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March 26, 2015
What is a “heretic?” The words “dissenter,” “nonconformist,” “iconoclast,” and “opposition” come to mind. But Jamil and Liz Zainasheff, founders of Heretic Brewing Company in Fairfield, CA, have a different take on the word. As a heretic follows his core beliefs, often to the disapproval of the mainstream or popular thought, this husband and wife team landed on the name because they wanted to make beer that stayed true to the craft, without submitting to popular demand or trends that compromise the integrity of the process. You’d think that Jamil and Liz would be passionate about brewing. And they are, in fact, zealous. But you might also think that they would carry an attitude of arrogance, or anti-establishment; a “heretic” of course must be known for what he is against, right? After some pints and thoughtful conversation, however, I found that Jamil and Liz oozed a different type of heresy. They are passionate about their craft, but offer no arrogance. In fact, I walked away having learned about humility, thoughtfulness, sincerity, and zeal for all that is good. The following thoughts reflect my conversation with the Zainasheffs and some lessons I learned from them along the way. Here are 5 lessons on how to become a “heretic”… the Zainasheff way. Enjoy!
1. Know thy neighbor and accept their beer from over the fence when offered.
It wasn’t until 1998 that Jamil realized that home-brewing was an actual thing. He studied micro-biology and writing at UC Davis and eventually made his career as a software engineer. But in that year, while doing some work in the backyard, he struck up a conversation with his neighbor, who offered him a beer from over the fence. It turns out that the beer from over the fence was a home-brew. Jamil recounts the story: “My neighbor Steve said, ‘Hey, try this beer.’ It was the best beer I had ever had, so I asked him where I could buy it. He said, ‘I made it.’ And I was shocked because I was thinking it was from a giant factory with German people or something.” That was Jamil’s first home-brew. Jamil told his wife about it and she bought him a Mr. Beer Kit for Christmas. Thirteen years later, in 2011, they opened the brewery in the Bay Area city of Pittsburg. Several things happened between the fence and the brewery, of course, but that’s the start of his brewing story. A neighbor. A conversation. A fence. And a beer. Boom-shakalaka!
2. Know thy suckiness and work hard to make your craft better.
So what happened in those thirteen years, between the fence of ’98 and the start of the brewery in 2011? What most people don’t know about Jamil is that he’s a real geek. “I tend to be obsessive about everything. Before beer, it was paintballing. I actually came up with one of the first semi-automatic paintball guns.” Jamil was also immersed in the world of scuba-diving. “I get geeky about whatever I’m interested in. I became an instructor and developed the first computer-based training for scuba-diving.” Once Liz gifted him with a brew kit, his interests turned to the world of brewing. Of course, Jamil’s first batches were terrible. He admits to thinking, “Wait a minute, I had a beer that was really good (from Steve) and then I made a beer that wasn’t any good. I knew what was possible, so given my obsessive nature about trying to figure out everything, I decided I was going to learn more about beer.” So he studied and brewed, over and over again.
He finally brewed something that he wanted to share, a chocolate hazelnut porter recipe that turned out well. On a whim, Jamil took his porter to a home-brew shop and asked the owner to try it. To Jamil’s dismay, the owner thought differently. The beer, he said, was subpar. Unfazed, Jamil decided to test the critique of his porter by submitting the beer to a competition. After the competition, a 3rd place prize signified that Jamil was on the right track. Most importantly, though, he found that his prize came with written feedback—the positives and critical areas he needed to change to improve the beer. For some, moving on to another style might have been in order. But not Jamil. Rather, he tweaked the recipe and brewing process to get a better result for his chocolate hazelnut porter. He revised it, and then brewed it, over and over again. Then he submitted the chocolate hazelnut porter to the same competition the following year. The result? 1st prize in the style.
Jamil recounts, “Here’s the secret. You send the beer in. You read what they’re telling you. You use that to improve the beer. There you go. There’s your secret to learning how to be a great brewer. I did that like a madman for several years!” Today, the Chocolate Hazelnut Porter is one of Heretic Brewing Company’s signature beers. It didn’t start that way, but nothing great does. It was through honest feedback and revision that Jamil became better and that’s certainly true for all of us, regardless of our profession or interests. Note to self: be a madman!
3. Know thy partner and create a damn fine story together.
So the madman status created some serious success for Jamil, as a home-brewer that is. This success led to opportunities helping others in their home-brewing efforts. After writing books on home-brewing, winning home-brew competitions, and fostering a network of home-brewers through videos and demonstrations, Jamil and Liz decided in 2011 to turn his passion into a business venture. After declaring that Heretic Brewing Company would be the name, they found their first digs in Pittsburg. It might sound romantic, turning a hobby into a profession in which one brews and drinks beer for a living, but the Zainasheffs tell a different story. Jamil stated, “It’s seven days a week, generally from when you wake up until you go to bed. It’s like any business. You succeed through dedication and hard work. There are a lot of great beers, a lot of passionate brewers. We put in 80 to 100 hours of work a week.” At this point in the interview I found myself content to let others like Jamil brew amazing beer while I take care of the consuming part.
One of the best parts of the interview was when Jamil and Liz had differing opinions on the location of their first date. Was it Zelda’s Pizza, or a dive bar? They couldn’t reach consensus. The bantering provided comic relief. The mixture of marriage and malt beverage was hilarious. It was a reminder, though, that the Heretic story is a joint venture, a narrative in which Jamil represents the artisan of the beer and Liz the artisan of the business. Liz talked about the need to create balance, “You do have to kinda turn it off though. We still have a family. We still have a marriage. We’re not going to talk business past 11 pm.” The conversation around taking risks with your partner is quite interesting, though. Thankfully, I’m not married to a brewer. However, my wife and I talk about the need to build a story together. Sure, we have our own interests and hobbies, but we intentionally think about how to connect and not simply cohabitate, but engage in a journey together. Moral of the story: you might not want to work with your significant other, but create a damn fine story by taking risks together.
4. Seek not to bring others down, but talk about others with dignity in the midst of their wrong-doing (c’mon Anheuser Busch).
It was that time. The time in the interview where I had to ask an uncomfortable question, one they might not want to answer. But I went for it. What do you think about the Anheuser Busch Super Bowl commercial? Their response shocked me. Jamil responded, “You know, back in the day, Anheuser Busch spent a lot of money on maintaining quality of hops for the industry and all of us craft brewers benefited from that. Over the years, they’ve done a lot of research and great things for brewing. But I didn’t care for it (the commercial), because it seems like they’re belittling somebody in their passion. To have to go and pick apart someone else’s passion in order to prop yourself up seems like a very weak way to go. I never want us to be bad-mouthing others out there. Just because I don’t like it doesn’t mean it’s not great. So let’s celebrate what we do well.”
They could have bashed the corporate snobbery, but they didn’t. They authentically expressed a sincere respect for Anheuser Busch while also calling out their misstep. But it makes sense. We can’t on one hand recognize that Anheuser Busch developed a commercial insulting beer geeks in bad taste while on the other hand tear them down with insults in return. Maybe they deserve it, but it doesn’t really help the cause of the craft industry. It takes a strong conviction to acknowledge that something, or someone, made some poor choices while upholding their dignity and talking about them with decency.
Another way Heretic Brewing Company takes the high road is around their brand. It’s difficult these days to find a name for a beer because it seems the craft beer industry has already trademarked every word in the English lexicon. Jamil said, “I write down ideas for beer names continuously. It’s very hard to come up with something that isn’t taken. The way we handle it is that we trademark everything. The reason we do that is not to stop anybody else, but so nobody can stop us.” As an example, when Evil Twin Brewing, from Europe, decided to open a brewery in the U.S., the name of their brewery could have infringed upon one of Heretic’s most popular beers, Evil Twin Red IPA. The Zainasheffs, understanding that Evil Twin had already established their brand and had no interest of infringing upon them, helped draft an agreement between the two parties which stated that Evil Twin Brewing could keep their name and launch their effort in the U.S. Jamil and Liz seem to be more interested in working well with people than promoting themselves and their brand, not just in word, but in deed.
5. Treat everyone like they are the most important person in the (tap)room.
After our interview, Liz treated me and Scott from Beers in Sac to a tour of the brewery and a sampler of their offerings. Several things struck me about Liz throughout our time together. She shared stories about the early days of the brewery, when she traveled up and down the state with kegs, selling their beer to local pubs and restaurants. Her devotion to their vision is unwavering. Also, her generosity goes beyond customer service; she truly treats each person in the taproom as though they are the most important person in the world. She’s laughing, asking questions, invoking thoughtful dialogue, and inviting beer lovers into a comfortable space to enjoy the moment. Both Jamil and Liz are about people and relationships, and it goes beyond being good business-people; they’re just good people.
In 2013, the Zainasheffs moved locations from Pittsburg to Fairfield for a larger space. Currently, the taproom is open Monday-Thursday, 3-9pm, and Friday-Sunday, 12-9pm. They’ve got 12 to 15 beers on tap, including the beers I listed notes for below. The beers are bold, well balanced, and diverse. Whether you’re a hop-head, a Belgian-freak, or one of those I-don’t-like-beer-because-it’s-too-bitter types, you’ll find something you love. And yes, the food truck is amazing, too. Check out their website at www.hereticbrewing.com. On their homepage, it states, “Ordinary beer is boring; don’t drink it. Embrace your inner heretic and join us to push the boundaries of beer flavors. We are crazy about beer and passionate about making it. Wanna be a heretic too? There’s always room for one more.”
Jamil and Liz have turned their passion into a great story, and along with success, have created a culture at Heretic Brewing Company that fosters community, treats people well, and exudes humility. The craft beer industry seems to be full of people just like the Zainasheffs; and yet, every so often, you’ll run into someone far too interested in self-promotion and personal success. It’s nice to stop and remember there are great examples in our world who can be great at what they do, but also be great at who they are. So if you’re a craft beer enthusiast, raise a glass to the outstanding beers of Heretic Brewing Company, but also, and more importantly, to the redemptive heresy of Jamil and Liz Zainasheff.
Thanks, Jamil and Liz. Cheers, Sacramento!
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I love to taste beer, make notes, and compare notes with friends. After tasting four of Heretic Brewing Company’s most widely distributed beers, here are my notes.