Green Bench Brewing Co., in downtown St. Petersburg, Florida, pays homage to its host city’s past in its name. The name harkens to the green benches—more than 7,000 of them—that once lined the streets beginning in the early 20th century, offering places to rest for visitors and the retirees who made up a large portion of the population. There are even a couple of the original green benches, restored, in the tasting room.
Because of those elderly retirees, “The City of Green Benches” also bore another nickname: “God’s Waiting Room.” The benches began disappearing from the streets in the late 1960s, and by 1970, they were gone. In the past decade or so, artists, writers and other creative types moved in, skewing the demographics younger, but an influx of new craft breweries and bars in the past few years might just generate a new moniker for St. Petersburg: “God’s Tasting Room.”
Partners Nathan Stonecipher, Steven Duffy and head brewer Khris Johnson officially opened the doors of Green Bench in September 2013. It was the first of four downtown St. Pete craft breweries opened in the past year to make its beer on premises (Cycle Brewing, an offshoot of the brewing operation at Peg’s Cantina in nearby Gulfport, had opened a few months earlier but had not yet begun brewing). 3 Daughters Brewing and St. Pete Brewing Co. opened afterward.
Inside, a 1,500-square-foot tasting room offers air-conditioned comfort with a view of the brewing operation through a wall of windows behind the bar. The brewhouse bears an engraved plate with the brewery’s name and is highlighted by carefully aimed green lights, which make it glow in an almost other-worldly way. But the eye is first drawn to what looks like a giant wooden wine barrel. Essentially, that is what it is. Called a foeder, the oak fermenting tank is reserved for specialty Belgian Farmhouse-style brews and sour ales.
Outside lies a spacious beer garden area, 6,000 square feet with a portion of it under cover. Customers can play cornhole, gather for conversation at long wooden tables, and on some nights watch movies or sporting events projected onto the wall of a neighboring building. Speaking of sporting events, Green Bench is just a few blocks from Tropicana Field, where the MLB Tampa Bay Rays play. The tasting room and beer garden is a popular spot for fans to gather before and after home games.
Dialing in the fermentation process proved a challenge for Johnson at first. Because he was not used to brewing on such a large system (the brewhouse is 15 barrels) some of the flavors were not where he wanted them to be. It didn’t take long to fix that, though. In the recently announced results from the 2014 U.S. Open Beer Championship, Green Bench won two gold medals, one silver and one bronze for some of the beers it entered. Even more prestigiously, the competition named the St. Petersburg craft brewery one of the Top 10 breweries of the year.
On the heels of such critical acclaim, head brewery Khris Johnson was kind enough to take some time out of his busy schedule to answer a few questions about Green Bench.
Paste Magazine: How did you start brewing, and when did you decide to go pro?
Khris Johnson: I started brewing in college because I wanted a hobby. When I was about 10 years old my father brewed beer at home. He stopped before I finished middle school but it was always something that he seemed to enjoy, so when I was looking for something to entertain myself I thought, “If my Dad can do it, so can I!” The first recipe I ever wrote and brewed won a statewide medal and over the next couple of years I won a handful throughout the Florida homebrew circuit. About nine months after I brewed my first batch, Cigar City hired me and about nine months after that I left there and started working at Southern Brewing & Winemaking in Tampa, the exact same homebrew shop that I bought all of my equipment from. The owners there wanted to open a small nano-brewery so I joined the team that made that happen. I wrote and brewed a lot of the recipes there along with a couple of other brewers. While I was a Southern, I wrote a business plan and about a year later I met Nathan and Steven who had this crazy idea of opening a brewery called Green Bench. A year and a half later the three of us opened a brewery together.
Paste: Why did you decide to go with “Green Bench” as the name of the brewery?
KJ: Nathan came up with the name years ago. Green Bench is actually synonymous with St. Petersburg, specifically downtown St. Pete. In the early 1900’s St. Petersburg was referred to as the “City of the Green Benches,” because the downtown sidewalks were lined with thousands of green benches. On any given weekend day every single bench was filled with crowds of locals and tourists alike. It was a symbol of hospitality. We’re not necessarily trying to bring back the physical green benches but we want to convey that St. Petersburg is, now more than ever, an extremely social and inviting town. Now, we hope, everyone can gather around a glass of beer.
Paste: What is your brewing philosophy?
KJ: It’s pretty simple, actually: We brew beer that we love drinking. I only make beers that make me excited and I strive to exceed the quality level of every previous batch I brew. My desire is to create new and interesting beers that are beyond the quality level that anyone has ever experienced. That is the only thing that matters at Green Bench.
Paste: When GB first opened, there were some issues with off flavors, but now the consensus is those things have been addressed. What is your side of that story?
KJ: We did have fermentation issues as well as process-oriented concerns. When we began, I had very limited experience on this scale so simple things like my process for identifying healthy versus unhealthy yeast and my process for collecting that yeast were not acceptable for the quality of beers we were trying to make. Also, I used a different house yeast when we started based on my pilot batches, but the strain had a very different temperament on the bigger scale. I had trouble getting fermentation started and finished and my lack of proper yeast collection led to yeast derived off-flavors. I dumped six batches of beer in the first six months of us being open due to yeast autolysis. I knew what the issues were in all of our beers, it just took time for me to hone in the process and implement steps to avoid those issues. That took me about six months and the turning point was when I switched yeast strains as well as increase oxygen at knock out, and especially when I began using the lab. Once I started testing pitch rates and viability, our fermentations became extremely healthy and we were able to collect higher generations of yeast than ever before. Currently we’re well over 10 generations on our house strain and we don’t have yeast in house under 98% viability. It became my #1 focus and our beers have gotten better because of all that sleep I lost for several months. The other key was that all of our recipes have gone through vast changes. Something that I hadn’t accounted for before I brewed on our brewhouse was that the hop utilization far exceeded any of my predictions. This meant that our beers had very high perceived bitterness levels. I’ve found that each recipe has taken me three to five brews before I get it where it was meant to be. We’re only three to five brews into about seven of our recipes. That means that all of our beers are still going through a lot of changes batch to batch in order to make them better and better.
Paste: What can you tell us about the fodder?
KJ: A foeder is a big oak fermenter. Essentially a large oak barrel. We were the first brewery in the Southeast to use a foeder, and we were the only brewery that I know of in the world that used one to our concept. We had it custom built fresh with 75% French Oak and 25% American Oak staves for added complexities, fermenting all of our Belgian Farmhouse beers on 100% oak. Because of this application, I had to invent a process for the foeder because there was no one I could pick up the phone and call to inquire about how we should use our foeder.
Paste: Looking ahead, how will Green Bench grow or evolve?
KJ: Hopefully as controlled as possible. Our beers have begun to show a consistent increase in quality that we’ve been pleased with. Because of this, a month ago we hired an assistant brewer to increase production as well as doing a small expansion of new custom built fermenters that doubled our non-Belgian production capacity. I have no intention of dropping in more tanks for a while, however. Our next goal is to implement a foundation for continued growth that will allow us to make more product without ever compromising our dedication to quality. At the end of the summer we have plans to hire a Lab Tech to run our lab and implement new processes to help us maintain the highest quality we can possibly have. I want our lab to run our brewery. The next step is to create a yeast propagation program that the lab will be in charge of. Also, since we’re beginning to bottle specialty beers, we plan on investing back into our packaging equipment in order to maintain the highest quality possible on our bottled products. This will allow us to do more interesting things, as well, like bottling our foeder-fermented Belgians and play around with wild yeast bottle-conditioning and blending. Once our process is understood completely with propagation, we will then begin to expand with new tanks. We had our brewhouse built in preparation for expansion on it, so we should be good there for our growth. We also have some really cool plans for our barrel-aged and sour programs that will be a lot of fun.