Earth Rider’s spacious brewery is filled with the typical elements: a mountain of grain bags stand atop pallets, next to a handful of beer-filled barrels stacked two-high. Looming over everything, the brewing system hums loudly, as one would expect out of an operation that can produce around 3,000 barrels annually. But the bustling brewery and the impressive cast of brewers who run it are noticeably devoid of egos. Their openness creates a space that feels welcome to all—even to a journalist lacking the proper standard-protocol safety glasses.
Given their differing areas of expertise, lead brewers Allyson Rolph and Tim Wilson, along with director of brewing operations Frank Kaszuba, compose a dream team of sorts for Earth Rider—or any distribution craft brewery for that matter. Combining their longtime experience and playing off their individual brewing aptitudes, the beer producing process is a highly collaborative affair between the brewing experts’ minds.
When I visited their Superior, Wisconsin brewery on a blustery spring morning, this cooperative element was the first thing I noticed. Rolph and Wilson were standing on opposite sides of a stainless steel table, where a diacetyl triangle test was taking place on their flagship North Tower Stout, the beer that won Earth Rider a bronze medal at the 2018 World Beer Cup. The test, which would eventually boil down to a debate, was to determine what stage the beer is at in the fermentation process.
For brewers with backgrounds as unique as their palates, this back and forth is a constant. But with everything that goes into producing and packaging beer, their complementary skills strike a perfect balance.
“It’s really nice because we get to divide our tasks up; it’s a really fun way to play to all of our strengths and also improve upon our weaknesses,” Rolph says.
Rolph can be found on the brew deck most often—she was already a well-established brewer before she joined Earth Rider, having ran the brewhouse at the nearby Thirsty Pagan for several years where she oversaw highly successful sour and barrel-aging programs. But she joined Earth Rider to grow as a brewer, and has relished the experience of learning to operate the different equipment that comes with a distribution brewery.
Wilson, on the other hand, came from a production brewery. He cut his teeth working as a brewer at Fitger’s Brewhouse before joining Bent Paddle Brewing in 2014 as the lead cellarman. Wilson is largely a process specialist, focusing on creating procedures and training staff in order to achieve consistency.
His focus on precision and efficiency is outdone only by his garrulousness. Yet even while we chat, he doesn’t stop working, stepping away for a moment to call out directions mid-sentence.
Above these two is Kaszuba, who focuses on the long-term operation of the brewery. A Great American Beer Festival medalist, Kaszuba has 22 years of brewing experience. He facilitates recipe development, manages Earth Rider’s inventory and brewery computer system, in addition to spearheading the brewery’s ingredient acquisition efforts. Even though he’s also a project manager for Bev-Craft, a brewery consulting company started by brothers Brad and Earth Rider founder Tim Nelson, he still finds time to brew every few weeks. Kaszuba says that when Rolph and Wilson joined the team early on in the project as lead brewers, he breathed a huge sigh of relief.
“When it comes to recipe development, a lot of the times we’re in agreement, so it’s really reassuring to work with them. Really, the two of them could run the brewery,” Kaszuba says.
Coming from the opposite ends of the brewing world, Rolph and Wilson are ideal complements for a distribution brewery. “Working with Allyson is awesome, because she’s extremely smart and driven. I’ve never worked with someone that’s worked so hard, it’s crazy,” Wilson says.
However, Wilson admits that they don’t always agree on everything. “We argue over things that matter,” he says candidly.
Rolph nods, adding, “The only time that we get at each other is when we are trying to get to the same place, but have different ideas on how to get there.”
In some senses it comes down to a difference in philosophy. Consider the question of whether beer is science or art. Rolph is quick to point out that she loves nerding out about the science of brewing. But she was an art major as an undergrad at Minnesota State University–Mankato, and she considers herself a maker above all else.
“Currently how I think about it is about being a maker; you’re taking something out of all these parts and making it into something new and larger,” Rolph says. “That was how I look at making art and so that’s how I look at brewing, especially with the whole pub idea of sharing a pint with someone and having that discussion the same way you would an artwork.”
While Wilson has a true appreciation for the creative tendencies of his fellow brewers, he views brewing as a scientific, methodical process.
“I’m all about process, and the science of efficiency and being able to replicate a process. They’re on the art side of it and I’m on a totally different side,” Wilson explains. One of his biggest focuses early on was working with Rolph to create standard operating procedures for every single piece of equipment.
“I’m all about process, and the science of efficiency and being able to replicate a process. They’re on the art side of it and I’m on a totally different side.”
– Tim Wilson
“Most all of our equipment is calibrated weekly or bi-weekly. We’re monitoring the trends we see in fermentation and we’re reacting to those trends. Basically, we take numbers on everything,” he adds.
Posing the same question of whether brewing is art or science to Kaszuba, his response highlights the unique balance Earth Rider has found with its roster of brewers.
“It’s really both,” he says with a chuckle. “Take for example recipe formulation: that’s really a mix of the two, because the creative part really drives it, but the science part is gonna help you be consistent. It’s about using science to inform you; there’s definitely a balance between science and art, which I find really fascinating.”
Likewise, it’s in the balance of personalities and philosophies of the brewers that Earth Rider thrives.
As different as they all are, one thing that all three brewers have in common is that they’re all still learning, and there isn’t a drop of arrogance between them. Instead, there’s an unyielding passion for creating great beer and the drive to better achieve this goal with each subsequent batch.
So far, it’s working for them. To meet growing demand, the brewery recently added a 40-barrel fermenter and brite tank, and they’re not stopping there.
“It’s not if we’re gonna expand, it’s when we’re going to,” Kaszuba says.
With the successful collaboration between Earth Rider’s brewers, it doesn’t seem a far-off proposition that they will some day fill out their spacious building. It’s as if they knew from the very moment Kaszuba, Rolph and Wilson were hired, that they found perfect equilibrium.