Each month, we sit down with a long-time Geister. This month we got a peek into the world of all things beer production with our Director of Brewery Operations, Cole.
What is your spirit animal?
I’ve always liked the octopus. They’re really intelligent but quiet, very adaptable, unique sea creatures.
What do you do here?
I’m the director of brewery operations. I’m responsible for anything and everything related to beer/cider production.
And how long have you been here?
Been here just over four years.
How’d you end up at Rhinegeist?
I knew Bryant [Goulding, co-founder] from back when he was in Los Angeles. I got tired of working for a brewery out there and wanted a change of pace, change of scenery. So I reached out and said, hey, let me know if you need any help. And it turns out they did, so they flew me out two weeks later and I moved out here a month after that. The rest is history.
How has your job evolved since you started?
I’ve always been the operations manager. They originally brought me in to manage the production transition from the JV system on the second floor to incorporate the new Braukon, because that was coming online right after I started. I was scaling up recipes and processes, training people on the new system, and then with that just building the rest of the operations around the scaling and growth. A lot of it was about looking to the future, knowing when we need to buy new can line, when to get new tanks and how to keep up with the insane growth we had. Also, while doing that, we’re trying to maintain quality and consistency in a safe work environment. It was a crazy time but we have a stellar staff that lived through that and they are doing some great things. Now it’s about refining our processes and innovating to continually get better.
You have your hand in every pot, right?
There’s a lot that goes into making beer. You can do it on your stove and it seems pretty simple but then you throw in 100 people and all the different things that go around making it at scale, profitably, and it gets pretty complicated pretty fast. Lots of different teams from brewing and packaging to quality and maintenance working together to get great beer ready for sale.
Given the fast-paced growth the brewery went through, how did you balance all those variables and demands?
It’s a complicated question. I think the short answer is good prioritization, knowing what needs to be dealt with and what can wait, and then really good delegation, having smart people around you that know what they’re doing and can handle things on their own. There’s no way we could have grown if I had to do everything myself or made every decision, but identifying adaptable, smart people that can handle a lot and then giving them the power to go off and make some of those smaller decisions to keep the ball rolling is key.
From when you joined four years ago, how would you describe the evolution of the brewery?
I think it’s the same change that any business goes through. There’s that startup mentality where everybody does a bunch of different things and there’s not really organization and job titles. It’s just kinda whoever happens to be there to handle it. We’ve matured out of that into something with more organization and more clearly defined direction, both in the individual level and as a company, and instead of just making whatever beer to keep up with the demand, now, we’re much bigger and there’s a lot more competition. You can’t just throw anything in a fermentor and expect everyone to buy it. It takes informed decision making.
Culturally, I think we followed the same path that any other company has. We’ve just done it a lot faster, which has definitely been interesting, but I think because we prioritize recognizing that culture is a thing, we’ve done a pretty good job of maintaining a good culture and keeping people happy. I think our retention rate speaks for itself. People come here and they stick around and they like it. So yeah it’s changed a lot but I think in a good way, and we’ve still got some change to go through. We’re not done growing. Change is the only thing you can really count on tomorrow. Things are going to be different next year, the demands are going to be different, so you just have to be ready for it.
What’s your go-to breakfast?
I had a banana and a granola bar this morning. But I’m also a country fried steak aficionado. I actually seek out country fried steak and if there’s a new breakfast spot I will judge them based on their country fried steak. I judge them even harder if they don’t have one. What’s funny is there’s not a lot of different ones around here. I think because it’s such an institutionalized southern thing. Honestly, the best one I’ve ever had is out in Oregon, at a place called Betty’s diner. It’s a block away from the brewery I used to work at. You’d get off third shift and go have “dinner” after work, but it’s seven in the morning. You’d get country fried steak and it’d hit the spot. I love that place. It was awesome.
Do you have a favorite bagel topping?
I would probably have to go with smoked salmon and cream cheese, throw some capers on there if to want to get real fancy. Being a Northwest guy, I love salmon. Everybody out in Oregon and Washington loves it; there’s salmon everywhere. That’s just one of those things you grow up with.
Do you have a favorite Rhinegeist beer?
I’m always really excited about whatever we’re doing that’s innovative and new. If we’re talking about a beer that I’m most proud of, I’d say Margarita Monday. That’s a very cool beer that you’ve seen a few other examples of out there, but I think ours is still the best. That’s probably my favorite that we’ve done. If you ask me what I’m going to go up and order from the bar this afternoon, it’s whatever the newest thing is, just to check it out.
If you were a Rhinegeist beer, what would you be?
Probably have to go with Squirrely. It’s just a nut brown ale. It’s understated. It’s not overly flashy, but it’s highly caffeinated. I drink a lot of coffee. I’m always drinking coffee.
If your friends were to use three words to describe you, what would they be?
Quiet, reliable, and smart.
Do you have a favorite sandwich?
Probably the chicken Bahn Mi w/ sriracha from Pho Lang Thang. That place and Elis BBQ kept me going in the early days of the brewery.
Anything you want people to know that they might not typically think of when they’re at a brewery?
It’s always hard to explain just how much goes into making beer at scale. We all get lumped in as craft beer, so we’re making the same beer as Brink or Fifty West but also the same as Sierra Nevada and New Belgium. When you think about the scaling and the size of the operations and everything, there are such huge differences. Yeah, it’s all making beer, and we’re all making the same styles of beer, but what goes into making those is so wildly different from brewery to brewery.
How do you balance that? The demand for new, innovative releases but also a broadly distributed, consistent product.
I find a lot of joy in the challenge of scaling things. It’s like when kettle souring started taking off. That whole process of just letting wort sour in your kettle for three or four days isn’t realistic in a production environment. You can’t just shut down for four days to wait for one beer to finish. So the question is how do you scale that? How do you feed the demand that people have for this very time consuming process? That was how we developed the pre-boil sour process, doing it in a fermenter with our little pasteurizer and all these things to be able to do it at scale. There’s lots of those kinds of things. Asking how do you scale that really cool, nerdy idea about beer into a 240 barrel batch that we package and distribute to five states that still tastes good. That’s where you look at those guys like Sierra and New Belgium; what they’re doing is amazing because they’re able to do that over 50 states with a high level of quality and consistency. That’s awesome.
We’re in an interesting place right now. I think we’re doing well, and getting to 100,000 barrels a year in five years, nobody’s ever done that before. I think it speaks to our focus on quality and connecting with our customers. I’m looking forward to the future and continuing to look at new ideas and new things and innovate on some fun stuff, while also keeping Truth as good as it can possibly be. I’m excited.
What’s on the horizon for you?
The new shiny thing in my life outside of Rhinegeist is the baby. I’m expecting at the end of February, so if I’m not focusing on keeping the brewery going, it’s pretty much getting ready for that. For the last 10 years, my babies have all been breweries, so it’s cool to actually have a child coming *laughs*. It’s going to be different and it should be fun.