For those older alumni, the place was about the size of the Blitz-Weinhard brewery. It was a big plant. It was an awesome job. I finally got to swear as much as I like to. I worked there for four months, and then a job opened at a brewpub in Minneapolis. This pub, Rock Bottom, was in its very early stages, it was only a few years old. Working in a brewpub was much more what I wanted to do. The work at the brewery was stuff like emptying kegs eight hours a day. At a brewpub, you’re doing a lot of different tasks, the whole job. It suited me well. I worked for a guy six months younger than me. We got along well. Eventually, I was sent to Maryland to build a brewery there, which I ran for four years. I built a few more breweries in the mid-Atlantic area. At one point I was buying hops for thirty-five breweries, and running quality control. Eventually I got to turn Rock Bottom into my own personal research operation. I was doing semi-academic research, and even got published in the National Brewer’s Association technical trade journal. I spent sixteen years with Rock Bottom.

Then, Rock Bottom had a change of ownership, which resulted in what I believed to be bad decisions for the company and for my friends in the company. I made those opinions public, and I got canned in January of 2011.

My buddy Ben is another brewer, and he had been wanting to start his own thing. We decided we should do something together. By April 2012, we were brewing here in Portland. It happened really fast.

It is pure coincidence that the place that worked out for us is so close to Reed. I was actually a little apprehensive, I didn’t want my Reed association to be the entire story of the brewery, and become the only one that was told all the time. The reasons we’re here are because the building is good, and the landlord is good. It just happens to be nearby. But it is kind of fun to be close to Reed.

We opened May 9th, around finals week. That first graduating class of 2012 was too busy with finals. But then 2013 rolled around, and the first kids started showing up wearing their laurels. So, how we run it here now during that time, you can get beer for two bucks if you’ve finished your thesis, you have your laurels, and you tell us your thesis title. Then we get to try to guess what your major is.

What has been the most unexpected thing about working in the brewing industry or starting your own business?

Let's talk about brewing first. This thing was unexpected when I started, but feels very normal now. The phenomenal thing about brewing is there is so much to know, you cannot ever possibly know it all. You are learning things all the time. You are constantly being challenged by new things, constantly having to learn new things, new techniques. You are constantly, constantly learning. That wasn’t anything that I expected. I didn’t realize it would be this constant challenge, require this constant learning. It was a very pleasant surprise. It's very rewarding.

For the business side, the most unexpected thing for me is that we're doing well. When we started I was very concerned and cynical. I was like, “Oh God, I hope someone comes and drinks the beer, oh God, oh God.” But we consistently exceed my meager expectations. I don’t know when I’ll stop doubting our success. It would be better if I could learn to relax and accept that we are doing well.

Local brewing is pretty popular in this area. What is your vision for Gigantic? What are you trying to do with Gigantic that is different from other breweries, especially in Portland?

We make beer the way we think it should be made. We don’t listen to how others think we should be doing things.

With some brewers, you drink their stuff and you think, “What are you doing? What are you trying to do?” Ben and I make it the way we think it should be. End of story. When we started we had, combined, over twenty-five years of experience in the industry. We hired a couple people and between the three of us we averaged fifteen years in the industry. We have lots of experience on our side. We are fortunate enough to have good palettes and know what we're doing. We also have a good understanding of agronomics and of our raw materials.

We try to have a current image, a young artistic image. For our bottles, we work with a ton of artists. And we work with people with careers in art, not just some dude we meet at a bar. I’ve got a buddy who has been a working as a professional artist for twenty odd years, and we know another guy with a gallery in Chinatown. Between these two guys, we get hookups for a lot of artists. Even internationally, at this point. Artists in Spain, Japan, and Australia do art for us.

We never give an inch.

What exactly do you mean when you say you “do it right?” What makes a beer good? How do you know when an idea will be good?

I’ll give you a specific example. IPA is the most popular beer in the Pacific Northwest, and it is on its way to becoming the most popular craft beer style in all of the US. There is a lot of competition. You can be an idiot and try to copy everyone else, or just be like, "Screw this, I’m going to do what I think is right."

When Ben and I first were starting the brewery, we hit this point where we were really tired of looking at facts and figures and working out numbers. So I said, ”Let’s take a break, and let’s talk about what we're going to do to make our beer. What kind of hops are we going to use?” And I said to Ben, “I don’t want to poison the well with my suggestion. Let’s go home, and you write down what you want to use for hops, l will write down what I want, and then we can look at each other’s opinion at the same time. Then we won’t bicker and argue.”

A week later we flip the pages over with our suggestions. The five hops Ben wants to use are Cascade, Centennial, Crystal, Cinco, and Magnum. The ones I wanted were Cascade, Centennial, Crystal, Cinco, and Nugget. Our only difference was in the bittering hops. We picked four out of five of the same hops. We think IPA should be citrusy and floral, not bitter. We both agree. A lot of brewers get obsessed with the bitterness, and really strive for a very bitter IPA. But what we want is that bright shininess. Really, what consumers want to talk about when they're discussing an IPA they like is hoppiness, not bitterness.

If you do numbers on our beer, the numbers would say our IPA isn’t bitter enough. But people like it.

If you want to know what people like to drink, go work in a brewpub. The people drinking your beer are right there in front of you, and will tell you what they think. When you’ve been making beer for sixteen years you get a good indication of what people like and don’t like. So we don’t pay attention to what others think.

The important thing is to make beers we think we should, and make them the best we can. If you do it right people will like it.

What is your favorite beer that you’ve made? Drunk?

I’ve made so many beers, I can’t even tell you how many I’ve made. But, out of all the beers I’ve made I’m only truly proud of four or five.

What sets those four or five above the rest?

The least likely thing to make a beer special is that everything just came up really right, and it tastes exactly how it should be.

Mostly when I’m proud of a beer it’s because I’ve had to figure out new processes to get at where I want to be. Brewing is very process oriented. I like when I have to figure out a unique process, produce a beer that I approached in new way, to achieve a beer that tasted right.

Do you have any advice to offer to current Reedies?

It takes a long time to be a good brewer. If any young Reedies think they are going to be a skilled brewer, I would say you’re not skilled until you’ve been doing it at least 5 years. In the first 9 months, you learn a lot, and you think you know everything, but the truth is you know so little you don’t even know how little you know.

You can visit Gigantic Brewing on the web here.

Tags: gigantic brewing, beer, brewing, economics, alumni