The journey from dope-ass home brewer to hardcore (and respected) pro is a long road. It involves plenty of mistakes, lots of trial and error, and a fair bit of fumbling. Docent Brewing’s head brewer Bryan Geisen has walked that road, taken those lumps, and learned a hell of a lot along the way. Today, Geisen brews up tasty beer in the O.C. (don’t call it that) but it was a ten-year hike to travel from his backyard to the professional brewing floor.
We sat down with Geisen recently to talk about what, exactly, it took for him to make it in the pros. This isn’t an overnight success. This is about working hard and sticking to your guns while being adaptable and open to partnerships. That’s really the only way any brewer (or chef or creative or writer or…) can make it the world. Geisen had the chops to make the beer but he needed a support system to give that beer to the world. He found his beer family in Docent Brewing and, now, the San Juan Capistrano brewery is serving some seriously tasty suds from their taps.
If you love beer, enjoy the read and check out Docent’s Taproom the next time you’re in Southern California. They’re also throwing a two-year anniversary bash in March if you’re looking for the perfect time to try Bryan’s brews.
Let’s start at the beginning, what drove you to start home-brewing in your kitchen and backyard?
I think most homebrewers would say at some point beer meant enough to them to try and learn about how it’s made, and what goes into the process. The other drive, for me, was that I’ve always gotten a kick out of sharing things I’ve made with friends and family. It just comes from a love of beer and wanting to know what goes into it and how it’s made.
What was it like brewing your first batches of beer?
Things really seemed to click for me with the first couple batches I brewed. That turned into this kind of middle of the night recipe writing, obsessing over books, and digesting as much as I could about the process. From there, I realized that this hobby can be the cheapest or most expensive thing you get into. Foolishly, I thought I might be saving money on beer when I started making it myself. Then I started adding equipment and getting more serious about it. That’s when it hit another level where, cost-be-damned, I started trying to make the best beer I could.
What was your day job when you started homebrewing?
While I was in high school I started working for a ticket company. We sold event tickets and that developed into a career. I was at that same gig for 17 years. It was a very steady gig, and, you know, very comfortable. Then I took this leap, which has been just an incredible, transformative process for me.
How big was your brewing kit when you started out? Was it the classic five-gallon pot on the stove or a little more elaborate?
Yep. I used an extract kit and did it on the stove in the kitchen. I was quickly was kicked outside by my wife. It was one of those things where I did a couple of extract kit brews where I felt like I had an idea for most of the process. But it didn’t really feel like I was brewing.
What was your next step?
From there, I started brewing some malt grain batches of beer. Then I got the competition bug. I got hooked on getting feedback from outside my friends and family.
I hear that. Friends and family are going to be, “Oh, yeah, that tastes great man!” when the beer is free.
The price was right, that’s for sure.
So where did you hit when you took your beer to competitions? Was it a local thing or did you go further afield?
Just local like the county fair. The first competition I entered I got a shiny ribbon and, then, I really thought, “Hey, there might be something to this.” That fueled the next phase of really getting excited about making beer. It kind of showed that my beer was good enough to compete with what was on the shelf and at breweries that I love.
That’s confidence is key, isn’t it? Having a seal of approval from your peers and knowing you have something good on your hands…
Oh, absolutely. You know, as you do this, you get a huge education in what you like and dislike about certain beers just by knowing what goes into some of your favorites.
What was your next step after the beer competitions? Did you go out and seek people to collaborate with or did people more come to you?
I worked a couple of events where I would pour homebrew for people and get the public’s feedback, and that was exciting for sure. Mostly, I kept my head down and brewed for a good six or eight years before I started thinking that there might something to this that could turn into a career. I had a couple of close calls with people who were interested in opening up a brewery. But, finally, I met the right group of guys ten years after I started my homebrew career.
That’s a long road, man.
Yeah, a long road for sure. To be clear, ready as I thought I was early on, I wouldn’t have made it at any time earlier if it meant not working with the partners I have at Docent. You know, making beer is one thing. Starting a brewery is a whole other thing.
Right. You have to deal with business plans, budgets, county planning, licensing, contractors, branding, taxes, property, and so much more.
I needed a team for sure.
So, you’re ten years into your homebrewing career, how did you end up with the Docent team?
It’s an interesting story for sure. It’s got some tragedy involved. My brother worked with my partner Joe’s son, Stu, at a restaurant, and mentioned I was homebrewing. He got back to me and mentioned his dad was looking to open a brewery. We exchanged information. Then, I’d say maybe a couple weeks after I initially talked to Joe, Joe’s son Stu passed away.
Having only talked to Joe once or twice, I basically figured that the ship had sailed. Two years went by and I had almost forgotten about our initial conversation. Then, on my birthday, I got a call on my phone from a number that was saved as “Joe.” I didn’t remember Joe offhand, but obviously, I had his number saved. He called me out of the blue and reminded me who he was, told me the story, and told me he was going to move forward with the brewery. So I met him and my future partners. We traded beers and hit it off. Now it has grown into something that I would call a family.
View this post on Instagram
Fresh batch of “Life Coach” hitting the taps. Encouraging notes of Lemon & lime upon a sincerely toasted malt foundation in this daily affirmation. YOU GOT THIS! #docentfieldtrip #fieldtrip #craftbeer #independent #sanjuancapistrano #brewery #local #publichouse #paleale #community #cheers
And that’s just the beginning. You guys really put the work in yourself.
When we did commit to this finally, it was us who actually built the place out. It was a very skeleton crew, and it truly cemented us as far as our relationships as a kind of brothers-in-arms in this whole thing. We were digging ditches and nailing boards to the walls. It was a pretty amazing thing to turn this ugly white warehouse in the middle of San Juan Capistrano into a destination that now buzzes with activity every day. It’s remarkable.
What was your brewing learning curve like going from homebrewing to pro?
I mean, to go from making ten gallons to 500 gallons … there are definitely some things you learn in the process. Initially, I was still working my day job. So I was coming to brew from about seven at night ’till dawn. That was trying times for sure. I wasn’t getting any sleep.
Plus, I think there’s a misconception about scaling up recipes in general, whether in a pro kitchen or brewery. It’s never as easy as just doubling this or that. There’s more nuance involved.
For sure. There’s a lot to be learned in that process when it comes to scaling a recipe from ten gallons to 500 gallons. One thing for sure was learning how to capture the hop character I was getting at home on a bigger system. That takes some finesse. It takes a lot of editing. Then there are things like beer loss, time management, and having to keep an eye very closely on every step of the process. A lot of the fundamentals are very similar to homebrewing but, obviously, learning a bigger system takes some time.
How did that change what you brew?
I’ve found that since brewing professionally, my favorite stuff to brew is very simplistic. I think it just creates a more refined experienced in the glass.
How long was it before you felt like you had got it down and were ready to go?
What day is today? You know what, I would say really to get a feel for the mechanics, it takes a few months. And that’s just learning the valves, buttons, and things to press here and there. I still have so much to learn. I still haven’t made the perfect batch of beer yet. I’ve had a lot of success very early, which I feel blessed for. I think it says a lot for attention to detail and really tasting, smelling, caring so much about every step of the process.
Luckily, we hit a good rhythm. I’d say it took a good year to feel like, “okay, I know when to expect this to happen. I know when to expect that to happen. I know how this beer should taste.” It takes a lot of experience, I would say, before you really can call it comfortable.
I feel you there. I’m very interested in brewers who are confident enough name their beers specific names and don’t need to put the beer style in the name of the beer. You guys do that really well. You have Compass, Luna, Uncle Bert, and names like. It’s nice to see that creativity and trust in the beer drinker.
That’s a good point. I appreciate you saying that because I think sometimes people get so hung up on a style indicator that they may or may not try another beer. Maybe they shy away from an IPA because they think it’ll be too bitter for them. My beers always start with some kind of flavor profile in mind, style be damned. For me, it’s about the finished product — one that it’s drinkable and satisfying.
Of course, we have to put a style attached to it so that people know what to expect. But I very much enjoy the idea of a final profile more than trying to check all the boxes of an American pale ale or stout or whatever.
What sort of flavors are you getting into now?
We released our first barrel-aged stout late last year. It came out better than I had hoped! To be able to pull that off was a huge step in the direction of, “Okay. Let’s get some more barrels in here because I love barrel-aged beer.”
One of the next frontiers I’d like to play with once we have the room for it would be the wild and sour stuff. Until recently, that was always on the back burner. We need to do it correctly and not jeopardize any of our clean ales. But that’s the realm where I generally like to drink.
What’s one thing you wish someone had told you back when you started all this that you know now that would have made things easier along the way?
Good question. Well, let me think about that for a second. I mean this is a very physical job, I’ll tell you that. See what you’re capable of and have faith that this hard work — this incredibly challenging work — is going to pay off beyond anything tangible. I guess I would say that working towards something almost means more than what you end up with.
View this post on Instagram
Come by Docent to wish this stud a Happy Birthday! You’re an amazing brewer Bryan, but above all you’re an amazing person. We’re all grateful to have you in our lives. Cheers to you! 🍻#happybirthday #brewer #brian #local #publichouse #studmuffin #craftbeer #sanjuancapistrano #vonzipper #i❤️beer#fieldtripvessel