Wooden Robot’s head brewer Dan Wade sat down with me on Monday, as the first part of an ongoing “Meet the Brewer” series. Dan’s words have been lightly edited for space.
The first time I ever brewed anything was when I was 12 years old. My dad and my uncle took me to a brew-on-premises up in Vermont. They brewed a porter for my dad’s 40th birthday, and I brewed a root beer. That was a cool thing they’d do for the kids — we got to make our own labels and everything.
In college, I started homebrewing. I started right around the time I turned 21, just on the stove top with partial-mash extract brewing. Slowly, I built up to an all-grain system.
At that time, I was studying mechanical engineering at Florida. I realized that sitting at a desk, staring at drawings all day and looking at part numbers, was just not what I wanted to get into. I did an internship with GE and realized that wasn’t for me, so I started moving into making into a career out of brewing.
I started volunteering at Swamp Head Brewery in Gainesville my last semester of college. During that time, I was applying to the Master’s program at Heriot-Watt. I was accepted. After a full semester of volunteering and the summer working as an assistant brewer, I went and got my Master’s.
The program was really appealing to me, because I had that whole engineering background, as something that was all-the-way: the fundamentals, the science of it, the business of it. We got to learn everything from malting to brewing to distilling. Compared to some of the diploma programs in the US, it was more in-depth. It was a full-year program, two semesters and a Master’s thesis during the summer.
After that, I went out to Oregon, and worked at Rogue Ales for a little while. I actually worked on my thesis with Rogue for a little bit, and was brewing with them the rest of the time, so I was splitting my time between the two. Once I finished my thesis, I was full-time at Rogue.
I was there for about six months total before I realized Newport, Oregon is a little too small of a town for my liking. It’s a few thousand people, a fishing village — pretty different than what I was looking for. I loved the people I worked with, but after work there wasn’t a whole lot else to do.
I was brewing on a 100-barrel brewhouse at Rogue, up from a 10-barrel system at Swamp Head, a full order of magnitude lower. They were doing full 24-7 production basically, and I was doing daytime swing-shifting and overnight, switching between the two.
We did a lot of Dead Guy Ale, probably 90% of the beer they brew there is Dead Guy, really cranking out a lot of the same beer again and again. It’s more like working at a factory, versus at a smaller brewery where you get to play around and do different stuff all the time. It’s really just tiring and repetitive, so I left Rogue and went back to Swamp Head.
Back at Swamp Head, I was now a shift brewer, and the head of the QA/QC department for about two and a half years, before I moved up to Charlotte. When I started at Swamp Head as an assistant brewer, they were doing about 1,000 barrels a year. By the time I went back, they were up to almost 3,000 barrels a year, and when I left they were on pace to do about 7,500 barrels a year, still on the same 10-barrel system. We were doing 3 or 4 batches a day, 4 days a week.
Around that time, Swamp Head was looking to upgrade to a 30 barrel production system, and it was starting to get to be like Rogue, and we were just cranking out the same beers. I got a little antsy.
Everything came together: I was looking to start my own brewery, my now-wife was ready for a move, and Josh (the co-owner of Wooden Robot) was ready to get out of banking. It was an ongoing conversation and it started snowballing. Before I knew it, I was living here and we were looking for a space full-time.
Where we are now was the first place we looked at. The location was great, the building was beautiful, and we knew we could do something really cool with it.
In our brewing here, we’re really trying to balance two major styles. We’re going for American hoppy beers, pale ales and IPAs and other riffs on that genre. On the other side, we’re going for Farmhouse ales; some of those are sour and others are saison-like and clean.
We like to say Wooden Robot is about the blending of disparate elements into a beautiful union. We’re taking the artistic, Belgian-inspired creativity of those farmhouse style ales and blending it with the unique, innovative American craft beer spirit.
Upcoming releases at Wooden Robot:
- Universal Automaton – Sour foeder-aged Farmhouse ale
- Gluten Tag – Hop-forward Gluten Reduced Pale Ale
- Godless Killing Machine – Imperial Stout on nitro