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Bill Dunn: Good beer for good people

Bill Dunn: Good beer for good people
People like his beer so much they voted Bill Dunn '94 the winner of New Hampshire Magazine's "People's Choice Award – Best N.H. Microbrew 2005."

A Meal for Every Beer

Bill Dunn '94. Photo by F.J. Gaylor. Dunn, the brewer at Elm City Restaurant and Brewery in Keene for the last two years, is pleased that customers appreciate his offerings.

"People are liking the beer pretty much," he says modestly.

Dunn is working his dream job. He's a consummate brewer, as interested in the history and traditions of beer as he is in creating new brews.

So, what's so special about beer? Well, for a start, says Dunn, it's been around since civilization began. It's likely that nomads made a beer-like drink by mixing grain and water earlier than 6000 years ago. Babylonian clay tablets with recipes for beer dating to 4300 B.C. have been found, and beer is considered to have been a vital part of the Babylonian, Assyrian, Egyptian, Hebrew, Chinese, and Incan cultures.

Beer comes in hundreds of styles, influenced by the ingredients available in different regions of the world. Part of the role of the brewer, says Dunn, is to research these styles and come up with a menu that both pleases and informs.

‘Look at the main ingredients we use: 120 or so types of malt, 80 of hops, more than 200 varieties of yeast...' At any one time, Dunn has seven to 10 types of beer available. He "keeps on" a golden beer, a dark ale, and seasonal brews, such as the Peachy Keene Kolsch and Tilt Your Kilt Scottish Ale, "or whatever I feel like drinking."

"I like to switch up the styles," he says, "so everyone can find a beer they like or try something new to them."

Dunn, from Amherst, N.H., graduated from Keene State with a degree in biology. After graduation, he drove west, looking for a job as a park ranger. As luck would have it, a friend in Colorado put him in touch with the Denver-based Broadway Brewing Company, the first of many jobs he's worked in the brewing industry.

Elm City Brewery photo by by F.J. Gaylor. At Broadway, Dunn operated the bottling machine (a minefield-type situation where bottles exploded under high pressure), before being asked to set up and run a quality control lab for the company, putting his degree to good use and setting him on the road to becoming a brewer.

The brewing process is so complicated that many books have been devoted to its science – Dunn has over 200 volumes on beer and brewing in his library.

Early in his career, he attended a workshop on hops, given by a professor with a Ph.D. in the topic, and committed himself to a lifelong exploration of brewing. "Beer is so interesting and so complicated," he explains. "Look at the main ingredients we use: 120 or so types of malt, 80 of hops, more than 200 varieties of yeast, and then different flavorings and ways of processing the ingredients."

Quote:The most important part of the process is cleanliness. ‘I often say the brewer is little more than a glorified janitor.' The making of beer, Dunn says, is essentially an exercise in microbiology and thus is fraught with quality-control issues. Each step along the way a biological change happens. The process begins with the malt (a grain, often barley) steeped in hot water to produce a sugar water called wort. The steeping causes the starches of the malt to break down into sugars. The wort is then boiled and hops added to create bitterness, offsetting the sweet taste of the liquid. The wort is drained from the hops and chilled in a fermentation tank. Yeast is then added to convert the sugars in the wort into alcohol. The product, now considered beer, is aged in the fermentation tanks and then primed with the addition of fermentable sugar, which causes the carbonation. After that, it's ready to be served or bottled.

The most important part of this process, and the lesson for all brewers, is cleanliness, explains Dunn. "I often say the brewer is little more than a glorified janitor."

After Broadway, Dunn served his first stint as brewer at Long Trail in Vermont, where he learned the ropes on the job. As much as he appreciated the opportunity to work there, he got tired of making the same beer over and over. The creative part of the process was missing, Dunn says, "so there was no trying new things or learning about different ingredients."

The next stop for Dunn and his partner, Becky Lachut '93, was Springfield, Penn. Becky worked as a dietitian in the Philadelphia Children's Hospital, while Dunn worked as assistant brewer at John Harvard's Brew House. Six months later, he was asked to build and run the brewing facility at the Harvard's Brew House in Wilmington, Del.

Three-and-a-half years later, Dunn and Becky, now married, moved back to Keene, where Becky had accepted a position as an instructor in Keene State's Health Science department. After bartending for a while, Dunn was offered the brewer job at Elm City, where he runs a $200,000 plant that made 380 barrels of beer last year.

Quote:For the past four years, he's shared his knowledge of beer with Keene State students as a guest speaker in the Models of Alcohol and Chemical Dependency course. "It's a great place to work," he says. "Debra [Rivest, the owner] is a great boss and lets me try all the things I want to do." Among plans for the restaurant, he says, is creating a menu where beer is served as a companion beverage to particular meals. It's a tradition more prevalent in Europe, Dunn says, and one that would work well here. In Belgium, for example, according to All About Beer magazine, lighter beers are served to accompany a lunch of bread, cheeses, and sausage meat. At dinner, darker beers are served with roast game, steaks, and Belgian frites. In the magazine, Lucy Saunders writes – mouthwateringly – that "rich Belgian frites and steak are cut by the acidity of beer and the pungent ripened cheeses and peppery mustards won't erase the carbonated, quenching quality of a beer. Bitter greens, such as chicory and marinated red cabbage, give piquancy to roast fowl, and demand in turn an equally assertive beverage."

Given his passion for learning about the history and tradition of beer, it's not surprising that Dunn also views his role of brewer as that of educator. For the past four years, he's shared his knowledge of beer with Keene State students as a guest speaker in the Models of Alcohol and Chemical Dependency course. The premise of his talk, he says, is how beer affects you even if you don't drink it. "I talk about the history of beer, how it's made, how to complement a meal with the right beer, and the different styles of beer. I try to show that you can enjoy beer without getting drunk."

Although brewing is his dream job, it's also far from romantic, "unless you like hanging around caustic chemicals, boiling hot liquid, and freezing temperatures, as well as being soaking wet most of the day." Occasionally, things get a little hairy. Like the time he opened a valve on the wrong tank and was blasted with high pressure beer, or when a lid on the tank closed unexpectedly, smacking him on the forehead and knocking him off a ladder. Or the episode when the wort boiled over, spilled from its vat and flooded the floor, trapping him on a ladder.

"If I was a cat," he says with a chuckle, "I think I'd have used up a few of my lives."

But, as he says, a brew house is the ideal place to be at the end of a long day.

"You're only ever an arm's reach from a beer."

Dave Orsman is Keene State Today's senior writer.

Bill Dunn photo by F.J. Gaylor

A Meal for Every Beer
Bill Dunn offers some notes for bringing food and beer together:
  • Spicy foods, like Thai, Indian, or Mexican, go well with pale ales.
  • Heavier meat dishes (beef, lamb, and pork) enjoy the support of stouts and porters.
  • Winter meals such as roasts with gravy go down well with brown ales.
  • There's nothing better on a summer's day than a salad and a light beer, like a pilsner.
  • Wash your desserts and sweets down with an Oktoberfest or Vienna beer.
  • Good old-fashioned publican fare may be complemented with a nice, malty/hoppy American amber beer.

Related Resouces:

Elm City Restaurant and Brewery