When Greg and Eve Sieminski took their family on a trip through Europe, they tasted beers in several countries including Germany, the Czech Republic and Poland. Eve says that they tasted some outstanding beers, and they returned home with a new appreciation for that beverage.
“The boys were so enthralled with what they tasted over there that they decided to start home brewing,” said Eve. “They bought a kit, brewed a batch and realized that they wanted to do their own thing.”
‘Doing their own thing’ meant coming up with brews on their own, which they did. As the family became more skilled at brewing, people started noticing their beers. The Sieminskis entertained the idea of opening a brewery, but the economy was tanking.
“One thing that survives when the economy goes bad is alcohol,” said Eve. “We decided that if we were going to do it, we were going to do it now.”
Iron Fist Brewing Company opened in October 2010, with Eve and her husband Greg overseeing the operation, managing the business and handling promotions, distribution and tasting rooms. Son Brandon is the brewmaster.
Eve, who oversees a staff of 12 tasting room personnel for Iron Fist’s two tasting rooms, didn’t realize that a tasting room could be an intensely personal experience for visitors. “They bare their souls,” she said. “We have very interesting conversations, but we have to remain neutral and make them feel good. If someone has a bad experience, they aren’t going to come back.”
Eve says helping novice tasters is an opportunity to help spread the word about different beers – even if that person doesn’t particularly like beer. “The tasting room personnel have to know the beers by heart,” she said. “If someone says ‘I never liked beer’, our first question is, ‘what do you like to drink’? If someone comes in and says ‘I like Blue Moon’, we have to know what to serve them. If a craft brewery has a diverse selection, there should be something in the flavor profile that the guest will enjoy.”
Brewmaster Brandon was 21 when Iron Fist officially started operations, and took his position seriously from the start. He talks about how the craft beer crash of the 1990s influenced today’s craft brewers. “There was a wave of craft brewers, but some of them rode it out and maintained quality,” he said. “Successful breweries were focused on the quality of what they were making rather than trying to get in on the ‘everyone is making beer, maybe I can make a few bucks too’.”
Iron Fist’s first beer was Dubbel Fisted, which was one of the family’s original home brews. “It’s a Belgian-style dubbel,” said Brandon. “What distinguishes it from other beers of that style is that we chose to forego the traditional use of Belgian candy sugar, which Belgians add to beer to fortify it and bring up the sugar. That also dries it out a bit. Rather than using the candy sugar, we use more malt, so it’s a four-ingredient beer. The yeast comes from a Trappist abbey in Belgium, and that’s what gives it characteristic flavor. You can taste candied fruit – like Christmas fruitcake.”
Brandon says that selecting hops is similar to a cook selecting ingredients for a dish. “Each variety of hops has a different flavor profile, and the chemical composition of what makes the hops is different from one to another,” he said. “It’s open to interpretation, and that’s how a brewery can develop a characteristic flavor.”
For many people, the delineation between hop flavor and hop bitterness is unclear. “A lot of people really enjoy the hops flavor, but bitterness is something that humans aren’t predisposed to like,” said Brandon. “Historically, anything that was bitter was generally poisonous. You can acquire a taste for bitterness, but it isn’t something you’re born with. I love IPAs and I love hops, but I hate the fact that a really nice IPA is so bitter that I can’t taste dinner. It’s more about balance, and there are a lot of people who wouldn’t gravitate toward hoppy beer but like the ones that we produce because they all focus on the flavor and aroma and not the bitterness.”
Brandon explains hops that make a beer bitter and the hops used for flavor and aroma are added at different stages, so one doesn’t necessarily equal the other. “The bitterness in Nelson the ImPALEr registers at 28 IBUs, which is relatively low,” he said. “Because the beer is lighter, the hop flavor is more pronounced, but overall, it’s a very light and extremely dry beer. You can have a super hoppy beer that technically doesn’t have to have any bitterness. If you aren’t adding bittering hops, you won’t end up with a bitter beer.” In contrast, Iron Fist’s Counter Strike is a very hoppy beer at 6.5% that is bittered with Citra hops from Washington and Galaxy hops from Australia. “Even though it’s extremely hoppy, only 10 percent of the hops are going toward bitterness,” said Brandon. “It’s as unbitter as it possibly can be, and still be stylistically considered an IPA at 40 IBUs.”
For Belgian and old-world style beers, Brandon uses hops from Germany, the United Kingdom or the Czech Republic. “For our IPAs and pales, we’re using hops from Washington, New Zealand, Australia,” he said. “Each one is unique. With hops, you really get the terroir — if the hops were grown anywhere else it wouldn’t taste the same.” He added that German hops tend to be highly consistent, but other countrys’ hops harvests can vary from year to year. “One beer we make, Nelson the ImPALEr, is made solely with Nelson hops grown in Nelson, New Zealand, and you can actually taste the crop year. It’s almost like vintages in wine. There’s a general profile of grapefruit flavor, but from one year to another, there might be more mango or gooseberry or the grapefruit might not be quite as pronounced.”
Counter Strike, another favorite Iron Fist brew, has very pronounced hop flavor and aroma, and appeals to a lot of people who don’t like IPAs. The Resistance, a beer that’s dosed with wild yeast, offers what Brandon refers to as a fruity, funky farmhouse flavor. “We’ve got some of that in Sauvignon Blanc barrels,” he said. “If it’s in a barrel, you don’t decide when it’s done, it tells you when it’s done. We’ll taste periodically, and once it gets to the flavor we’re happy with, it’s ready and we release it.”
Brandon says that the San Diego breweries are unique, and a good fit for his brewing style. “The cool thing about the San Diego beer scene is that we stand on the shoulders of giants,” he said. “There were some awesome breweries that produced world-class beer, and they set the standard. In order to compete, we have to produce a consistent product that’s made to a certain standard that people have come to expect.”
When he has time, Brandon visits with guests in the tasting room. “We get a good mix of people in,” he said. “Sometimes it’s more families, sometimes it’s people just getting off work. The idea and message of craft beer is universal: we like flavor, quality and good beer, and that’s why we’re here.”