Editor’s Note: This is part of a series of interviews with local brewers.
Everyone has a gateway beer, the one that helped them turn the corner toward drinking better beverages — even brewers. Heck, especially brewers.
For Joel Halbleib, it was the late 1980s when he started drinking Guinness, Newcastle and Samuel Smith Oatmeal Stout. He was a teenager and was early to the punch.
“We realized there were other options other than Heineken or St. Paulie Girl,” he says. Specifically, about Samuel Smith, he says he and his friends realized, “Why are we drinking anything else? I still love it.”
At the time, it’s a fair bet he had no clue he would one day become a professional brewer, leading to him becoming chief operating officer, his role today at Goodwood Brewing Co. in addition to being brewmaster.
But at some point, he recalls, friends began bringing homebrews to Grateful Dead shows Halbleib was attending, and that’s when the light truly went on. “You can brew your own beer?”
Long a brewer of beer and mead, he joined what was then Bluegrass Brewing Company’s production brewery in 2009 when David Pierce, BBC’s original brewer, took over operations at New Albanian Brewing Co. He’s been there ever since; the business, now owned by Ted Mitzlaff, re-branded to Goodwood in 2015.
“My entire professional brewing career has been in this building,” he says, looking around at Goodwood’s taproom, a pint of pale ale in his hand.
But that doesn’t mean things aren’t happening — Goodwood recently added a kitchen, and Fire Fresh BBQ will soon begin serving food at the taproom. In addition, the space is getting an extensive expansion, which is still a ways off.
Between that and overseeing brewing operations, Halbleib stays plenty busy. It helps that the Master Brewers Association of the Americas member loves what he does.
He got into brewing professionally, he says, because “it seemed funner than sitting at a desk looking at Excel spreadsheets” and because it involves three key elements: chemistry, biology and artistry.
“Those three things together are magical,” he says. “I still learn every day. When I go to brew conferences, there are guys who have forgotten more than I’ll ever know.”
He is amazed that young brewers are diving in so deeply. It’s more than just brewing interesting beers for many, Halbleib says, it’s about studying specific strains of yeast. He meets young people who are writing college theses about yeast strains.
Halbleib, whose nickname at the brewery is “Hobbs,” does love his job but also knows life isn’t all about beer. He’s close with his family, and each year there’s a family camping trip to Cave Run Lake near Morehead, Ky. This year was the 39th annual campout.
“It’s been in the same exact spot for 25 years,” he says.
In addition, he enjoys hiking and playing disc golf — the latter of which is a hobby he doesn’t get to enjoy as much as in years past, but still plays at least once a month.
He and a friend used to try to hit a different course every weekend. He says there’s a course at Iroquois Park that has been in place since the 1980s, and there’s a course in the East End at Charlie Vettiner Park that is “a world-class course.”
“It’s a cool, fun sport, man,” he says, adding that it was born simply of throwing frisbee with friends dating back to the mid-’80s. One of his friends eventually turned professional. And, hey, you get to drink beer while you’re doing it.
Beer and fun go hand in hand, and Halbleib, like so many brewers and beer enthusiasts, believes beer brings people together.
“It’s social without being obnoxious,” he says. “It’s the catalyst for conversation — in a good way. It’s a social lubricant, per se. I think it helps society deal with its issues in a better way. I think to myself sometimes, ‘I wonder how many lives have been saved by beer?’ You can say how many lives has alcohol ruined, but I think wars have been averted because of beer.”
And let’s face it, beer originally was just a way to preserve food. If the crops are going bad, ferment them.
“The alcohol is just a good side-effect that helped with shelf life,” Halbleib says.
And beer has evolved into being something more than just a byproduct or a preservation system. It’s seen a huge cultural shift over the centuries, and craft breweries like Goodwood are a byproduct of the most recent shift toward appreciation of quality beer.
And it also provides a way to make a living for guys like Halbleib. Because, you know, brewing beer beats looking at Excel spreadsheets every time.
“When I walked in the door here, I was pretty much bought in — this is going to be fun,” he says. “Besides it being a lot of hard work, it is fun. There’s good days and there’s bad days, but at the end of day, you get to go have a beer.”