When that stinging, all familiar sound of the alarm clock jerks us from our peaceful sleep and we pry our eyes open at seven, six, God forbid even five in the morning, some, perhaps many of us fumble our way to the bathroom, face our reflections and ask ourselves, 'Is this really what I want to do?'
Our jobs – what we do for money 40, 50, 60 hours every week – are they contributing or detracting from any happiness we feel? For a spectacularly fortunate few, the daily grind is their passion translated into a position of monetary value, and they are truly happy.
Mark daSilva did the unthinkable some 20 years ago. He discovered the art of brewing, fell for the trade, quit his job and went for it–a real love story. There's something incredibly romantic about dropping everything, which may or may not include a mostly practical and stable career, to pursue a dream or fantastic whim. DaSilva did precisely that and more. Just a stone's throw from North Branford, you just might find him indulging in his careful craft at (SBC).
In a charmingly candid and eager interview, daSilva let us in on his remarkable past and exciting future.
Patch: How does one become a Master Brewer?
Mark daSilva: My brother and I are skiers, we used to go out west all the time. About 18 years ago, we went out to down town Breckenridge Brewing Company in Colorado. We ended up going out drinking and I remember sitting there and I saw these big tanks behind the bar. The bartender said ‘We brew our own beer here. We have porters, we have IPA,” and I was totally blown away.
Then I get home and we go to a New Year’s Eve party in New York City. We had rented out a bar, I ordered a porter and the guy standing next to me is drinking a Coors Light and I asked if he had tried it. He said ‘I know all about this, I’m a brew master.’ I talked to him all night he said ‘It sounds like you’re really into beer, I own Boston Beer Works in Boston, come work in the brewery, I’ll teach you everything for free, you can stay in my apartment with me and my wife.’
I told my fiance at the time, my wife now, ‘I’m going to Boston to become a brewer.' I ended up quitting my job, went up to Boston and I did that for about a year. I learned as much as I could, told my brother, ‘We have to look for a spot, we have to open up a brewery.’
Six months later, we found this location in Southport, which would end up being the first Southport Brewing Company location. We went to the banks and asked for an ungodly amount of money and they gave it to us! I had nothing to my name, I owned my mountain bike. For three months we worked seven days a week, 16-hour days, completely remodeled the place, bought a brewery out of Canada, and I started brewing on April 15, 1996. That was my first brew day and from there on we’ve been going strong.
Patch: Where could one find an SBC location?
DaSilva: We’ve got five breweries now–one in Southport, was the second one, right in the center of town; our third one was the , right there on Main Street; the fourth one is in , and the fifth is in .
Patch: You seem to really love your job, but what would you say is the toughest part of what you do?
DaSilva: I’ve got a lot of guys who ask me if they can come in and brew their beer and only about one percent make it through the whole day, they’re looking at their watches. They like it, but they just wanted to see how it is. I’ve been doing this for 20 years now, I love getting up and going to the breweries. I brewed yesterday, an IPA, I tweaked it a little bit, I can do that. I won’t know what I did for another monthm though. I won’t be able to see if I nailed it or if I should try a different hop or different bitterness.
The toughest part is that I brewed it yesterday and if I run out in two weeks, if I’m not ready, people really get pissed. They don’t get that whole art, that I’m actually a month ahead of schedule. They see I ran out and think I can just bring something out in 10 minutes, but it’s a full six-hour day to filter and carbonate it. I really hate not being able to give them the beer they want, but if I’m there and I’m talking to them, I can move them to maybe a different beer that they haven’t tried yet, and maybe that will be their new favorite.
Patch: How do craft beers compare to the big corporate names?
DaSilva: You know, Budweiser, they brew the best American Pilsner out there. When I do a beer fest and I talk to my customers, they’ll say ‘Oh, that beer sucks, I can’t stand that beer.’ Well, that beer doesn’t suck, you just don’t like it, it’s just not your cup of tea. That’s why there’s so many craft beers out there, everybody brews it just a little bit different. You have your own clientele and you brew for them. I have a ton of friends and they’re the Miller High Life and Coors Light type. I still drink Miller High Life.
Patch: What is your favorite recipe?
DaSilva: A lot of people ask me that and I would have to say my palette changes all the time. Right now I’m on my American Pale Ale non-stop, it’s my Connecticut pale ale. You can drink it and it’s got great flavor, it’s one of those beers that makes you want to have another sip after you’ve had one.
Before that was my brown ale. Once my IPA comes over I’ll have that for the next six months. I do not have one that I just drink all the time. Everything I brew, I have tweaked to my own palette, so you kind of make what you like and hope other people like it. I like every one of them, a lot.
Patch: What would you recommend for this winter?
DaSilva: The Big Chill is awesome. It’s a winter warmer, it’s an eisbock. I brew a doppelbock then I freeze it, I freeze the water out of the beer and filter over what doesn’t freeze. It intensifies the flavor and the alcohol in the beer. It’s a big process, it’s really cool. Mine’s a great one, it really is a great beer. There’s an intense plum and raisin flavor with warm alcohol finish. Old Marley Barleywine, New England Brewing Company has a great winter warmer, Nor’Easter by Thomas Hooker–he does a spiced ale, it almost tastes like apple pie and it’s got a warm comfortable taste, a homey feeling flavor.
Patch: What are your plans for the future?
DaSilva: We’re building a new concept called the growler station, it’s fresh craft beer to go. We do growlers out of our breweries, for three years now, legally we’ve been able to do it and we’ve being doing it out of the tap. But, you’re giving the customer a two-day beer because there’s oxygen in the bottle, you’re wasting about thirty percent of the beer cause of the foam...you’re giving them a pretty bad product.
I hated selling the growlers like that, so I did some research and found this system. It’s a single bottle filler that they use from Russia. I got one and the first one went into Hamden. You put the growler in this thing and the bottle is purged of oxygen with carbon dioxide, just like when you buy a 12-ounce bottle, you take it out with a layer of CO2, you cap it and you have the perfect beer. The growler can last months.
I talked to the US distributor and I thought ‘How great would it be to open a store to sell growlers to them doing it this way?’ Now I have this place, we’re filling them under pressure, the right way, and we’re doing that out of the city [New York City]. Now you can buy bottles of my beer. We should be open in three weeks. I was the only person in the country doing it, but now Thomas Hooker has just bought one, Whole Foods bought a bunch from me, it’s catching on, but I was the first one doing it for a year. It’s very cool.
Patch: What makes your job unique?
DaSilva: I’m part of a small fraternity of people who are professional, working brewers and I’m kind of like a mentor to home brewers who want to brew with me for the day and ask me questions. It’s great, too, because my wife loves my job. She’s into it, she likes beer, she’s into the whole artisan thing, having a product of your own and getting your hands dirty. Some things I can be super proud of, sometimes it’s not how I planned it. I have the ‘Oops’ ale tap for what I don’t like as much. It’s still great, just not as I would like or had planned.
Patch: Do you sell your brews in the individual 12-ounce bottles?
DaSilva: I decided I’m looking for a contract brewer to get me started with bottling. Basically how I’m doing this, I’d love to be able to jump right in, but I don’t have five million dollars on hand, so I’m talking to Kurt at Thomas Hooker. He’s going to take my Connecticut Pale Ale recipe and go up there and brew it over there at his facility. It’ll be brewed and bottled out of his facility using my recipes. If there’s a market for me in bottles and I can open up my own bottle plant, I will do it.
Patch: What does a day in the life of a brewer entail?
DaSilva: We get up early every afternoon *laughs* I get up in the morning, I put the kids on the bus. If it’s a brew day, I’ll get in and get my water heated to the right temperature, get the brewer ready for the day, put in my recipe for the day. For the blonde ale, I mill it in through the mill, I’ve got fresh grains I crack to get the starch out of it.
Every beer starts with a pale two-row, almost like the flour in cake. Then there’s the specialty malts that comes in, some caramel, some chocolate, different roasted malts to get the flavors, color, and mouth feel for the beer. Put in through basically a gigantic steel cone, then by gravity I drop that malt through a four-inch tube into a sparge ontop of the mash. I’m basically steeping that grain in hot water at different temperatures. I’ll drop the malt with water, mix it together in that. At that point I’m kind of like making the stock to a soup, I’m trying to yield as much sugar, alcohol, and color out.
After that I’ll get a liquid wort, which is a high-density sugar water, out of the mash tank and into a brew kettle. I’ll pour hot liquor water over the top of that mash to get more sugars out and into the brew kettle. From that point, that grain is no good to me anymore, so it now goes to a guy who does composting. That tank is all done with, all the wort is now in the kettle and it’s basically cooking, boiling.
This is where you add the hops into the beer. The first one I add is the bitter one, the second is for the flavor–like pine, floral and citrus flavors–and the last will be for the aroma. I also get to clean and sanitize everything–the floor, the tanks, everything I touch because these things are in here for months, so they need to be spotless and clean. Five hours a day I’d say I’m cleaning. There’s another couple hours of boiling, then I’ll pump it through a heat exchange into the fermenter where the yeast is waiting.
Five days to two weeks fermenting then I cool it until the yeast goes dormant, then I collect that yeast for the next brew. I’ll raise the temperature to 50 degrees to condition it for a few months, depending on what that style deserves, and then it gets filtered. Home brewers come in all the time to taste my latest and see if it’s good or not.