Brewer Profile: An Interview with Karen Lassiter, Boscos in Nashville, Tennessee

Profiled by Millie and Ken Carman

Courtesy beermelodies.com

Boscos Hillsboro Village
1805 21st Avenue South
Nashville, TN 37212
615.385.0050

Hours of Operation…
Mon – Sat: 11 AM – 1:30 AM
Sun: 10:30 AM – 12:30 AM

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As co-editors of the Music City Brewers publication, The Brew-Score, Millie, my wife, and I felt since this interview was with fellow club member, and professional brewer: Karen Lassiter, it would be best served by her being interviewed together by both editors. Plus, this my second interview with a woman brewer, women brewing being a trend on the rise nationally and in Nashville. Karen brews for Boscos of Nashville and Boscos of Cool Springs. Jack is her husband and fellow motorcyclist. I keep telling him to get rid of that pansy Harley and get a real bike like my Honda Big Ruckus. Yes, that’s a joke.

Karen. before Boscos, brewed at fellow Music City Brewers brewery: Tom Vista. Where echoes of “Chop chop” can still be heard.

We’ve known Karen and Jack since they first joined Music City Brewers and, of course, since they started going over to the Bunker Brewery, owned by fellow club member Tom Vista. Karen has told me she learned a lot brewing at The Bunker that has helped her because Tom’s set up is actually a bit more complicated than the 7 barrel at Boscos. Quite a few club members, past and present, have enjoyed brewing at The Bunker, and Karen is known for her phrase that still inspires folks at The Bunker, “Chop, chop,” or “hurry up.”

Other notes: MC: Millie Carman. KL: Karen Lassiter. KC: Ken Carman. Fred Sheer is the former brewer at Boscos Karen trained under. Linus Hall: once MCB member, now owns Yazoo Brewing in Nashville, Travis Hixon: former brewer at Blackstone in Nashville, now at Popcorn Sutton, a micro-distiller and Chuck Skypeck (No truth the rumor he has a second cousin “Bushel N. Ahpeck.”) is the head brewer over all the Boscos, former brewer at the Nashville location and brewer in Memphis at Ghost River, while still overseeing Boscos brewing locations in Tennessee and Arkansas.

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MC: I know I should know this but, how long have you been brewing here at Bosco’s?

KL: It will be 4 year’s this coming September. The 1st year or so I was Fred’s assistant.

MC: You were an assistant at Blackstone for a time weren’t you?

KL: I was an intern for about a month or so.

MC: Were you planning on getting into brewing as a career when you started as the intern at Blackstone or when you became Fred’s assistant?

KL: Well I took the Siebel institute course. I was unemployed at the time and did a career re-assessment. I had worked in the printing and graphics industry for 20 years or so, couldn’t find anything except entry level jobs.

KL: I ended up taking the Siebel course, which is an online course. During the reassessment, I thought I had been homebrewing for years, that would be fun (as a career). The craft brewing was expanding at the time, so I took advantage my unemployment and took The Siebel course. After that is when I approached Travis at Blackstone as the Siebel course is only online course; I wanted to get some practical experience. That is also how I got the brewing job at Bosco’s. After the internship, I approached Yazoo and Fred (Scheer former brewer at Bosco’s). I knew Fred through the homebrew club. He said in his typical German way that they didn’t do apprenticeships. And of course I also knew Chuck (Skypeck) so I went over his head.

MC: Laughed

KL: So I sent Chuck an e-mail. He responded that, “Yes, Fred is right they really don’t do apprenticeships,” but they were looking to hire here, “Are you interested?” That’s when I started working here. Fred was my friend & mentor; However, I must say Fred was tough to work for. He made me do most of the work, I worked a lot. The upside of it all is that was I learned a lot and was able to take over when Fred left.

KC: Would you say that in your opinion that sense of “toughness” is the German way of approaching brewing—You do this, then that and none of the twain shall meet?

KL: Yes, I would agree with that.

MC: When you first took over at Bosco’s did you feel they were reluctant to hire you because you were a woman, not experience enough or what?

KL: No, not because I was a woman. At that time I had been working as Fred’s assistant for a little over a year. I think Chuck didn’t think I was ready to take over at first to take over. Chuck came up from Memphis, worked with me and realized I was ready; let’s see how the beer turned out.

MC: So you don’t think it was because you were a woman?

KL: No I think it was the experience thing. Chuck did tell me he was interviewing other candidates. I asked was I still in the running, he said absolutely you are in the running. The impression given was it was the lack of experience. Perhaps he felt I did not have enough experience.

MC: When you took the class at Siebel were there any other women in the class?

KL: I don’t remember any? I don’t think there were any other women in the class. I completed the Siebel course when I started working here so I guess it was 2008.

MC: Have you felt respected as a woman brewer?

KL: Yeah, oh yeah. I socialize at brewers functions like the Master Brewer’s Association, they have local MB group, in fact I’m the secretary of the local, regional, MBA- Mid-South. It takes in TN, North & South Carolina, GA, AL, MS.

KC: Do you find turn over in the restaurant industry significant?

KL: Yes, but it really doesn’t affect me. In fact I’ve come up with a rule. I don’t learn any of the servers names until they’ve been around for a while.

Courtesy gmskroll.com

KC:Do you do any kind of training of the server’s on the brew styles, process etc.

KL: About I don’t know maybe 2, 3, four times a year the managers will ask me to have a beer class for the servers give them a basic run down of the brewing process, our styles of beers & what makes our beers special all that sort of thing so they have a basic knowledge so they can talk to customers about it. So yeah I am involved in beer education for the bartenders and servers here.

KC: So when did you actually start homebrewing?

KL: Jack & I got involved in the club 2004, 2005 somewhere in there. And I had already started homebrewing at that time (2004 or shortly before.) It has been about 8 years.

KC: So what inspired you to start brewing?

KL: I have always been a beer fan, I’ve always enjoyed beer. I do tell people I think it was fate that I ended up being a professional brewer, even from a young child. I used to beg sips of beer from my father and from an aunt. I think ultimately it was meant to be. (That I become a professional brewer)

KC: So do you feel like you are respected as a homebrewer?

KL: Yes definitely, especially now more so. I won a medal for my Hefeweizen at the GABF last Fall; that seems to carry some clout. Also I don’t know if you know we also won gold at the World Beer cup, also for the Hefe, although it wasn’t my Hefe. It was brewed over at Little Rock.

MC: If you were offered a better position at another brewery in a different state, would you take it? Or does it depend. . .?

KL: Well, yes it does depend. If is a step up, it would have to be more money and how far away. It would depend, if it was in an adjacent state like Kentucky or North Carolina, “Yes.” But “No” to, say, California. And something like Sierra Nevada , I don’t have the kind of experience that they would be looking for as a head brewer, maybe as an assistant.

KC: What would you say is the difference between homebrewing and brewing professionally from your perspective?

Boscos, Hillsboro Village. Picture courtesy fuzzybrew.com.

KL:Well here, not much. Bosco’s set-up is basically a glorified, ramped up, homebrew system; the mash tun is a single step infusion. The only difference is the system is totally closed, I do everything with a pump, and there is no gravity feeding or anything like that. So I pump from one vessel to the next. So some of the equipment might be fancier… but very similar. But compared to some of the new equipment over at the new Blackstone facility that is fully automated (5 vessel system as opposed to 2 vessel system here.) this is more on the stepped-up homebrewing level. Also experience on the Bunker system helped me.

KC & MC: So do you have any advice for homebrewers ? (To either get in the business, step up their homebrewing, improve their homebrewing etc.)

KL: If they want to jump to the professional level, get in the business or what? Well I feel the least able to give advice on technical matters compared to other brewers in town. There is Linus Hall (Yazoo) who is an engineer/ has an engineering background; he can even fix some of this own equipment. Then there is Travis Hixon (former brewer at Blackstone, now at Popcorn Sutton distillery.) …he has a lot of years experience, is very smart. Having said that, I think, there’s a lot to be said for caring about your product. I’ve had customer’s say the beer has really improved here. I think I make up for the lack of technical knowledge by enthusiasm, caring for my product and constantly trying to improve it.

MC: Knowing what you know now, is there anything different you would do when you took over from Fred? In terms of your philosophy of brewing? Things you would do differently than he was doing etc?

KL: I would have to say, “No.” Everything I learned from Fred in terms of procedures and methods are things I still would do if I started again. When Chuck came up there were some slight variations from the way Fred was doing things. There are some things that I no longer do that Fred showed me, I’ve come to my own conclusions… “Well, that’s not a good idea!” And there are some things I’ve added in terms of cleaning procedures, you know about 90% (brewing) is cleaning etc.

KC: What do you use for sanitation?

KL: I use mostly 5-Star products like Isle of Star, Starsan, PBW. Then for general cleaning I use a mold-resistant product \ inhibitor, soap and bleach. I use the bleach just on surfaces no where it would get in contact with hoses and actual brewing kettles and such. A lot of professional brewing chemicals you need to rinse are stronger chemicals. (As opposed to homebrew non-rinse chemicals.)

MC: Any other suggestions for women that are beginning to brew or thinking of becoming professional brewers?

KL: Well I do (most women) need help lifting the heavy stuff. I was Fred’s assistant; I would enlist some of the servers to help lift the grain bags, kegs etc, male brewers should do the same. Now that I’m the brewer, male assistants do a lot of the lifting.

MC: I know you said you wouldn’t where “pink boots,” how about polka-dot boots or “Rhinestone boots,” after all this is Music City? (Laughs by all)

KL: Well maybe polka-dot boots. Rhinestone boots would be problematic with rhinestones falling off on the floor, in the beer etc.

MC: What is your favorite style of beer that you brew? Your least favorite? The style of beer you’d like to brew but can’t?

KL: Least favorite? Probably the beer I brewed yesterday, the Tennessee Cream Ale. (Chuck would be horrified to hear that) It was Bosco’s first beer. Favorite? …the Oatmeal Stout, or the Milk Stout. I do like our Hefe a lot and of course the IPA. What I would like to brew, and what Chuck is considering is letting me brew, is my (own) IPA. (Because I dry-hop it.) Boscos’ uses Pale Malt & Caramel-A. Mine is more complex with different malts, more English style; I use Maris Otter, Pilsner malt, Crystal, wheat and a little caramel.

MC: Over the years when you have attended Brewers conventions, have the number of women brewers increased, decreased, remained the same?

KL: Yes, increased. And I have been to a “Pink Boots” society meeting at the GABF. (A local chapter is starting too.)

MC: Is there a difference between Head brewer (your card says Head brewer) and Brew Master?

KL: I think it is kind of interchangeable. I have been called Brewmaster many times. Like the professional dinners we have here are called the Brewmaster’s dinners. I think it is more of an English term, might have to do with their training program; it’s more traditional like master/apprentice etc. I think the brewer decides for themselves and/ or the brewery does with their hierarchy. Sometimes you can have several head brewers under a Master brewer Administrator, that kind of thing.

MC: Anything else you would like to add?

KL: I think I’ve had it pretty easy getting into the professional business compared to other brewers. In a new brewery there are a lot of money investments and I just walked in a pre-existing set-up with nothing to worry about. Like the gal’s at Jackalope they had a lot money in both equipment and set-up of the building etc. I’ve had it pretty easy, I’ve been really lucky. I had no clue Fred was going to leave a little over a year after I started, it was a great opportunity.

KC: Do you feel your climb as a professional brewer has been more difficult for you because you are a woman?

KL: No. Now of course the physical aspects are tougher. I’ve never had a big problem, I’ve always had help lifting. If it had been a requirement that I lift all (grain bags, full kegs) myself it might have been a problem. Chuck has been very accommodating getting me help. If the issue of lifting came up, I would have to see. I check out postings every day on the Brewers association website forums.

I’ll scan the listings. Many listings for brewers state you have to be able to lift, stand long hours etc

KC: Do you think owners of brewpubs sometimes discourage women from taking the position in the industry?

KL: Maybe. My weight limit is the weight of an average grain bag/50 lb. I handle that every time I mash in. I can do that, but full kegs weigh 160 lbs? I can’t do that without help. As far as I’m concerned a man shouldn’t lift that alone either; it takes a toll over time.

KC: How does Jack (her husband) feel about your job as Head brewer?

KL: He thinks it’s great.