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Capitol City Brewing Company is bringing in a new beer czar next week. The brewpub, with locations in Shirlington and downtown D.C., recently announced that Kristi Mathews Griner will take over as director of brewing operations.
The change at Capitol City follows the news in early January that the brewpub’s top two brewers were leaving the company. According to the Post, long-time head hancho Mike McCarthy resigned in December with plans to own a brewery, and Travis Tedrow took a brewing position at the new Gordon Biersch brewpub location slated to open near Nationals Park in March.
After head brewing posts at Hops Grill and Brewery in Alexandria and Vintage 50 in Leesburg, Griner comes to Capitol City with almost six years of experience in the local brewing scene and two program certificates from the Siebel Institute of Technology in Chicago. I recently met Griner at Capitol City’s Shirlington location to talk about her entry into the brewing industry and plans for the beer program at Capitol City, among other things. Check out the full interview after the jump. What’s your background in brewing? How did you get started?
I’ve worked in restaurants my whole life, everything from doing the dishes to cooking, bartending, and managing. I moved with my husband to northern Virginia in 2002 and was looking for a job close to home, so I started waiting tables at Hops. I was always into beer, especially good beer. But Hops was the first brewpub I worked at. It was neat. I thought, “They’re actually making beer here.” I started harassing the manager about coming in and brewing a batch. I wanted to become a brewer. When the head brewer at the time announced he was leaving, they decided to take me seriously.
Why didn’t they before?
Well, they needed a brewer, and I had been pretty persistent. Also, I think I was the first woman to brew for Hops, which is a national chain. It’s a very physical job. Not every woman can walk around all day with 50-pound sacks on their back. I had a 16-hour interview. It was a double brew day. They wanted to see that I could do it. I was really tired at the end, but I got the job. I apprenticed for four months and then took the position. That was in the fall of 2007. A few years later I did the two-week Concise Course in Brewing Technology at Siebel in 2009 and then their Draft Master program in 2012, but the rest of my training has been hands on.
Tell me about your transition to Vintage 50.
I started brewing at Vintage 50 in 2011. I had done everything I set out to do at Hops and was ready for the next challenge. I followed the recipes at first to get used to the system. The setup was very different to Hops, and I didn’t get the same kind of training. Bill [Madden] came out for a few days and showed me things, but I had to learn most of it on my own. The owner, Anthony Cavallo, told me to keep the two best-sellers, but other than that, he didn’t care. So, I continued to brew their 50 Cat IPA and Catoctin Kölsch (anywhere Bill Madden brewed has a Koelsch) and started to replace some of the other recipes with my own. I rolled out 17 new beers in a year and a half and got a tiny barrel-aging program going. I planned on staying and am sad to leave. Everyone liked what was going on, and I hadn’t gotten things where I wanted them yet or done everything I wanted to do there.
Why did you decide to leave?
The commute. I figured out I drove 24,000 miles last year. Vintage 50 in Leesburg is 48 miles from where I live in Alexandria. It takes me as much as two hours to get home some nights. My husband is a chef for the Navy, and he got deployed in August. Getting the kids to and from school and being at work long enough to finish what I need to get done was really hard.
And how far is Capitol City from your house?
Seven miles. Much closer. The new job means a $4,000 raise in gas prices alone.
So, what are your plans for the beer program at Capitol City?
A lot needs to be done, and it’s time for a fresh face. It’s an older system. The company is 20 years old. My plan is to have a very good time. The guys here are great, and everyone is excited and ready to do something. My initial approach will be the same as when I started at Vintage 50. It will be business as usual until I get used to things. We’ll keep the four core beers, Capitol Kolsch, Pale Rider Ale, Amber Waves Ale, and Prohibition Porter, but I may revisit the recipes and make some tweaks. I’d like to have a consistent IPA. People are such hopheads these days so I’d like to make something really hopalicious—an American IPA and then maybe a Rye IPA. I like brewing lagers. It’s fun to harvest the yeast and have a beer you need to wait months for, rather than just two weeks like you do for ales. I plan on going through the brew logs to see what has and hasn’t been made in awhile and go from there.
Your brewing career seems to be mirroring that of Bill Madden’s so far, with time at both his former breweries. Do you think you might follow the trajectory and open your own brewpub some day?
He is a big guy to follow and those of us who have come after him at both Vintage 50 and Capitol City have had some big shoes to fill. Since he opened Mad Fox in Falls Church, I joke with him that I’m waiting for him to open Mad Fox 2, and then I’ll come and brew there. My husband and I have a combined 52 years experience in the restaurant industry, but we have no plans to open our own place. We have friends with their own restaurants or bars, and they are always there. I wouldn’t want it to be my whole life, the sum of my being. I will come make lots of beer for the person who is always there but don’t want to be that person.
When do you start at Capitol City? Are there any goodbye or welcome parties to look forward to?
I’ve actually been so busy I haven’t had a chance to get the news out. I’ve been filling in at Hops the past few weeks while they are between brewers. On Friday, I tapped my farewell beer at Vintage 50, The Kiss Good-Bye. It’s an 8.2-percent alcohol-by-volume Imperial stout with smoked malt and oatmeal. That should be on through mid-March, and in early March, they will tap my barrel-aged version. I actually start at Capitol City on February 14. I thought, “My husband’s gone and I’ve got nothing to do for Valentine’s Day, so why not hang out behind the bar and do a meet-and greet?” We are having a meet-the-new-brewer event from 5 to 8 p.m. here at the Shirlington location.
Photo by Tammy Tuck