Wild Heaven brewmaster Eric Johnson on how his worst beer idea became a brewery staple

Plus 12 other things we learned
Photo by Ethan Payne
Photo by Ethan Payne

13 Questions is a weekly series where we ask chefs and industry folk 13 questions to get to know them outside of the kitchen. Eric Johnson is the brewmaster at Wild Heaven Craft Beers.

What’s the most annoying beer trend?
Two things: I have great admiration for anyone who makes these styles, but the unmitigated love that IPAs have creates almost an exclusion of any other style. My hope is it’s an American fad that fades with the saturation of the market. Also quick sours, which are sour beers that are basically made in 48 hours but marketed in the same way as more traditional European sour beers. I have very strong opinions that sour beers take 12 to 24 months to make. That [creates] a different depth and elegance than dumping bacteria into kettle and leaving it overnight. They’re all lumped into a homogenous category for consumers who don’t professionally brew and don’t know the difference. They’re all legitimate in their own right, but there’s a confusion in the marketplace of what a sour beer is.

What’s your guilty pleasure snack food?
Definitely artisan cheese. I am actually lactose intolerant, but I could live on Sweet Grass Green Hill.

What do you do when you aren’t brewing?
I am the host of PBS show on gardening that comes on every Saturday morning, GardenSmart. I garden a lot. I’ve got a courtyard that is mostly a container garden, mostly ornamentals. And I’m a pedal steel guitarist. I also am a very avid home cook. I cook a lot of different things, but I am really focused on vegetables because I think it’s a part of cooking that gets missed. Proteins, I find, are much less of a challenge than working with vegetables I’ve never heard of.

What’s your hangover cure?
It’s a really, really hot bath and fried chicken.

What was the last TV show you bingewatched?
The West Wing keeps coming back [in my rotation]; it’s like a force of nature.

What’s your desert island beer?
A saison, Foret. It’s the  most versitale, most unheralded. It is to world of food what reisling is; there’s nothing a saison doesn’t go with.

You’re from Athens. What the best-kept secret of the city?
For me as a foodie, there are destinations that get missed: The Branded Butcher, Seabear Oyster Bar, and Peruvian cuisine Cali-N-Tito’s. Also Donna Chang’s, they are brand new but killer as shit.

You used to own Athens beer bar Trappeze. Any crazy stories?
We were the first place in Athens into high gravity beers, and people in Athens were not accustomed [to that]. A week after we opened, there was gentleman that lived above Trappeze, who had kind of gotten to know us. He came in and asked, “What’s the most alcoholic beer you sell?” It was Samichlaus at 14 percent. He basically shotgunned the beer, and it was gone in under five minutes. He got four deep into this beer, and he’s moving into beer number five, so he’s already had nine drinks in less than 45 minutes. I asked if he wanted to slow down, and he said, “Listen to me; I am going to the bathroom, and there better be another when I get back.” He swiveled and fell face forward on to ground, and said, “Cancel that Samichlaus.”

What was the first concert you ever went to?
Stevie Ray Vaughan and Eric Clapton in Atlanta. It was one or two concerts before Stevie Ray Vaughan went down in the helicopter.  I was very, very young; my father took me to that one. It was a hard one to ever trump because as a young teen I thought it was phenomenal, and as a guitar player, seeing those guys play was unbelievable.

What’s the worst beer you’ve ever made?
15 years ago, I was wondering why no one has ever made an imperial rauchbier, a German style made with 100 percent smoked malt. It was horrendous, completely undrinkable. The amount of smoke was awful. A buddy of mine who was a microbiologist suggested adding brettanomyces [a type of yeast]. Wild yeast eats things that the domesticated yeasts don’t. It metabolized the smoke, and that is what our Funkenrauch is. It’s a beautiful, elegant, weird beer. It was a result of the most ill-conceived beer idea I ever had.

What was the first drink you ever had?
It would’ve either been Miller High Life or Evan Williams back when I was 13 or 14, when I first started playing in bands.

What was the last great book you read?
The book I am reading right now that is phenomenal is Basic Economics by Thomas Sowell, which sounds like a completely absurd thing to say. It’s a text book about economics, but it’s fascinating. I mostly read nonfiction. The only fiction I truly love is Southern grotesque, like Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy.

How do you come up with the names for your beers?
Every beer is different. We think of things that are inspiring us at that moment. We’re huge Flannery O’Connor fans. Jake, my head brewer, said, “Why don’t we call [the new IPA] Wise Blood?” The folks from Andalusia are super pumped we named a beer after her. Our sour beers are named after iconic female musicians and artists that inspire us: Emmy, Mavis, Joni.