Yes, those are hops in the photo above. And the guy inspecting them is Tyler White, Head Brewer at Grayton Beer Company, a Santa Rosa Beach success story. Tyler’s training and experience bring the “craft” to such iconic local brews as “30A Beach Blonde Ale,” “Salt of the Gulf,” and Fish Whistle IPA.” We interviewed him as he stood behind the bar at the Grayton Beer Taproom, the company’s 30,000 square foot production facility in the South Walton Commerce Park.
Have you always wanted to be a brewer?
Oh no [chuckling]. I went to UT Chattanooga, got a degree in religious studies – the least practical degree on the planet. I was a believer. The Lord has kind of put me on a path where I’ve always been around people that don’t know Him. I realized in college that I was having a lot of these conversations over a beer, and that seemed to be a kind of leveling thing. So, I came at beer from a social standpoint. I was pretty frustrated with how, especially in the Southeast, alcohol is such a focus – like a legalistic focus. And that was always really annoying to me because people were missing the whole point.
So then how did you go from beer drinker to beer maker?
I started home brewing. I’ve always been the type that needs to work with my hands. I can’t sit at a desk. So I really enjoyed home brewing. My wife Liz actually bought me the kit. She didn’t realize I was going to get obsessed with it. We had moved to Memphis, which is where Liz is from. I was working for Service master, doing disaster restoration, fire and water damage stuff. I had no idea what I wanted to do. I didn’t think brewing was even a thing. It didn’t register in my head as something I could do.
But then I had kind of a light bulb moment. Reading this book called The Search for God and Guinness: The Story of the Beer that Changed the World, by Stephen Mansfield. It’s the story of Arthur Guinness. He was a believer. He saved the city of Dublin through that brewery. He built housing for employees. He paid his employees like six times the minimum wage. This was when Ireland was in famine. He was friends with John Wesley. Just a phenomenal story. I was really inspired by that. It kind of made a link in my head, I can follow Jesus and brew beer for a living. That’s possible. I started talking to Liz about it and she was like, “absolutely not.” Her dad’s a pastor and conservative and she said no. I told her ok, but I want to have the conversation, so when you’re ready, let me know. She came to me like a month later and said, “let’s take a walk, I want to hear you out on this being-a-brewer thing.” I gave her the best argument I had for it, and she said, “I’d like for you to talk to my dad.” I really respect her dad. So I talked to him and he said, “you know, you’re called to love the Lord and to love others, and there are people in your industry doing an awesome job of that. There are people in ministry doing a terrible job of that.” He was supportive. And I was honestly kind of shocked.
You trained in Germany for your master brewer’s diploma?
There was a school in Chicago called Siebel Institute of Technology, and a school in Munich called the Doemens Academy. It was a trade program, which was perfect for me because I already had a degree. It was like two and a half months in Chicago and the remainder of the year in Munich.
Munich and Chicago are the only places you can train to become a brewer?
At the time they were the only trade-focused schools. You could go to University of California Davis and get a fermentation science degree. But you spend a lot of time in a lab. You don’t spend a lot of time in a brewery. Since this whole thing has cropped up over the last six or seven years, Auburn has a brewing program now, Middle Tennessee State, Colorado State. I mean they’re popping up. But there wasn’t another option when I went.
What do the Germans know about beer that we don’t?
Brewing there is like farming here. It’s a generational trade. Brewer after brewer, generation after generation… I mean they take high school classes in brewing at thirteen, fourteen years old. So as a junior in high school you can take beer brewing classes. And now you can get a doctorate in brewing in Munich. Martin Luther’s wife was a brewer. They say her beer sales funded the early days of the Protestant Reformation. The oldest brewery in the world, Weihenstephan, is still functioning in Munich. It opened in 1048. I think if you’ve been doing something for over a thousand years, you’re going to get the hang of it.
How did you get involved with Grayton Beer Company?
I saw a post on Probrew.com. It’s like the classified website for the industry. I had posted there. Then it turned out we had some connections. So we moved from Munich to Memphis for about three or four weeks and then we came straight here. I knew that I wanted to see a brewery built from the ground up. I felt that that would be the most complete education for me, to be a part of a start-up. Grayton was a really unique opportunity because they had been contract-brewing. The business existed, but they were using another brewery to produce the product. This was the end of 2013. They had built the brand, but they were kind of testing the market before they built a brewery here. They found this space. And I moved here the day they were cutting the floor to put this drain in.
Grayton had nobody else brewing beer before you came along?
They had this guy named Brad Schenkweiler. You’ll see him around town beating on a bucket. He plays drums for Mike Whitty and the Courtyard Saints. Anyway, he’s a really cool dude. But he had no experience at all. He had just been home-brewing for a long time. So it was him as a bartender, me straight out of school, and Jamey Price, the original founder of the brand…. We were like, all right, let’s build a brewery.
Is 30A Beach Blonde Ale your best seller?
Oh yeah. That’s about 70-75% of what we do. It was the first one we produced here. Making a lighter beer is the hardest thing a brewery is going to do, because there’s nowhere to hide any flaws. The water chemistry has to be right. The ingredients have to be high quality. The fermentation has got to go perfectly. We bit off more than we realized we were going to have to chew when we decided to make a blonde our staple, but it made us better brewers. It forced us to learn and grow. We added a lab very early on. A lot of breweries our size don’t even have labs. We knew we needed to make a consistent light-bodied, low-alcohol product for this area.
Besides providing us with great beer, how do you feel you’ve contributed to Walton County?
Creating something that didn’t otherwise exist. There’s really not much industry here. There’s not that much skilled labor outside of construction. Most everything is either entertainment, real estate or hospitality. The neatest thing was to go in five years from three jobs to now, with the [Grayton Beer] Brewpub, over 70 jobs. And about half of those are jobs that didn’t exist otherwise. We’ve had a real economic impact. Families are able to move here and have a 365-day-a-year job. I think that’s probably the most gratifying thing about it. The other thing is how philanthropic the brewery itself has been. One of the things we’ve found most important is to give back in real ways, constantly. And our currency is normally beer. When people do events, we’ll donate beer. Then Hurricane Michael happens last year. We as a brewery were the largest warehouse space, really, that was unaffected. So we used the space as a distribution hub.
How do you like the Emerald Coast?
Something made me nervous about moving to a tourist town originally, but man I’m glad we did it. There aren’t many places like South Walton in terms of the mix of people. You have people moving here to escape, people moving here to retire. It just makes it a really interesting mix. It took a while to get used to that, but I love the quirkiness of where we live.
Any final thoughts before we put our empty glasses down?
What’s the Ben Franklin quote? “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.’”