Director of Brewery Operations, Port Brewing / The Lost Abbey
Beer fans are abuzz about the World Beer Cup awards that were handed out last week in Nashville, Tennessee. However, the WBC is the public-facing endcap for the Craft Brewers Conference, the largest annual brewing-industry convention in the country. It has its own awards, and the most prestigious of them all went to one of San Diego County’s own, Tomme Arthur of Port Brewing and The Lost Abbey. This 22-year veteran, who got his start at downtown San Diego’s short-lived Cerveceria La Cruda before moving on to Pizza Port, where he blazed trails and formed the foundation for the company to open its two-headed spinoff operation in San Marcos, received the Russell Schehrer Award, a legacy award for contributions and innovations in craft brewing that only 22 brewers have ever received. Fresh from his flight home from Music City, we caught up with Arthur to talk about what this award means, his innovations over the years and a poignant thought he shared with CBC attendees during his acceptance speech.
What was it like getting the call about this win?
I’m not gonna lie. It was an emotional phone call I received from [Brewers Association director] Paul Gatza—who I feel like I known forever. It was awesome that he shared the news. It was one week before the CBC, and it was tough not to be able to share that information with anyone. I wanted to personally go thank all of our employees and call some other peeps, but that would have ruined the surprise. Being a part of this industry for the past 22 years has been so very rewarding, but at the same time it has required so many sacrifices, so there was definitely a set of emotions that kicked in.
What are some of the innovations in your career that you are proudest of?
A few things stand out from here. It’s widely talked about that back in 2004 New Belgium Brewing‘s Peter Bouckaert and I collaborated on Mo Betta Bretta, and it was one of the first 100% all Brettanomyces beers produced in this country. It was his crazy idea, but we executed it perfectly and that gave me confidence to push forward with other ideas. Prior to this, I have been working with barrel-aging of beers and especially the Cuvee de Tomme that was first released in 1999. That was a groundbreaking beer. [Famous beer writer] Michael Jackson loved the way we took the flavors of Flanders-styled beers and amplified them in a meaningful way. It’s still something I am very proud of today. Lastly, the medals for experimental beers. Over the years, I have been blessed to imagine some very exciting liquids. These ‘innovative’ beers have earned Great American Beer Festival, World Beer Cup and Festival of Barrel-Aged Beer Festival medals. They affirm we produced bold and exciting flavors that actually tasted good.
Who are some of the innovators you looked up to during your career, particularly early?
If you go down the list of Russell award-winners, I’d say for sure the work that Phil Markowski was doing when he was at Southampton Publick House. Many of the beer styles he was attempting were things I loved. Of course, using Cascade hops in a pale ale in 1980 was reckless, so the crew at Sierra Nevada Brewing gets major props. Brooklyn Brewery’s Garrett Oliver has been making bold and flavorful beers since I was in diapers. And in terms of like minds sharing ideas, there were so many conversations between Vinnie Cilurzo from Russian River Brewing and Peter Boukaert about barrels and bugs that sparked numerous ideas.
How did you prepare to deliver an acceptance speech to a room packed with your peers?
One of my best friends and I went to a high-school party. He got hammered and kept commenting there were “five million people in the room.” That’s not quite how many people were in the room during my acceptance speech, but I had been told the room could seat 5,000 people, which seemed intense. While I have spoken before large crowds before, that most definitely was a daunting place from which to give a speech. There’s a difference between having something to say and wanting to be heard. I was mindful that many in the room shared my journey and wanted to hear what I had to say, so I reflected on my start. I thanked the good people of Belgium for inspiring me. The crowd laughed when I toasted the brewers of San Diego…including the ones I don’t like. Of course I thanked the most important people in my life, from my family, my partners and others who share my passion for making great beer. I couldn’t thank my employees—past and present—so I had previously put together an email to share with them right after my time on stage.
What were some highlights from your speech?
After thanking as many people as I thought time would allow, I asked permission to close with one remaining thought. It’s something that I think needs to be talked about. Once I was finished with my speech, my Twitter feed showed that my speech had been distilled into one simple point: ‘We are becoming incredibly dependent on imitation and this saddens me. Mostly because we all know, flattery will get you nowhere. I’ve always felt our job as brewers is to transport our customers to far-away lands; places they didn’t realize beer could take them. But lately it feels our industry has become reliant on collaborating solely on hazier shades of winter. It feels done and done. Can we please chart a new destination? Yes, it will require new ideas and bold strokes; daring challenges even, but nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.’ Ultimately, what I wanted to say is that there is much too much sameness in the world of brewing right now and a new course needs to be charted. I also reminded the crowd that an award like this would inspire me moving forward to ensure we were doing our part. It feels like we haven’t been a big enough part of this conversation as well. There are most definitely beers we have not attempted that need to see the light of day. So I promised to get back to the innovation room and make things we have only been dreaming about. I’ve spent half my life literally in the pursuit of making beers only my mind can see, and for that I am thankful that I found a place for my art. Earning this award feels great, no doubt, but it doesn’t mean I should throw on a smoking jacket and sip drinks in the study. It means people will continue to look at the work we produce and hopefully we can continue to inspire them with thought-provoking beers.