Brewing up a unique career

Lawrence native has passion for beer

Don’t make the mistake of confusing the joys of drinking beer with the hard labor involved in making it.

Because — despite the misconception many people have — the job isn’t about getting to hang out and knocking back frosty cold ones with your buddies, or doing the backstroke in a vat of fermenting pale ale.

“It’s a lot of hard work,” says Geoff Deman, a brewer at Free State Brewing Co., 636 Mass.

“It’s certainly not glamorous. It’s hot, wet and sweaty. It’s heavy lifting and lots of cleaning. We’re beer janitors, in a sense.”

But there’s no other kind of career that Deman, 30, would rather have.

“I wouldn’t do anything else,” he says. “I like it because it’s a craft, a combination of intellectual skills and brawn. I like the satisfaction of seeing people enjoying the end product. Every day I see it, looking out that window when I’m brewing.”

There’s no doubt about it: Lawrence has legions of people who have loved the beers served up at Free State since 1989, carefully crafted by a four-man team of experienced brewers.

Proof of this can be seen in the way crowds of folks from all walks of life jam the bar, restaurant and beer patio most hours of the day and night.

Free State has come to serve as a convivial crossroads of Lawrence, a place where everyone from college students to construction workers, young families to seniors, can enjoy hearty fare and an ever-changing variety of handmade brews.

That’s why Deman, who joined the brewhouse staff in October, likes working at the establishment so much.

Geoff Deman, a new brewer at Free State Brewing Co., keeps a tab on what ingredients are used in the Lawrence restaurant's various beers. Deman returned to his hometown after working as the assistant head brewer at Pike Brewing Co., once named one of the world's top breweries, in Seattle.

“Free State represents everything that’s great about Lawrence. It’s a strong community, and it’s a team effort here by everyone,” he says.

Learning the trade

For Deman, taking the job as a brewer at Free State is a kind of homecoming.

He grew up in Lawrence, graduating from Lawrence High School in 1990 and earned a bachelor’s degree in art history from Kansas University in 1995.

He did a stint busing tables at Free State in 1989, which is when he met Steve Bradt, the head brewer.

Deman moved to Seattle in 1995, determined to learn one of two crafts: photography or brewing.

“Seattle is an exceptional beer town, with lots of breweries and ale houses, and some of the giants of the brewing industry,” he says.

Influenced by his adoptive town, Deman gave beer the nod over photography, and he’s never looked back.

He worked from 1995 to 1998 as a sales clerk and beer buyer at Liberty Malt Supply, a homebrew shop with one of the largest selections of beer in Seattle.

Deman followed that with a job as a cellarman at Pyramid Brewing Co. in Seattle, where it was his task to control the fermentation process and the filtration of the beer.

Geoff Deman, Lawrence, stirs up a new batch of beer at Free State Brewing Co., 636 Mass.

Then he worked from 1997 to August 2002 at Pike Brewing Co. in Seattle, which, according to Deman, was once named one of the world’s top breweries. He started as a cellarman and climbed the ladder to become assistant head brewer during his last year there.

That’s about the time Deman and his wife, Chris, got the hankering to move back to Kansas.

“We love Lawrence, and we felt like our lives wouldn’t change that much. Seattle is a small town in a lot of ways, broken up into neighborhoods. It’s certainly more affordable here,” Deman says.

“My wife had the opportunity to telecommute (for her job), and we could live wherever we wanted. So we decided to go to Lawrence.”

On a visit home in August, Chris Deman brought her husband’s resume and a six-pack of beer from Pike Brewing Co., both of which she delivered to Bradt at Free State.

“Steve and I corresponded for a good month and a half by e-mail, and he offered me the job,” Geoff Deman says. “I had already given my notice at Pike, and we were coming to Lawrence regardless. There was only one place I wanted to work.”

Exceptional beer

Bradt is glad to have Deman on his team of brewers.

Lawrence Native Geoff Deman, 30, tastes one of his latest batches of beer at Free State Brewing Co.

“Geoff seems to be creative and passionate about the brewing process. Aside from that, he really is someone who fits easily into our system and family here,” Bradt says.

“Pike Brewery (in Seattle) is fairly prestigious, with a reputation for quality. So Geoff came here with a good background. When you see someone who has potential, you grab him.”

What does it take to be an accomplished brewer?

“A strong back does help. And, as is true with anyone who makes a food product of some kind, there’s a certain innate talent for understanding flavors. Beyond that, it’s a curiosity for how you achieve those flavors,” Bradt says.

“We have a large palette of ingredients to work from. I’d say the combinations are nearly limitless, but they don’t all taste good. The ability to find the balance in those ingredients is what makes somebody a good brewer.”

Last year, according to Bradt, Free State brewed about 2,400 barrels of beer. A barrel equals 31 gallons or two kegs.

Since opening in 1989, Free State has brewed three to four dozen different styles of beer. There are always four flagship styles on tap: Ad Astra Ale, Wheat State Golden, Copperhead Pale Ale and Oatmeal Stout. But there’s a range of varieties and seasonal styles available, too.

“We just finished our Doppelbock, a very strong, dark lager with about 8 percent alcohol by volume. I would say that all our beers have a cult following. Everyone has a favorite,” Deman says.

That’s evident.

There are always people to be found lining up at the bar to have growlers — 64-ounce glass jugs — filled up with their brew of choice.

When it’s busy, which is often, the hands of the bartenders become a virtual blur as they pull draft after draft of beer for thirsty patrons.

And Monday nights, when two styles of beer are half price ($1.25), it’s standing room only.

“I think it’s because our quality has always been extremely high, and the beers have always been interesting,” Deman says. “It’s certainly not Budweiser. We offer a variety of products and flavors that you’re just not going to find elsewhere.”

Deman had a great time learning his craft in Seattle, but now he plans to stay put in Lawrence.

“I can’t think of any other brewery I’ve been to of this size that brews as much exceptional beer as Free State,” he says. “That’s why I feel so fortunate to have gotten this job.”