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The Tinkerer

The Tinkerer

written by Mike Madaio

“I remember this one time,” Mark Thomas says, while sitting at The Vault, the pub crafted out of a 100-plus-year-old bank in Yardley where he’s head brewer, “I was driving a beat-up VW Rabbit that was always breaking down. I was on 676 when the radiator blew, and I had to coast down the Girard exit ramp. Luckily, there was a garage there, and I was able to get a bolt so I could fix it.” He shrugs, continuing, “I guess I like putting myself in situations where I am forced to figure stuff out, learn, fix things.”

The Vault, which opened in 2012, is Thomas’ first commercial brewing gig, so learning on the job comes with the territory. When asked about the transition from home brewing, “It’s the same ideas, just bigger,” he says. “The toughest change was dealing with the scope of it, and being comfortable with the dangers, the pressure, respecting the larger scale…plus, other craft brewers are incredibly helpful. Sometimes you feel like you’re the only one who’s had this problem, then you go online and realize people all over are dealing with the same issue.”

A natural tinkerer, Thomas has helped create a culture that encourages constant evolution and experimentation. “This being my first commercial brewing experience, it’s all about testing, the ideal job to learn about what people like, which ingredients work. Every beer is a new experiment. We might do a beer multiple times, then it’ll go away for the season, and we move on to something else. The whole beer menu is like that, with one-offs here and there to try new recipes,” he says. “Even if we’re brewing a batch of the same beer, we’ll typically change a variable to try to learn something new. Sometimes, that’s an ingredient, a yeast, a salt, or the hop level.”

480B1522(2)“We also have trial and error Tuesdays. We do all kinds of tests in the brewery; this allows us to bring the customer into the conversation, get their feedback. We make small batches, indulge our experimental side, brew 10-15 gallons, see how they do. Some sell out fast, some don’t go as well. But we’re always learning.”

Beyond the beer itself, this culture extends to the production lines. “Though all new, our equipment is low budget, manual, that we built, rigged up ourselves, so we have to figure things out when something goes wrong,” Thomas notes with a glint in his eye. “Like, how do we fix this problem without spending thousands of dollars, how do we reuse equipment, devise a quick solution.”

Interestingly, Thomas’ path to brewing was, like many others in the business, via the IT industry. He worked for IBM for many years before making the switch. “It resonates. It’s rather technical, one of those things where you can spend a couple grand on equipment, or you can repurpose something for pennies, and make it work, kind of like building a computer, the science of it.

He continues, “I try to marry the art and science. To take a simplistic or minimalistic approach on purpose, let the high-quality ingredients shine, use that German ideal. It’s important not to over-control it, not to try to force a citrus note here or pine there. I want to let the ingredients work.”

I ask Thomas if it was a difficult decision to let go of his former life. “Obviously, I had a stable job, so from that perspective I suppose it was a little scary, but it was one of those times where I realized I couldn’t look back and regret passing up this picture perfect opportunity that seemed like it was created just for me. I had been home brewing for a while and was looking to transition into the industry, and I knew [Vault owners] James and John through my wife, so when they approached me with this role where I could focus on brewing and they would handle the business aspect, it was amazing. I was a bit stalled in my career, so I was looking for something new, and here was this opportunity to try to be happy. It felt like it was the opportunity I was waiting for.”

After a quick renovation, The Vault was off and running. “We wanted to start slow, with small plates, beer, do a couple things and do them well, but we were much busier than we thought we’d be; it exploded right off the bat. I’ve heard a lot of people plan for failure, and not many plan for success, and that was us,” said Thomas. “A good problem to have, of course. We designed for 400 barrels the first year, and we were doing 600 right out of the gate. We hit our 2-3 year growth in a couple of weeks.”

Due to the unexpected growth, the partners have been considering alternative distribution options for a while, and have already begun to play around with options. “We’re trying bottles, sending kegs out, and looking into off-site facilities,” says Thomas. ”We’re going to be trying out canning. The good thing about our experimental model is that we’ve left room to attempt a variety of alternatives.”

“It’s not that simple though,” he continues. “It’s not like we can bottle the brew and be done with it. Our beer is meant to be poured from a keg and be enjoyed fresh. Once it’s in a bottle or can, you lose that control. Someone could try some random beer that’s been sitting around and think it isn’t that good, yet it could be the best beer in the world coming fresh out of the keg. But this is another learning opportunity for us.”

Thomas isn’t concerned with cult beers. Instead, he’s trying to build something that stands for quality across the board. “I want to create a brand behind Vault. Not that it has to be this one version of our IPA, like Pliny or something like that. I’d rather have it so that if people see Vault is pouring, they know they’ll like it.”

When asked if he’s got a signature style, or something he’s trying to make his particular calling card, he replies, “Not really. I try to create signature flavor profiles and change the beers within those profiles each season—hoppy, dark, blonde, wheat, high alcohol, seasonal. So the IPA may have different malt, different hops, perhaps rye one season, and a blend of different hops the next.”

It’s clear Thomas isn’t into face-melters or wild flavor combinations. Instead, he’s about pure, friendly brews that keep the drinker coming back. “At the end of the day, I want my beer to be clean. When you smell it, taste it, no weird after-flavors,” he says. “I like the tartness of sours, but the funky notes don’t intrigue me. We use whole flower hops—no pellets—partly because I am more interested in bright citrus, floral aspects. That doesn’t always resonate with the people looking for the harsh, bitter notes, but it’s the experience and flavor I am looking to create.

“I want your best sip to be the last sip of your first pint,” he tells me. “I want you to say, ‘Wow, that’s great, I need another one480B1573 of those.’ I don’t like sample sizes or flights, because it’s a judgment based on one sip. I’d rather someone to sit down with a pint and commit to it. My beers have this subtle complexity that builds as you drink them. It’s meant to be a whole beer that, by the end, compounds and comes together. I don’t want to make beers where someone drinks one and says, ‘That’s interesting, but I don’t want another.’”

In the end, it’s the learning and the tinkering that keeps Thomas going. “I have a ton of projects at all times, I try a lot of different things. But one of the reasons I’ve stuck with brewing for so long is that it defeated me early. My first batch went down the drain,” he says with a sigh, then grins as he continues, “and I thought, I’m going to show you… There are some things I try, I get close to mastering them and lose interest, but brewing has this aspect where something almost always goes wrong. It’s a constant challenge, to be able to prevent that, or at least prepare for it. But there’s this unpredictability, this chaos that keeps me on my toes. There’s always more to learn.”

“Humans didn’t create beer, we just discovered it. And for thousands of years we’ve been studying it,” he continues. “It seems simple on the surface, but the more you dig into the science, the more you realize how deep it goes, how you can always go further. Sometimes, it amazes me how long beer has been around, and what it means, at its core. Archaeologists debate which came first, beer or bread. When you meet someone for the first time, you might say, ‘Let’s meet for a beer,’ or you can have one to relax after a hard day. It really does transcend this simple drink.”


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