From Homebrewer to Head Brewer: Natasha Peiskar of Last Best Brewing & Distilling Talks Hops
The first time Natasha Peiskar applied to join the Pink Boots Society, they declined her application because she wasn't earning her living at the time from beer. A lot has changed since then.
She started brewing in 2013 while pursuing a chemistry degree at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia. Through what she calls "hard work and good mentorship" she's gone from novice homebrewer to pro, landing the Head Brewer spot at Last Best Brewing and Distilling in the fall of 2018. In that time, she's also attained the Advanced Cicerone® certification and was the driving force behind the 2019 Pink Boots Blend from the Pink Boots Society and Yakima Chief hops.
Her first beer was a partial mash kit, made for entry in an intra-college homebrewing competition (I always suspected colleges in BC were way cooler than where I went in upstate New York, now I have proof). That kit beer went on to win best of show. An auspicious start to any brewing career, but shows a trend that popped up several times during our conversation; a combination of a "you'll never know unless you try" attitude and the willingness to know when to ask for help.
Using the promise of cooking "some really nice steaks" and free run of her beer fridge, Natasha and her friend Jill, convinced Graham With, head brewer of Parallel 49, and Tak Guenette, brewer with Steamworks, to walk them through the brewing process. "I think I was just in love with the industry after that. I had really great mentors to help teach us at a homebrew, so we were very lucky."
The two women took what they learned from Graham and Tak back to the rest of their club, and did some additional brewing to get ready for the competition. As you might expect, their club did very well that year.
The Vancouver area Craft Beer scene was just starting to explode at the time, and there was a fairly tight knit homebrewing community for Natasha to tap into. Both Graham and Tak were homebrewers turned pro, as were most of the people opening area breweries.
Following graduation, the next year she moved to Calgary looking for work in the oil and gas industry, right as that industry started to slow down. She wasn't able to find anything so started bartending to make ends meet. Natasha ended up working for Concorde Entertainment Group, a local restaurant group with 15 and 20 restaurants.
Natasha was able to work her way up from bartender to a liquor manager and then to Beer Educator and Brand Manager running four locations and in charge of all things beer. She was tasked with doing public relations, putting together education events and running four outlets, each with more than 60 taps.
She moonlighted for about a year as a part time sales rep for a "very small import agency" focused on bringing in mostly American West Coast beers and was active in a local homebrew club, helping organize their events and competitions.
Somewhere along the way, Natasha also found time to study for and achieve the Advanced Cicerone® certification, one of only 11 in all of Canada. She's one of only two in Alberta. The other one was her studying partner.
While she had achieved a lot over the course of three and a half years, Natasha also felt burnt out. The long restaurant hours combined with everything else left her looking to keep a career in craft beer going, but doing something other than what she had been.
She left Concorde Group in April of 2017 to return to B.C. for about three months to take a "summer apprenticeship" with Bomber Brewing in East Vancouver. "They threw me in the deep end. It was a very small brewery that had pretty decent volume output, and I learned a lot. And learned that I loved it, and that I could hack it."
Her goal had been to return to Calgary, where her husband was, at the end of summer. "I landed with Tool Shed Brewing Company." During the year she spent working as a there, she also ran their sensory program.
"And then the opportunity at Last Best Brewing & Distilling came up and I decided to go out on a limb and apply for it." She got the job, and has been there for about six months now. She attributes her ability to jump in as head brewer so early in her career to knowing the restaurant side, Last Best is a brewpub as well, the distributing and sales sides giving her a "360-degree view" of what's going on operationally.
She's now been involved in the Pink Boots Society now for several years. 2019 will be her sixth collaboration brew day on International Women's day (March 8th, 2019). The first time she participated was as a home brewer, and the rest have been as a pro in one form or another while also organizing several collaboration events over the years. She's both hosted and has been a guest brewer.
While getting ready to head out to the Great American Beer Festival last fall in Denver, Colorado, Natasha decided to go a day early and attend the Society meeting being held the day before to meet other women in the industry.
The meeting started with a couple of presentations and then it was announced that they would be doing the blend for 2019 hops release. She thought that they meant someone from Yakima Chief would be announcing the blend to them. Maybe the assembled members would get to vote on a couple of pre-selected blends, and that would be that.
Instead, Yakima Chief Hops brought in about 40 bale plugs of different varieties. They gave a quick demonstration on how to pinch hops out of the plug, rub them in your hands to evaluate the smell. The assembled members went through all the varieties and voted until they had narrowed the varieties down to seven or eight favorites. "Then they said, 'all right, take these varietals and make a blend'".
The first blend Natasha threw together had too much going on at once, and she dumped it to go for a more "nuanced" blend. Something where the individual parts worked together rather than clashed or overpowered the elements.
After she had something that she liked, she passed the second blend around to some of the other members for feedback. Sam Olson, head brewer at Fourpenny House, commented that it smelled like green peppers. "I was like, now that's all I can smell." Barbara McDonald from Dean & Company Brewing jumped in and suggested lowering the amount of Mosaic and upping the Loral. They put the new blend into a cup and "all three of us are like, 'wow, that was great'". Natasha thought it would be great in a blonde ale or hazy IPA, though also thought it could be a pretty versatile.
After all of the other blends were finalized, the larger group got together and voted for their favorite blend.
Natasha and Barb’s blend of Mosaic, Loral, Sabro, Glacier and Simcoe ended up winning. "It's close to my heart because I've been doing these collaboration brew days for so long that that it's like holy shit, women all over the world are going to be brewing with this blend."
That pride in creating something unique that captivates other brewers continues now as she sees the Instagram posts of her fellow brewers getting the hops, or doing their brew days early. "It's pretty neat to be like, 'Oh my God, they're brewing with our blend.'"
This year she's stepping back from organizing brew days at several locations and will instead host a team at Last Best of women who are beer enthusiasts or work in the craft beer industry, but don't necessarily brew. She wanted to get a group of "really passionate" people together for her brew day.
In addition to having the members help put together the blend, the Pink Boots Society is also letting the individual groups getting together decide what style of beer to brew. Natasha favors this approach because it means that the craft beer market isn't suddenly flooded with one style when the beers are released.
Normally Natasha likes to approach recipe development very methodically, starting with the style or specific profile to brew for, and then "reverse engineer that". With the PBS beer, she's going free form for the first time on a commercial level. This beer is not going to be strictly in the farmhouse ale style as it will be much more hop forward. When we spoke, she was still imagining the beer that she would brew. Natasha didn't really have a style in mind- more of a concept for a "Rustic Farmhouse Ale". Ish. "We're going to be using exclusively late hops, so maybe a flameout addition and a whirlpool addition with a bittering addition earlier." Paired with "super trendy" kveik yeast.
Should make for an interesting beer, and I wish that I was closer to be able to try it. Natasha did however, share the outlines of her recipe, and a homebrew scale version of the recipe will be going out in the March hop packs.
The Pink Boots Society: https://www.pinkbootssociety.org/
The Yakima Chief 2019 Pink Boots Blend: https://www.yakimachief.com/2019-pink-boots-blend-released/
Last Best Brewing & Distilling: https://lastbestbrewing.com/
Parllel 49 Brewing: http://parallel49brewing.com/
Steamworks Brewery: http://www.steamworks.com/
The Advanced Cicerone Certification: https://www.cicerone.org/us-en/certifications/advanced-cicerone