Tuesday, January 17, 2012

AN INTERVIEW WITH WAYNE WAMBLES, CIGAR CITY BREWING

(Photo courtesy of All About Beer magazine)  Most brewers take at least a few years of trial and error before they start nailing critical hosannas and win their first batch of awards, but Tampa, Florida’s CIGAR CITY BREWING were gaining steam & packs of thirsty, rabid fans almost from the get-go. I personally didn’t get to taste their amazing wares until 2010, even though head brewer Wayne Wambles has been crafting intricate and experimental ales over there since 2008. Then again, they don’t distribute in California, where I live. Us poor saps need to travel, or find like-minded Americans willing to ship their beers to us.

CIGAR CITY BREWING have a signature IPA called Jai Alai IPA that’s unlike any India Pale I’ve ever had. That’s their “flagship”, but there’s no resting on laurels nor slowing down for their guys. Their cedar-aged and barrel-aged beers are consistently total knockouts, and I’ve yet to taste a beer of theirs that was “normal” in the bland, brewpub sense of the word. Everything is unique, either ingredient- or technique-wise. We thought it might help to have a sit-down with Wayne Wambles to talk about it a bit. Then we remembered he was in Florida, so we emailed him a list of questions instead. Here’s what he told us.


BEER SAMIZDAT: Tell us a little bit about how Cigar City Brewing connects with the culture & heritage of Tampa, Florida. How does this come across in your beers and in your approach to brewing?

Wayne Wambles: We try to export our local culture by telling the colorful stories of Tampa's history. Bolita is a double nut brown ale that is named after a rigged game called Bolita in which bolita balls are drawn, sort of like a lottery, and money is awarded to those that picked the matching number. The label on the bottle portrays Charlie Wall, one of the main kingpins behind this racket. He was later murdered on his front porch. This is just one example of how we tell our story through our beers.

We also make beers like Cubano Espresso in which we use Cuban roasted espresso, vanilla beans and cacao nibs. Cuban espresso is roasted to a greater degree and gives a full coffee character to the base brown ale. We also make beers like Guava Grove. Guava is used in pastries, which are found in many Cuban restaurants and markets. The guava adds a tart character to the base beer, which is a saison.

BEER SAMIZDAT:  What is the creative process for a Cigar City beer? Are your brewing ideas well-thought out in advance, or a series of trials and errors?

Wayne Wambles: We do test batches on our 1.5 bbl pilot system. Some of our larger commercial batches are tested here first. Many of our recipes are beers that I designed many years ago. I give them a modern facelift but overall the beers are pretty solid in the first place. I do a great deal of research before I formulate recipes. I read as much material as I can get my hands on and then write the recipes with our concept in mind. Each beer that we make has our own unique twist on it.

BEER SAMIZDAT:  Since beer culture has exploded over the past several years in all corners of the US, including in Florida, how would you say Tampa’s reaction to your beers have evolved, as more and more people try creatively-brewed craft beer?

Wayne Wambles: Overall, consumers are responding positively to craft beer in an astounding way. I still recall the craft crash in 1997. There were a great deal of people investing and opening craft breweries back then but the main problem was that many of them were getting into the business to make money and not great beer. They lacked the know-how. It caused stunted growth in craft market because many consumers were turned off by their early experience with craft beer. Many breweries closed and craft brewing would have to wait 7 years or so to experience a new renaissance.

I think, through the types of beers that we have produced and been successful with, we have changed the perception of the market in the state of Florida. Many breweries in the state of Florida were making light ales or lagers and wheat beers when we first opened. That seems to be changing dramatically now.

We have breweries making food-centric or culinary -inded beers now. We make Hunahpu's Imperial Stout, which is based on Mayan chocolate. It has cacao nibs, vanilla beans, cinnamon, ancho chiles and pasilla chiles. It drinks like a dessert mole imperial stout. There are other breweries in the state of Florida making peanut butter & jelly sandwich beers, smoked maple bacon porters and apple pie beers. I love culinary centric beers. They are a challenge to execute and rewarding to the palate.

BEER SAMIZDAT:  Your Humidor series of beers, in which the beers are aged on Spanish cedar, helped to put the brewery on the map in the minds of the quote-unquote beer-hunting elite. What do you feel these beers bring to the table vs. your other creations?

Wayne Wambles: The Humidor Series also ties into our culture. Cigar box cedar or Cedrella is actually not a form of cedar at all. It is a type of mahogany. It was a perfect marriage for us since it is the very wood used in the construction of humidors for properly storing cigars.

I believed it to have limited potential in the beginning but that was an undersight on my part. We have used it in gruit, IPA, brown ale, American porter and saison to name a few. It just seems to be very versatile and work in many styles. The wood lends notes of white grapefruit, sandalwood, white pepper and sometimes light clove notes. It works extremely well when utilized with our IPA. The citrus notes from the wood melds with the citrusy hop varietals that we use in the production of our IPA.

BEER SAMIZDAT:  What makes the Jai Alai IPA, which I imagine is your best-seller (correct me if I’m wrong), different from other, more basic IPAs? I know what I think, but would love to hear it from you.

Wayne Wambles: I designed Jai Alai to be a more tropical IPA, one that would represent Florida and our concept. I also wanted a certain degree of balance. I didn't want to create a full blown west coast IPA. I was looking for a balance between east and west coast with tropical expressions. We use 6 different hop varietals in the production of Jai Alai to give it more depth and contribute to the citrus to tropical elements that the beer presents. Yes, it is our best-selling brand.

BEER SAMIZDAT: How did you personally & professionally evolve to become the sort of brewer that you are now?

Wayne Wambles: I spent many years working in restaurants and realized that I enjoyed cooking and most things culinary. This was just the beginning of a bridge to brewing. I read books on brewing for 3 months before I ever bought equipment to home brew. I started home brewing with malt extract and found that I preferred dried over liquid. Within a year, I was doing partial mash brewing and 6 months following that I made the transition to 12 gallon all grain batches. I began entering beers into home brew competitions and started winning here and there. I decided that I wanted to try and make a living at brewing because I enjoyed it so much. My mentor was a home brewer that also turned commercial and he was willing to give me a shot in the industry. That's how I got my foot in the door.

My early ideas had elements of culinary infused into them but they didn't go full bore until Cigar City Brewing. I was also making many hybrid styles in the beginning. I decided to focus on classic styles for 6-7 years and was able to grasp what good examples of traditional styles should drink like. This allowed me to understand a wider variety of raw materials and how to implement them into a recipe the way that would express the appropriate flavor and aroma I was targeting. Brewing all these traditional styles also allowed me to learn a great deal about different processes that were used to make all these different styles. Understanding raw materials and process is key in the making of great beer.

BEER SAMIZDAT:  What’s the single most important thing you’d impart to a brand-new brewer, and to a brand-new brewery looking to make a name for themselves?

Wayne Wambles: Design beers that represent your local culture and stand out from other brewery's brands. This will allow your brewery to be unique among the legion of other breweries.

BEER SAMIZDAT:  What are your distribution plans for 2012? Will you be expanding, say, to Northern California any time soon?

Wayne Wambles: This is not my area of expertise. This is a much better question for our sales manager. We are in the process of expanding. I currently juggle handling an existing facility that produces over 10,000 bbls a year and starting up another one that will produce over 20,000 bbls this year. There is a good possibility that we will expand our market but I can't make any promises.

BEER SAMIZDAT: Have any Tampa Bay Rays, Buccaneers or Lightning become ambassadors for the product, or have made themselves known as regular drinkers of Cigar City ales?

Wayne Wambles: Not that I am aware of. I'm not a very big sports fan though. I think that if one of them had then I would have already heard someone in upper management discussing it by now.

BEER SAMIZDAT: Finally, what are your favorite non-Cigar City beers in the entire world?

Wayne Wambles: Zombie Dust was a pleasant surprise. Shaun is doing a great job with his beers at Hill Farmstead. Just about anything Firestone Walker.

4 comments:

Mark said...

Wait, so the head brewer at Cigar City is named Wayne Wambles? That is a pretty awesome name.

I just had my first taste of Cigar City, though it was their collaboration with The Bruery (Marron Acidife or something like that). It was an amazing beer and I can't wait to sample some more of Cigar City's beers...

Jay H said...

Mark, no kidding, right? That's a name that makes you stand up and take notice.

MItch said...

My wife and I (Carol Shelton) have to travel alot for our winery. We have visted Cigar Brewing sevaral times now when we are in FL. It gets better every time. They are very creative and are just the kind of brewers to bring interest back to craft beer. Keep trucking guys!

Anonymous said...

Hmmm, regardless of the name ... if you saw how he conducts his neighborly presence in a "I don't give a rats bottom about the surrounding properties nor responsibly maintaining my yard for anyone, anywhere nor anytime. It is not in my budget to mow my lawn nor pick up any debris. Nor am I concerned of my trees creating an enormous burden on the retired folks nearby of which requires DAILY maintenance on their behalf. Bwah ha ha ha!" (he can be heard belching) For the record: It's going on two months since the last mowing and piles of debris in his yard/sand pit decreases everyone's property value and decreases their quality of living by virtue of simplistic aesthetics. He even has a neighbor next door that won--ironically--the beautification award of the entire subdivision. You'd think twice of someones cleanliness and ability to 'brew' anything in a mannerism fitting of consumption. The fortitude and psyche of a man is in judgment of his everyday routines.
Of course I'm to assume the blog editor is more interested in VIP visits than portraying the people behind the words eh? Stay tuned for more revelations on the illusion of someone of impeccable flavoring. A shameless man he is as I watch the Veteran next door clear off his property everyday from Wambles lack of respect, concern and responsibilities in the community. Move out!!!!