Featured Craft Brewer Interview: JASON OLIVER 5

I must admit that, as much as I truly do love craft beer, the best part of the craft beer industry (hands down) is the people. Case and point: my good friend Jason Oliver.

Jason and I first crossed paths at the inaugural Great Lakes Craft Brewers Water Conservation Conference in Milwaukee just under two years ago, where I tried to convince him that 1. he should be my mentor in brewing and 2. that Twitter was the best thing since the discovery of yeast by Louis Pasteur (the jury is still out on both).

Although I was thoroughly impressed by his experience in the industry and knowledge of beer, my punk “too cool for school” ass didn’t actually realize how big of a deal this guy really was until the 2010 World Beer Cup award ceremony, where he walked away with 4 medals and was awarded “Champion Brewery and Brewer” in the Small Brewpub category. He was also highly decorated at the 2010 GABF and I can guarantee that the medals will only keep rolling in… for years to come.

Naturally, I’m smitten. (He is adorable, intelligent and brews amazing craft beer — can you blame me?) After this interview, I guarantee you will be too…


Full name: Jason Matthew Oliver
Title: Head Brewer
Brewery: Devils Backbone Brewing Company
Where are you located? Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, 35 minutes SW of Charlottesville.

Background “Snapshot”

1. Where did you grow up?

In Maryland smack dab in between Baltimore and Washington DC.

2. What sports if any did you play growing up, through college and beyond ?

I ran cross country in high school but that was more out of coercion from my folks. I was a skate rat (skateboards not fruit boots, aka rollerblades) from age 14 to present. I still skate ramps and bowls when I can.

3. Where, if applicable, did you go to college? What did you study? What additional activities, organizations, and sports did you partake in during college?

I went to a small liberal arts college in West Virginia called Davis & Elkins. I studied history and philosophy. I was in Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity (Sig-Ep). We drank lots of cheap beer together then, and sometimes still do.

4. How old were you when you had your first beer? What was it? Do you remember any details of your first encounter?

I probably had sips at family gatherings when I was real young. My father used to drink National Premium from Baltimore so it may have been that beer. It was a step up from National Bohemian, the official beer of Maryland.

Craft Beer Epiphany

Every brewer has at least one pinnacle craft beer experience that completely changed his 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:

It was semi gradual with a sudden crescendo of “eureka”! My college friend Scot took me to the newly opened Legend Brewery in Richmond during a school break in 1994. I thought it was the coolest thing to drink beer where it was made but I never would have thought about making a career out of it.

When I graduated in 1995, I drove out to Washington State and took a ferry up to Alaska to work in a salmon plant for the summer. I made it a point to drink as many local beers as I could in my travels from old mid-western regional breweries to the new craft breweries. When I got to Washington State I was amazed by the selection in supermarkets. It blew me away, but once again I never would have thought about doing it for a living.

On the ferry up to Alaska there was a bar and pitchers of Alaskan Amber were the same price as Bud, so we drank the Alaskan Amber. When I got back east after the summer I was looking for what I was going to do and I was reading a career book called “Unique Careers” and at the end of the “B’s” was “Brewmaster” and it was then I connected the dots and figured out that someone actually has to make beer and I could as well. It was definitely an epiphany.

I’m the only person I know who became a brewer from reading a career book. I guess the color of my parachute is amber.

2. Have you have additional craft beer epiphanies since the first? Detail as many of them as you wish:

One epiphany I figured out years ago is that intensity of flavor does not equal quality of flavor.  That is of upmost importance in my mind.  You can have a very well made beer that is subtle.  Take a Helles for example, some ignorant beer snobs would say a given helles may suck because it doesn’t taste like much.  But if it’s well made I think it has as much value as a Double IPA.  As for craftsmanship it says a lot in my book to have an excellent gold lager.

I’m sick of beginner beer geeks saying Bud, Miller, or Coors suck, or they taste like shit.  Once again it’s the mistaking of intensity of flavor for quality of flavor. I personally do not agree with the marketing and some of the business practices of the large domestic brewers, but I have the utmost respect for their brewers.  Many in fact homebrew and are big fans of craft beer.

Currently there is this renaissance of craft beer.  Some of the newer and more militant fans haven’t figured the difference between quality of flavor and intensity. Interestingly, some of these people are starting breweries of their own.  This is an exciting time to be a brewer but I see some of the same mistakes being made when I first got started in this during a time of similar meteoric growth in the mid 90’s.  You can have both an intense and quality beer as you can have a subtle and well made beer. I hope others figure that out as well.

The Professional Side

1. What did you do professionally before you got into the beer industry?

I worked at UPS loading trucks while I was going to night school taking chemistry and microbiology to fulfill the prerequisites for the UC Davis Master Brewers Program which I wanted to attend.

2. How long have you been working in the beer industry?

This May will be 15 years.

3. What was your first “real” job in the beer industry?

After I got done my prerequisites I took my parents advice and tried to get some experience before going to brewing school. I sent resumes to all the Baltimore / DC area breweries asking for either a job or internship and luckily a brewery in Baltimore called The Wharf Rat / Oliver Breweries LTD (no relation) needed a full time brewer so they hired and trained me. I was one of two assistant brewers working under a head brewer. We brewed authentic English-style ales. It was an English brewing system with open fermenters and four beers on handpump. It was a great first brewing gig.

4. How many different breweries have you worked for before you started?

5-6 depending on how you count, no less than 5 and no more than 6.

5. What are those breweries?

Oliver Breweries, Virginia Beverage Company / Native Brewing, Ellicott Mills Brewing Co, Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurants, and Devils Backbone.

6. What beer certifications and credentials do you have?

Small Brewpub Brewmaster and Brewery at the 2010 World Beer Cup. I went to the 1998 UC Davis Master Brewers Program and passed the 1998 Institute of Brewing (and Distilling) Associate Members Examination (now called Diploma Examination). I passed the 2008 Institute of Brewing & Distilling Certificate in Distillation Exam. I’ve won 10 Great American Beer Festival medals, 5 World Beer Cup medals, and 4 Real Ale Festival medals. I was just awarded by the readers of “Edible Blue Ridge Magazine” as a “Hero” in the Artisan Beverage category.

7. Who are some of your greatest mentors in the industry?

I’ve learned lot’s of German brewing techniques from Allen Young, Chris Buckley, and Jim Sobczak. Dave and Diane Alexander from the Brickskeller / RFD always gave me a free seat at their beer tastings. When I was brewing at Gordon Biersch, I was going to their Belgian beer tastings and picking brains of Belgian brewers. I was going to the wet hop tastings and the Luplin Slam (east verse west) tastings and was talking to the west coast brewers. The Brickseller / RFD was sort of a library and lecture hall for my continued education on beer styles. It prepared me to do what I am doing now at Devils Backbone.

The Devil’s Backbone Story

1. When was Devil’s Backbone founded?

We opened in November of 2008.

2. Why did you choose your location in Roseland, VA?

I didn’t but my boss Steve did.

3. What is the significance behind the name, Devil’s Backbone?

It refers to part of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

4. Why did you make the decision to open a brewpub, in lieu of a production brewery?

I responded to a job ad asking for a brewer knowledgeable about German brewing techniques for a brewpub. It was my boss Steve’s vision to create a brewpub out here in the country. We have more breweries than stoplights in our county. 3 breweries and 1 stoplight!

5. What kind of system do you brew on, how big is it, and where did it come from?

The system is one reason why I came to DBBC. It is a German designed 10 hectoliter (8.5 BBL) brewhouse built in Japan. It is a very sophisticated system for a brewpub. I knew I could do some great and special things with it.

6. What kind of styles of beer does Devil’s Backbone focus on brewing?

Good ones I hope, lol. I can do lagers here which can be a challenge for some brewpubs but I do an overall selection. I always have ten beers on tap. I designed the beer line-up so I could brew a huge variety of different types. I only have four year round beers that are always on tap and six seasonals. More seasonals that core beers. The four core are a Gold Lager, a Vienna Lager, a Hefeweizen, and an American IPA. I’ll always have a Belgian inspired beer, a dark beer, a session beer and three others. It’s been a blast brewing so many different beers. I think I’ve brewed over sixty different beers in the two plus years we’ve been open.

7. What kind of food does Devil’s Backbone serve at the brewpub? Do you have a hand in menu development? What is your favorite item on the food menu?

It is American food with a Southwestern twist. Our chef lived in Santa Fe for a while. We’ve just added a huge smoker out back so we smoke pork butt and chicken. It’s great.

8. Tell me more about Devil’s Backbone’s dedication to sustainable brewing and the various steps you have taken to lower carbon footprint in the brewery.

We have a wind turbine and the building is made from a lot of recycled material.

Beer Talk

1. What are your top 3 favorite beer styles to drink?

Pils, Pale Belgian Ales (be it wits, blondes, golds, or triples), and well made session beers.

2. What are your top 3 favorite beer styles to brew?

Kolsch, Pils, Pale Belgian styles.

3. Outside of Devil’s Backbone, what are your top 3 favorite breweries?

Victory, New Glarus, Ommegang.

4. What are your top 3 destination “beer” cities?

Portland OR, Ashville NC, and Denver at GABF time.

5. What is your favorite beer and food pairing?

Hefeweizen with Carrot Ginger Soup.

6. Do you ever cook with beer? If so, what are some of your favorite recipes that use beer?

There’s a great Belgian chicken and beer recipe in the back of a Michael Jackson book that I love. It’s called “Bier a la Coq” or something similar.

7. In your opinion, what are some of the best resources (books, websites, programs, institutions etc…) for people learning about beer and brewing?

I think the UC Davis Master Brewers Program is great. I recommend having experience first though. The international edition of Kunze’s book is my favorite. The relatively new “Brewing with Wheat” by Stan Hieronymus is a great book. The Probrewer website is ok.

The Personal Side

1. Are you married? Children? Planning on marrying The Wench?

Saving myself for the Wench. (good answer)

2. Outside of beer, what are some of your other hobbies?

Skateboarding, hiking, history.

3. If you could meet anyone, dead or alive, who would it be and why?

Maybe Julius Caesar because I just got done watching the series “Rome” from HBO, which is awesome btw. He must have been an amazing person in real life.

Off The Beaten Path

1. If you were a style of beer, what style would be an why?

An English Bitter. Currently under appreciated, flavorful, and immensely enjoyable. Like me.

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?

Orval. I love it, it’s one of my favorites, plus it’s made in a monastery so maybe I would go to heaven if it was fresh in me.

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?

It would be a potato rosemary bacon smoked brown ale.

4. If you could be a superhero, what would you want your superpowers to be?

I would like to be like Plastic Man. He was a trip and he had those cool glasses.

5. What is one of the craziest things you have ever done and lived to tell the story?

Survive college.

6. What are your thoughts on bacon?

I can’t eat it anymore and it is my greatest regret in my life up to now.

Well there you have it folks, everything you could possibly want to know (and then some) about one of the world’s best brewers! Special thanks to Jason for giving me the opportunity to interview him — and I look forward to the day when I can finally brew with him!

(PS: Jason… you + me + date = its on)

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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5 thoughts on “Featured Craft Brewer Interview: JASON OLIVER

  • My Last Pint

    Love that Jason skates. Hey Jason, let play a game of S.K.A.T.E. if you are ever in Austin or I am in yr neck of the woods. And have a beer of course.

  • Matt

    Awesome interview Wenchie. (Sounds like a match made in heaven BTW!)

    I am fortunate enough to live less than an hour from Jason and Steve’s fantastic brewpub, and make the trip as often as I can. My thoughts on their award-winning brews are frequently posted on my site and I tell everyone I can to make the trip to Roseland when in town.

    I have yet to sit down with the brewer himself, but I would be interested in picking his brain about breaking into the industry. The Brew Ridge Trail here in Central Virginia is quickly turning into a travel destination for craft beer geeks and I am proud to call this area home!

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  • Jim

    Seems like a really cool guy! Hope you get that date with him! Jason… take the wench out!

  • Mark Jason Propst

    I’m pretty sure I sat down and sipped a few beers with this guy recently and I guess I had no clue who he was or is for that matter I was probably half-lit and didn’t really care at the time, but Jason if you see this, please HMU @ 4348824544…We need to talk, or at least I think we do…?