Interview: Head brewer of Triple Rock, Jeff Kimpe

Jeff_TripleRock_MDrummond
Michael Drummond/Senior Staff

Jeff Kimpe is the head brewer at Triple Rock, a popular local brewery known for its delicious homemade brews and for serving liter bottles of 8 percent “Monkey Head” on Thursday nights. The Weekender sat down with Jeff to discuss how he got into the craft, what he likes about working at a small, family-owned brewery and the backstory behind Monkey Head night. 

The Daily Cal: How did you fall in love with beer and brewing?

Jeff Kimpe: Someone bought me a beer book, and I looked at the old photos of the hard-working-looking guys in bars. At that time I was plumbing, and beer was such a big part of our afterwork. We celebrated after a hard day’s work, and it was always with beer.

As far as how I got into (brewing), my uncle always reminded me of our Belgian heritage, and the first imported beer I had was this Belgian ale called Duvel. Duvel is Flemish for “devil,” and after throwing back four or five of them, you’ll know why. It drinks really nicely like a Pilsner, but it’s 8.5 percent. Very deceiving. Watching my uncle pour it into a wine glass and watching him describe it — that was the first time I thought, “Beer is just not beer.”

DC: At what point did you realize this was something you could make money doing?

JK: I moved to Los Angeles from the Michigan area, and it was very difficult for me to find friends — not too many people in L.A. go out and shoot pool and watch hockey. So I really immersed myself into this hobby of home-brewing. I just started brewing like crazy.

There was this really small brewpub in Koreatown in L.A., and there was a guy that worked there that was just really cool to me. I would go in and just watch him grain out and he’d be in the middle of brewing. The first time he said “Hey, do you want to grain out?” I was like “You’re going to let me up on that brew deck to actually do that?”

One day he said, “Why don’t you come back here on this day, and we’ll actually pay you?” And that was like, whoa I’m getting paid to do this! That’s when I realized that this is what I wanted to do for a living.

DC: What is graining out?

JK: Graining out is, when you are done with the mash, when you have extracted all the maltose that you were collecting, you are done with the mash. You empty the spent grain, and a rancher comes and picks it up, and he feeds it to his cattle. We also take a little bit of our spent grain and we put it in our veggie burger, which was my idea.

DC: How did you end up at Triple Rock?

JK: In that time in L.A., there were no real brewing opportunities — this is late 2001 — so I came up here (to the Bay Area), and I loved the beer scene here. I just cold-called everywhere. The one place that actually ended up calling me back was Pyramid brewery.

My first day up there, I’m in this 125-barrel, Mercedes Benz of a brew house, and it’s just beautiful. And I was like, “I guess they’re paying me to do this, I might as well act like I’ve done it before.” I worked there for eight years, and it was definitely like beer school for me. But I wanted to start developing my own recipes, so I interviewed at Drake’s.

I worked at Drake’s for just over two years, when Rodger Davis, then the head brewer at Triple Rock, decided he wanted to go open up his own brewery. So I went to the manager and said, “Hey Man, I want to throw my hat in the ring.” We went to a place that had Drake’s on tap and threw back five beers and talked about it. Rodger decided he was going to leave in January, and that’s when I started here.

DC: How would you say Triple Rock compares to other breweries you have worked at?

JK: My career has been a natural progression. Usually, guys start off at a big place. You start off as a “shift brewer:” You just work the insane hours. You have to be there at 5:30 a.m., and you will be off at 4 p.m. So you work a 10-hour shift, and you’ll do that for four days in a row, for a few weeks in a row. And then you flip to the swing shift, which is usually 2 in the afternoon to 1 or 2 in the morning. I did that for eight years, paying my dues.

I’ve always wanted to make beer — I didn’t want to be a bean counter sitting behind a desk just crunching numbers. Working at a place like Triple Rock, you have a lot of creative control. You better be ready to fill that board with different beers. You have to always be looking for the newest variety of hop. Maybe there’s a new malt out there that you haven’t used, you have to go after it. But that’s the creative part — you have to like that.

DC: Describe Monkey Head to someone who’s never been and who has never tasted that beer.

JK: Big and malty, slightly boozy.

DC: What time do you start brewing it, and when is it done?

JK: Our sister brewery, Drake’s, brews it. After cellaring it, there is seven to 10 days of primary fermentation, and then after that it’s just conditioning. Then they put it into bottles, I place the order, and Ricky, the driver, delivers it, and next thing you know there are a bunch of happy people.

DC: How did the Monkey Head event begin?

There was a time when Thursday night — which is a massive bar night, especially in a college town — was kind of slow. Dave Rowe was not going to settle for it being slow on a big bar night, so he said came up with the idea that we would sell a limited number of bottles (of Monkey Head). It started as 100 bottles, when I started here it was 325, and now it’s close to 500.

Monkey Head is definitely Dave Rowe’s brainchild. He’s very proud of it, as he should be. I have a couple of thoughts when I stick around for Monkey Head night: Number one, it makes me feel old. Number two, it is like, “Wow, this is never going out of style.” There is a line going down the street. All you can say is Dave was right.

DC: How do you recognize talent in young brewers?

JK: Attention to detail is everything. You have to be a little OCD, you have to be a little neurotic. You can’t just say, “That’s OK.” You don’t want to be the guy who it’s like, “The beers were great until this guy showed up,” so you do everything in your power. You make your bosses happy, and you make your customers happy.

And not to forget, making beer is fun, and to have some fun while you are doing it.

DC: Is it still exciting every day?

JK: Absolutely! My favorite part of brewing is milling, and the one-offs have all been my recipes since I got here. That’s a really cool moment — where you’re in the brew house or you’re in the mill room, and it starts there, and you can use whatever you want, any specialty mill or hops that you’ve got. I still get excited.

 

Contact Sam Strimling at [email protected]