Jon Eager answers all our burning questions about beer infusions.
How did you get into brewing?
My older brother, Chris, introduced me to homebrewing sometime around 2008. We did our first brew session in his kitchen in South Minneapolis (a Summit EPA clone I believe, while drinking many, many Summit EPAs) and I fell in love with the process right then and there. Brewing didn’t end up sticking with my brother, so a year or so later he gave me all his homebrewing gear and I hit the ground running. I had worked as an Assistant Chef throughout most of high school and college and I enjoyed the translations between brewing and cooking, something that would ultimately lead me towards a deep exploration into infusing finished beer with all kinds of ingredients here at Indeed.
I knew I wanted to pursue brewing as a career, but I didn’t have any money to attend Siebel Institute for a formal education. So, I decided to give up my social life for at least a year to study every brewing book I could get my hands on whenever I wasn’t at my soul-destroying day job. In 2013 I took the plunge and got a job at Northern Brewer in St Paul, which exposed me to all kinds of brewing professionals, textbooks, ingredients, and, of course, tons of homebrew and craft beer. It was simply a matter of luck when a year later the owners of a then soon-to-open brewery called HammerHeart waltzed into the shop one day asking if we knew of anyone interested in a part time assistant brewer job. My coworkers all pointed to me. I spent two years at HammerHeart learning how to brew on a larger scale, and was promoted to Brewer shortly after I started.
When/in what capacity did you start at Indeed?
Eventually I was hired on as a Brewer here at Indeed in 2015. I immediately saw potential for greatly expanding our occasional single keg taproom infusions into a full fledged program, something I hadn’t really seen a brewery do before. Being a shift brewer can become very monotonous, and infusions were a way to break up the routine, stay creative on the regular, and learn a ton about specific ingredients and methods of using them. I officially obtained the title of Brewer & Variants Program Director in early 2018 after three years of consistent program growth. Back when I started at Indeed we only had two or three infusion recipes. As of right now we’ve released over 60 variations of infused beer, and the program has gone from random ideas in my head to a huge collaborative and creative effort company wide. Creating something that has grown beyond myself has been one of the most rewarding professional experiences of my career so far.
What were your first infusions?
Ya know, 5 years of rotating shift work takes a serious toll on one’s memory, so I honestly have no idea what my first creations were anymore. I do remember my first “hit” infusion though—it was a mimosa-inspired Shenanigans concept. When I made my first keg of that, our staff flipped out. The keg disappeared in one night and there were some mysterious hangovers in the brewhouse the next day. It was a great feeling to watch people who I really looked up to here get excited about something I thought up and created.
How has the program developed over the years?
The program looks nothing like it did compared to the early years. What was once a single keg for the taproom every so often has now grown to 60bbl brite tanks all being sold in a single week at the Minnesota State Fair, presentations at festivals and conferences, and allotted time in the lab for extensive bench trials of new ideas using new ingredients. Growth like that in just a couple of years really forces you to create more efficient techniques and processes. I’ve also worked with individual restaurants and bars to create infusions based around their cuisines or company vibes. Currently, our Flight Night To-Go crowler packs have been selling out every single time and have been really forcing new and creative ideas out of me. Necessity is the mother of creation afterall!
What can you divulge about your process?
The process often starts over a good meal or drink with my wife/coworker, Kayte. She’s been a huge supporter of me and is often a muse of sorts. Or after a few pints with co-worker Nick Jensen. We play a little game called “What If” where we brainstorm beer ideas by starting a sentence with “What if … ” followed by an over the top ridiculous idea made up on the spot—they often end up getting filtered down to something not so ridiculous and really get the creative flow going. A lot of collaboration also happens with our sales and marketing teams here as well. Our taproom staff is also imperative to the process for a number of reasons, as they get to see reactions to these beers first hand and are well versed in tasting beer. I'm a lucky guy to work with so many creative types! See how that collaborative thing keeps popping up? When you expand your resources for inspiration and creativity, great things can happen.
How do you go about planning/testing infusions?
Testing happens in 100ml samples in the lab. I do extensive work with ratios, blends and methodology of ingredient usage. Sometimes I’ll infuse a growler just to get a sense of what an ingredient might taste like. After I get something I enjoy, it’s just some simple beer math to scale things up to a larger size batch.
When it comes to flavor profiles, what usually works? How does the base beer influence the infusions?
That really depends on your base beer, as it heavily influences what ingredients work and how much of them to use, but over the years I’ve come up with some ways to make contradicting flavors work really well with each other. Using a base like Shenanigans, a beer I refer to in the infusion world as a blank canvas beer, can provide a stage for endless possibilities. It’s not bitter and has soft and workable flavors to begin with. These kinds of beers allow a lot of room for introducing new ingredients and flavors. Beers that are bitter or more aggressive in flavor present more of a challenge, but with proper experimentation, small-scale bench trials and meticulous note-taking, one can find surprising combinations that work really well together.
What are some of the more outrageous flavors you’ve tried that have worked out? Didn’t work out?
Well, I never thought adding fresh orange juice and cranberry juice to beer would be any good, but a recent Shenanigans infusion inspired by my dad’s favorite Sunday morning breakfast drink has become one of my new favorites. By the way, his name is Bob Eager and he informed me I neglected to properly credit him by name on my video about that infusion flight. He is retired. He has a lot of time on his hands (there ya go, Dad).
There is a bit of a debate surrounding one of my more … unique … infusion ideas. It was affectionately nicknamed Pizza Boi. For awhile there were a lot of people raving about how well pepperoni pizza and hoppy beers paired together. So why not deconstruct the many ingredients used in making pepperoni and use them individually in an infusion with Day Tripper? The opinions were mixed. Some people absolutely loved it, and some people (ahem, Tom Whisenand) wanted my head on a pole. Hear me now: I will attempt this again someday, and nail it. I already have a plan, and Nick Jensen and I have a bit of a gentleman's wager on the subject.
What are your personal favorite infusions? Favorite base beer to infuse?
Oh man, that’s like asking me what my favorite band is. Depends on the day! I will say I have some really exciting new stuff coming down the pipeline that I think could be personal chart toppers in my opinion.
I used to like infusing Shenanigans the most due to the “blank canvas" effect, but honestly these days I like more of a challenge. Recently I blended three base beers together and introduced three ingredients to that blend. Blending bases is something I had never done before, in fact it was something I swore to never do, but I’ll say right here and now this particular variant has potential to be a crown jewel of sorts. You may want to keep your ear to the ground for that one in coming weeks!
You’ve been able to turn around some infusions pretty quickly by using liquid infusions. Can you tell me about how liquid infusions differ from ingredient-based infusions?
Right, so there are two primary types of infusions that I refer to as traditional and instant. Traditional infusions utilize physically solid ingredients such as citrus zest, oaks, or coffee beans (just to name a few) that a finished beer sits on top of for a set amount of time to take on the flavors of said ingredients. Instant infusions utilize liquid based ingredients such as pure juices, fruit purees, teas, and essences, and require no time to infuse. Once blended they are ready to drink. Keep your eyes open for a video I’ll soon be doing called “Infusions in a Glass” that pays homage to this technique, but with a bit of a twist. One type of infusion isn’t necessarily any better than the other, it just depends on what you are trying to accomplish. As far as instant infusions go, a lot of possibilities really opened up for me when I realized you can make a “tea” out of almost anything imaginable.
How/where do you source the ingredients?
I source ingredients wherever I can, especially these days. My preference is always to use fresh, organic ingredients as much as humanly possible. Sometimes I get lucky and get to spend an hour exploring farmer’s markets. It’s really cool connecting the people who grow your ingredients to the beer itself. That’s not to say fresh and organic is the only way to go. There are some seriously fantastic essences and extracts out on the market today made by amazingly intelligent and creative people at really cool companies. The trick is to find a harmonious balance between everything you use, and to use every tool in the tool box you can to create a beverage that is both unique and enjoyable. I suppose you could say my standards stem from quality in, quality out—regardless of techniques or types of ingredients I’m using.
Do you use candy to create the infusions for the Halloween Flight Night or unnatural ingredients to change the color of the liquid?
Ah yes, the Halloween Flight Night. No. I do not use actual candy. No, I never will. Where’s the challenge and fun in that anyway? This particular flight night really inspired me to think differently when experiencing food. I actually had a mini tasting panel with some friends the first year I did this particular flight for the purpose of deconstructing the flavors of what we experienced. That’s really the secret: describing what different flavors make up a singular tasting experience. After that, the translation was fairly easy, and after years of using a wide variety of random ingredients in the Variants Program, all I had to do was make a ballpark guess on how much of each ingredient to use, something I’ve become pretty darn good at! As far as the colors are concerned, there are a handful of natural ingredients you can use that impact color on their own or even via chemical reactions (those ones are really cool). Sometimes I use an ingredient at low enough levels so it will impact color and not flavor.
Where do you find inspiration for infusion flavors?
Food. Cocktails. Chefs. Coworkers. Friends. Family. The voices in my head. I read … a lot. Some books I would highly recommend to any brewers considering starting an infusion program would be “The Flavor Thesaurus” by Niki Segnit, and “Bartender's Pocket Guide” by Kathy Hamlin.
Tell us about your plans for future infusions in 2020.
Ya know, 2020 was the first year I planned out every single infusion Flight Night before 2020 even happened! Well that’s all up in the air now, so be it. The next two infused Crowler Packs To Go offerings will be four variations of Strawberry Fields, and four variations of a kind of Hoppy/Citrus flight concept. I’m extremely excited about both of these crowler flights as they utilize just about every technique I’ve come up with over the years between them all. I also had a pretty radical Minnesota State Fair infusion idea that turned out amazing during bench trials, but we’ll have to wait and see if that one ever sees the light of day.
What do you want to experiment with?
There is no limit to what I want to experiment with. There’s a lot of really cool cannabis and hemp products becoming available nationally that I really want to get my hands on. We just need these old outdated laws to die out, so please contact your local representatives if you’d like to help initiate those changes, it makes a difference. I may start experimenting with more base blends infused with ingredient blends down the road as well, that’s something that could open up a lot of potential doors. I also have some pretty crazy ideas involving treating an empty keg in a fashion that could impart some specific flavors, but that’s starting to color way outside the line. Time will tell!
What else do you want Indeed drinkers to know about infusions and your other beer projects?
While the Variants Program originated from infusions, it actually encompasses much more “variants of beverages” as well! I also occasionally get to make cool things like craft soda, CBD seltzers (I am immensely proud of Lull, as CBD has been a life changer for me personally), and also the newest addition: fresh bierfass! While it’s still in it’s infantile stage, the bierfass offerings are something I am incredibly passionate about. Traditionally a bierfass is kind of like a wooden firkin, but we have a supply of modern day insulated ones with stainless steel interiors from Germany. The only thing that goes in there is 100% naturally carbonated, unfiltered, fresh beer—straight from our fermenters. It’s living beer, it’s exactly like drinking right from the tank, and it is the freshest beer a person can experience at Indeed as we only allow them to be served within 24 hours of packaging, often within just a few hours! Lagers work so amazingly well in this format. I’m really looking forward to the first Fresh Fass Friday at the Indeed Taproom with all of you wonderful people once things get a little more back to normal again. But until that day, you can expect me and our team to be working hard to bring you even more unique infusion offerings.