Our “Brewer’s Spotlight” is a series of conversations with innovative brewers across the country. Recently we sat down with John Trogner, brewmaster and co-owner of Troëgs Independent Brewing in Hershey, PA. Haas is honored to be a trusted supplier of quality hops for Troëgs—and John, his brother Chris, and their team are currently featured in our “Here’s to the Moments” ad campaign in the New Brewer. This month, we discuss John’s penchant for avoiding office life, dealing with controlled chaos and approaching the art of brewing as an ongoing learning experience.
Q: Can you talk about how things got started at Tröegs?
John Trogner: My brother, Chris, and I grew up always knowing we would start a business. Our dad, his brother and our grandfather had a business together, so we grew up in this entrepreneurial family.
Chris ended up out in Boulder, Colorado, for school. When he got there, he visited Coors and then he went to Boulder and landed at the Walnut Brewery for lunch—he saw one of the largest breweries in the country and probably one of smallest, all in a one-day window. It really left a mark.
I was in college, working as an intern in a high-rise in downtown Philly, on the 19th floor, and I really couldn’t stand it. On the first floor of my building, there was a brewpub called Dock Street Brewing Company. That was the first time I had craft beer. It was dark and murky, and there were just these completely different tastes…and a light bulb went off.
After graduating, I rolled out to Boulder. I got my foot in the door at the Oasis Brewery and just kept pushing at it, learning everything I could from a brewing and ingredient standpoint, and then even electrical, plumbing and welding. We had pretty free reign. There were no real rules or boundaries, so it was like this controlled chaos, which I loved.
Q: At what point did you feel like you guys had “made it”?
John: In the beginning, it was insanely difficult to get people to even consider trying what we used to call a micro brew. We were beating our heads against the wall, wearing out tons of shoe leather knocking down doors and begging people to just try it, let alone carry it. It was just the two of us. We had some volunteers that would help out—friends, family, aunts, uncles. My grandparents used to help bottle. But it was tough.
About three years in, I remember going to a local bar with Chris. We were just bone tired, sipping our beers. And at the end of the bar this guys sits down, “Give me my usual,” and the bartender handed him a Tröegs. If that could be his regular, then maybe there is something here.
From my standpoint, the question of “did you make it or know when you made it”—I’m not quite sure we’ve made it yet. Most days are awesome. We’re able to create an environment that allows us to really have fun and do what we want. Some days you take your knocks, and then we get together, lean in and figure out what to do. It’s been 20 years now and we have a hell of a team that’s helping us push through. Now, when you look around and there are 200 people there with you, that’s more meaningful to me than anything.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about the Tröegs’ Scratch Beer Series? It seems your customers are pretty passionate about it.
John: Really, the Scratch Beer Series is our playground. We go into it thinking, “Here we can relax. We don’t have to take it too seriously.” It allows us to have a lot of fun, but we also get to learn. We want to make sure we’re making some badass beers and really using the best techniques we possibly can, the strongest science behind it—repeatability.
Sometimes we know we need X types of beer in six months and we’ll start doing research on everything about each beer. So that’s your R&D—that’s a very purposeful starting point and ending point. Once that starts going, we have room for other projects, and usually those are really, “What do we want to have on tap?”. When Chris had his wedding, he wanted some Abbey Ale to serve. That was a Scratch Beer Series that turned into a year-round beer, Jovial.
Most beers don’t necessarily have a purpose other than having a component that we’re going to learn from. We’re not necessarily shooting for a homerun every time we brew it. But each time we say, “Okay, what are we going take away from this?”
Q: The craft industry is really special in that it seems as if everybody’s kind of pulling for everyone else. Do you see that?
John: Other industries are very adversarial, but I understand where they’re coming from. But in the craft beer world, my best friends are in the industry. So here we are: we’re so small and there are so many odds against us. We absolutely are helping each other out and trying to pull each other up as we go along. And the guys that do create something that’s unique or try to push the boundaries are helping raise that bar every day, which is really cool. You know, this flood of new breweries coming in—it’s hard, it’s challenging. But it just makes us sharpen our pencils and get better at what we’re doing.
Q: It seems to me that Tröegs approaches beer and hops differently than other brewers—is that intentional?
John: Each time we tackle a beer, we try to drink it in our head. So you want to figure out what color you want it to be—that’s the easiest thing. The alcohol percentage, that’s probably the second easiest. How do you get the yeast character to come through? Malt body gives you its color. And then you start thinking about the bitterness—whether that’s from hops or tannins from wood or acidity, that’s kind of the backbone. And then there’s the aromatic aspect of it. 99 percent of the time that’s a hop of some kind.
We’re bringing in these different flavors and aromas in different ways. We like to layer our flavors. We like to have a lot of subtle complexity amongst the different parts of the beer, right down to carbonation level. There are so many different aspects of simple carbonation level or nitrogenation level that changes the texture and aids in the delivery of the aroma.
So I don’t know how that’s similar or different from any of the other guys out there. But we just look at each individual ingredient as a layer of flavor component and figure out how we want it to taste—in our head first and then in the glass.