You Ought to Know: Jason Lavery
Brewer Jason Lavery has his eyes set on the future of craft beer in Erie.
Often, the finest seeds of our region begin their growth, from roots to shoots, here in Erie. Stems and leaves invariably follow, but often these seedlings are uprooted, carried off to bud and mature elsewhere, flowering brightly on faraway soils. As this cycle tends to perpetuate itself, we are left to nurture and cherish every remaining seed in hopes that it may one day enrich our community, making it a more beautiful place to live. These seeds are simply the inner core of a dream encased in a shell of potential, and Jason Lavery of Lavery Brewing Company has one in his capable, nurturing hands.
I caught up with Jason just hours before he was to depart for a weeklong trip to a Brewer's Association conference in San Francisco. I know what you're thinking – it sounds like a really lame excuse you tell your significant other when you want to go on a drinking trip with your good timin' friends, but brewing high-quality small-batch beer is serious business; not many beer drinkers ever stop to think about the complex multi-step process involved in the Biblically miraculous transformation of water into something infinitely more drinkable. This conference was not to be a "tasting," as he informed me, dashing my illusions of one day attending, but rather a symposium on sour beer held within the larger Craft Brewer's Conference, which focuses on the technological, regulatory, and business aspects of the craft. While we toured the empty husk of what will soon become Jason's packaging brewery at 128 W. 12th St., his story echoed from the freshly painted warehouse walls. Jason's excitement over his new endeavor was clearly visible, and he presented himself very much as a man living a dream, but this wasn't always his dream – it was merely a seed that had yet to be planted.
Jason's roots are local. He grew up in Albion and attended Northwestern High School. A history major at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, Jason then went on to earn a master's degree in communications, also from Edinboro, with an eye on becoming publicist in the music industry. During his second semester of undergrad work, he began volunteering at L'Arche Erie and later assumed the role of communications director.
"L'Arche is all about relationships and mutuality, so all of our community structures are based around being together and living life together…that's how L'Arche is different than a lot of other agencies, because we focus on the relationships."
Springing up in France during the 1960s, L'Arche creates groups of homes for those with intellectual disabilities. Over the past five decades, they have branched out to become an international federation consisting of over 130 communities which have sprouted up in 30 different countries, including the United States (the first L'Arche community in the United States was founded right here in Erie in 1972). These multicultural, non-denominational, faith-based communities hold to the highly-admirable notion that the true greatness of any society is measured by the way it treats the least of its members. These communities practice several principals that our society as a whole would do well to adopt: as human beings, we are all sacred and unique, and forever joined in our common humanity. We all have dignity. We all have rights equal to others. We all have the right to a life, a home, an education, a religion, and a profession. We have the right to grow emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. This is the type of growth that makes a community beautiful.
"The most beautiful thing about the L'Arche mission is the relationships between core members and assistants. It's not a top-down hierarchy," said Lavery. "We don't think of ourselves as caregivers and them recipients of our care… they have gifts to offer us that we don't have, and we have gifts to offer them that they don't have, so together, we kind of build this beautiful community."
Daily living at L'Arche is communal, and all residents participate fully in the professional, emotional and spiritual aspects of each other's lives. Personal growth is fostered through relationships between disabled residents and non-disabled residents.
"We're there to just accept them for who they are…we try to work with them to grow to the best person that they can be."
Experiencing some growth of his own, Jason laid down roots of his own by marrying (wife, Nicole who also has Erie roots), raising three children, and engaging in a blossoming career helping others grow to enrich their community. But as is sometimes the case in life, a chance encounter in a bathroom and a surprise gift planted a new seed for Jason.
While Jason had not always appreciated fine craft beers (he drank Pabst Blue Ribbon in college), he was introduced to them by his wife on a trip to New York in 2002 and developed a liking for some of the leaders in the still-tender craft brewing resurgence of the 1990s, citing Samuel Adams as an example. Still, he had never considered making his own beer. Like many of us, he didn't even know it was possible to do such a thing – that is, until he was introduced to home brewing by his Michigander brother-in-law in August of 2006.
"In his bathroom, next to his toilet, which is where it all started, he had brewing books," said Jason, laughing. He was intrigued, and suggested to his brother-in-law they brew a batch up right then and there. "I was like, 'we should brew a batch of beer, I want to see how it happens,' and so he pulls out like this crazy Rubbermaid bin with like a whole bunch of what looked like sacks of marijuana [they were actually hops, which bear a close resemblance to marijuana buds]…and little baggies of grain, things like that. He was really open to it and he's like, 'sure let's do it.'"
They began brewing a Yuengling clone that Jason never actually got to taste, but, as he states, "Just the process was amazing." He admits that after returning from that fateful Michigan trip, his interest withered a bit, until his wife bought him a home brew kit for his November birthday. "The next day I went to Beerhouse International on 12th & Powell and bought the ingredients for a British Bitter…that was my first batch and it wasn't that great, but I kept at it."
The seed had been planted. Jason began perfecting his homebrew technique, batch by painstaking batch. While this sounds like a dream come true for many people – to have in their own person the knowledge and skill to produce near-limitless quantities of fresh, high-quality beer – for most of us, that dream gives way to the nightmare of just plain fouling up the whole process and creating a large, undrinkable mess. I had to ask Jason how many mishaps he'd experienced during the infancy of his home brewing career; he recalls dumping only one batch during the homebrew days, and also said he had never experienced any "bottle bombs," which are as exciting and dangerous as they sound. The key, he said, was cleanliness. Jason assured me that it was not difficult at all. "There's basically two ways to make beer, and one is as easy as making macaroni and cheese, and then the other one is…more complex and a lot more science and chemistry and biology, but, I mean, you don't have to be a scientist or an engineer to make beer at all."
As word spread of Jason's skill, he was understandably besieged by houseguests and drop-ins clamoring for his home brewed goodness.
"It ceased to become like big parties and just become more of an atmosphere where people were just always at my house…I actually had one instance, my next door neighbor was a fan of the beer, and…just knocked on the door and, he was like, 'hey do you care if I get a beer?' and I was like, 'sure,' you know, thinking he would stay and drink it with me, and he walked down, pulled a beer [Jason has beer taps in his basement], and went back home."
Sounds like the naissance of a very viable business model to me.
In 2009, with his ability and expertise growing each day, he was able to produce an award-winning Smoked Porter. The seed that had been planted on that fateful day in Michigan was beginning to sprout thick with sticky-sweet buds, bursting with promise, and Jason quickly took steps to foster the growth of his newfound dream. After brushing up on some business classes and serving an apprenticeship at Brewerie, Jason began using their equipment four days per month, beginning in February of 2010. All of Lavery's beer is still produced there, including his complex and delicious current spring seasonal, a Saison-style beer called Liopard Oir. Pronouncing this repeatedly after consuming several of them becomes difficult, so while sampling this beer at Brewerie, the waitress told me to "just call it golden leopard."
"I think it's maybe the first example of a wild, or sour beer being brewed in Erie (on purpose, at least)," Said Jason. I asked him about the unusual roots of this interesting beer. "What we kept going back to is, you know, Saisons were originally made by farmers…they would use whatever kind of grains they grew…it was much more rustic, and organic…so we used barley, wheat, rye, corn, and oats. And then we used local hops that were planted in Girard. My dad planted 100 hop plants last year, so we have a pretty good hop yield…we used 3 different strains to ferment it out with, and then when we bottled it we used a wild strain that was actually isolated from Guinness, like 150 years ago, right when Pasteur started doing his work with beer, so it can actually make beers go sour and tart when they age."
Unlike commonly known mass-produced aluminum-shrouded beers, craft brews can vary from batch to batch, and their character may be different depending on which day you actually consume them. "When you drink it young, it has a lot of carbonation to it and a decent, bracing bitterness," he said. Using samples from the first batch of this beer brewed four months ago, Jason has discovered that upon aging it develops a refreshing tartness. "It's the perfect springtime beer."
With such a limited amount of brewing time available to him at Brewerie, he mostly concentrates on filling orders for Liopard Oir and another highly-regarded creation of his, Imperial Red Ale. Once the new space is ready (hopefully by June), brewing operations will grow into this location, one day featuring an old-world themed tap room, simple grub and a greater variety of delicious, fresh, local beers on tap less than 50 feet from where they were made.
Seeds, the inner core of a dream covered in a shell of potential, the future flowers of fair Erie; Lavery Brewing Company is one of those future flowers, cultivated by a craftsman with a proven history of beautifying his community. From seed to root, shoot to stem, let's all hope this flower bears fruit; for if an old-world package brewery featuring delicious, fresh, local beers sold less than 50 feet from where they were made doesn't beautify a community, I honestly don't know what does.
Cory Vaillancourt can be contacted at cVaillancourt@ErieReader.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @VLNCRT.