4 Questions with Phil Pesheck of Burke-Gilman Brewing, home of Seattle’s most highly decorated IPAs of 2020

by | Jan 20, 2021

Phil Pesheck has wanted to brew IPAs since college. Excited by the mystery of fermentation and passionate about learning all he could about beer styles and ingredients, he accepted a job at the first brewery that would hire him after graduation. Beginning as a cellarman at Mac & Jack’s in Redmond, Wash.,he eventually moved on to Portland Brewing, Scuttlebutt Brewing and, most recently, Georgetown Brewing. As a production brewer tasked with making flagship ales and lagers week in and week out, he found few opportunities to pursue his own ideas. And in spite of more than a decade of experience in the industry, he knew it would be difficult to find a position as a head brewer in the competitive Pacific Northwest. 

But in late 2017, over beers at Beveridge Place Pub in West Seattle, a friend mentioned that a new brewery on Seattle’s  Burke-Gilman Trail was looking for a brewer. Pesheck wasted no time in applying. The company’s four founders — Eric Lundquist, Corey Ovendale, Ty Ovendale and Kenneth Trease — liked him, hired him, and on July 3, 2018, Pesheck mashed in for the first time at Burke-Gilman Brewing.

He will admit that he got off to a rough start as head brewer. It was endless research, Pesheck says, that ultimately helped him pin down different beer styles and find his footing as head brewer. But the effort paid off –  within a year he began picking up awards. And, in October 2020, he scored big – scored double, in fact. Burke-Gilman earned a gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival for a hazy double IPA called The Hopsplainer. Then, the brewery also won the annual Alpha King Challenge, a competition “to determine the most well-balanced and drinkable hop-forward beer.” That beer was Hopotheosis, a fresh-hop double IPA that also won double gold in Sip’s 2020 Best of the Northwest awards. 

What did it mean for you, personally and more broadly, for the brewery to win Great American Beer Festival gold and the Alpha King Challenge in the same year?

For Burke-Gilman, it launched us firmly into the IPA scene in Seattle, and bolstered demand from local bottle shops for our canned beers. Both awards were incredibly humbling to win; Winning both awards is unimaginable. This is what I sought out to do after college, to specialize in extremely hop-forward IPAs. It is an incredibly huge honor to bring a GABF gold and the Alpha King award back to Washington. It’s been a long drought since the Pacific Northwest has worn the crown. The two awards have kept us busy trying to keep up with demand during a time of year where we would otherwise have been pretty slow. I now also get to make more extremely hop-forward beers on a monthly basis, which gets my creative side going. The Alpha King competition also lined up perfectly with the Citra fresh hop harvest, which to me means that the Pacific Northwest is at a strong advantage in this extreme hop competition. So I hope to see Washington and Oregon place in the Alpha King competition in the coming years. For me personally, it meant that all the endless hours of research and small-scale experiments were worth every minute, every single minute. I’m very fortunate to work at a brewery that requires scientific understanding, endless research, and experimentation.

Photo courtesy of The Brewers Association

Where do you look for inspiration in terms of recipe development? What ingredient or brewing process are you currently excited about?

There are so many possibilities for a creative brewer in the Pacific Northwest. For the most part, I’m on online platforms mostly to glean small details of what new beers are trending and what is really working in beer. There’s a lot of hype out there to sort through. [Instead,] just pick a dozen exemplary breweries to track for the styles of beer that you’re interested in. Then see over time what hops or trends they pick; I look to see if they featured that ingredient repeatedly. If you track Burke-Gilman, you’d notice that Idaho 7 [hops] have quickly made it into many of our IPAs and [the] beer [that] medalled at GABF, so something is clearly there. Also, when an informative brewing book comes out about once a year, I’ll read it, then read it again taking notes on a Word doc for future reference. To me, the turning point at Burke-Gilman was applying the scientific knowledge gained from The New IPA, [by Scott Janish], which helped Burke-Gilman win gold in 2019 at the Washington Fresh Hop Competition in the Hazy IPA category. By listening to Rueben’s Sightglass podcast “The Art of Hops,”, I learned to dry hop by taste on new and evolving IPAs. This has transformed our IPAs. 

As a brewery that vows to explore beer history and to not necessarily chase trends, which styles are you eager to tackle next and why?

Some historic beers simply fell out of favor. UK beers became lower in ABV as a result of heavy taxation, many European brewers and beers perished as a result of World War 2. In the United States, prohibition wiped out brewing for a decade. We’re interested in giving many different beers that fell victim to history another chance. Next up, we’re brewing a Czech dark lager for release in March. After that, the next series of beers coming up is all historical English ales. We’re brewing a 5-to6 percent Mild, a Burton IPA, a whiskey barrel–aged strong ale, and a bourbon barrel–aged English barleywine. Personally, I go down a rabbit hole researching each new historical beer. A compromise must be made: We’re using modern equipment, fully modified malt, modern sanitation techniques, and have consistently high-quality ingredients that may have been unavailable when a historical style was made. So I try to imagine how a brewer would brew a beer 100-plus years ago if taxation, sanitation, and variance in raw ingredients were not an issue at the time.

Besides (presumably) pouring yourself a pint of Burke-Gilman beer, what do you like to do to unwind at the end of a brew shift or on a day that you’re not at work?

To be honest, at the end of my workday, you can find me at the end of the bar digging away at a book or on the laptop researching a new style of beer, an experimental hop, or new strains available from small craft yeast banks. I look at what hop combinations win awards, what particular hops work best for fresh hops [versus] what do not work. When I actually get away from work, I like to cook, take my dog Lily out on road trips, and go camping. I am also ever on the hunt for the best Bohemian Pilsner in the land.

Author of The Great Northeast Brewery Tour and a contributor to The Oxford Companion to Beer, Ben Keene has judged beer competitions across the United States and frequently speaks at industry conferences and conventions. He lives in Seattle.

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