Profiled by Ken Carman for professorgoodales.net
Sitting in a back room, near the back porch: I could hear birds outside the closed glass door… and even hear them on the recording device I used when I reviewed our conversation days later. This is truly Tennessee countryside.
The Liz and Phil Snyder estate in White House, Tennessee, gently slopes down to a small creek, then back up to the hill where the hop garden is. I find it odd how you look at grass, a stream, a hop garden, grapes vines: and they seem as if they’re just natural; been there for a long, long time. That’s how I feel about Phil Snyder as a member of Music City Brewers. Phil and the club just seemed to fit together.
But Phil’s story is more interesting than that. Born in Defiance, Ohio, Phil’s family quickly moved to Fort Wayne, Indiana, “when I was just a little tyke,” where his father had taken a job.
He started with wine and made his first batch in 1969. At a wine convention in DC; about 1980, Phil was staying at a friend’s house who had a fridge full of beer and a six pack of Anchor Steam.
“I tasted that and I knew I had to start brewing.”
His first batch was about 1979 or 1980, just after home brewing was made legal.
“We had a big wine club up in Fort Wayne and I was president of that several times. Just on the side some of them were making beer. It wasn’t as popular back then: you couldn’t get any supplies; you had to get Blue Ribbon extract from the grocery store and Red Star Baker’s Yeast. I don’t remember what we used for hops. There were no homebrew shops or places to order supplies.”
Phil continued to spin his true tale…
“Things changed pretty quickly after that. There was a winemaker store in Fort Wayne and he started to get in homebrew equipment and supplies. People came for wine supplies showed interest so we had a class. We all made a batch: our first was called Breakfast of Champions, made with Wheaties, because of all you couldn’t get at the time.”
Phil started moving to Tennessee when he came down for a job in Hendersonville; at first commuting back and forth between Hendersonville, Tennessee and Fort Wayne for 14 months.
It’s amazing how hobbies can grow, as you look around the Snyder estate. Looking out from the back porch you can see grapes growing to the right and, if you walk down the hill and over a small creek, to your right you’ll find hops slithering up an elaborate trellis system made out of pvc.
The 7 year old hop garden has had more than its share of disasters: a tree falling and crushing the trellis, limbs snapping lines and years so dry it “didn’t make a difference how much water I put on them: the sun would just bake them and dry them right up.”
The list of hops Phil has grown is long, to mention a few: Northern Brewer, Cascade, Liberty, Nugget, Goldings, Hallertauer, Sterling, Magnum, Zeus, Fuggles and “I’ve got two of each kind.” Some grow well in White House, Tennessee:
“Northern Brewer did well this year; I picked 11 ounces and did a wet hop steam beer.” As far as hops that seem to have the most problems when it comes to growing in Phil’s farms, “Goldings have done the least and then Hallertauer…. never really got much out of them. Been thinking of putting something else in: Zeus seems to grow like crazy around here.”
He laughed when I asked for advice for homebrewers, “learn to like cleaning, the rest of it is a lot of fun. Also cooling the beer as fast as you can after the boil. That was the big mistake I made when I first got into the club. I would just let it sit over night and I had all kinds of problems. I didn’t know what it was. I made a batch of steam beer big brew day and put it into competition that fall, 2003, when I joined the club. It tasted terrible and I didn’t know what was wrong. Steve Johnson was one of the judges on it and he nailed exactly what was wrong with it. I took what he said and went to the description of defects and one of the reasons for that defect was it wasn’t cooled… it got an infection. That was my introduction to the club: a big learning experience that pushed me in the right direction. Also, before I joined the club, I didn’t do all grain; I didn’t see the need to go to all that extra time, effort and equipment.”
Since then not only has Phil gone all grain, but has also been a very active member of the club, even becoming a BJCP judge… though he’s only an apprentice. With all his knowledge he deserves more. I was actually there for the first test he took: my first test too. I knew Phil had a problem with the fact that the BJCP requires you to have exacting memory when it comes to all the styles. He also had a problem with the fact we had been promised tutoring and get-togethers to study for the test, and “all we got was a couple E-mails.” (From what I remember we also got one off flavor seminar.) He said he never had time to study, so when it came to the test and a question asking specifics on a style Phil let them have it rather than answering the question.
They flunked everyone. Now, to be honest, I had issues with that test: specifically the grading and the fact, at the time, they wouldn’t let you see your own test after grading it, but that would require another article that, um, I already wrote.
I took the test again, a few years later, but Phil has sworn not to. So as an apprentice he will lose his BJCP standing: and from my observation of Phil’s judging skills that, indeed, would be a loss. Plus, take note, Phil has not only judged and stewarded, but been a registrar, helped organize the competition and even been the sole logger in of entries. With a competition that sometimes has had well over 400 entries that’s a lot of effort, a lot of work, of course all volunteer. The BJCP needs folks as dedicated to homebrewing as Phil.
Innovation is a creed, of sorts, for Phil. For example he prefers to go no electric at all: more hand or even steam power.
“That’s my goal, is to have a steam run brewery: no electrics allowed, all steam powered” and most likely he will build almost all of it himself: “I have a pretty good little shop in the old barn out there…” (In front of the house.) He showed me a compressed air powered pump he plans to use to transfer beer. For now he’s doing it by hand. That moment came in the conversation came when I asked him for a humorous brew story…
“The biggest problem I have been having here lately, I’ve got a couple of pumps, but I don’t care to use them. I’d just as soon transfer with a one gallon container and not use a pump. But you’ve got to watch it as you fill up the container cause the last three or four brews I’ve lost half a gallon to a whole gallon because I get sidetracked to something else and forget I was siphoning. I ended up with a couple 3 gallon batches rather than 5.”
Been there. Spilled that.
We went to a back room where Phil has his bottles and equipment stored: kind of a second office even more beer focused. I took pictures of his mash tun and the pump he’s working on. Phil designs, even builds, a lot of his own equipment. The boiler, while built at a restaurant supply that specialized stainless steel equipment where he worked, is only one of two of its kind: Phil’s design.
Phil built his own air pump compressor for moving beer for many reasons, one being he prefers using air moving his beer rather than a propeller.
Phil said the investment in the hop field trellis has been more time rather than money, “I probably have 150 bucks in it.”
I asked, “Is it harder to grow grapes than hops down here?”
“Pretty much the same: they’re both labor intensive.”
I mentioned passing through western New York every year and smelling the grape fields, “Too hot (here) for most of the wine grapes, birds to contend with, and insects: so you have to spray continually, deer, turkeys, powdery and downy mildew.”
Unlike the wiki picture below, Phil said both down here are “pretty white.”
The room we sat in was another example of Phil’s dedication to beer. In reality, he has two “man cave/beer rooms.” This used to be open to the outdoors, but he enclosed it including tables for brewing, holding fermenters and, of course his brew kettles and the chiller he built.
I have always been fascinated by Phil’s other, custom made, boiler. I’ve never seen anything like it in homebrew circles, and it is extremely practical. The story is he had a restaurant supply company that worked with stainless steel build it from his design and the guy who did it liked it so much he built one for himself too. The idea was it was built so it could go on two burners at the same time. Each end on the top can be lifted, which means better access, for stirring and other brewing concerns. There’s a double filter: a screen near the bottom and a bazooka screen below that.
Before the interview I asked about the chiller. The woodwork was so perfect I didn’t know he had pre-cut the holes to perfectly fit the chiller. Below the chiller you see one of Phil’s gifts from Lady Snyder’s kids for Christmas.
Phil has won a lot in our competition, like first in Ciders, Strong Ales, placing in Amber Hybrids, Old Ale and Porters. He has won best of show four times: twice at our own, Music City Brewer’s, competition, once at Fugetaboutit in Chattanooga, Tennessee and once in Memphis, a competition run by Bluff City Brewers. At least once I remember sitting in Boscos, a local brewpub where we used to hold our competitions every year, and Phil being called up again and again.
I did ask if Phil had ever considered going pro and he said when he lived in Fort Wayne he considered opening a very small brewery, but the government regulations and such meant he would have to spend more, build more, brew more, and put up with more… (polite term for it…) junk than it was worth.
“Now they’re opening all over the place, even smaller than I was going to open, but I’m just happy to brew.”
I understand. I have been considering opening one up north in my home hometown, where I was partially raised. But the kind of investment, at my age? Well, let’s just say a more pro approach isn’t off the table, but when you’re older and knowing your retirement is set, and you can live where you dream of living, still brew all you love to brew, why take the risk? So I think I know where Phil’s head is at here: at least a little.
Probably one of the most fun things for me when I go to Phil’s is I’ve been working with kids for years, and Phil is into some of the classic characters of our childhood like Marvin the Martian and Rat Fink.
Before I left Phil offered some of his cider and, being on the wagon… who am I kidding! Of course I had some! Then, needing to get back to Nashville, I hopped into my Element and watched the Snyder castle fade in the distance.