The Butler Does It: Q&A with Empire Brewing’s Tim Butler

(Upstate Brew York)

Tim Butler’s favorite time of the week is Sunday morning.

And his favorite thrill as the head brewer of the Empire Brewing Co. in Syracuse is that of any.

“The best thing we do at Empire is our Blues Brunch on Sundays. We have a live band going, the beer is flowing, the bloody marys are flowing, it is a good time,” Butler said in early August at a beer dinner at the Sherwood Inn. Courses from the Sherwood’s chef Dan Hudson where paired with five Empire brews (see bottom).

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“One of the best things for me is when I am at home – and by home I mean Empire – and I just see a bunch of people around the bar drinking our beer that is really the coolest thing.”

Tim Butler has been the brain behind the company’s 33 brews for the past six years. Before Empire he spent a half dozen years with the Middle Ages Brewing Company in the Salt City and before that he spent a year at now defunct Towpath Brewing, also in Syracuse.

There was a time before all of the professional experience though. After serving as a combat medic in the U.S. Army, Butler worked on a homebuilt, homebrew, 15-gallon system.

“My homebrews were coming out good. My friends were like, ‘Man, you are makin’ good beer.’

From that point, I went to a local brewery and brought some of my beer and said, ‘Try these, please.’ They tried them and put me on the bottling line two days a week. I moved up to assistant brewer and the rest is pretty much history,” Butler said.

Butler took the time to answer a couple of questions about beer, home brewing, and how he gets better at a job he is already pretty good at.

UBY: OK, right off the rip…for us homebrewers…what is the secret to brewing awesome beer? (We aren’t pulling any punches)

TB: Beers are made just by being spontaneous and creative. I certainly carry that through my professional brewing. We are going to have some beers tonight that are kind of funky, kind of esoteric. The main thing is, really, its just beer when it comes down to it. People stress out about it so badly, especially on a home-brew level, and I always say, “I am not going to make anything that sucks. It may be not quite what I was shooting for, but it isn’t going to suck. It is going to be drinkable.” From that point you can tweak your recipes and hone in on the style and exactly what you are looking for.

UBY: What do you, yourself, prefer to drink?

TB: I am a hop head [see Empire’s India Pale Ale on the left]. I really like IPAs across the board. I do like to play with herbs and spices, I am really starting to dig that. I am kind of all over the board. I like malty beers, but if I had to pick one style it is the IPAs.

UBY: When it comes to brewing, do you enjoy the IPAs as well?

TB: I just like to brew. It doesn’t matter what is, just as long as I am brewing. That is my passion, that is my love. As long as I am in the brewhouse making beer what’s coming out doesn’t really matter. I don’t think I have a favorite brand or a favorite style to make. I just like makin’ beer.

UBY: Getting back to the secrets thing though, what is some of the biggest areas that brewing on any level requires and what are some of the hardest things to achieve to have consistently good beer?

TB: Cleanliness is huge. You can’t make good beer without being clean.
I think the hardest thing to achieve is balance of flavors. You can dump a lot of hops in and get a really bitter beer, but it’s about playing with ingredients and understanding what they are going to do and translating that to the glass is the toughest part. You really have to understand balance and ingredients in order to achieve that.

Sometimes there are mistakes.

Sometimes you overuse an ingredient. You have to pull back the next time that you use it. I always error on the side of caution if I am using a new ingredient or a new spice or herb [see Empire’s Golden Dragon spiced with basil on the left]. I’ll start off on the low end of it and then the next time I’ll ramp it up if I feel like it needs more. All of that is opposed to starting guns ablazin’ and tasting it and saying, “Oh my god there is too much rosemary, or too much whatever.”

Balance is tough.

UBY: Continuing on the balance idea, what are some of the craziest things you have dropped in a pot?

TB: We have a beer tonight that has some thai basil (Golden Dragon) and that is one of the most unique ingredients that I have ever used. We also make a beer with lavender. I have used white peppercorns before. I have also used beets. That beet beer was pretty awesome. You have to look at what is around you, what ingredients are around you. Almost anything can translate into beer [see Empire’s Deep Purple made with Concord grapes on the left].

UBY: Finally, we all want to make beer as popular as what Empire makes. How do we all improve?

TB: Drinking more beer is going to make you a better brewer, believe it or not. That is how you learn. You have to read and self-educate. This is an industry that is always changing. Even now after doing this for 14-15 years there is something that I learn every day. Reading, keeping yourself educated and drinking beer is the best way to get better.

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