The Mad Scientists of Sour
“Mhm, barrel eleven.” It only takes one sniff for Jamin Trimble to pinpoint, down to the very barrel, which beer he’s drinking. (Hint: It’s a barrel aged golden sour.) In April Jamin (VP of Sales and Marketing) and Johnnie Leroy Compton III (Head Brewer) founded Highway Manor Brewing Co., a small, bottle by bottle, operation out of Camp Hill, Pennsylvania. While building a business is new, brewing beer is not. Johnnie started homebrewing 15 years ago. It wasn’t until Johnnie discovered sour beers and the power of yeast did the vision for Highway Manor come into focus. Years of wild experimentation, perverse infections by yeast, and infusions of various styles in an abandoned farmhouse along Highway 15 led to the launch of a new project. According to Jamin, the goal of Highway Manor is to make perfectly “drinkable, quaffable, crushable sour[s].” For Johnnie and Jamin, it’s not only about creating flavorful, complex sours; it’s about imbuing their beers with the magic and flair of where they’re from — hence the brewery’s slogan “Taste My Place.” These are the mad scientists of sour. Here’s a look into their workshop.
CTH: What’s your facility like right now?
Jamin: We're in Camp Hill, PA which is a stone's throw from Harrisburg. We're not far from Pizza Boy. It's a warehouse. I don't know if you know anything about Tom Waits, but he has a song called “What's He Building in There?" It's this old riff on people talking about what's going on in there, in this nondescript warehouse. We don't even keep a sign, we don't have anywhere to entertain anybody. It's just a production facility. Philly is our main market, then we're seeing how things go in some of the other smaller markets. It's a ten barrel system. We have 86 barrels in the program. Red Wine French Oak barrels. We're going for 360 by the end of the year. All of our beers are barrel-aged. We do a lot of blending now.
Johnnie [Leroy Compton III] likes to say that our best beer is yet to come. The more we blend, the more we work with our program — that's the great thing about sours, they always get better.
CTH: I had a sip of the strawberry. It tastes so fresh. I feel like serious time was put into these beers. I can tell it's very small batch. The quality is amazing. It stood out from the rest of our tap list immediately. [At the time] we had like 30+ sours, but I kept coming back to this.
Jamin: Johnnie always says if you want to make great beer, drink great beer. Johnnie is the owner and brewer. Johnnie has been preparing for launch for the last four years, but the facility we got last year…[W]e’re so new it's not a distant memory for us. Johnnie and I have been friends for 20 years. We've been talking about [opening the brewery] and going back and forth. Our artist is Keith Greiman and he is a part-time bartender at Memphis Taproom and that's how we got to know him. He was just in Philly Beer Scene about his artwork. He's also in a band called Prowler and we're going to be launching a beer called funky prowler, which is our sour stout, in October.
CTH: So, what were you doing before Highway Manor?
Jamin: I had been working many different sales jobs. The biggest one for Verizon. I was there for many years. I did telecom sales. I was level three at some other companies. Telecom sales is my background, but I've been selling forever. [Johnnie and I] have been friends for 20 years, since college. He called me and asked if I wanted to be involved. I said, ‘I want to be involved, but you're not ready for me yet.’ In March, he said, ‘I can't brew and sell the beer at the same time.’ Since we're new, we're a bootstrap start-up, we're starting up with whatever we have and that's what we're going with. If the beer is well received, we'll be fine; if not, we won't be. Fortunately, it's been very well received. But that's how I got involved. Now it's just going to Philly. Some of the early adopters were Memphis, Khyber, Kite & Key. The genesis from then to now was really Philly Beer Week. We got involved with them very heavily. Another early adopter was Martha. They're had our beer from the very beginning. We had 16, 17 events for Philly Beer Week. We worked really hard, got to know a lot of folks. The events went really well. That's how we got our name out there a little bit. From then, it's just seeing what other doors open.
CTH: Could you talk a little bit about where the beers come from. Based on what you're saying, you're trying make sours more accessible, but you're also infusing different styles with the sour element. When you were birthing Highway Manor, did you decide you wanted to be a sour brewery at heart or do you want to leave sours behind at some point?
Jamin: Our goal is to be a sour hub for the northeast. It's a big goal, obviously; it's not going to happen over night. That's our long running goal. We only do sours and that's all we do. The reason goes back to Johnnie. He's been brewing for 15 years. Homebrewing. I've tasted all his beers. Great ones, not so great ones — that trial and error process. About 7 years ago he met Tom Peters from Monk's and Tom took him under his wing and said, ‘I've gotta show you some sours.’ He didn't leave until 4 in the morning. They were drinking sours all night, completely wasted. It just blew Johnnie's mind, the flavors you can get from sour beer instead of making the beers that everybody makes. With all varying degrees of flavor and appeal.
CTH: What do you think distinguishes a good sour from a bad one?
Jamin: The thing we like to see a sour do is taste great from the beginning. We want a lot of complexity so you're tasting different flavors; maybe the second time you're tasting different flavors that you did the first time then later in the evening you're tasting different flavors than when you first started. Complexity, then having a great after taste. It has that tartness, but it's juicy enough… [B]eer is about three things: yeast, yeast, and yeast. When Johnnie started brewing sours there was nothing on sours. Sours were made in Europe. There were a few around here, but nothing was really written on it. He felt like he had to go in a time capsule. He went through a lot of trial and error. What he realized was you had to open the yeast up, the brewery up, to the terroir [french for land] of where you are. You're going to get the natural yeast that's in the air and allow for infection and work with infection. Some infections are good, some infections are bad, and palate really is what's differentiated Johnnie as far as sours go. He's drank so many sours. Having that experience, he's cultivated our own proprietary yeast strains for the last 5 years. What you're tasting now is what he worked with five years ago. He continues to rework, repitch, reopen the terroir of the building. In fact, Highway Manor is an actual manor on a highway 45 minutes outside of Harrisburg. They called it a mansion back in the 1840s; it's an old farmhouse really, but it's on highway 15. He gutted half of it and made it his brewery. He did that about nine years ago.
CTH: Does it still exist?
Jamin: Oh yeah.
CTH: Does he still work out of it?
Jamin: He does. He does his experiments there now. Now that we're in production, we have a lot to work with but he's always working with new yeast strains. Again, he's pulling the terroir into the building so you get these flavors.
CTH: So, the manor is sort of the lab of the mad scientist. A 'Mad Sour Scientist.' Is the manor where all the original ideas and recipes came from?
CTH: Wow, that's crazy.
Jamin: The manor itself is really cool. There's not a lot of furniture. All the stuff he's done in brewing, all the stuff he's taken on over the years — it's a brewer's mad scientist lair. He has some old, old beers there that we call Manor Beers. They never made it to production. We'll be drinking four or five year old beers when we go there sometimes. We'll have Manor parties where we'll invite friends to come out. It's in the country where nobody can hear ya. We'll do beer pairings. We'll cook. Johnnie loves everything epicurean. He leans towards the high end of culture when it comes to food, beer, and wine and all that.
CTH: How do you feel like you compliment him? I guess the clearer question is, what do you bring to the table on the brewing side of things?
Jamin: Well, he's definitely the brewer. He's the one with the palate and the experience and making the beers. When it comes to that jump from making great beer that nobody's ever heard of to getting it out there, having everybody hear about it, try it. That's me. That's my role. We're a brand new business starting out. We both wear a lot of hats. We have five people working with us but him and I are mainly starting it up. I do everything but brew and if brewing is cleaning then I brew too! Sales calls, meetings, setting up events, mopping floors, cleaning out mash tins, scrubbing our fermenters...
CTH: Jumping into this role, what do you think you learned about yourself as a beer person?
Jamin: I learned I don't have that bad of a palate. It can be daunting when your best friend is a brewer. Four years ago he came to Rochester when I was living there. He took me to the Beers of the World there. We spent about $350 on beer. He pulled out all the best beers at Beers of the World. My training program was to open a new bottle every night. I'd take a picture of it, send it to him, and we'd text back and forth about what flavors I was tasting, what he knew about the brewery, what he liked about it. That was a really good education for me. There's really good beer out there. I just love selling beer. You can't feel bad for me. Nobody can feel bad for me. I get to sit in people's living rooms, talk about beer, and drink great beer.
CTH: Terrible! Who would want to do that?
CTH: So, when you're going up to Khyber, going up to Memphis Taproom — we’ve mentioned that it’s hard to sell sours in NJ — how do you go about selling your sour?
Jamin: The liquid has to be good. No matter how friendly or charismatic I can be, the beer won't sell. The liquid has opened the doors for us. Johnnie and I, we're craft beer drinkers. We love craft beer. We're a good time. Measured, but a good time. And so, when he and I went to Khyber we sat down and ordered a beer. We talked to the bartender. We brought our bottles with us, but we didn't know anything. I have four or five months of experience now. But we knew we had great beer and we knew Khyber was a great bar that has great beer. We got talking to Jeremy Thompson. We asked him if he'd like to try it. That's what it comes down to; we have to sit down with the person who makes that decision. The beer does the talking.
CTH: Is it true romance when they take that first sip?
Jamin: Yeah, we've been joking about it. We've watched a lot of people drink our beer. That first sip. We've learned to read faces. We can tell when someone drinks our beer and they can drink beer, has taste for beer. Especially sour beer. We can see that almost ‘recognizing’ face. We're self-distributing in Philly only. It's a very different model. Most breweries are in an area of town where they build a local following. For us, as much as we love Harrisburg, they just don't have the amount of sour drinkers per-capita as Philadelphia. We're only doing sours. We know we're a niche. We love Philly. Another focus is New York City somewhere down the road.
CTH: How do you think you'll remain competitive as a small operation right now?
Jamin: We’re pretty nimble. We can do a lot. We're going for the prestige play. We're not the cheapest sour. You're not tasting a cheap sour. If you want to make great beer, drink great beer. It's not exactly rocket science. It takes a palate and a lot of work. Another thing is the yeast.
CTH: How would you talk to somebody who doesn't know about the importance of yeast?
Jamin: As I said, beer is about three things: yeast, yeast, and yeast. You can have all the wort you want, all the cool flavors, all the hops, but if the yeast isn't doing its job you don't have beer. You have flavored water. The yeast and yeast selection is really important, and not really focused on, but it is in our type of brewing. We do open fermentation always. No temperature control. It's very typical to the farmhouse style. That's what I would tell someone — we're doing it like it was done back in the day. Whatever flavor you're tasting is from that location, from that area. It's what the brewer wanted to cultivate. The more you cultivate the yeast, the more flavors you can get — especially with sours. You don't want that with an IPA or any other style because they have to have a certain flavor profile. If you expose it to the air, you could get the souring yeast particles in there and infect the brewery. We're a very infected brewery. We very much embrace that.
CTH: Where do you want to be in the next 6 months?
Jamin: We want to be, definitely, in Rochester, Buffalo, and we're looking at Albany. These areas all have good craft beer centers. We'll likely be in New Jersey and New York City. That's a big list. We're never going to stop focusing on Philly. This is essentially our home market, our backyard. We'd like to start to consistently be part of the Philly sour beer scene. Obviously, we're not going to do 16 events a week. When Johnnie talks about sours, he doesn't approach it in the most academic way. He never will. He's a true homebrewer. He did it all by trial and error.
CTH: The best beers are created that way. You have to love it first and take it from there.
Jamin: Exactly. He'll look at barrel, a fermenter, a harbinger where we're growing the yeast and he can tell what's happening at any given moment. He'll reach his finger into nasty shit and pull it out and go, ‘Okay, this needs about another week.’ That kind of experience is hard to quantify. How do you do quantify that? When he's talking about infections and encouraging them — we want to convince folks that there are drinkable, quaffable sours that you can enjoy just as much as an IPA or a Pilsner. I love pilsners. There's quite a variety of flavors and quality. Sours, however, get better with age so you can approach them like wine. They pair really well with food. Cheeses, especially cheeses.
CTH: Since we’re talking about it, favorite beer food?
Jamin: Cheese. It's hard to step away from cheese when it comes to beer. BBQ, charred food, spicy food all go really well with sours. Acidity breaks up the spiciness a little bit. The skies the limit.
We have a ten barrel system. We're ready to take that next step. We want to grow slow and build relationships. It's hard to say where Johnnie starts and I stop. We want good relationships with bars, bottle shops, that kind of thing. As we cultivate those relationships, as people get to know us better, we have that support system to get that beer to them.
CTH: What has been the biggest hurdle so far?
Jamin: Consistent selling. You're talking about beer being competitive. It is competitive. A bar will have 12 to 25 halves or however many they have and there's a lot of beer reps, breweries saying, 'Hey put our beer on.' And you want to, and you will, but you have to keep them rotating. What we're trying to do is give our beer to enough places so that you'll see Highway Manor at the best bars. Mr. Blueberry and Mr. Strawberry, those are our flagships, we'll always market those. We could have had some whacky names for those beers. We really just want to keep it simple. We'd love to have people go, 'Did you want a saison or a Say John?' That'd be funny.
The best sours have a lot of complexity. It's an experience. Our bottles aren't cheap. The drafts are reasonably priced. We did that on purpose. We want to point people to the bottles. No joke, the bottles are the best representation of our beer. [We’re] [s]ticking to our principles, our DNA. For example, Mr. Blueberry. There are a lot blueberry beers out there. You can taste if it's a syrup, or an abstract, or if it's some type of flavoring. We do 50lbs of blueberries for every barrel. 50lbs of fresh strawberries for every barrel. That's a lot of work. We're literally processing fruit. When the fruit shows up it's like, 'Well, we're doing Mr. Strawberry today!' When our yeast attacks that fruit — watch out. I've worn so much beer. The yeast is really doing so much work. Blueberries give Mr. Blueberry a really dry flavor, a dry quality because of rinds. We put the whole thing into the barrel and let it sit.
Right now, I love watching this baby grow. It's fun. We put a lot of time and effort into it, but we're not the ones in charge so much. All we can do is make great beer and get it out to folks. We get that response. That's what I love about it. Now I'm going into places and they're going, 'I think I've heard of you.' I'm happy with that. That's awesome. If they think they've heard of us, even better! If I'm hearing that Pablo Thomas [City Tap’s General Manager] had our beer way back when. That’s so typical of Philadelphia because there really is a great craft beer scene here. To watch our beer be appreciated and accepted, that's awesome. It really is. Everything else: growing, being the sour hub, all our goals — that's fun. But to have the beer, pour the beer, have you like it. That's huge. It may sound corny, but it's so much fun. When we were starting out and nobody knew us, it was a big hill to climb. We didn't have any lack in confidence.
CTH: And you guys just launched in April. That's not very long ago. That speaks volumes about your beer.
Jamin: We’re a little bit like that — why not us? We love the beer. Folks we respect say it tastes good. We're going to make a lot of it and hopefully get it everywhere. It's only going to get better as our barrel program progresses, the beers get older, taking it from the manor to the production facility, it's going to be great.
We're making beer. This is happiness. We let the beer do the work. We're a liquid focused company.
CTH: Liquid first.