Today is May 15th, and while, to most folks, it may just be an inconspicuous Monday, we at Taps & Caps know it as the start of American Craft Beer Week.
In preparation for this wonderful week, we hit the streets of DFW to have a few beers and chat with some of our favorite local brewers.
We first set out to catch up with Neil MacCuish, head brewer and wise guy at Cobra Brewing Co. For the last 3 years, Neil has been quietly producing some wonderful suds out of the family owned & operated brewery nestled in the heart of Old Town Lewisville. We pulled our stools up to the bar and Neil graciously poured us a few beers from the tap wall to get our conversation started.
The following is a condensed transcript of the conversation, which has been edited for clarity.
So Neil, can you tell us how you got in to brewing?
Neil: I just like to drink beer! Nah…Bill, my father in law was home-brewing on a Mr. Beer kit when we were living in Boston and joked that we would eventually move to Texas and open our own brewery. I never used a Mr. Beer kit, I just went straight to the home-brew store, grabbed an all-grain system and started brewing. I started with a few recipes I found off the internet, figured out what it took to produce my own recipe, and it went on from there.
How long were you home-brewing before you decided to take it to the next level?
Neil: Ahh…About 3 years. When I was younger, in my teens, my father actually home-brewed and I helped him out a lot…but of course I was a teenager so all I wanted was the finished product…Like every other teenage boy, I just wanted to go out and get drunk. Haha!
What was it like jumping from home-brew to large scale brewing? How did you prepare yourself for that?
Neil: You know, I’m the type of guy who has to know how to do everything. Whether it’s taking a car apart and putting it back together, building a house, the more I know, the happier I am. I travelled cross-country for my previous job and I was lucky to have weekends off, so I’d go visit breweries and soak it in. I’d spend nights in hotel rooms reading and researching; from the basics like what does yeast actually do, to how to identify infections, just researching everything I could about every step of the brewing process. So when we actually did jump into it, I felt like I was ready. And of course we had to grow… face some difficulties, we had to tweak the recipes, until it all started to really come together.
So what were some of your first beer recipes?
Neil: Actually, one of the first recipes we pulled from our home-brew to the commercial side was Drunkin’ Pumkin (A rich brown ale, brewed with pumpkin, cinnamon and spices).
Neil: Yeah. Even as we went on and I developed new recipes for the commercial side, it seemed like none of our recipes scaled or converted well so I had to constantly tweak everything along the way. The only one that really stayed the same was Drunkin’ Pumkin. I don’t exactly know what it was about that recipe, but it never had to be changed. Hoppy Daze, which we retired, is another. The Blonde Bomber, which was a single hop series. Golden Girl, which is actually a single hop golden ale with Hull Melon hops. That’s a little fruitier hop and I think it plays really well with a lighter beer.
Cobra is a family owned brewery, right?
Neil: Yep! We’ve always been independent and family owned. We never want to bring somebody in who’ll have some kind of say or take away from the creative freedom I have in the brewhouse. Sometimes it’s hard not having investors to come to when something breaks, but we get through it. We go on with the day and keep making good beer.
You guys have gone through some serious expansion here recently. Can you tell us about any challenges you’ve had moving from your old setup to your new automated brew system?
Neil: The biggest thing moving from the old system (a series of repurposed dairy tanks converted to brew beer) to our new brewing equipment is really the manual labor. With the old dairy system, it was all physical labor…getting into the tanks, everything by hand, a lot more physical. With the new system, it’s a lot of brain-work…making sure everything is working right, making sure there’s enough oxygen in the mix when you transfer so everything ferments correctly, making sure the temperature is correct on each fermenter, checking temp on the digital display and verifying with the analog on the tank. Like I said, much more mental labor.
So you don’t just push the Dawn of The Dank button on the screen and it brews? Haha
Neil: No no haha, but take for example the mash tun (the vessel brewers use to steep grain with hot water and produce the base for what will eventually become beer). With our old mash tun, we would have to physically shovel out all the grain. Now I open a door, place a bin…turn the motor on and its done. I can still lift a keg over my head, but its nice not to have to.
On a different topic, I know you like to play with your recipes and experiment with flavors, especially with beers like All Eyez On Me ( A Russian Imperial Stout with Toasted Coconut). What are some of your favorite adjunct flavors?
Neil: I’d probably say the fruits that we use in IPAs. Trying different fruit in say Dawn of The Dank where the hops are already fruit-forward, the fruits work well and kind of accent that. We’ve used mango, tangerine, watermelon, which you guys should be seeing soon, pineapple, passion-fruit. I think Passion-fruit was my personal favorite, that was just over-the-top great.
We’ve mentioned this before, but we at Taps & Caps are really proud to have collaborated with you to create All Eyez On Me. Can you speak a little bit about the beer and the collaboration process?
Neil: Well, Rick approached me wanting to brew a coconut beer. Patsy, a coffee coconut porter was really a big inspiration. We all got the recipe together and the first batch didn’t have a lot of coconut flavor, if you remember. We started out using nothing but toasted coconut chips, and while we still use the coconut chips, we actually add pure coconut extract to intensify the flavor. The toasted coconut still comes through and all the flavors marry nicely.
And we all have an affinity for hip-hop so the name came pretty easily.
Neil: Absolutely. I also remember something about Rick dancing on a table to 2 Pac. Haha.
So what do you personally drink? What’s your favorite style of beer?
Neil: Definitely IPAs. East Coast IPAs if you want to call them that, definitely fruit forward. Don’t get me wrong, I like the west coast style too, but my favorites are really fruit forward IPAs…or anything barrel aged for that matter…especially Stouts.
Has it always been that way? What did you drink when you first started out.
Neil: Nah, I actually used to hate IPAs when I first started drinking. I didn’t like coffee flavors at first either. It just took a while for my taste buds to adjust.
What Cobra beers should we be drinking right now?
Neil: Always Dawn of the Dank! Dank and All Eyez are actually going to be the first cans we’ve ever put out.
That’s great news! When are we going to see the cans on shelves?
Neil: Dawn of the Dank will be released the first week of June and All Eyez On Me will be out the second week . It’ll be a big month.
Well, we’re excited man! Any suggestions for aspiring home-brewers out there?
Neil: Research, research, research. And also remember that your recipes aren’t always going to scale up. There’s gonna be a lot of trial & error, so don’t give up.
Cobra Brewing Co.
Cobra Brewing Co is located at 146 Whatley Avenue, Lewisville, TX 75057 in the heart of Old Town Lewisville. The brewery is open for tours every Friday 5-10pm & Saturday 12-7pm. If you have yet to visit, we highly recommend it! For those times you can’t make it out to the brewery, your local Taps & Caps almost always has one or more rotating taps of Cobra’s fantastic brews.