Talking craft beer with Ron Gamble
1. How did you go from a life in the Navy to starting Veterans United Craft Brewery?
I served 8 years of active duty in the Navy followed by 4 years in the reserves before joining the internet startup world. In 1999 my wife bought me one of those True Brew kits and I started brewing extract beer. I thought it was pretty cool tasting and wanted to expand my skills so I went to all-grain brewing next and started entering competitions and getting feedback. It was a fun hobby and I thought it would be really cool to open a brewery some day. I was pretty familiar with startups but I didn’t know enough to go from home brewing to a commercial brewery so I applied to some of the brewing schools around the country. I got accepted into Siebel in Chicago in September of 2007 for what they now call the Master Brewer’s program. It’s a total of 3 months, with the last 1 1/2 months in Germany on an exchange program outside of Munich. Like most schools, they teach you the basics, but then you have to learn the practical. I started by volunteering at a small 7-barrel brew pub. I used that knowledge to move on to a 15-barrel production facility. From there I moved on to be a brew master at a brew pub and then on to a position as one of 2 lead brewers at a 45-barrel regional brewery. Eventually I started working on the business plan for my own brewery. Getting back to Jacksonville was part of our plan as I’d been here before and my wife is from here. We made it back to Jacksonville about 2 years ago and I started full time planning for the brewery.
2. What appealed to you about opening a craft brewery?
What appeals to me about craft brewing is the creative aspects that are at the intersection between science, art and engineering. I’m a tinkerer, I love to build things and to play around with things. Craft beer gives you the opportunity to be hands on and to create recipes using unique ingredients. And because we’re not a huge brewery we’re not beholden to brewing one beer and doing it a thousand times over.
3. How long did it take you from finishing school to believing you could open a brewery?
About 3 years. Once you start working in a brewery you find out how much you don’t know. I wanted to meet some really good brew masters and head brewers out there and I was able to do that at most of the breweries where I worked. I took from them the nuggets of knowledge that I’ve been able to apply here in my own brewery.
4. What does it take to be a good brew master?
It starts with an attention to detail in everything from how you hook up hoses to how you flush the hoses with CO2. That’s what makes the difference between a good beer and a great beer. You need to have in yourself, and in the people who work for you, that commitment that they really care that their name is going on the product. That’s what I had when I was at the breweries where I worked, especially when I was head brewer. Every beer that went out the door I took as a personal extension of myself.
From there it’s a combination of recipe creation and technique. A lot of people who want to get into the brewing profession really focus on recipe creation, but that’s a very small portion of the job. What we do here, and what occurs at most production sized breweries, is that you tend to only brew so many beers and you brew them over and over again. Then it becomes technique—how do you refine the process of minimizing your dissolved oxygen pickup so you increase your shelf life? It’s things like that—it’s knowing how to successfully manage a process to produce consistently flavored beers.
5. Do you manage the recipes at Veterans United?
It’s definitely a collaborative effort but a lot of our initial recipes are coming from the database of recipes I’ve built up over the years.
6. How do you create a recipe?
I’ll start with things I’ve tasted before in different beers. If I liked something from beer A and something else from beer B I’ll play around with combining both those elements into my own recipe. I’ll also draw on what I personally like. There are certain types of hops that appeal to me. I’ll also work on the sort of bitterness I want to express—it can be really punchy or really smooth and lingering. I look at what ingredients I have and will pull all the elements together to build a profile. As a recipe is being created I’ll work with the team to discuss the various elements and how they’re mixing. Then we’ll brew a batch and see what we get.
7. How are you going to distinguish Veterans United from all the other craft breweries?
We’ll start with our brand, Veterans United. Our brewery was started by myself and a cadre of other veterans. I’ve got 18 other investors involved with the brewery and — the majority of them are veterans and those who aren’t have family members who are. We’re taking that same dedication and enthusiasm we had serving and putting it into the beer. The second part is about Jacksonville. As a military and navy town the city has been very supportive. People here recognize that we’ve gone out and served our country and are now pursuing craft brewing and that has really helped us to stand out in a special way.
8. What about the beer itself? If you were blind tasting your beer against another, what do you want people to think of Veterans United?
I think we’re going to produce some fantastic beers with a consistent, clean flavor profile along with some ingenuity in how we’ll put together various ingredients to make new recipes.
9. What do you mean when you say that you want to “expand the definition of what beer can be?”
That means trying new things, whether we’re mixing new ingredients with fruit to create a new type of beer, or putting it into a barrel to see what flavor comes out. A lot of what you see in craft beer in Jacksonville seems unique but it’s really unique to Jacksonville because it’s new here, but it may have been done for 10 or more years in some place like Portland, Oregon.
10. What do you think of the large brewers, like Budweiser, moving into craft beers?
Well, the market for craft beers is growing so it’s not surprising that the large brewers will want something that appeals to that segment of the market. They may bring out their own styles, such as Blue Moon or Shock Top, or they may buy out craft breweries such as Goose Island. It’s a challenge for us, but it’s also good for the craft beer drinker.
11. Are there too many craft breweries?
Craft beer is a very regional business and people want more Jacksonville craft beer. And they want more Florida beer. I’m looking to take my talent and put it into something that can be done here locally and I hope the people of Jacksonville are going to like it and embrace it.
12. Can you describe your first beers at Veterans United?
Our first two beers will be our Raging Blonde Ale and our HopBanshee IPA. These are beers that we’ve brewed several times and that Champion, our distributor, is very anxious to get out there.
Our Raging Blonde is not your everyday blonde. I wanted a blonde ale that pushed the limits of a blonde ale. It’s more of a hop-forward blonde. A lot of blonde ales on the market are designed to appeal to as many people as they can. I constructed our blonde so that it would be loved by craft beer drinkers.
HopBanshee will scream hops. It’s brewed with late hop additions in the fermenter. It’s definitely a hop-forward, west coast style IPA.
13. What does hop-forward mean?
It means it’s more hoppy for a particular style. Blonde ales tend to be malt oriented and ours is malt oriented too but we have a little more of a hop presence as well.
14. How many different beers will you produce?
I’m thinking we’ll have between 4–5 year round beers and then an additional 4 or so seasonal beers. Some of the seasonal beers may become year-round beers if they prove to be really popular.
15. How long does it take to brew a batch of beer?
It depends on the style, but about 2–3 weeks.
16. Who’s the audience for Veterans United?
Right now it’s primarily the craft beer drinkers. As more people discover craft beers I think we’ll have segue beers like our Raging Blonde that will help people transition to other beers such as our IPAs, double IPAs and other types of beers.
17. Do you have a personal favorite style of beer?
It depends on the mood I’m in or where I’m at. When it’s winter and cold out I enjoy a Belgian Duvel or Tripel or something like a barley wine.
18. Do you think you’ll brew styles such as the Belgians?
Yes, definitely. I’ve got some nice recipes for those—saisons, strong goldens, and things like that.
19. Are there any big trends you’re seeing in craft beers?
There’s definitely a lot of interest in the new sour beers, and with beers that are aged in barrels. Hardcore craft beer drinkers are always looking for something new. That makes it both a pleasure and a challenge to a brewer. It’s the fun part of our job though, trying out new things and playing around with recipes.
20. Why do so many craft beers have such high alcohol content?
A lot of breweries are doing high alcohol brews but there are also some great beers out there that aren’t high in alcohol—the mild, special bitters and extra special bitters that are highly drinkable. I’ve done some really nice, English-style ales that I just love.
21. There are a lot of pretty exotic craft beers out there—things like smoke beers. Will you be pushing the envelope that way, in terms of what you’ll be brewing?
This is a personal item for me that I care a lot about. Many craft breweries want to experiment, and they take the “spaghetti” approach of throwing a bunch of ideas against the wall and seeing what sticks. I’ve seen that approach produce some really bad beers. For example, someone might produce a smoke beer and it could end up tasting really bad—like you’re drinking from an ash tray. For the person who’s never had a smoke beer and is tasting that for the first time, they may be turned off that style of beer. They may never want to taste the great smoke beers from Bamburg, Germany. I think that as craft brewers we have to keep experimenting and going for the gusto, but we also have to step back and ask ourselves if what we’re doing is going to represent craft beer well.
22. What plans do you have to engage the community?
Our taproom is the starting point. It’s a place where people can come to enjoy our beers, relax and socialize. We’ve also put in a special events room off the tap room. It’ll allow us to do a lot of interesting events. We’re called Veterans United and it’s not just a name. I have a guy, Bob Buehn, who’s my veterans and military liaison and co-ordinator. He’s a great guy—I flew with him in the Navy. We’re reaching out, doing things with the local base bases and local veterans’ organizations.
We’ll be having what I’m calling the living history series—we’ll be bringing in some of the veterans who served in world war II and Korea and who have really unique stories. We want to make it an event here where people come and have a chance to hear someone talk about their experiences and their past—to be able to share in that while these people are still with us.
We have a lot of other ideas from both myself and our tap room manager and we’ll be introducing them once we get going.
23. Can you tell us about your taproom?
It holds over 150 people. We’re going for an industrial look, with bare concrete floors, wood, metal and a lot of vintage style posters on the wall.
We will not serve food, but we will have food trucks here. On Saturday we want to give tours to help people to experience the brewery.
24. Besides the taproom, how else will your beer be available?
We’re putting in a canning line inside the brewery, so you’ll be able to buy our beer in cans once that gets going, sometime this fall. We’ll probably start by canning our HopBanshee and Raging Blonde. We’ll also have growlers available in 32 and 128 ounce sizes. We’ll also sell sixth barrel and half barrel kegs directly. Champion Brands is our distributor and they’ll be selling our beer into some of their key retail accounts.
25. What do you think the government could be doing better to support the Florida craft brewing industry?
I think they need to embrace craft beer and understand it. Some of the recent legislation wanted to label a brewery that produces more than 1,000 barrels as no longer being a small brewery. Anyone who thinks that really doesn’t understand the industry and the business. Bold City, Intuition, and Veterans United — we’ll all pass that mark in about a year’s time. To say we’re not small is an understatement.
In Publix and the local grocery stores you can have wine samples—why not beer samples? Allowing breweries to do the samples themselves, instead of having to go through a distributor would make it better for all of us. There’s this fear of degrading the 3-tier distribution system. That system was put in place to protect the distributors back when the breweries were the big powerhouses. Nowadays many of the breweries are the small guys on the block and the distributors are the big guys. I think even the distributors would be in favor of us doing more of our own local promotion.
Another thing is that the local breweries here in Jacksonville are a great tourist draw. I know that when I go around the country I’m drawn to the local craft brewers and I want to visit the breweries. I think all the breweries here in Jacksonville want to make our city a stop in Florida. So the local governments could promote that aspect of the craft beer industry.
26. In the craft brew world, how would you rate Jacksonville?
The Florida brewing scene is still really new and we’re just getting going down here in Jacksonville. We’re building our homegrown knowledge, and that’s fantastic, but it’s also great when the industry brings in outside knowledge. That exchange of ideas and experience really helps everyone. The bigger the Florida brewing scene grows, the more professionals we’ll attract into the business down here. When I told people I was opening a brewery in Jacksonville, they thought I was crazy. I saw it as an opportunity.
27. Why did you decide to locate Veterans United in Southside, rather than in Riverside or some place like that?
I saw the opportunity a little differently. There are a lot of folks who live in Mandarin and work off of JTB. St. Johns County is one of the fastest growing counties in Florida. People who work in the Southside area may not want to drive all the way up to Riverside to pick up a growler after work. We’re perfectly located for those people. I don’t think the needs of this area were being fully met with the production breweries in town, so that’s why we located here.
28. Anything else?
I think Veterans United is going to produce some really fantastic beer while trying new things and being innovative about it. This has been a life long dream of mine, but I didn’t just jump in. I’ve spent a lot of time to gain the experience that will help me to produce a great beer and a great business. Now we’re ready to go and all of us here at Veterans United are excited to share our passion with the people of Jacksonville.