Kelly Taylor has a practical streak. He was bitten by the homebrewing bug twenty years ago, when as a college kid in San Diego he just didn’t want to deal with trying to convince someone to buy him beer at the local 7-11. Those early days of hot-plate dorm room brewing planted a seed that grew into a real passion for the craft of making good beer. Like many who’ve got a passion for what they do, one might say that he’s gotten pretty good at it.
After working at breweries up and down the West Coast, love pulled him across the mountains and plains to New York, where he landed a gig brewing for Manhattan’s Heartland Brewery. In 2006, he and his wife Sonya spun those years spent mastering the craft into Kelso of Brooklyn – their own Clinton Hill-based brewery.
Tucked away on an industrial block just off Atlantic Avenue, the brewery presents a deceptively non-descript facade. Crossing the threshold, however, you enter a cavernous, steamy space filled with towering, gleaming steel tanks, and the wafting earthy smells of grains, hops, and yeasts.
We met with Kelly at the brewery to get the story behind some of Brooklyn’s best, and most loved, beer.
So Kelly, tell us where you’re from and how you got started brewing
Well I’m from Mulaktio, Washington, a small town about thirty miles north of Seattle. I grew up there, my dad grew up there, my dad’s dad grew up there…the Taylors go way back in Mukaltio.
How did you get your start brewing?
As a matter of fact, it all started in Russia. I took Russian language classes in high school, and I went with about ten other kids from my school on an exchange program to Russia. I was a senior at the time. One of other kids on the trip, a guy named Kyle, was a year or two behind me in school. He was a really smart kid. That trip was in the spring of ’89. In the fall of ’89 I was a freshman at San Diego State, and one day I’m walking across campus and I run into him.
I’m like, “Kyle! What the hell are you doing here?” And he was like, “Oh, you know, I graduated early so I’m down here taking classes.”
So we hung out a little bit, and he was a homebrewer. He was a very practical guy. He just found that he didn’t have the patience to try to find someone to buy beer for him, so he decided he’d start brewing his own. I just ran into him on campus one day and he was like, “You wanna come over and homebrew?”
I was like, “Yeah, sure, why not.”
So he kind of showed me the ropes. There were homebrew stores down there – little markets in the strip malls where you could go and buy ingredients. There was also a guy down in Chula Vista, south of San Diego, that ran a really inexpensive self-built homebrew shop out of his garage. It was kind of weird – you’d go over there and ring the buzzer and his kid would answer the door, and you’d go down to the garage and he’d be homebrewing and ordering 55 pound bags of grain that he’d divide up and sell at a little markup.
It was really interesting to be exposed to that community. I brewed with that guy a little bit, I brewed at the homebrew shop a little bit, and I brewed with my friend Kyle a little bit.
At first I was interested in it mostly for the convenience factor – like Kyle, I didn’t want to deal with trying to find someone to buy me beer at the corner 7-11. But as I got into it I started developing a taste for good beer. You’d go to these college keg parties and everyone was always drinking Natural Light. At some point I realized – “God, this tastes disgusting!” So I pretty quickly got interested in the quality and taste of the brews you could make at home too.
So you started out learning by working with other homebrewers – did you do any of your own research or anything to supplement your brewing skills? Or was it just experience, trial and error?
Well yeah – that was before the whole internet thing, but way back then they had these fascinating things called books. You don’t see them much anymore, but they’re out there. They’re held in these exotic places called libraries! So eventually I got a book and started brewing on my own. I still have that book kicking around somewhere – The New Complete Joy of Homebrewing, Volume 1, by Charlie Papazian. It’s on Volume 6 now. That was before anybody knew who Charlie was. He’s the guy who really made homebrewing popular in the States again.
What was your first really memorable personal brew?
I’d been brewing with other people for a long time, so when I first did it on my own, I knew the process and I knew what I was doing and what I was supposed to be doing. I started off doing extracts, which is a lot easier than all-grain brewing. With extracts, you take a can of malt syrup, boil it up on a hot plate, throw some hops in there, then cool it down and ferment it out. It’s pretty simple to do even in a dorm room with a hot plate.
The beer that I really remember was a holiday brew. Can’t remember the name if it in the book, but I’m sure it’s still in there. It was an orange, cinnamon, golden ale kind of thing. I just remember that being an eye-opener – “God, you can put damn near anything in beer! And I’m making it, so I can put whatever I want and however much I want in it!” It was a real lightbulb moment for me.
When you look back at the history of beer of course, you find that pretty much everything has been used in beer at one point or another – we just kind of got stuck on the classic four ingredient thing for a while. Not that that’s a bad thing – it’s ultimately what I went back to – but as a homebrewer you’re striving for something completely different. Interesting. Unique.
So when did you ‘go pro?’
After homebrewing for a while, I got a job at Karl Strauss Brewery in San Diego. At first it was bartending and waiting tables and harassing the brewer trying to get him to hire me on the brewing side of things. Eventually he started letting me clean kegs and keep the brewery tidy during the weekends. He was a big Deadhead, so he’d go off to Dead shows all the time – I’d check gravities and crash tanks and clean kegs for him while he was at shows. Eventually they had an assistant brewer opening and I got the job. My first brewing paycheck was from Associated Microbrewies. That was 1991. I was 20 years old.
So how did you end up coming to New York?
After San Diego I moved back up to Washington. Lived up north of Seattle and worked in a few breweries up there. After a while I moved to Seattle and got a job at Pyramid – a really large regional microbrewery out there. I met one of the managers and waitresses there and we started dating. She was from New York. One day she said, “You know, I want to move back to New York – be closer to my family.”
So I said, “OK – let’s go!” Ha ha. So we moved here in ’98.
How did you find your way back into brewing here in New York?
Well of course I applied at all the breweries as soon as we got here. There were about five breweries in New York City then: Heartland, Commonwealth, Zip City, Chelsea and Brooklyn Brewery. The problem was that the brewery scene here at that time was kind of deteriorating. A lot of those places actually closed within the next year, so they clearly weren’t hiring.
We were staying at my girlfriend’s parent’s place up in Westchester and that wasn’t going to fly for very long, so I had to get some money going. My major had been International Business and I spoke Russian, so I did a little interpreting and temp office work. I ended up getting a job with the Mitsubishi Corporation on Madison Avenue, selling specialty chemicals and iodines and synthetic rubbers and all kinds of random stuff made in Japan.
It was cool for a while because I was learning Japanese and I got to travel around. But then I realized that the international business thing sucks! After a few trips, the Holiday Inns are all the same, the steakhouses are all the same…So that got old really quick.
I said, “I’ve got to get back into brewing.” I love the industry because it’s not only a business – it’s an art and a science and a craft at the same time. I just knew that’s what I wanted to do. Turned out Heartland Brewery was hiring, so I applied. I had a homebrew that I’d done in our apartment on 2nd Avenue – I’d never stopped homebrewing. So I bottled that up, and shrunk down my brewing resume and stuck it on the bottle as the label – the whole label was just my resume. I tasted it with them and they really liked it, so they gave me a day to work with them to see if I actually knew what I was doing.
Evidently I did so they hired me. That was in the fall of 2000. In the fall of 2001, just after 9/11, their head brewer left to go home to Massachussets and I took over.
You still brew for Heartland, right?
Yeah – about two thirds of our production here is still for Hearltand. We pretty much only brewed Heartland beer here until 2006. In 2006, I approached Heartland and said, “Look, I just really want to do my own project.” They said, “OK – why don’t you just do it right here? We have plenty of floor space…” So we put in some more tanks and started brewing the Kelso line.
So tell us about that Kelso line – what are you brewing?
Our approach has always been to take classic styles of beer and put our own twist on it – we want to make great beers that are accessible, but that have a something different and unique about them. We also really believe that freshness matters in beer, so we wanted to make good beer locally, right here in Brooklyn. New York City didn’t have a whole lot of local breweries at that time – it still doesn’t – so we thought people would respond to good, fresh, locally-brewed beer.
Most of the beers on tap in bars in the city then and now are imports. Fresh beer matters. It tastes better. And local beer is typically less expensive because you don’t have to ship it half way around the world. With imports, you’re paying for an old, probably stale beer to be shipped to you on a boat, across the ocean, from Europe. You know, you might like French bread, but you wouldn’t buy a loaf and have it shipped to you because you know it’s going to be stale. A lot of people don’t realize it, but the same goes for beer.
Most of the good local breweries here in New York City at the time were brewing ales, and the beers that were really popular at that time tended to be ‘blow to the head’ ales like Stone, Arrogant Bastard, Dogfish Head IPAs, double IPAs. We wanted to take a different approach and start with lagers. The problem is that lagers take three times as long as ales, while taking up the same amount of space in the brewery. Luckily since we have so much space here, that wasn’t an issue.
So we thought we’d emphasize freshness, locally brewed, and do lagers. Just do one, and do it well.
Kelso’s first brew was our Nut Brown Lager. My wife Sonya had the idea – let’s do a nut brown, but make it a lager instead of an ale. She said, “Look, there aren’t a lot of browns out there, and the browns that are out there are ales, which tend to build up on your palate.” They can be really nice, but you can’t have a lot of them. We wanted to do more of a German Dunkel beer kind of thing. Dunkel is a dark lager that’s nice and toasty and malty but finishes really light. That’s the approach we took with the Nut Brown. It’s got all the flavors for the connoisseur but it’s got a really light finish which you don’t get with a nut brown ale.
A lot of people still call it the ‘Nut Brown Ale.’ I don’t know whether that’s just by habit, but I’m like, “No, it’s a lager! There’s a difference!” We’re trying to spread the gospel of good craft lagers, and it pains me just a little bit that some people don’t know the difference between a brown lager and a brown ale!
At first the Kelso line was more of a hobby, and after the first year it was getting pretty popular, but people want variety. We kept getting rotated off the taps at the beer bars because we only had one beer. They’d put it on, then take it off.
So we realized we needed something to back up the Nut Brown, and we did a beer called the Hop Lager. It had a pale ale base but a lager yeast, so it was bright and fruity and effervescent, but it finished very crisp and dry. The problem with that one was that it was a little volatile. Sometimes it was phenomenal and sometimes it fell flat. The hops kept dropping out and it was really hard to keep dialed in. We had some experimental tanks so we decided to throw in some Belgian ale yeast to replace the lager yeast to see what would happen.
And it was great! So we wound up sticking with that Belgian Golden Ale yeast and lo and behold, even though we’d planned on focusing on lagers, our second beer became our first ale, and it was great. We named it the St. Gowanus. We decided on that name just because we were feeling silly that day. We try to be pretty straightforward in how we name most of our beers – it just makes it easier for people to know what they’re getting in to.
The next one we did was the Pilsner. Pilsners are classically grassy and dry, brewed with the classic Noble hop. Brewers of Pilsners always say, “We use only the freshest Noble hops!” Well since we usually try to take a different take on classic styles, I didn’t want to use Noble hops.
So to put our own twist on it, we wound up using a sweeter malt, which has more roundness on the palate and a nice aroma, and we followed it up with a hybrid hop that has both an orangey fruitness and a little bit of grassiness to it. So drinking it, you get a sweet malt married into round fruitiness, then a hint of grass, then a crisp lager finish. It’s multi-dimensional – it’s got more layers to it and it’s a little sweeter than a classic pilsner. People really like it because it’s different – not overly hoppy, not too snappy, but a real clean finish. It’s our number one seller at this point.
Last year we finally did an IPA. Our brewers really pushed for that. Everyone’s kind of judged on their IPAs today, which was why I hadn’t done one. I was like, “Screw you! I don’t need to play your game!” But we were really talking about it a lot and we got to the point where it felt like the right time to do it.
So as usual we said, let’s take a different turn on the style – let’s find a hop that’s interesting, and that no one’s using in an IPA. Sam, our head brewer found this hop called the Nelson Sauvin from New Zealand. It’s a really interesting hop. It’s got a gooseberry, passion fruit, almost juicyfruit kind of character to it. It’s bright and fruity and kind of mouth watering as opposed to the citrusy hops that are usually used in IPAs. Sumttynose Brewery and a bunch of others make phenomenal citrusy, dry IPAs. I was like, “Why would we compete with that!?”
So we used the Nelson Sauvin and it just brings this big fruity, juicy punch but finishes dry. Bone dry. Using an atypical hop just makes everything totally different.
So why do you think brewers are judged by their IPAs these days? Why is everyone obsessed with IPAs?
People get excited about IPAs. People love hops. It’s a real forward, kind of aggressive flavor. It tends to be fruity, herbal, bright. If the beer’s structured correctly and it has enough malt underneath to carry that forward, it can be very refreshing. It’s not for everybody, but once you develop a taste for it it’s hard to go back. Then you’re in trouble! Then you’re in a realm where you need to find the next greatest fix! That happens with coffee, and whiskey and wine and lots of things. Once you develop a taste for a certain kind of variety or style, you tend to be driven to keep seeking it out.
It can be instructive getting interested in a particular style of beer. Once you start tasting all the different flavor combinations in different brews of a particular style, you start to see how they differ from each other. They’re not all great. It’s subjective, but once you start really paying attention, you’ll often realize that a beer you thought you really liked might be a little weak, or a little sour…it’s interesting.
Anything else brewing down there?
We’re doing a Pale Ale too. We started making it for Brooklyn Bowl over in Williamsburg. They wanted us to do a light beer for them that they could put on draft for $5 and blow through it. I said we can’t really do that. It’s not our thing. I don’t want to do that and you don’t want us to do that. I suggested a Pale Ale. People like Pale Ales. We wanted something that really fit with their focus on sustainability, so we use New York State hops and sustainably grown grains from Wisconsin.
While with the IPA, we tried to make it less citrusy than is typical of that style, with the Pale Ale we tried to make it more citrusy than is the norm for Pale Ales. A little more orangey, grapefruity.
We carbonate it a little differently too, to give it a little different mouthfeel and texture. We really liked the beer so we asked Brooklyn Bowl if we could repackage it and call it ours as well and they didn’t have a problem with that.
We do some seasonal beers too – a Saison in June, a Wit beer in late summer, a Chocolate Lager in winter…we put our own little twist on all those styles.
Let’s talk Brooklyn. Where do you live? What do you love about it?
We’ve lived in Greenpoint for ten years. We used to live at 33rd street and 2nd Ave in Manhattan, and we wanted to get out. We were looking for space and quiet. We first looked in Brooklyn around Williamsburg back in 2000, and we were like, wow! You can see the sky! You can hear birds! Eventually a garbage truck or something will come along and ruin it, but there are birds and you can hear them! The quiet and light and sky and openness of it all was really appealing to us.
Once we were here we started to get into all the different neighborhoods and ethnicities – it’s so interesting. You have Hasidic pockets, and Poles and Puerto Ricans and Caribbeans and Italians and Hipsters. And they all have great food! Authentic food! I love that multicultural aspect of Brooklyn.
And we loved that you could walk into a great restaurant and just sit down – get a seat! At dinnertime! Of course, now you’re starting to have to wait, but back then you could pop into a great place and sit down and have dinner. Bars too – here you could walk into a bar with great beer and sit down and have a conversation with somebody. It felt like in Manhattan it was always packed – can’t get to the bar, drinks are way more expensive, too loud to hear anything…
It just felt like a completely different city. Totally different. And it’s still like that. Brooklyn really saved my hide. I didn’t know whether I was going to make it in Manhattan. It was just too much of everything all the time. It was fun for a while, but eventually we outgrew it.
So I gotta ask…what ever happened with that girlfriend that brought you to New York?
It worked out! That was Sonya, my wife!
When we moved cross- country, we shipped a pallet with everything we really wanted to her parents’ place. I had a 1990 Dodge Dynasty – a four-door FBI car. Didn’t even have a tape player, so we had to carry a boom box with an adapter for the cigarette lighter in the car. We just drove. Just started heading east to just see where we’d go, camping the whole way. We went through Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons. We got stuck with this storm. It started snowing on us in Yellowstone, and instead of hunkering down and waiting it out, we drove east. With the storm. Got stuck in Gilette Wyoming and pulled over because it was snowing sideways. Called a hotel in the next town to see if it was snowing there…looking for a way to hopscotch out of it. Asked the guy about the weather there and he said, “Clear and still! Clear up to your ass and still snowing!”
We eventually made it through the Black Hills and South Dakota. A lot of South Dakota. Hit Chicago, and swung down south through Savannah, back up through DC and in all took a month making our way to New York.
That’s when we knew the relationship was going to work out – we’d made it through a month in the car together with barely a change of clothes, lots of bad weather, and hardly a cent to our names. When we finally pulled in to New York we looked at each other and said, “Let’s keep going!” If we hadn’t run out of money, we might still be out there now!
For more pics and a detailed look at how the beer is made at Kelso, check out this Metromix NY slideshow