Inside the Mind of the Samurai Artist: An Interview with Ezra Johnson-Greenough 1


“For art to exist, for any sort of aesthetic activity or perception to exist, a certain physiological precondition is indispensable: intoxication” ~ Friedrich Nietzsche

Most craft brewers consider beer to be both a science and a form of art. Most consumers and writers focus on the art inside the bottle, yet rarely ever consider the art on the outside of the bottle. A small number of craft breweries have recognized the psychological and emotional impact that label artwork has on people’s perception of the beer inside, and have employed the help of very talented artists for the development logos, labels and packaging of beer. The most well-known examples are Flying Dog and Ralph Steadman, and Lost Abbey and Sean Dominguez.

Slightly less well-known, although definitely not for lack of talent, is the creative and artistically skilled Ezra Johnson-Greenough.

Artist, beer label designer, writer, mixologist, event planner, festival organizer, brewery tour guide, marketing lacky, brewer and keg slinger — Ezra is truly a jack-of-all trades in the craft beer industry. It is virtually impossible to find a beer person in Portland, Ezra’s home town, that has not heard of him or does not call him a friend.

Known for his disputatious personality and headstrong opinions, Ezra is not immune to conflict and adversity. His blunt honesty and passion for craft beer, however, has done more good than harm, and Ezra can most certainly be called a revolutionary of craft beer.

So without any further ado, allow me to introduce you to the man many know best as the Samurai Artist, Ezra Johnson-Greenough:

THE SAMURAI ARTIST INTERVIEW

Full name: Ezra Johnson-Greenough
Twitter handle: @SamuraiArtist
Current location: Portland, OR

The Background Check

1. Where did you grow up?
Portland, OR

2. Where did you go to college? What did you study? What additional activities, organizations, sports did you partake in during college?
I spent some time in a lot of local schools like Oregon State and the Pacific Northwest College of Art before moving to San Francisco for The Academy of Art. I studied some film as well as Fine Arts and settled on illustration. I used to be heavily into working out and training and my younger years I played a lot of basketball and soccer and did some wrestling. I worked out pretty consistently and was really into that before I moved back to Portland and got really into beer and that along with a lot more work obligations pulled me out of the gym but I recently started trying to go back.

Professionally, you are mostly self-employed, yet balance a variety of unique and interesting positions in the craft beer industry.

3. What did you do professionally before you got into the beer industry?
I bartended at some dive bars and then at beer bars like Belmont Station, APEX, Laurelwood Brewing and Upright Brewing. Before that I worked in higher end private security and as a bouncer and at gyms, I got a lot of stories about those.

4. How long have you been working in the beer industry?
Well I am not sure if you can count bartending at beer bars working in the industry but lets say the first time I got work outside of that was doing some artwork for Roots Organic Brewing‘s Epic Ale line of beers that were quite the collectors items and that was in 2005 I believe, so going on 6 years.

5. What was your first “real” job in the beer industry?
Again if we count the service industry It was in probably 2004 actually at Laurelwood Brewing where I trained and was awaiting the opening of their new production brewery for more in depth work in the industry but it was not what I expected. Soon after I went to Belmont Station and collaborated with Roots, Double Mountain, Ninkasi and Pelican Brewery as well as being on the staff for the North American Organic Brewers Festival.

6. How many different breweries do you currently work with?
God that’s hard to qualify again. I receive regular pay from Upright and Burnside Brewing but I am doing all sorts of projects with breweries like Ninkasi, Hopworks, Coalition, Double Mountain and my own projects with various beer bars and breweries like with Portland Beer Week.

7. Describe your role with Upright Brewing:
It is undefined really and I have resorted calling myself a Jack-of-all-trades. Originally my friend Alex Ganum who I worked with at Upright Brewing asked me to design the logo, then help with the design of the brewery and then to run the tasting room. Now I also do some of the event planning, marketing, all the art and design, represent the brewery at tastings and events and like to throw my two cents into the beers themselves whenever I get a chance.

8. Describe your role with Burnside Brewing:
I am in charge of Marketing and Event planning and I also curate the art for the pub and am looking forward to soon doing some special release beer labels and collaboration beers soon. Burnside Brewing is really into events and lets me have pretty free reign setting up brewers dinners which I try to make unique as well as festivals and events that I also try to make unique. Our first foray before I was an official employee was the Portland Fruit Beer Festival that was a huge success and then recently I transitioned my Halloween pub crawl – Night of the Living Ales into a full on fest at the brewery and that was also a huge hit. Right now I am working on some new event and beer ideas and getting ready for the roll out of regular 22oz bottles.

 

The New School Beer Blog

1. When did you start the New School beer blog?
I officially posted my first blog on new years day 2010. It seemed like a good time for a new chapter.

2. What inspired you to start writing your blog?
Well probably two things, I needed something to do with myself after exiting Belmont Station, I was doing work for Upright but there was no money for a full time employee at first and also I missed talking to people about beer and sharing information both to fans and industry folks alike.

3. What are you personal goals for your blog? What do you hope to achieve with it?
My goals are still the same as when I started it, and that was to create an insider’s blog with a strong readership. I wanted to write about things that interested me and give a more inside look behind the scenes that a lot of bloggers don’t have the time or connections to cover.

4. What is one of the coolest things that happened to you as a result of being a beer blogger?
So many things really. A small one was when Rob Widmer recognized me at a festival and asked my advice on what beer to try next, certainly people all of a sudden seeing me as an authority. I also got a platform to launch some of my own events from like Brewing up Cocktails and Night of the Living Ales though I have now separated my events mostly from The New School. The ultimate though, was when I helped expose improprieties and shady business dealings of the North American Organic Brewers Festival and saw that my article actually changed things. It was a risky post to publish but in the end people got paid that were owed money like main festival organizer Abe Goldman-Armstrong got paid days later and many non-profits finally got checks and a lot of industry folks even called me up and said thank god someone said it.

5. Outside of your site, what are you top 3 favorite beer blogs/beer websites?
I don’t really find myself having a regular site I read but more scan for stories but if I had to pick it would be Beervana, It’s Pub Night and Beer News.

Brewing Up Cocktails

1. When did you first launch the “Brewing Up Cocktails” concept?
I launched it in July of 2010 as an Oregon Craft Beer Month event.

2. What was the inspiration for developing “Brewing Up Cocktails”??
A confluence of events that included my predisposed interest in dabbling, mixing and creating with attending SF Beer Week and seeing a local bar featuring a beer cocktail of the day and then returning to PDX and meeting a respected writer and spirits mixologist named Jacob Grier who happened to be a blossoming beer geek. Between the two of us we knew a hell of a lot about beer, spirits and mixology and when we needed a host we found we both knew Yetta Vorobik and her bar The Hop & Vine and her skills were the perfect addition.

3. Tell me a little bit about your partner in “Brewing Up Cocktails”?
I don’t want to shoot Yetta Vorobik short but my main partner that I originally conceived the events with is Jacob Grier. He has bartended at a number of respected cocktail bars, he represents Bols Genever and has done an amazing job showing off the versatility of that Dutch spirit and has written a lot of articles on both cocktails and in politics and I saw in him sort of the opposite of myself in the best way possible. I know a lot about beer and I didn’t know a ton about spirits but I loved them and wanted to master them and Jacob Grier is a master of spirits and mixology and is becoming a huge beer geek with a thirst for knowledge there. He is as active in the cocktail community as I am in the beer community and so his connections combined with mine make an excellent team.

Then there is Yetta Vorobik who owns what I think is the best combination of all booze bars in Oregon and perhaps further. The Hop & Vine has an outstanding wine list, cocktail list and beer list plus incredible food and a beer and wine bottle shop next door to boot. Yetta came with a history as a wine geek so she brings in another sensibility to cocktail design and she is great behind the bar and as a bonus she has boobs, which we all appreciate. (classy, Ez)

4. To date, what was one of your most successful events?
We have had a lot of amazing events but I think it really blew up on our second Brewing up Cocktails event last winter was the most amazing. In it we debuted two hot beer cocktails, our take on a Wassail and the Hot Scotchy which has become a drink we are really known for. We received an incredible amount of positive press including some people even calling the Hot Scotchy the best cocktail you have never had and the greatest drink ever concocted. The bar was absolutely packed which caused a pretty big backup on cocktails but it was a lot of fun. Other than that the Ninkasi one we did for SF Beer Week was a big hit and traveling to Vancouver, BC for one was an honor too.

5. Personally, what is your favorite beer cocktail?
I really don’t know, it certainly depends on my mood and the season. I can narrow it down to three I think:

1. Wassail
This was our take on the original wassails that used ales and ours had a variety of spices, wine, whiskey, lemon and a base of Deschutes Jubelale and is served hot in a mug with a sliced orange star. This one I had little to do with but just may be my favorite alcoholic drink for a winter night.

2. Caipbeerinha
This is one I can claim credit for and has been hugely popular. It achieved three things and that is it successfully updated a classic Brazilian drink the Caipirinha with beer as a legitimate new version of the cocktail that has inspired a whole category, it successfully fused the American IPA into a cocktail seamlessly which is a tricky feat, and it appeals to both beer and cocktail drinkers somehow. Oh also it’s good for any season.

3. Hot Scotchy
This is maybe the most unique as it is a brewers cocktail that some practice in breweries all over the country but as far as I can tell has only been passed on by word of mouth and there was previously nothing written about it. So I cant claim to have created it but we did update it for the bar and brought it to regular audiences which is no easy thing considering it requires brewing beer to make. Basically it’s base is hot unfermented beer or wort as it comes out of the mash tun and separates from the grain bed, it is hot, sticky, sweet and has a killer fresh bread, grain, cereal quality then you simply add a whiskey or in our update a peaty Scotch and top with an unsweetened hand whipped cream and a pinch of nutmeg. It truly is a drink like nothing else.

Craft Beer Epiphany

Every craft beer enthusiast has at least one pinnacle craft beer experience that completely changes ones perspective on beer. I refer to this mind-blowing moment as a “craft beer epiphany.”

1. What was your first craft beer epiphany? Recall as many details about it as you can:
I am not sure I believe that everyone has had this craft beer epiphany, I don’t think I did exactly. The closest thing I can recall to this though is attending a party in San Francisco where I had brought something like Newcastle nut brown which I loved though I hadn’t discovered much else and after I ran out of that beer I had to turn to Budweiser and I think I was on my second can when I just realized that I was not enjoying it, in fact was quite disliking the taste of it and then I thought ‘why am I drinking this?’ was it just because I had it in my hand? From that moment on I drank craft beer though it took me moving back to Portland to really become a beer geek and move beyond amber ales.

2. Have you have additional craft beer epiphanies since the first? Detail as many of them as you wish:
Well when I moved back to Portland I discovered Amber Ales like Fat Tire and Bridgeport’s now defunct Ropewalk Amber. I was not adventurous and would not call that an epiphany. Somehow my uncle took me to Laurelwood and I really discovered craft beer and fell in love with their Tree Hugger Porter and with that I started going to the store and buying as many different beers as I could wanting to try everything and shortly thereafter started homebrewing and reading all sorts of books. I really went from average beer drinker to hardcore beer geek in one year, maybe less.

Ezra with Jamie Floyd of Ninkasi on The New School tour of Eugene

Beer Talk

1. What are your top 3 favorite beer styles to drink?
I definitely fluctuate on this but overall I like to have a house beer that I buy six packs of and it’s usually something hoppy like an IPA or Pale, right now it is cans of Fort George 1811 lager and Bridgeport Hop Czar.

Probably my favorite overall right now are sour beers of pretty much all kinds. I love intensely sour beer but also a tart berliner-weisse I would drink 24/7 and do when Dogfish Head Festina Peche is in season.

Third would probably be a tie between a farmhouse style ale or a big barrel-aged beer.

2. What are your top 3 favorite breweries?
Wow, I hate questions like this but at the same time it makes me think. Right now I would say Cantillon, Firestone Walker and probably Upright Brewing.

3. What are your top 3 destination “beer” cities?
Do you mean places that I have been or places I want to go? For places I hope to go #1 is definitely Belgium anywhere really and I have been to San Diego but it was many years ago so I am dying to go back. #3? well I would love to experience some true British pub culture at some point so London seems like a good idea because I can travel around from there. Now if I was going to give someone else advice on where to go I would probably say Portland [OR] Brussels and San Francisco.

4. What is your favorite beer and food pairing?
Beer and cheese for sure. I am a huge fan of both and they can go so well together. One of the best I have had was Humboldt Fog with Yazoo Sue a cherry wood smoked beer. Sharp and tart cheeses pair so well with lambics too. I represented beer in a Wine vs. Beer cheese pairing competition earlier this year and actually found some unusual but amazing pairings with beers like a coffee stout, a kriek and a barrel-aged olde ale.

5. Do you ever cook with beer? If so, what are some of your favorite recipes that use beer?
My favorite semi-cooking with beer thing is a smoky hot sauce I do occasionally with Habaneros and smoked peppers but instead of using vinegar or any sweeteners I use an intense whiskey barrel-aged Imperial Stout, the best was Founders Kentucky Breakfast or Full Sail’s Black Gold. I also like to make some bbq burgers marinated in a Scotch Ale or perhaps Alaskan Smoked Porter.

6. In your opinion, what are some of the best resources (books, websites, programs, institutions etc…) for people learning about beer and brewing?
I learned a lot from Papazian’s the Joy of Homebrewing which a lot of people say is out of date now and it is but I still think its possibly the best most approachable resource for the beginning homebrewer. My longtime favorite book though is Radical Brewing by Randy Mosher, it is an incredible guide to obscure and extinct styles of beer as well as lots of insight on how they were made and how to brew them in modern day. It is kind of a homebrewing book but you really dont have to homebrew to learn a lot. Farmhouse Ales is another great one though it is very advanced. I also learned a lot from listening to podcasts, I dont keep up on them anymore but I still have a tremendous love for Basic Brewing Radio. And lastly I found Rate Beer and Beer Advocate the best place to stay up with what breweries were doing all over the country and world.

Ezra with Larry Sidor is at the Craft Brewers Conference// Photo Credit: Brian Stechshulte

The Personal Side

1. You are known on Twitter and other various social media platforms as “Samurai Artist” — what is the significance behind this name?
I just needed a handle when I first got online and I was/am a huge fan of Samurai’s and that period of Japanese culture. I was very influenced by Akira Kurosowa’s films like Seven Samurai, The Hidden Fortress, Rashomon, Throne of Blood and books that outline wisdom and a code that is incredibly still relevant today like Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. Then of course I am actually an artist and some of the most famous Samurai’s were too.

2. Outside of beer, what are some of your other hobbies?
Art obviously, illustration and design. I don’t read them anymore but I still do love comic books and I learned a lot about writing and art from them. I am a huge film geek, I was obsessed with film for a long time and that has been replaced by beer but I still try to catch as many as possible and they have greatly influenced the way I see and hear things as well as talk and write. Perhaps too much so. I also love music and focus on more local music, it is another art form I always wanted to do but who had the t to do that with all of my other interests so I try to listen and promote and get paid as many local musicians as possible.

3. If you could meet anyone, dead or alive, you would it be and why?
Again I think that’s an impossible question because there are so many.

4. Who are some of your greatest mentors in the industry?
I am not sure I would go so far as to call someone my mentor just because I like to do my own thing and find my own way but I have learned a lot from people like: Don Younger (Publican/Horse Brass pub), Lisa Morrison (the Beer Goddess), Alex Ganum (Upright Brewing), John Harris (Full Sail), Teri Fahrendorf (Ex-Brewmaster and founder of the Pink Boots Society) and Jason Mcadam (Ex-Brewmaster at Roots and now of Burnside Brewing).

Night of the Living Ales, Halloween 2011

Off The Beaten Path

1. If you were a style of beer, what style would be and why?
*sigh* no comment

2. You were caught smuggling beer illegally, which has now been made punishable by death. Right before you are sent to the executioner, you are offered one last beer. What beer would you chose and why?
Either a Cantillon or maybe a Firestone Walker 10 or 11.

3. If I contracted you to brew a beer (or design a beer recipe) called “The Beer Wench” — what style would you chose and what, if any, extra ingredients would you add?
Obviously a saison but it would be a black saison aged in Pinot barrels with wild yeasts and perhaps a bit of pink peppercorns. I would call it a Cascadian Saison du Wench or CSW.

4. If you could be a superhero, what would you want your superpowers to be?
To make whatever I wish come true.

5. What is one of the craziest things you have ever done and lived to tell the story?
I drove off a cliff in a snowmobile in the middle of the night, hit a tree that almost broke my back and was buried past my waste in snow and couldn’t walk or be seen. Luckily someone spotted the tracks going off the road.

6. What are your thoughts on bacon?
It’s a tasty meat that I love best in a BLT, I am a fan but it’s popularity is overblown.

Ezra at John Harris' Smoker Party during OBF

Ezra at John Harris' Smoker Party during OBF

——————————————–

And although at times I find his opinions and words to be unnecessarily offensive and unfounded, I consider Ez a trusted friend and respected colleague that I care for dearly. Ezra is one of the most talented and passionate individuals that I have had the honor of knowing. And, regardless of the past and present, he will always hold a special place in my heart.

Cheers!

“Whereof what’s past is prologue; what to com,
In yours and my discharge”~ William Shakespeare


About The Beer Wench

Ashley is a self-proclaimed craft beer evangelist & social media maven on a mission to advance the craft beer industry through education, inspiration and advocacy. She is currently the “Director of Awesomeness” at Bison Brewing in Berkeley, CA — where her responsibilities include everything from marketing, sales, PR, social media & events. Ashley is also a freelance consultant and professional speaker on the subjects of social media, beer mixology, food & beverage pairings. She is the founder of DrinkWithTheWench.com & BeerMixology.com as well as a regular contributor to CraftBeer.com.


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