A Pint with Willy Tarango
We sat down with New Belgium Brewer Willy Tarango to talk beer, boats, and… Leonardo DiCaprio?
Written by Kenny Gould
Photography by KG
Things we learned:
- Willy Tarango started his career working for the United States Coast Guard in Alaska
- The Blind Lady Ale House is one of the most underrated bars in San Francisco
- New Belgium brewers work in one of three eight hour shifts
- The only brewery in the world with a larger wood cellar than New Belgium is the Rodenbach in Belgium
- If Willy had a spirit animal, it’d be the platypus… or the mako shark
Don’t like your job with the United States Coast Guard? Become a brewer. At least, that’s the path that Willy Tarango took. After a series of jobs that took him from San Diego to Maui, the chipper twenty-nine-year-old ended up in Fort Collins, Colorado, at New Belgium Brewing, the fourth largest craft brewery in the country and the makers of Fat Tire. Hop Culture met up with Tarango in the café of a Giant Eagle grocery store to talk beer, boats, and…Leonardo DiCaprio?
Kenny Gould: So where are you from?
Willy Tarango: I live in Fort Collins but I was born in San Diego.
KG: And how old are you?
KG: Whoa. How’d you become a brewer for New Belgium?
WT: I was stationed in Alaska with the United States Coast Guard and me and the boys were drinking all the shitty beers you can get ahold of for the cheapest you can get ahold of it. The commissary in the Coast Guard served Alaskan Brewing Company and it was cheaper to buy than the mass produced stuff because it was nearly local. So we started on that. Of course, we were young assholes chasing high alcohol content but then we were like, “Whoa, this is cool, all these flavors.” After a while I was like, “I think I can do this shit in my garage.”
KG: So you went from your garage to New Belgium.
WT: Eventually. First I interned at Mission Brewery in San Diego for about four months before they hired me full time. I worked there for about another year and a half. I started in packaging, cleaning kegs, filling bottles and cans, and then went into brewing, which I worked for a solid year. From there I went to school at UC Davis and took a certificate course in brewing science. I think it was eighty hours in two weeks. After that I went to Maui Brewing Company and brewed there for a year and a half and then I came to New Belgium in May or June of 2015.
KG: Did you get a BA or did you go straight to the Coast Guard?
WT: I grew up on fishing boats, and at eighteen I went straight to the Coast Guard. They sent me to Alaska.
KG: Coming from San Diego, was that hard?
WT: Uh, I kind of joined the Coast Guard to purposely go there. Like, a paid trip to Alaska. I didn’t want to join the military but I also didn’t want to pay to move to Alaska. So I said, cool, they’ll pay me to go. And I love boats so it’s a safe bet. It became way more military than I expected so I ended up getting out. But it was a good time. I was on Deadliest Catch twice, back when it was in its high point. I just got tired of living on boats so I pursued my other hobby, which was beer. I saw it as my one way out of boats.
KG: Do you remember the first craft beer you drank?
WT: Maybe it’s not the first one I drank, but the first memorable one I drank was Stone Ruination Double IPA.
KG: Did you get it in San Diego?
WT: It was actually in Alaska, they had a little shop up there. Granted, I’d been drinking Alaskan craft beer from Alaskan Brewery and Kodiak Island beers but Ruination Double IPA was the first one that was like, whoa, this is fucking crazy! Nowadays there are double IPAs everywhere but they were ahead of their time. I think at the time we were paying $12 a bomber. You can probably get it for $6 around here. But we loved every bit of it. That was my hop head moment when I realized that I wanted to be all over IPAs.
KG: Do you have a guilty pleasure beer?
WT: High Life and most Mexican lagers. Tecate is a huge one because I grew up in San Diego right near the Tecate brewery. I spent a lot of time in Baja. Mexican lagers bring me to a time when I was a kid, maybe sixteen or seventeen, camping in Mexico with friends and family. We snuck beers and drank them by the fire pit or the beach. I still drink Mexican lagers and they bring me to that happy place. But mostly today I drink a lot of High Life. When I go out in town and we’re doing karaoke and throwing back a bunch of beers, it’s High Life. You can put them down and it’s easy to buy rounds for people. It looks good, it tastes good. I grew up with a lot of it around in the house.
KG: Favorite music to brew to?
WT: We rip a lot of music at the brewery. Let’s see… lately the band I’ve been listening to the most is the Cure. To the point where people are making fun of me.
KG: They’re still touring!
WT: I heard they killed it. They just did a show in Denver and they killed it but they look weathered.
KG: I imagine the rock life will do that to you. Do you have a favorite bar?
WT: Let me think for a second on this one… I have a soft place in my heart for Blind Lady Ale House in San Francisco. Lee Chase is the owner and he runs a brewpub out of it called Automatic Brewing Company. He was the previous head brewer at Stone. You wouldn’t know it if you talked to him, he doesn’t have any sort of image, he’s just happy doing what he’s doing and he’s making incredible beer and he has an incredible restaurant there too.
KG: What would you be doing if you weren’t brewing?
WT: I’d probably still be working on fishing boats. So I got a hundred ton captain’s license and I was running fishing boats out of San Diego and that was my whole goal in life: to either run tuna boats or become a tug boat captain. When I was here in Pittsburgh and saw boats going up and down the river and I thought, if I could just do that and have an eight or ten-hour day it’d be sweet but the reason I got out of the whole deal was because I was tired of living on a boat. I was tired of living at work.
KG: You don’t live in the brewery??
WT: Not at New Belgium. I think that’s why I like it so much—we work eight hour shifts and we have three shifts. We all deal with the punches but that’s how it goes.
KG: Is there anything you carry around daily that’s cool? Anything other than your keys or wallet?
WT: I really don’t man.
KG: Anything in your office? Any good luck charms?
WT: I might go through phases with pocket knives but I don’t really ever… at home I have a chest of cool things over my years that I’ve collected but I don’t carry them around with me because I’m scared of losing them. I don’t carry anything on me. In fact, before we did this meeting I stopped at the hotel and threw a couple IDs and certain credit cards I knew I wasn’t going to use in my backpack because I think I have a fear of losing things. I have a little chest at home where I have money from every country I’ve been in and I put money and any sort of gym or small gift or charm or small rocks that I find on a hike and I have a small treasure chest with all of that at home. I don’t carry anything of significant value on me because I know I could lose it. Like, not that I’m scared of people jacking me but I’ve had some nights where I realized it’s probably not good to have those things on me.
KG: Here’s a fun one: who or what is your spirit animal?
WT: Maybe I have two. On the one hand, just being a crazy character, I like the platypus. But if I were to be any animal, I’d be the mako shark.
KG: Why is that?
WT: It’s the fastest thing in the ocean. It’s a huge predator, top of the food chain. The only thing that’s going to kill a mako shark is us. We’re the only thing that trumps it. It’s like the bear of the ocean. They’re fast, beautiful, and eating fish all day, which is pretty baller.
KG: That’d be a great beer name.
WT: Yeah. Bear of the Ocean.
KG: Is seafood your favorite food?
WT: Yeah. If I could eat seafood five days per week I would if I could.
KG: Any particular seafood?
WT: Yellowtail. I’m also really into all tuna—albacore, yellowfin, bluefin. I like all that. But seafood in general I’m the most excited about all the time. But it’s a hard thing to make a part of your diet. I don’t like shitty seafood. And I’ve been spoiled by growing up on fishing boats.
KG: But now you’re in a landlocked state.
WT: Yeah. But granted, they actually get fresh seafood shipped in, but you’re paying top dollar for it. And I’m glad to pay—worth every penny—but it’s like, when I can do it, I’ll do it.
KG: What are we drinking here?
WT: That’s the Apple Whiskey Barrel Aged Felix Love. So basically at the brewery we have 65 foeders. Or maybe more than that now. We’re the second largest wood cellar in the whole world. The only one bigger is Rodenbach in Belgium. Typically when we make a sour brew, out of the 65 foeders, about half are called Oscar and half are called Felix. Half get filled with a brown base beer and half get filled with blonde. We use the brown ones for things like Oscar Worthy Coffee, La Folie, and we use the golden ones for things like Le Terroir, Tart Lychee, and then what you have is really special because when we make those other beers, we blend different percentages of beers from around ten to twenty-five foeders, depending on the beer, and when we do a Love series, we do one foeder and that’s it. It’s one foeder with beer that’s fully matured, ready to be consumed on its own. For this beer, we aged it in apple whiskey barrels from Leopold Brothers, which is a distillery in Denver. That’s it.
KG: Awesome. Another curve ball: what do you drive?
WT: It’s pretty weak: a Mazda B2300, 2.3 liter pickup. I bought it in Hawaii and shipped it over. But I threw a camper shell on it and a Yakima car topper that I throw all my camping shit in and I made a custom bed in the back. So I drive up the mountains and sleep in the back of my truck.
KG: That’s not weak at all, that’s character. What year?
WT: 2004. It has no balls at all, no juice, but I get 25 miles to the gallon and I sleep in the back of it.
KG: Did you name it?
WT: No. I should though.
KG: If you could have a beer with anybody, alive or dead, who would it be and why?
WT: That’s like the smoking a joint question. That one’s easy: Willie Nelson. The classic answer. A beer… there’s a lot of people that’d be really cool… I’m gonna have to go with… fuck man. You put me on the spot. Leonardo DiCaprio. Everything he’s in is fucking good. I just want to sit down with him and be like, what’s the deal? How do you do this?
KG: You’re in luck because you didn’t say Einstein or something. He’s dead. This could happen.
WT: Probably not, but maybe.
KG: Thank you for your time.