Iron Hill’s Kevin Walter leaves his college degree behind to fulfill a passion for beer.
by Brion Shreffler
With every sane person on the planet loving beer, it’s no wonder that brewing is something people keep falling into as a profession. No one ever wakes up, after-all and says, “I just have to be an accountant.” It’s the hobbies that people are deeply passionate about that suddenly pull them down a more enjoyable road.
For Kevin Walter, the head brewer at Iron Hill Brewery in Voorhees, NJ, his current journey came about rather unexpectedly.
After graduating from Shippensburg in 2006 with a degree in English, two years as a legal assistant was more than enough. In 2008, he went to Indiana University of Pennsylvania for a Master’s Program, while his girlfriend went to Texas to get a PhD. Not bearing to be apart from each other, they quickly chose happiness over their respective programs—after a semester, they both moved back to Philly in 2009. (They married New Year’s Eve 2011.)
Needing a job, Walter was hired as a server in February of 2009 at Iron Hill Media, thus beginning an adventure that would weave through the region as he bounced from one Iron Hill to the next, upping his game along the way.
But first, it was a fortuitous moment during training that set things in motion.
“During orientation, they told us that anyone can do a brew. ‘That sounds awesome,’ I thought.”
With a background in homebrewing—inspired by being college-broke and unable to find any good beer around Shippensburg—he readily took to it, and was soon showing up mornings before his shifts to help out in the brewery. A month into it, his double-duty became official, and for the next year-and-a-half he was both a server and assistant brewer.
He worked in the brewery 7:30a.m.-4:30p.m. Monday-Thursday, followed by serving shifts Thursday and Friday evening. He’d also do front of the house doubles on Saturday and Sunday.
After that, he switched over to solely acting as assistant brewer for his final six months in Media, before getting the head brewer job at Iron Hill Lancaster. He was in Lancaster from February to May 2013, followed by a very brief caretaker stint as head brewer at Iron Hill West Chester, before moving on to where he is today in that same month of May when he was put in charge of opening the Iron Hill Voorhees brewery, as well as getting their restaurant up and running.
His reason for sticking with it is one often repeated by content brewers: “I always wanted to work with my hands and have some tangible benefits outside of something on a page,” he says. It’s that enervating sense of pride mingled with euphoria that any budding chef or homebrewer feels, as people say, you made this.
The challenge and the educational aspect of the path to head brewer are what attracted him he says. Most striking, in going from homebrewing to professional brewing, was the learning curve that came with transitioning from 5 to 300 gallons.
“Brewing is very demanding—it’s more an industrial job,” he says.
He says he went in with the same creativity-first attitude that many homebrewers begin professional brewing with.
“I was going in thinking we’d have flexibility to do whatever we want,” he says.
While Iron Hill Breweries crank out 2-3 new beers a year, they rely upon a proven roster of beers that change with the seasons. So, he soon found that rigorous consistency for each part of brewing’s step-by-step process was now front and center—lest they fail to nail established favorites.
On the education end, after working at Iron Hill Lancaster, he began a 23-week online course called Intensive Brewing Science & Engineering. Offered by The American Brewers Guild, the course, currently run by the brewmaster of Drop-In Brewing in Vermont, Steve Parkes, aims to eradicate the mystery behind the brewing process via recorded lectures and live, online chats between instructor and students. The final week features an on-site practical.
Seeing brewing more as an industrial process led him to something he says is frequently neglected by the craft brewing community—safety. He cites current Iron Hill Maple Shade head brewer, Chris LaPierre, as the one who opened his eyes (during brief stints filling in there in 2009 and 2010) to the importance of workplace safety in the brewery, which eventually led him to join the Brewers Association Safety Subcommittee.
While that may not be the coolest topic, he admits, he points to the numerous horror stories (boots filled with wort, chemical burns, and a few closed space asphyxiation deaths) that he hears of at meetings like The Craft Brewers Conference in Denver in April 2013. He says the “rockstar making an artisanal beverage” approach needs to change to incorporate safety, since no one wants to phone a co-workers family member because of an injury. He’s doing his part by helping to extend the right resources to small breweries so that they can have the best practices in place just like the big guys who are behind in other areas.
As for off-work hours, he likes disconnecting by turning off his phone and going for long walks and hikes with his wife, Melissa, and their dog, Sofie, whenever they can.
He also plays in the Philly Bar and Restaurant Softball League with a team sponsored by El Bar. And, he gets in a few hours on his skateboard when ever he can—something he’s been doing since 13.
“I won’t stop skating until I can’t physically do it anymore. Then I’ll probably still try,” he says.
Iron Hill’s many beer events can keep him busy on the weekends. But they also allow him to somewhat recreate his early days with Iron Hill, where a dual role exposed him to critical feedback while he learned how to talk to guests about beer.
“If you’re not able to reach people in a simple way that they can relate to, you’re doing a disservice to whatever creativity went into the brewing process,” he says.
“If they’re not familiar with craft beer, I ask what they normally drink and I can extrapolate what flavor they like,” he adds.
As an example, he cites making a connection with a woman who claimed to only love white wine by bringing a Berliner weisse to the table.
“If you’re a light lager drinker, that beer is not in your comfort zone. But, she told me she loved dry white wines. So, dry, tart, light. She pounded back three Berliner weisses,” he says.
His approach, which he passed down to current FOH staff, is to use free taster 2oz. portions to hone in on any guest’s sweet spot. From there, it’s all about a casual, approach.
“People come in and see 15 taps, they may not know the names or styles, the flavor profiles. It gives them the chance to expand their palates,” he says. He stresses that the key to educating guests on anything comes with making it comfortable for them to make a choice.
The initial staff at Iron Hill Voorhees also benefited from Walter’s sense of pairings, something that has progressed along with his brewing skills as he worked his way up to where he’s at now.
He fell into cooking the same way he started home brewing, “Mainly I started cooking because it was the cheapest way for my wife and me to eat. I became the cook by default,” he says. While he says brewing hasn’t influenced his cooking much, his sense of pairings has been influenced by Iron Hill chefs as well as Garrett Oliver’s A Brewmaster’s Table.
“It’s easy to make OK pairings, it’s really hard to make great pairings,” he says.
He tells staff to think of it in terms of like-flavors, rather than jumping to a more complex game of competing flavors. At the restaurant, he points to how their crisp Vienna Red Lager pairs well with pizza dough, or a juicy burger. For anything spicy, even wings, he says go with hops.
At home, he keeps it simple, with his 40-50 hour work-week relegating much of his cooking to the weekend.
“I always try to have some Swiss Army Knife-type beers in the fridge that work well with a lot of foods,” he says. He applies saisons to both fish and funky cheeses. His hops-to-spice mentality usually pairs reasonably sized IPAs—beers he “can drink a few of and still function at a high level”—to the many Latin inspired and curry based dishes he makes. The session IPA craze is a bandwagon he firmly settled upon, with Sierra Nevada Nooner and Founders All Day IPA as favorites. “The balance of malt and bitterness makes it a difficult, intriguing style,” he says.
As for that first beer that set him off?
Victory Storm King.
“Mind-blowing experience. Didn’t know beer could taste like that,” he says.
And the first books that made this English major love reading?
“I loved reading JRR Tolkien when I was young. The rich depth that he put into the world he created was staggering,” he says.
While he’s currently reading and re-reading Vonnegut—while flexing his skills as a writer via a recently launched beer blog for Iron Hill Voorhees—it’s fitting that it started with a hobbit’s unexpected journey. a